“Hong Kong has been a fiction from the beginning,” writes Dung Kai-cheung in the introduction to his groundbreaking book, Atlas; the Archeology of an Imaginary City, an inventive, philosophical and wry work that bridges the writing formats of the feuilleton and fiction, telling stories about a fictive city called Victoria that serves a symbol for Hong Kong.
Published in that ominous year before the handover, 1996, the work explores the concept of what is real and unreal about a place and its people, interrogating the gaps that exist between fact and imagination. It is a masterpiece, and yet it can be hard to track down even here – despite the fact that it is one of the few pieces of Hong Kong literature translated into English that is even available in Hong Kong’s largest public library, as well as downloadable on Kindle.
In the Central Library in Causeway Bay, a copy of Atlas can be found filed under the rather sad section of Chinese language texts, next to the extensive German, French, and Italian literature sections, categorised under “Other Literatures.” In the Kubrick bookshop in Yau Ma Tei — a wonderful, smart outlet that otherwise stocks a great selection from the city’s lively poetry scene — there is only one book by Eileen Chang, the stunning 1943 novella Love in a Fallen City. Strangely enough, in Hong Kong it is easier to find literature translated from Hungarian into English than it is to find a translation of local works in Chinese.
There is a similar problem in English-language works that depict Hong Kong. Much of what is available is written from an outsider’s perspective, often one that feels rather outdated. A wander around several stores and libraries revealed that they are still much more likely to stock Richard Masons’ The World of Suzie Wong and Martin Booth’s memoir Gweilo than they are the works of local writers.
The tomes of expatriate memoirs and literature on Hong Kong range from the meaningful to the flat, outdated and rather problematic. Gweilo, which was published after Booth died in 2004, provides a lush, rambunctious and kaleidoscopic experience of the city through the eyes of a boy whose father had been posted here in the early 1950s. Part of what makes it a compelling read, aside from the good writing and interesting historical context, comes from the fact that it presents Booth’s interactions with local Hongkongers, depicting scenes exploring Kowloon Walled City, learning Cantonese with friends, meandering between the worlds of colonial privilege and grassroots Hong Kong, finding the kindness and connection that was lacking in his own home.
But Gweilo is an exception in the genre. Dull memoirs of interlopers parachuting in from abroad for a few years are abundant, providing cliché-ridden narratives that one would have hoped the Western world would have grown out of by now. There’s a lot to answer for: just flicking through old, supposedly amusing columns from the South China Morning Post from before the handover and reveals the ugly language and mocking tone used to diminish local identity in the same of supposedly provocative and witty writing – usually the preserve of conceited, white male literature and journalism.
Voices from the Swamp, a 1989 collection of Peter Sherwood’s columns from the South China Morning Post, includes an article that ponders why Chinese women wear bras when they “don’t need to.” It’s unabashedly sexist, and it essentially paints a picture of the columnist going around Hong Kong, staring at the breasts of women of different races. Gross.
It is with this in mind that one must stress the importance of access to homegrown Hong Kong literature in English. Literary canons are maps of the soul and imagination of a people. They help us track the hopes, dreams and fears of a place and it’s ever-changing identity, while also helping hold up a mirror to the society out of which it has sprung. This is why literary translations are so important, and why it is a shame that in Hong Kong, translated literature is drowned out by the noise of outsider depictions of the city.
“There isn’t really demand for Hong Kong literature in English,” said Pete Spurrier, founder of local publishing house Blacksmith Books, at a journalism conference earlier this year. The translations that do exist are hard to come by, even of the absolute-need-to-know classics. Shanghai-born Eileen Chang’s oeuvre is the exception. Beloved in Hong Kong and Taiwan as she is abroad, some of her novels were inspired by the time she spent here in the 1940s and 50s, presenting the cross sections of love, politics and the rising middle class with an unrivalled elegance. She penned Lust, Caution in 1979 — later turned into a 2007 spy thriller by director Ang Lee — showing steamy slivers of Hong Kong life in 1938. She is considered one of the greatest writers from across the Chinese world.
The same accessibility cannot be said for the works of the father of modern Hong Kong literature, Liu Yichang, who passed away last month, leaving behind a tome of pioneering works that span a gamut of formats and themes, and who will enjoy an honorary mention at this year’s Hong Kong Book Fair.
Liu was born in 1918 in Shanghai and immigrated to Hong Kong in 1948. He wrote the short story Tête Bêche, which inspired Wong Kar-wai’s classic 2000 film In the Mood for Love, and which also served as the basis for artist Kingsley Ng’s immersive 2017 art piece 25 Minutes Older. In this piece, he transformed one of Hong Kong’s trams into a roving camera obscura, inside of which was a narrative that juxtaposed two intergenerational viewpoints.
Written as a dual stream-of-conscience, the work offers an important window into the diverging mindsets of Hong Kong’s old and young at the time that resonate today, which is why Ng was drawn to Liu’s story. Finding a translation into English was so hard, he had to commission a translator himself.
Another important yet vastly underrepresented local writer is the prolific, singular and poetic Xi Xi. Her works span the gamut of romance, science fiction, and urban tales, addressing themes particular to Hong Kong but which will resonate everywhere. Born in 1938, in Shanghai, Xi Xi came to Hong Kong in 1950, where she observed the dramatic changes of a rapidly-developing city and meditated on changing traditions and attitudes with lyricism and at times haunting subtlety.
Xi Xi’s short story A Woman Like Me, written in the 1980s, is a tour de force, and you can read a quality translation in academic Michael Duke’s The World of Modern Chinese Fiction: Short Stories and Novellas from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, which is downloadable on Kindle. The haunting story, layered so richly as to feel in some parts like an extended poem, is narrated by a young woman who works as a cosmetologist at a morgue, who is being courted by man named Xia — meaning summer — who does not know her profession.
There are a billion symbols and ideas to unpack in this tiny but beautiful story, but one of them about querying what we believe to be natural, covetted, and authentic, and what it means to be a woman amidst the expectations heaped on her by society. Our narrator continues to surprise us as her story unfolds; she as a character is riddled with contradictions. She is perceived as desirable because of her paleness, commended for her “natural” beauty even though her complexion comes from working all day in closed quarters, among the dead. Her taciturn, quiet, and passive nature, and a rather fatalistic relationship with the passing of time, are also presented in a way in that draws the reader towards her.
Gloomy and serene, she is the opposite of her suitor, Xia, and though she enjoys his affections, she grows weary of the mythologies he ascribes to her as he imagines her life in the beauty salon in which he believes she works. The morgue setting, with the narrator working amongst the voiceless dead, offers myriad potential interpretations. Our narrator does not dislike her work, preferring the quiet to what she understands as the noisy and competitive bickering that would come with a normal job in the fast-transforming, capitalist metropolis where money often trumps love. The morgue is a liminal space between the worlds of the living and the dead.
Here, our narrator strives to paint the perfectly serene cadaver, a peculiar obsession that speaks to values around femininity and passivity imposed on her by a society in which those very same values seem so difficult to maintain in the face of rampant capitalism, competition and encroaching forces. All these contradictions, alongside a beautifully open-ended closing passage, are what make the story rather redolent of Hong Kong’s own relationship with its identity, and by extension, its literature.
Hong Kong’s story is riddled with contradictions, subjected as it always has been to a discombobulating set of conflicting values, its people struggling to be heard amid the noise and clutter of louder voices. But it’s a story that is still being told – and the world needs to listen. If only it had the chance.