In the colonial-era basement of the Fringe Club, where Dairy Farm used to store its milk and ice cream, a silver-haired poet and actress named Susan Lavender staggers to the microphone. She is greeted by an excited crowd of about 50 writers, academics and poetry-lovers who cheer and clap. They hush as soon as the grey-haired scribe puts on her reading glasses and pulls out a sheet scribbled with an original poem. “Happy birthday?” she begins.
What can I say?
Three score years and ten on this earth
From the time of birth
Is sufficient life span
Not just for a man.
The poem is a reflection of turning 70 this year, but the soft-spoken, energetic poet also dedicated the work to Poetry OutLoud, Hong Kong’s regular gathering of English-language poets, which strode into its 20th anniversary this past October. OutLoud has been a launchpad for local writers, and it has collaborated with local universities to host international writers’ workshops and monthly readings that bring together established and emerging writers, including Kavita A. Jindal, longlisted in 2014 for the National Poetry Prize, one of the most prestigious prizes in the world run by the UK-based Poetry Society.
The group came to life in 1998, when Australian poets Alan Jefferies and Christopher Kelen came to Hong Kong and felt that there was a lack of venues for literary-minded people. They met Mani Rao, a locally based Indian poet who had previously organised one-off English-language readings in Hong Kong, at the Eyes on Books Festival. The trio immediately hatched the idea of hosting a monthly reading in Hong Kong.
“Hong Kong was very literate and conversive, but it’s not very literary,” says Jason Lee, the organiser of Poetry OutLoud’s anniversary celebration and an OutLoud poet himself. He names poet P.K. Leung as an example. Even as a writer who explores Hong Kong’s cultural identity through fun and insightful compositions that depict the city’s food and colonial architecture, he didn’t receive the public recognition he deserved because Hong Kong doesn’t have a history of nurturing its creative and artistic talents. “It’s a shame both Chinese and English poetry were undervalued,” says Lee, pointing out that the poetic genre had always been under the impression as “not so much for the common people.”
OutLoud may have faced an uphill struggle if not for help from an unexpected place. Its launch coincided with the start of the Native-speaking English Teacher (NET) Scheme in 1998, which recruited qualified overseas English teachers to work in Hong Kong’s public schools. When they arrived in Hong Kong, they sought out the same kind of literary scene they had enjoyed back home.
The local poetry landscape has expanded since then, thanks to new organisations and collectives such as the bilingual Voice and Verse Poetry Magazine; Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, which publishes creative writing and analytical essays; and Peel Street Poetry, which organises weekly open-mic poetry reading sessions. OutLoud remains the biggest avenue for English-language poetry in Hong Kong, and as the longest-running English poetry collective, it plays a major role in linking up some of these newer communities, sometimes by collaborating with them and other times by providing them with manpower and publicity. It also welcomes contributors regardless of professional and cultural backgrounds.
In 2014, when OutLoud released its most recent anthology, OutLoud Too, it made a conspicuous effort to reflect the city around it. Among its 48 contributing poets is scholar Tammy Ho, well-known local writer Louise Ho, P.K. Leung, and Jennifer Wong, together with established long-term writers and emerging voices. Regardless of their nationalities, they all reflect and document various aspects of Hong Kong through their poetry. In Hong Kong-based Sri Lankan poet Nashua Gallagher’s “Tai O Village,” she paints the landscape of the sleepy village where urban life seems to co-exist in harmony with natural forces:
The storm grinds and they make
Thunder inside with their mahjong tiles.
“Poetry works equally well as an oral form and on a page,” says Lee. Poetry lends itself to digital media, and its spread on audio, video and social media platforms has helped plug Hong Kong into a global revival of poetry led by Instagram poets, rappers and song lyricists who are making the medium relatable and accessible to a younger audience. New York-based poet Alison Malee delivers crisp one-sentence poems on Instagram, where they are paired with stunning autumnal visuals; Canadian poet Rupi Kaur parlayed her Instagram poems into a lucrative book that spent more than a year on the New York Times’ best-seller list.
Historically, poetry explored universal themes of love, life and death. But a new generation of Hong Kong poets are mining the rich veins of contemporary life for inspiration. Tinder dates, Facebook and internet memes all figure in their work. Over the past five months, they have been dealing with the ongoing protests, considering weighty questions about democracy, China and Hong Kong and identity politics.
Student Felix Chow says that poetry events like OutLoud has given him a safe space to express his political thoughts. In “Two Streets Away,” he writes about his pain when the police shot a protester for the first time with live ammunition on 1 October.
But all that justice
All that peace
Is frozen in
a .38 hollowpoint shell
Coated with copper
Fanged with lead
A hate-filled beast
A Hong Kong heart.
“Poetry is always a product of its time,” says Lee, suggesting that there has been a generational shift in topics, style and use of words. To him, local poetry is “a cruise towards popular culture,” as poems are now written in varied languages and forms, and consumed across all ages.
He believes that what makes the Hong Kong poetry landscape unique is how English-language poets can collaborate with Chinese-medium poets. OutLoud poet David McKirdy once invited Chinese poets such as P.K. Leung to a bilingual reading as an avenue for greater exploration of seeking a collective identity in a city where languages and cultures coexist but often do not interact.
Some Hong Kong poets have produced English poems incorporating or translating Cantonese expressions. One example is Eugenia Ng’s “Silence (我冇嘢講),” which was published in Cha’s “Umbrella Movement Five Years On and Beyond” series this September. In the poem, she toys with the Chinese idiom hon4 sim4 haau6 jing3 (寒蟬效應) which can be loosely translated as a “chilling effect.” In the context of the ongoing protests, where Ng says “subtle legal threats and other fearmongering methods” are used by the government and police “to discourage individuals from exercising their legal rights,” she links the idiom to slogans in the digital flyers produced by protesters.
Even the English language itself has gone through a transformation. In the past, it was mainly the preserve of expats, but today it serves as a platform for a more diverse range of writers. In recent years, OutLoud has featured works in Arabic, Cantonese, Mandarin, French and Spanish, which are translated into English. “OutLoud is very international but at the same time there is the awareness of its being based in Hong Kong,” says Lee. “And this is what gives it its vitality.”
In the future, Lee hopes to bring in more young local writers to OutLoud. Its December event will be emceed by Felix Chow and Louise Leung, two HKU students who recently published their first works in Cha. “We’re seeing the aspirations of young people being thwarted in so many ways by very entrenched capitalist system in Hong Kong,” he says, and suggests that it’s very important that Hong Kong uses the arts to give the new generation of writers their venue of expression.
It’s through poetry that Chow finds a safe space to explore his political voice. That’s true for Susan Lavender, too, whose anniversary poem yearns for Hong Kong’s distinctiveness to be maintained and respected. Standing in front of the crowd at the Fringe Club, she concludes her reading.
Birthdays are for rejoicing together.
Our specialness. It can’t be wrong.
It’s not a threat. It makes you strong.
The next Poetry OutLoud event will take place on December 4, 2019 at the Fringe Club.