Xi Xi: The Playful Seriousness of a Quintessential Hong Kong Writer

This is the second in a series on Hong Kong’s great writers.

It’s a curious pen name for a Hong Kong writer: Xi Xi (西西 Sai1 Sai1 – literally “west west”). And yet this author, born Cheung Yin in Shanghai in 1937, is one of the city’s most representative literary talents. She came to Hong Kong in 1950 as one of the many refugees that left mainland China in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, which had ended with a Communist victory the year before. With her taste for the whimsical and her strong sense of the visual, she chose her pen name mostly for what the Chinese characters reminded her of: an imaginative graphic representation of the lower part of a small girl in a skirt, her legs spread inside a chalked frame playing a form of Chinese hopscotch which children used to call “building a house” (tiu3 fong4 zi2, 跳房子).

In one of her essays, written when she was still a primary school teacher, Xi Xi recounts in detail how much she loved to play hopscotch when she was a kid: “When I played this game with a lot of other children I always found it exciting; sometimes I played it alone, and felt very lonely. When I was in primary school I played it all the time. Now that I am a teacher, I still play it with the children.” In 1979, she retired from teaching to become a full-time writer.

Her arrival in Hong Kong happened at one of the main watersheds in Hong Kong’s history when people decided they wanted a bigger say in their destiny by choosing to leave China and come to this territory then under British rule. There were millions of them, and their arrival in the decades after 1949 kick-started Hong Kong’s most exciting era. Xi Xi describes it in one of her most important books, My City – A Hong Kong Story (first serialized in Hong Kong Express Daily in 1975, and in 2000 named by Asia Weekly as one of the hundred best Chinese novels), translated by Eva Hung. 

“There have been many refugees,” she writes. “Some of them climbed over many mountains; they came in their tens of thousands over hill and dale, all heading in the same direction. Some of them wore cloth shoes, others plastic slippers, others were bare-footed. It did not matter what type of feet they had, they all had blisters.”

From this point on, the city starts to build and build, and again Xi Xi describes it with light touches, addressing issues familiar to all who live here. “They say: the railway station will soon move to this place. The man, upon hearing this, takes out his pocket calculator. I’ll have to raise the price of my flat by thirty thousand, he says.”

Xi Xi’s Hong Kong life has been absorbed by literature, for which she has earned many prizes and a place in the school curriculum. In 2011, she was chosen as the Hong Kong Author of the Year by the Hong Kong Book Fair. But her playfulness doesn’t mean her work is superficial. Quite the opposite. When she is describing moments of anxiety and fear, Xi Xi has a levity and sense of humour that feel at once typical of Hong Kong, yet unique to her. 

Describing her childlike wonder for the surrounding world is no easy task; much better to give a few more examples of the way she looks at the everyday, to convey her gentle bewilderment. In this passage from My City, for example, she describes having to move house. “They have come to help us move house,” she writes. “I said, move it. I thought they were going to put their arms round the house and move it to wherever we’re going. But they shook their heads. What is moving house? Of course I have to ask. Come exercise with us, they say. I do as they say, and sure enough I learn what moving house means.” 

This novel, written in a kind of fairy-tale realism, is one of those books that gets better and better the more times you read it. Underneath the layers of playfulness, in which everything is animated and anthropomorphised, and everything has opinions and an attitude, Xi Xi paints with a very observant brush some of the most crucial episodes in Hong Kong’s history and some of the most important aspects of the city. 

The 1967 riots, for example, are touched upon indirectly, through the protests of pineapples, as that was the slang name for home-made bombs and Molotov cocktails that were placed in the streets, killing 51 people. Xi Xi writes:

“— we have to protect the reputation of pineapples. 

— we are fruit 

one pineapple shouts.

— we are not a cocktail

shouts another pineapple …

You see, pineapples in the street may not be real pineapples. That is why the pineapples want to protest. If you are not a poet, you are not a poet, and if you are not a pineapple, you are not a pineapple, they say.”

