Strangers at Home: Hong Kong Poets Tammy Ho Lai-Ming and Kate Rogers

It’s apparent that Tammy Ho Lai-ming and Kate Rogers are rather fond of each other. You can see it in the way they enthusiastically support each other’s work and how they are comfortable in each other’s presence, nourished by each other’s ideas. They advocate for each other.

That ease between the two poets is testament to a friendship they have shared for almost ten years, an era which the pair also associate with the rise of the city’s new generation of English-language writers. Perhaps it is also a testament to the intimacy that exists in the poetry world, where vulnerability and radical honesty can invoke deep, intense ties.

Rogers traces their first meeting back to an evening in Sai Ying Pun, where she used to host a literary salon to which Ho had been invited to read her work. Ho was a young, budding poet at the time, Rogers a more seasoned writer, having launched her poetry career back in her native Canada in the 1990s, when she first started publishing in literary journals. That year Ho would embark on an endeavour that would shape her presence in Hong Kong’s intimate and at times somewhat insular and esoteric poetry world: launching the city’s first platform for English-language poetry.

Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, which continues to publish works of emerging and established poets, was set up by Ho alongside a co-editor, Jeff Zrobeck, in 2007, helping bring together writers alongside opportunities for poets to review each other’s works in a more formal setting than the spoken word events and close-knit gatherings in which the scene still operates. While Ho is a poet, her strength lies as much in her ability to foster a sense of community and collaboration as her love of the written word.

That dual passion has ensured the longevity of the project. As the journal enters it 11th year, it enjoys more contributions than ever, from a broad range of voices. While the question of what makes a Hong Kong writer authentic is hotly debated, Ho is an advocate for being open to written work about the city that is not exclusively produced by those with long ties to the place.

“My standpoint is that if a writer considers himself or herself a Hong Kong writer, or [is] writing about Hong Kong [and] he or she feels comfortable about that, then that is the definition of a Hong Kong writer,” she says. “I have an issue with rigid delineations of Hong Kong.” Indeed, Cha bylines are multinational.  

Ho’s responsibilities to the scene, which have extended to her involvement in several other publications alongside her work as an academic, means that the real challenge now lies in trying to find time to write poetry of her own. This she manages to do in snatches of time, like long trips on the bus, or when she feels particularly moved by a pressing social issue and needs an outlet.

“Tammy is modest, but I think [she is] one of the reasons the English-language writing scene is reaching a point of maturity, and is defining itself not only as Cantonese or Chinese writers in English, but a diversity and multiplicity of voices,” says Rogers over a coffee in Festival Walk, near Ho’s academic base at Baptist University. “Because Hong Kong is very diverse,” adds Rogers. “It has Cantonese roots, but there is so much else happening here.”

The complexity of Hong Kong’s linguistic heritage is something both women explore their poetry, infusing their works in multilingual verse that encapsulate the city’s patchwork vernacular. Rogers is fond of turning to Cantonese expressions that she has learned in her time here as a poet and lecturer. Like Ho, her love of words and language runs deep. She first started writing poetry growing up in her native Toronto, filling notebook upon notebook with passages of writing her mother still keeps as hallmarks of her daughter’s devotion to the craft. “I like to quote Margaret Atwood, who says ‘poetry is condensed emotion,’” she says. “I think that is very true.”

Rogers finds herself writing about anywhere that has touched her heart – and Hong Kong is one such place. She has lived here for the past 18 years and it continues to provoke complex emotions that fuel her creative process. Her latest collection of poems, Out of Place, published last year, reflects on the complex experience of being an outsider in a city one calls home, a feeling Rogers says follows her wherever she goes. Hong Kong has offered a space in which to explore that perspective, as she does in the below passage.

Out of place,
I watch egrets
toss white plumes
over their heads,
balance on stilts,
tilt to angle their
gaze through the green-glass
sea at claws scrabbling
for shadows.

[…]

I cast my line
from a high cliff,
hope to catch
just enough.

“Her use of Cantonese idioms is often used to preface her own sense of wonder, engagement, yet also alienation from Hong Kong society,” Ho has said of Roger’s work, which often gauges with the status of outsider occupied by long-time expatriates in Hong Kong.

Rogers has tried to embed herself in and better understand local Cantonese culture, but there have been limitations. “I consider myself a heong1 gong2 jan4 (香港人, “Hong Kong person”) but I am also an outsider, because I don’t speak Cantonese very well,” she says. “Culture and language are very intertwined. So I can only become part of Cantonese culture to the extent that I can understand Cantonese, which isn’t that well, you know. I get glimpses, little windows.”

That sense of distance does not mean that Rogers hasn’t put in the emotional labour required to go some way to understanding her host city. Central to her creative process is a commitment to challenging her own assumptions, taking great pains not to resort to tired clichés or Orientalising gestures.

