The daughter of overseas Chinese migrants from Indonesia, Xu Xi is a first-generation Hongkonger who was born in the city in 1954. Raised by her ethnically Chinese mother and part-Indonesian father, the 63-year-old has spent roughly half her life in Hong Kong and the other half in the United States – halves that have shaped the sum of her identity as a transnational author who sees herself as both a Hong Kong and an American writer. Yet after decades of leaving and returning to Hong Kong, and as the city marks the 20th anniversary of its return to China after over a century of colonial rule, she stands ready to leave it all behind. This time for good.
“Let me recall for you some of what that life has been, was, and still is all about in this, our unchanged moment,” she writes in her distinctive new memoir, Dear Hong Kong: An Elegy For A City. “Perhaps that will give you some comfort, this serenade to you, HK, oh city of my heart. Quizás, quizás, quizás?”
Part of a new collection of seven Penguin books that capture Hong Kong 20 years after its handover to China, Xu’s memoir is an unique take on the love-hate, hope-despair relationship that is so familiar to those who are from Hong Kong or have made this city their home – and the changing landscape that ultimately pushed Xu to decide to bid it farewell.
Through several “Dear John” type letters addressed to the city, which chronicle Xu’s life in Hong Kong before and after the handover, the book examines the joys and sorrows of her experience as a first-generation local growing up during the city’s colonial era. It also reflects her perspective on how Hong Kong has transformed in the past decades. In the most general sense, it’s a memoir detailing what it means to be a writer, a woman and a person of mixed heritage living and working in Hong Kong before and after the handover. But it’s also an exploration of the anxiety that surrounds Hong Kong identity, and one evocation of the tumultuous emotions that come from reflecting on and ultimately saying goodbye to the city.
Xu grew up in a middle class family and attended Maryknoll Convent School, a well-known Catholic girl’s institution. Her name reflects her heritage. Though her legal English name is Sussy Komala, reflecting her Indonesian origins, Xu Xi now goes by the name given to her by her Mandarin-speaking father. She has also used the surnames Khouw and Chako in the past. (“I’m the only writer I know who’s published under four names, all of which were real, not pen, names,” she told Pif Magazine in 2003.) She left the city to attend college in Plattsburgh, New York, before returning home to work at a small printing press. Over the years, she dipped in and out of the city, holding various jobs including a marketing position at a local airline and management positions at several multinational companies before eventually becoming a full time author.
In addition to penning 11 books, Xu helped establish a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing at the City University of Hong Kong in 2010. The programme ran for five years before its controversial closure in 2015. Although the university said the shutdown was the result of the programme’s financial deficit and low enrolment, many critics claimed it was punishment for some of its authors’ vocal support of the Umbrella Revolution in 2014. Today, Xu is the co-founder of Authors at Large, a writer’s network in Asia, and has nascent plans to start an international creative writing MFA elsewhere.
Although writing came naturally to Xu, the reality of being a writer in Hong Kong in the 1970s was harsh. While there was a burgeoning writing scene for those who wrote in Cantonese, this wasn’t the case for people who primarily used English. As an “English-language writer from Hong Kong,” Xu was “a being that should not exist,” she writes. Since she did not come from a literary family and there were no role models in the industry for her to look up to at the time, Xu felt that she had to leave Hong Kong in order to become a writer. “I didn’t know anybody else who did what I did. There was just no arts here. In the 1960s, this city was poor,” she tells Zolima CityMag. “I did have a teacher at Maryknoll who was willing to look over my essays,” she says. “She did this for free. I’ve been lucky. I’ve had some really dedicated teachers in my life.”
Along with the challenges of writing in and about Hong Kong, Dear Hong Kong highlights the struggles that come with navigating issues of race and class both before and after the handover. In her writing, she describes the sense of alienation she felt growing up and living as an ethnically mixed individual in what she calls a predominantly Cantonese city. She also touches on her discomfort encountering and witnessing the growing disparity between Hong Kong’s rich and poor. “The percentage of foreign born or foreigners, like myself, hasn’t changed fundamentally,” she said. “What has changed is that more Hong Kong people go abroad to study and come back with cosmopolitan ideas. The other big change is that we’re [now] a rich city.”
Since her childhood, Hong Kong’s creative scene has improved drastically, with more emphasis on different art forms such as Cantonese opera and photography. But while the local writing scene has also become more vibrant, it still “has not grown in a significant way,” says Xu. She blames this on two things: the financial difficulties writers have of supporting themselves here and Hong Kong’s identity crisis, which stems from being a former British colony and a current Chinese Special Administrative Region. Hong Kong was never an independent state, and the city has not adequately taught local history to students, she said. While there has been more English-language literature emerging from Hong Kong since her childhood, Xu said that the market has been dominated by foreigners living in the city who are writing from an outsider’s perspective, rather than a local one.
“Part of what literature is is looking back at yourself, and the self is not just the individual but [also] the society,” says Xu. “We are the product of a colonial overlord, and that’s an uncomfortable place to be in.” She notes that Hong Kong was originally just a fishing village of little significance. “We did not begin as something. Our whole identity is shaped by a foreign power. We never got a chance to be ourselves – and you’re neither Chinese or British as a result. I don’t think people are comfortable with this. So writers don’t emerge.”
Xu’s memoir tries to do just that: reflect on her individual experience as well as the intricacies of the place that shaped her. By doing so, she doesn’t just recall the past, she also brings in the present. Peppered alongside anecdotes of receiving report cards wrapped in “chicken skin paper” and glimpsing Chinese students clutching red books during a morning assembly are discussions on present-day topics such as the pro-democracy movement and the city’s test-driven culture. Woven into this narrative of living through a changing Hong Kong are pointed criticisms of the city’s cultural homogeneity and obsession with money and social hierarchy. With the use of multitude footnotes, Xu provides context, clarifications and explanations on issues surrounding Hong Kong for readers who are not familiar with the city. She uses the present to dive into the past, and vice versa, creating a rough sketch of a city that has undergone immense political, social, and economic transformations.
It’s these “unwelcoming” aspects of Hong Kong – the lack of inclusivity, the value of pragmatism above all else, and the feeling of never really belonging, that is driving Xu to look elsewhere for a permanent home. “I can speak the language. I know how to be a Hong Kong person. But I don’t feel it,” she says. The only thing that kept her returning these past few years was her family, but she now says there isn’t much reason to stay. “What would take me back here is my life as a writer. I’ll invariably come back – but it won’t be a home base,” she says.
While her prose is creative and honest, it contains tangents and lyrical expressions that are illuminating at times but jarring at others. The memoir’s strength lies in Xu’s vivid recollections of childhood memories and striking reflections on the Hong Kong experience – reflections that ring of authenticity and perceptiveness. “More than a year after an Umbrella Revolution (…) we still don’t know who we are, what we are, or how we want to be, arrested as we are in a state of permanent adolescence, waiting to be handed fare for the passage to adulthood,” she writes in one insightful passage.
Moving forward, Xu doesn’t have plans to write about Hong Kong again any time soon. Instead, she plans to focus on another aspect of her heritage – her connection to Indonesia. When asked whether she came to any conclusion about her feelings towards Hong Kong through writing the memoir, she says she didn’t. “I rarely do.” But the process allowed her to close this chapter of her life as she prepares to make New York her permanent home. But don’t expect her connection to Hong Kong to disappear too quickly. “I’m a Hong Kong writer,” she says. “If you’re a writer you write about what and who you are. And who I am was defined by this place.”
Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this piece stated that Xu Xi’s parents had passed away. In fact, only her father has died, and her mother is alive and well. We sincerely regret the error.