This lightness of spirit seems to accompany Xi Xi through her writing, her drawing, her way of facing life, and her crafting, too. That is because in 1989 Xi Xi was diagnosed with breast cancer, and while the operation was successful and saved her life, it impacted her right hand. She taught herself to write with her left hand, and in the year 2000, in order to reeducate her right hand, she started making teddy bears. She dressed some of them in historical costumes, turning them into the bear-incarnation of mythological characters and famous historical and literary figures from Chinese antiquity. 

This led to a book, now translated into English by Christina Sanderson, called The Teddy Bear Chronicles. Xi Xi has made a teddy bear out of the mythical Yellow Emperor and of the 18th writer Cao Xueqin, author of Dream of the Red Chamber; of Wang Xizhi, who lived in the 13th century and was considered the greatest calligrapher in Chinese history; and the maritime explorer Zheng He, from the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). There have also been various characters from classical Chinese novels, like the heroes of The Water Margin, written in the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368). Her teddy bears are not just a fleeting amusement, as she has become so skilled at making them that in 2005 she took part in the second Hong Kong Teddy Bear Awards under the name Ellen Cheung, and won the title of Designer’s Collection Champion. 

Like in a never ending childhood, you can spot in Xi Xi’s works certain favourite foods, refugees, moving homes, toys and games – memories that come back in her works, with the same puzzlement with which very young people endure the decisions taken by the adults around them. And again, thanks to her strong visual sense, many of her works are accompanied by thin-line ink drawings: small spontaneous sketches that add another layer of immediacy to her works. 

Xi Xi’s oeuvre has only partially been translated into English, although more should be coming soon. Part of the reason for that is that she is so prolific, with more than 40 titles to her name, including a 2019 book called My Toys, a series of essays describing the toys she has kept for years. But it may also be due to the fact that, in spite of all this levity, she is a particularly hard writer to translate. She loves wordplay, and her erudition fills her works with references to literature and historical events.

“Her breath of knowledge is really outstanding,” says Jennifer Feeley, one of her translators. “In her [1993] book Mourning a Breast, for example, which recounts her experience with breast cancer, and with the treatment and the recovery, is playful and conversational even though it deals with a very heavy topic. It is not a sad book. I think she takes scary things like a hospital and these treatments and makes them very accessible.”

Feeley says Xi Xi sometimes uses the literary device of de-familiarisation to make something scary or undesirable seem more approachable or interesting. In Mourning a Breast, there is a chapter that describes how doctors must mark her body in order to direct the radiation to the right spots. Seeing those marks makes her think of tattoos, which then leads her to think about Ray Bradbury’s short story, The Tattoo Woman, and how its English and Spanish versions differ, reflecting the challenge of translation. In other chapters, Xi Xi quotes Zhuang Zi, and compares typefaces in different editions of Madame Bovary. It is playful but unpredictable – a bit like Hong Kong itself.  “She brings unusual perspectives in all of her works, but through a very everyday language,” says Feeley. 

This has left a deep mark on many younger Hong Kong authors. That includes Eva Wong Yi, a short story author who has also adapted two of Xi Xi’s short stories, “A Girl Like Me” and “The Cold,” into the opera Women Like Us. “Not only is Hong Kong fundamental to her writing, but also she has shaped many writers here,” she says. That is partly due to the fact that some of her work is in the school curriculum. But it is also because her work is “so playful yet serious and experimental,” she says. “It showed me how much can be done with language, and how a whole new type of literature is possible – a literature that doesn’t shout, and talks about what is important, through the small things in daily life.”

Today, Xi Xi’s work feels more relevant than ever, because it shows us how many trials and tribulations Hong Kong has already been through – all of which has led to the complicated city that exists today. “Every day, in this city there are always some things or other quietly bidding us farewell, and then gradually disappearing,” she writes in My City. Which is as true today as when Xi Xi wrote it in the 1970s.

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