“I have to ask myself a lot of questions, and I still do,” she says. “Am I making assumptions about what is happening, am I making assumptions about what something means, am I only reflecting on what it means to me as an outsider, does that involve some judgement that I’m not aware of? So really it’s a personal interrogation. I’m always interrogating my process, my responses,” she says, a process she has refined over time.

That perspective on the city from a certain degree of distance is one that is different from Ho. Born and raised in Hong Kong, she can comfortably call the city her home and writes extensively on Hong Kong identity, using the city as backdrop for exploring belonging, family and the self. In her 2015 collection of poetry, Hula Hooping, vignettes of the city are offered through a confessional lens. Unlike Rogers, who draws from the experience of distance to Hong Kong local life to invoke a vertiginous vantage point, Ho finds inspiration in the roots that bind her to the city. What the pair have in common, however, is a sense of ambivalence about their levels of attachment to Hong Kong. The theme of family often rears its head in Ho’s work as a space to examine the complexities of love and belonging.

In the opening poem in Hula Hooping, “Tiny Scissors”, Ho wraps the theme of family around that of language, comprehensibility and the terrains of exclusion, survival and adaptation. She invokes the memory of her Hakka grandmother, who did not learn Cantonese, which inevitably rendered her incomprehensible to her peers, and in a state of powerlessness.

Like her mother before her, she used
the scissors to cut food into small pieces.
Toothless, gums eroded like seaside rocks,
eating was not enjoyed, only endured.
She never learnt Cantonese, despite
living in Hong Kong most her life.
She held the belief that Hakka, if uttered slowly,
would be universally understood.
Her eldest granddaughter, I was the one
for whom nothing was misunderstood.
In the last week, she gave me her scissors,
and reminded me that I’d too one day be toothless.

Ho’s own decision to write verse in English might well have links to the threat of voicelessness, powerlessness and ultimately, irrelevance that appears in the image of becoming toothless. In this image we capture the complexity of what it means to write in English as a Cantonese speaker. There is a sense of regret, but also empowerment. In many cultures where dominant forces have imposed a lingua franca, sidelining local dialects, it is those who master the language of the dominant force who enjoy a sense of power and influence that might not otherwise have been available to them. Naturally, said mastery does not come without a sense of regret and perhaps betrayal of one’s own roots.

But Ho’s use of English is not to be read simply as an act of rebellion or empowerment; it comes from place of identification with English literature and language, and a longstanding, rich relationship with its canon and its complex legacy. Her relationship with English poetry comes after earlier “unpublishable” efforts of her own to write verse in Chinese, a pursuit she says didn’t chime as easily with her as the experience of writing in English. Hanging out at the library at Hong Kong University as an undergraduate, where she discovered anthologies of contemporary poets, was what first inspired her to write English language poems of her own.

There was also the mentorship of Malaysia-born, Hong Kong-based professor and poet Shirley Lim, who encouraged her work. “Shirley Lim is important to both of us,” says Rogers. Indeed, Lim enlisted Rogers to co-edit an anthology devoted to women’s poetry in which a number of pieces of Ho’s are featured. Not a Muse was published in 2010, with poems by Margaret Atwood and Erica Jong featured alongside that of Rogers, Ho and Viki Holmes, who co-edited the book. It’s an engaging collection that touches on many experiences woman share, regardless of their origins.

“I still think women’s voices are undervalued, and our perspective is marginalised, getting published harder,” says Rogers. “In Canada, I know it’s becoming a lot more common for women poets to find publication in journals. But it’s still more common for male voices to find publication.”

It would be trite to suggest that women writers can overcome this marginalisation by better supporting one another. That is of course true to some degree, but it should not be another imposition on women to be nice for the sake of being nice, to be correctly self-sacrificing, correctly kind, correctly uncritical. This is especially true in a world in which certain standards need to be upheld more than ever, as the internet and social media have enabled everyone to try their hand at being a writer.

Rogers will return to her native Canada in a year or so, meaning Ho and Roger’s friendship will enter its long distance chapter. Rogers looks forward to enjoying a larger community of poets, and more opportunities for her work to be critiqued, something she feels is less part of the culture of the scene in Hong Kong, where everyone knows everyone, and toes might easily be trod on. But there is much she will miss about the place she has called home for almost two decades. What she loves about the city chimes with Ho’s own feelings about Hong Kong.

“There is a sense that it is always changing, going to be different just within a day, so there’s an urgency of always being on the move,” she says. “I mean the whole city, and how people adapt to it, and how the city transforms people’s lives, even if they are here for a few days, they may take away something of Hong Kong with them. I don’t think many cities have this quality.”

 

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