Why Hong Kong is Fertile Ground for English Poetry

Hong Kong is many things to many people. As a melting pot that has a drawn in wave after wave of migrants, provided safe haven for those in need, and served as  a corner of the world in which to preserve traditions crushed on the mainland, its gleaming, increasingly homogeneous skyline belies its complex cultural underbelly. A city of intense contrasts and contradictions, it has far more to commend than its status as a financial centre. This is a place that boasts a linguistic diversity that is rare to find elsewhere, and this is something its surprisingly large number of poets are eager to celebrate and draw inspiration from.

Tammy Ho is at the centre of this flourishing world of poetry. Ho is the founding co-editor of Hong Kong-based literary journal Asian Cha, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, and she will moderate a discussion about Hong Kong poetry during the upcoming Hong Kong International Literary Festival. Ho is an established poet herself, and she is particularly fond of mining her bilingualism for creative inspiration. She is also an assistant professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, and she is proactive when it comes to eliciting new talent and engagement, reaching out to mobilise budding poets by hosting poetry contests.

Social and political issues run through Ho’s work, which often deals with the lives of ordinary Hongkongers. But she is also curious about the way English and Chinese language relate to and diverge from one another, playing with the marvellous strangeness of a translated Chinese idioms. This is particularly true of her piece, aptly named “Cantonese Idioms,” in which colourful and uncanny turns of phrases common in Cantonese are given an English language spin, evoking scenes that draw upon at times mystical whimsy of Cantonese turns of phrases while expounding upon their strangeness to non-Chinese speaking readers.

A dragon is bullied
by baby shrimps in shallow water.
It should inhale deeply and
breathe those lowly creatures in.
That said, who put the dragon there?

Ho says poetry thrives in Hong Kong because the city draws in international émigrés with a literary bent while also serving as breeding ground for local writers. This is despite Hong Kong’s unfair reputation as a capital for commerce, not culture. “Internationally, Hong Kong is seen as a gateway to China,” says Ho, but the reality is that Hong Kong is so much more than that. It diversity and cultural complexity can be seen in the richness of the local languages.

Cantonese has thrived and retained its position as the spoken language on the street, while also remaining the dominant language in an official sense, alongside English. This is despite the influence of Mandarin becoming increasingly prevalent. Elsewhere in Guangdong, while Cantonese continues to be spoken at home and among friends, it is Mandarin that serves as the official language of work and education.

Traditional Chinese characters have survived here, too, whereas they have been replaced by simplified versions on the Mainland. Although traditional characters are far more complex, they give readers a fuller sense of their own roots and history. As poetry quite often involves playing with form, the visual impact of characters can be rather important – and this is something poets here, who sometimes weave Chinese into otherwise English verse, like to play with.

Interestingly, that impact on those who might not be able to read Chinese at all is still important for readers of a particularly formalist bent. Seeing and interrogating characters without understanding them might be similar experience to experiencing poetry of the Dadaists, who often played with sound and form, turning meaning upside-down with auditory and visual nonsense.

This picture of linguistic diversity gets even more interesting when one considers that many other languages co-exist in Hong Kong. Minority languages like Chiu Chow and Hakka are still spoken here, and migrant from other parts of the world have added to the linguistic soup. Nepalese, Punjabi, Sindhi and Gujarati are all commonly heard on the streets, alongside Southeast Asian languages like Tagalog and Bahasa Indonesia, and European languages like French.

This linguistic diversity is often reflected in Hong Kong poetry, which is what Ho finds most exciting about local English language poetry. Her viewpoint is not shared by all language enthusiasts, and certainly there are English language purists who worry about the impact blurred boundaries of the languages might have on Hong Kong’s credibility. Historically, “good” British English was seen as a marker of sophistication and class. Some Chinese parents even refused to speak Cantonese at home, worried their children would not become fluent in English. The influence of these attitudes, propagated by colonial racism, can still be felt on Hong Kong today, where insecurities persist around the use of Cantonese in certain contexts.

But some of the most exciting cultures are those where diverse linguistic communities collide. That’s certainly true in Hong Kong. Among the most exciting local poets is Louise Ho, whose 40 year body of work has bound the political with the personal, and the local with the cosmopolitan. Her four poetry collections interrogate the city’s identity with often lively and forthright irreverence. In the below excerpt, from her poem “Incense Tree,” she draws upon a frustration she felt when trying to translate Cantonese into English, noting the ways in which the English language — despite its prestige — falls short of vibrant, tonal Cantonese:

Heung not Hong
Gong not Kong;
In any case
Transliteration into English sounds
Of monosyllabic tonal Chinese
Is alchemy in reverse
Changing all that is gold
Into dross, loss and mockery

In Louise Ho’s poetry, English is often mingled with Cantonese vernacular, a trait also seen in several other well-regarded poets, including Nicholas Wong, a leading global voice in queer poetry. Singapore-born, Hong Kong-based poet Eddie Tay is equally enthralled by the possibilities of writing in a city with boasting such a rich linguistic multiverse, sometimes weaving into his text Chinese characters, a technique that draws attention to the curious visual dissonance that comes with seeing Chinese characters and English words together. In the prologue to The Mental Life of Cities, he interrogates what it means to be a Hongkonger:

No one sees the mental life of cities.
No one denies it is there. It is darkness on the streets.
It is impulsive as pigeons.
I am a camera hunting for metaphors.

我等待 您的到來

This intermingling of language is not only the preserve of those whose mother tongue is Cantonese. Western writers, among them Kate Rogers, Jason S. Polley and David McKirdy, enjoy infusing their texts with Cantonese vernacular, a quality Tammy Ho attributes to genuine feelings of identification with local culture.

“Every person in Hong Kong’s interaction with the local language is different. It depends on their curiosity, level of interest and linguistic capabilities,” she says. While it is still rare to encounter  Westerners who are fully fluent in Cantonese, many more have at least some facility in the language, and a penchant for using local expressions like hou2 maa4 faan4 (好麻煩), which means “troublesome.” This creates opportunities to break new poetic ground, rethinking what a poem can be in a transnational world.

“We find that a lot of people whose first language is not English write in English, and we’re noticing different forms of English arising,” says Ho. “We want to promote and encourage this difference.” Indeed, if new language is to evolve in the 21st century, it is very likely that it will be something that happens to the English language in Hong Kong, a place that has always straddled worlds – and a place where multilingualism is so very much written into its cultural fabric.

Tammy Ho will moderate a conversation between a panel of resident poets during the Hong Kong International Literary Festival on November 4, 2017. For more information click here.

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