Hong Kong’s Great Writers: Liu Yichang and Chinese Cosmopolitanism

“Another day of rain, on my rusty emotions.” With this extraordinarily poetic sentence starts The Drunkard, by Liu Yichang, Hong Kong’s greatest modernist writer, called by many “the father of Hong Kong literature.” Since 2020, his masterpiece can also be read in English, thanks to the beautiful translation by Charlotte Yiu Chun-lam, published by the Chinese University Press in Hong Kong.  

It may well sound a little hyperbolic to call Liu a “father” in this sense, but it is also understandable: he was a truly magnificent author, with a highly distinctive voice. Not only did he produce some of the most evocative descriptions of Hong Kong in the 1960s and 1970s, but he also narrates the city by placing it firmly into that cosmopolitan Chinese diaspora that encompasses Southeast Asia, as well as Taiwan and a few metropolises in Europe and North America. Yet his role as a metaphorical father of local literature was even more specific. 

That’s because Liu is also fondly remembered for encouraging and fostering younger writers, among them Xi Xi and Leung Ping-kwan, two of Hong Kong’s most beloved voices. “The reason why Liu Yichang was so good at mentoring younger writers is that from the beginning of his career he was both a publisher and a writer,” says Eileen Chow Cheng-yin, co-director of Story Lab and associate professor at Duke University. “Unlike most writers, he didn’t really start up wanting to be a writer, he wanted to be a publisher, so maybe his idea of mentoring and fostering other people’s writing is much stronger as a vocation than that of people who say ‘I want to be a writer’ from the get go.”

Liu had started being involved in newspaper publishing as a young man when he was still in China, and he remained employed as a newspaper editor and writer throughout most of his career. Whether based in Hong Kong, Singapore, or Malaysia, Liu was very much part of the tradition, beginning in Republican China (1912–1949), in which newspapers were both an instrument through which to spread information, but also a dominant cultural voice, where important literary works would make their first appearance by being serialised in newspaper form. The unnamed narrator of The Drunkard is also a writer fighting his own self-destructive tendencies and alcohol dependence, who survives by writing kung fu novels with a pulp fiction slant for Hong Kong newspapers. 

Liu was born in 1918 in Shanghai, and settled in Hong Kong in 1957. He was a member of that influential Shanghainese diaspora that has contributed so much to shaping Hong Kong, in terms of influencing its literature, its taste, and, of course, its exciting cultural openness. This openness shaped much of Liu Yichang’s literary worldview. In both his literary criticism and his fiction works, he is an erudite, vastly well-read author who is as comfortable quoting from The Story of the Stone (by Cao Xueqin, one of the most important classical Chinese novels, published in the 18th century) as he is referring to Marcel Proust, Françoise Sagan, Guy de Maupassant, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf – and especially James Joyce, one of the authors to whom he kept returning throughout his life. 

“There are so many cultural references, and a really strong mental connection with other world literature figures,” says Mary Wong Shuk-hang, associate professor in the Chinese department of Lingnan University, and a co-producer of a documentary on Liu Yichang. “For Liu Yichang, this world-influence is very much his context, and I think this was a characteristic of Hong Kong’s literature in 60s and 70s, which was undoubtedly in conversation with foreign literature too,” she says. 

But Liu’s erudition extends also to pop and contemporary culture. From James Dean to rock ‘n’ roll, via a lot of jazz, the emerging global American culture plays a crucial role in his work and in his thinking. Japanese consumer culture too makes an appearance in his works, especially through the first Japanese department stores that had opened in Hong Kong in the 1960s, to great success.

His upbringing in Shanghai in the first half of the 20th century had already been international. Liu graduated in 1941 from St. John’s University, a Christian college founded by American missionaries which was considered the best university in China until its closure in 1951. After graduation, in the midst of Japan’s ongoing invasion of China, his father sent him to Chongqing, which was the seat of the Nationalist government. That’s where Liu started to get involved with newspapers, becoming an editor at two dailies published there (Sao Dang Bao, which later moved to Shanghai and became The Peace Daily, and Guomin Gongbao). 

Back in Shanghai after 1945, he founded the Huaizheng Cultural Society, a publishing enterprise that carried the name of Liu’s father, who had perished in Shanghai during the occupation. Once again, though, war and political upheavals made him decide to move on. In 1948, while the Civil War was raging on in China, Liu made his first trip to Hong Kong, where he worked as a newspaper editor for four years, before moving on to Singapore and Malaysia, in the hope of finding a public more interested in high-brow literature. 

That he didn’t find, but he did meet with Lo Pai-wun, who was to become his wife. Lo was a dancer from Hong Kong who also came from a Shanghainese family. She was spending a few months in Singapore with her dancing troupe for a series of performances there. “People in show business at the time would travel around in the Chinese diaspora quite a lot – it was considered very normal to have long stays of a few months in hotels,” says Chow. “She and Liu were staying on the same floor, which is how they met.” The romance quickly evolved into a serious commitment, and when Liu became quite ill in Singapore, Lo stayed behind to take care of him, letting her dance troupe return to Hong Kong first. They got married, and few literary couples have been as close, and inseparable, as Liu and Lo.

