Hong Kong’s Literary Freedom Fighters

Hindsight is 20/20 – except when it isn’t. In Hong Kong 20/20: Reflections on a Borrowed Place, the past is as murky as the present; a trail whose breadcrumbs have been swept away by the wind. Released to mark the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from Britain to China, the anthology brings together a mix of short stories, essays, poetry, illustrations and cartoons by 41 contributors. Whether you’re a literary buff or a news junkie, you’re likely to find a name you recognise: author Xu Xi, columnist Stephen Vines, scholar Shirley Geok-lin Lim, journalist Ilaria Maria Sala.

The book was produced by PEN Hong Kong, the local branch of an international organisation dedicated to free speech. Originally founded in the 1980s by a group of Hong Kong-based expats, who gave voice to Vietnamese writers interned in the city’s harsh refugee camps, PEN Hong Kong went dormant for nearly two decades until it was revived in 2016. Local columnist, lawyer and fiction writer Jason Y. Ng was elected the group’s first president last November.

“We have a dual goal – to promote literature and freedom of expression,” he says. Motivated by the knife attack on former Ming Pao editor Kevin Lau and the disappearance of booksellers critical of the Chinese government, PEN Hong Kong seeks to counter what many say is an unprecedented crackdown on free expression in Hong Kong.


The Tai Hang Nullah by Gérard Henry

But it is more than a political advocacy group. It also aims to promote literature and bridge the divide between Hong Kong’s Chinese- and English-language literary scenes. Many of Hong Kong 20/20’s contributions are translated from Chinese, and PEN is now crowdfunding a Chinese edition that will hopefully be released by the end of the year.

“The voices are very diverse and that’s exactly what we intended,” says Ng. “But there’s a common thread that runs through every piece. Everyone cares about Hong Kong and is passionate about its future. And they’re all worried.”

In her essay The Mix-Ups, journalist Louisa Lim reflects on her Hong Kong youth in a mixed Chinese-British family, and laments how a city that once seemed to reflect her hybrid identity now threatens to exclude her. (Her account echoes that of Xu Xi, another Hong Kong-born writer of non-Cantonese origin who feels increasingly alienated by her city.) Shen Jian’s story It Was All Wasted is a dark alternative history of the 2014 Umbrella Revolution that asks what we would do in the face of military occupation: revolt or collaborate? Though Shen’s work is fiction, it evokes — deliberately or not — Hong Kong’s traumatic experience during World War II.

Despite the dark mood that seems to have settled on Hong Kong these days, there is a pugnaciousness in Hong Kong 20/20 that leaves readers with a sense that the city’s identity is still worth defending. “I was expecting people to be more pessimistic, but almost every piece ended on a positive note,” says Ng. “It’s easy to be negative, but at the same time, it’s important to keep the fight going.”

The fight is not only to protect free speech, but to keep Hong Kong’s creative imagination alive. “To create a robust English literary scene that speaks to local readers, we need good writers — and we do have a number of them in the city — and attentive readers,” says poet and translator Tammy Ho Lai-ming. “And by ‘good writers’ I refer to those who are engaged with local affairs, idioms, narratives.”

The background of Hong Kong 20/20’s writers is as varied as the city itself. There are Chinese-language writers, local people of mixed or otherwise non-Chinese origin, longtime expats, and Hong Kong-born people who spent large parts of their lives living overseas. “Fusion can be authentic,” says Ng, whose family immigrated to Canada when he was young. “That’s the great thing about Hong Kong – the experience of the city is not defined by our ethnicity, but rather by our values.”

Ho herself is an example of how blurry Hong Kong’s cultural and linguistic lines can be. Although she began writing in Chinese, she decided to try her hand at English when she found a copy of literary journal Ambit in the University of Hong Kong library. She is now one of the leading voices in Hong Kong’s English-language literary scene, editing local journal Cha and teaching literature at Baptist University.

“I don’t have much time to write poetry anymore [so] I tend to use any available time writing poems on topics that I feel are the most deserving to be written now,” she writes in an email, emphasising the final word. In many cases, those topics involve Hong Kong’s rapidly changing culture and landscape. Three of her poems appear in Hong Kong 20/20, including “Two Zero Four Seven,” which points to the year when Hong Kong’s current economic and political system will expire.

Stop all the clocks, Hong Kong people.
That which we hold dear about this city

is likely to end in 2047.
But if we do not recognise the objective

passing of time, might we stay
in the present?

In her poem “Maybe,” Ho imagines a secret Hong Kong hidden in plain sight.

Maybe goldfish bought in Mong Kok
are telepathic and share the secrets
of their new owners. ‘She is lonely.’
‘This one is lonely too.’
‘Nobody in the family talks.’

“I am fascinated about places and spaces, real or imagined, in Hong Kong,” says Ho. She says one of her favourite books is Dung Kai-cheung’s Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imagined City, a peculiar tome that layers fiction over the recorded facts of Hong Kong’s geography, and she is planning to start a project with Baptist University colleagues that will document imaginary or lost places in the city.

If Hong Kong’s free expression continues to erode, however, so will its ability to imagine itself. It will be a city without a voice. In “Castaway,” Jason Y. Ng pens an allegorical representation of Hong Kong in which a man named Chu finds himself marooned on a deserted island after his junk boat capsizes. “He stayed clear of politics, religion and other useless things and focused his energy on making himself more competitive, taking night classes and even getting an insurance agent license in case his marketing firm downsized and laid him off,” he writes. At first, Chu’s pragmatism allows him to survive – until things take a turn for the worse.

“He represents the typical indifferent, aloof Hongkonger,” says Ng. If there’s one thing that Hong Kong 20/20 makes clear, though, it’s that Hong Kong can’t afford to be indifferent. “Once writers have to worry about what can or can’t be written and published, the overall academic and literary environment is compromised, poisoned,” says Ho. Perhaps the anthology’s title doesn’t refer to hindsight after all. Instead, it may be urging us to look clearly at the future.

Hong Kong 20/20 is published by Blacksmith Books. Some of its contributors will speak at the Hong Kong Literary Festival on November 11, 2017. Click here for more information. 

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