In 1957, as the political situation in China wasn’t getting any calmer—the Hundred Flowers campaign had just gotten underway, and the persecution of intellectuals was becoming serious—Liu Yichang knew getting back to Shanghai wasn’t a possibility. He and Lo decided to settle in Hong Kong. “It is at this point, during his second stay and also through Lo, that he starts to feel more curious about Hong Kong,” says Wong. “He starts to want to understand and know it better, and slowly he begins to identify with the city more, too.” Liu started working for the literary supplements of Sing Tao Daily and Hong Kong Times. In 1985, he founded and directed the monthly magazine Hong Kong Literature, through which his work as a mentor of young writers really picked up. 

Looking at The Drunkard, it is quite interesting to see how much it conveys the sense of displacement, of nostalgia, disparagement and loss that make up such a crucial part of the diaspora’s experience, particularly for the first generation to leave the place where they were born. Our nameless, usually inebriated narrator, battling his desire to write something outstanding while having to produce thousands of characters a day for his kung fu novel installments, issues a lament: “Here in Hong Kong there is no such thing as literature!” (It turns out that belittling Hong Kong’s cultural landscape is as old as the hills). In another chapter, in which the narrator feels the solitude of an unrequited love, he remarks, “This is Hong Kong in 1962, and everything’s so dreary.” 

He is involved in a number of love entanglements, but his heart belongs to Lily Cheung, who doesn’t love him. “Lily’s eyes. Like seeds, seeds of evil. Lily was born in Hong Kong, that concentration-camp of evil. I love Lily. I hate evil,” he writes. In another passage, the indifferent Lily is described as “just a stone with the ability to breathe.” When the book came out in 1963 it was a literary event. Not only is this the first stream of consciousness novel in Chinese literature, but it is also a strikingly intimate novel with Hong Kong as one of its characters: flawed but alive. 

Consider this passage recording the thoughts of the narrator during a brief tram ride. “It’s quarter past twelve. No trams with second-class seats…. The street’s teeming with white collar workers… A fat guy in the tram wants to go to Repulse Bay for a steak… Hey, Lau! Long time no see. How’s things? … The roast chicken in On Lok Yuen is sheer torment if you are too poor to afford it… Half past twelve… Girlie calendars on the Western bookstalls are bestsellers… Hong Kong and its culture of women-only zones… Yam Kim-fai, heart-throb if every Hong Kong maid-servant … Tensions ease in Cuba… King’s Theatre under construction… Yiu Chek-yin, man of the match… Headline: Young Woman Groped in Dream… Noisy crowd in Li Yuen Street East… Metamorphosis…. Thought palsy… Two gangsters, hardened killers…. Shop-window Temptation… Big Sale on at Wing On department Store….”

The novel is complex yet accessible, which is not as much of a contradiction as it would seem. Liu’s language is that of the everyday, in spite of the rich literary allusions. And the modernist nihilism that characterises the narrator has an enduring appeal for generations of readers, whether among students of literature or those who are more mature. Given the times in which Liu was writing these words, we also have to keep in mind what an opposition they formed to the political novels that were written in the mainland at the time. They were defined by stark ideological clarity, whereas modernism offered the possibility of using language to describe the in-between, the dreamy, the uncertain and the confusion of contemporary life. Nothing could be more different from the unflinching clarity of socialist literature descriptions. And Chinese modernists, like Liu, or like Eileen Chang, wrote while openly challenging that artistic dictum.



Liu’s other seminal novella, called Intersection or Tête-bêche (published in 1975 and translated into English here) is the story of two characters, one a middle aged man and the other a young woman, who walk around the same areas in Hong Kong, and even end up sitting in the same cinema hall, but who never meet each other. The filmmaker Wong Kar-wai was so inspired by this book, along with The Drunkard, that the characters in his films In The Mood For Love and 2046 are a kind of pastiche of their protagonists. 

“If you look at In the Mood for Love there is this element that is quite striking: I think the movie is so beautiful that it gets abstracted, but the film is actually very rooted in a particular moment in time in Hong Kong,” says Eileen Chow. “It is important that the two main characters are trying to write a novel together, a story, in their hotel room.” When Tony Leung was researching his character, Wong Kar-wai “brought him to meet Liu Yichang, in order to help him have a kind of biographical shadow for his character,” she notes. “And I thought that made perfect sense, that is where that specificity is coming from – working as a newspaper man as a back-up job, while trying to write fiction.”

The films also remind us of the central role Hong Kong plays in the cosmopolitanism of the diaspora. In this context, the movement of characters between Hong Kong, Singapore and Cambodia is not explained but taken for granted. “From Hong Kong, we think of this whole larger cosmopolitan space and it makes perfect sense,” says Chow. “The characters even speak Shanghainese among themselves, as this is such an important part of the Hong Kong community.” It is a typically Hong Kong cultural product, one that reflects the city in its numerous layers. Not all of them need to be understood to be appreciated, but the more one peels them off, the more joy they provide. 


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