IMAGE: Clara Cheung, “Lo Ting Toy Story — Salute to my Grandmother Who Was A Fish Hawker,” 2017.
Earlier this week, an Electric Literature essay titled “Where is Hong Kong Literature When We Need it the Most?” was published and immediately caught fire on Twitter. The writer, Evelyn Fok (from Hong Kong, and a fiction writer herself), had declared a lack of literature in the city but seemed to be totally unaware of the many contemporary writers and poets living or from here. In response, writers, translators, publishers—just about everyone connected to the Hong Kong literary scene—were (justifiably) outraged, writing long threads of why the essay was problematic and tagging Electric Literature and its editor-in-chief, calling out for a more rigorous editorial and fact checking process.
As someone who writes fiction (in English) and is living in Hong Kong and considers herself diaspora with a complicated background (London born and raised, have lived in New York and Hong Kong most of my adult life), I was personally disheartened to see that the essay skirted around, but didn’t exactly prod at why books by Hong Kong writers aren’t as readily accepted by American and European publishing markets as those by your usual expat-who-has-never-lived-here-and-thinks-Kowloon-is-gritty-and-full-of-triads.
I was also disappointed to see no discussion of the multiplicities around the meaning of “Hong Kong writing”—as writer Ploi Pirapokin asked on Twitter, “Are we sick of expat thrillers or are we drawing lines of false authenticities now on who can write authentically about something? What if you were born in Hong Kong and raised there but *drum roll* your parents are white? What if you were born and raised there and speak Cantonese but you have Indian heritage? What if you’re one of the 5% of foreign domestic workers who weren’t born in the Hong Kong but pretty much denied citizenship and rights while living there for decades?”
None of these identities and nuances around Hong Kong writing and identity were even acknowledged. Instead, the essay appeared binary and at times sensationalist, making me wonder exactly how the piece was pitched, edited, and then consequently promoted by Electric Literature, an American publication for overwhelmingly American literary appetites. Perhaps I’m being naïve when I say that I suspect the writer intended to speak about the lack of visibility of Hong Kong literature in the mainstream international publishing industry, but was struggling to (because it’s such a difficult topic, entangled in postcolonial identity, tongues, and politics) and then was edited into another direction entirely. But the thing I keep thinking about is that if an inexperienced American or European writer had tried to write a similar story about the dearth of literature in, say, Cleveland or Amsterdam, I suspect Electric Literature would have edited the piece differently, nudging it into nuance, or might have even outright rejected it, knowing that there are also other stories that they can publish about these places. I feel that Hong Kong often only has one story in mainstream American and European media: and that is that it is a sad, broken place, and all its artists and writers and musicians are either silenced, do not exist, or are only making protest art.
I feel like there’s no use logging onto Twitter and ranting and raving about this essay anymore. So, instead, here are some (note: not all) Hong Kong writers and literary figures that are alive (sorry Liu Yichang!) and very much writing. Please note that this is not an exhaustive list but more of a personal one, and that because I can’t read Chinese, I unfortunately cannot access the very lively, and flourishing Chinese-language literature scene in Hong Kong.
My love for Dorothy’s writing runs very deep, although I can sadly only read her translations. Thankfully, Nicky Harman translated Snow and Shadow (which contains one of my favorite short stories ever, about a family who keep a fridge full of bird corpses) and Natascha Bruce is working on her latest collection. In her stories, Tse treads on myth, interrogates the body (in particular the female body), and quietly exposes the social constructs that both liberate and cage us in our daily lives. In a recent short story translated by Bruce, published in the anthology 2019 “That We May Live,” a woman travels back to her hometown to find her grandmother and the origin of a secret fermented drink, only to discover that the concoction is made not from vegetable or plant, but from the flesh of young women. Tse is also co-founder of Fleurs de Lettres, a Chinese language literary journal.
Hon Lai-Chu is another Chinese-language writer whose works I wish I could read more of. Her works deal with the subtle and often insidious ways in which our environments change us. She has also written on the turmoil in the city; one particular essay that she wrote for The Offing, and translated by Henry Wei Leung with Louise Law, broke me. In it, she goes to the edge of a dock and tries to “see the sea,” despite a security guard telling her she cannot do so. It is a simple desire that leads her to think about compliance and basic rights. “The world has always been broken,” she writes, “ and it is exactly because the world is broken that this city is not just my city, nor yours, nor theirs, but is everybody’s image mirrored on the shards.”
Lo Mei Wa
Lo Mei Wa, or “Wawa” as she’s known, is a writer who is always negotiating her own identity and how we (as Hong Kong people) navigate decolonization and exile, especially in writing. Her debut poetry collection, Pei Pei the Monkey King, translated by Henry Wei Leung, observes the most recent traumatic political events of the city through the eyes, voice, and bodies of mythical creatures and the childhood languages of fable, superstition and fairy-tale. In the past few months as I’ve been writing my own fiction, I keep returning to this haunting and melancholic interview between her and Tammy Ho Lai-Ming, in which she talks about being an outsider, and, when asked about the history of Hong Kong, replies: “My husband says we are always seen as the worst of both East and West, and never seen for something in ourselves; and I added: that’s why we are infinite. Many don’t see this, and always try to be someone else.”
Xu Xi was one of the very first Hong Kong writers I read and came to know after I moved here from London in my early twenties. I still remember her handing me a copy of “Fifty-Fifty,” an anthology which she edited in 2008, and which introduced me to the writings of Nicholas YB Wong and Tammy Ho Lai-Ming. Over the years, she has boosted the literary scene not only with her incisive writing—which always emphasizes transnational perspectives, globalization, and diaspora—but also in her teachings (RIP to the CityU MFA program) and mentorship of younger writers. Along with Marshall Moore (another writer with a long connection to Hong Kong, and publisher of Signal 8 Press), she published my first ever fiction story in the anthology “The Queen of Statute Square,” the opportunity for which I am forever grateful.
Nicholas YB Wong
I have read many poems by the prolific Nicholas YB Wong, and still my favorite is Postcolonial Zoology, on Hong Kong’s troubled identity and colonial romanticism: “We went to the West, away / from communist coxswains, but were whittled / to sculptures called ‘second-tier citizens’, / second to terriers.” In his poems, he has discussed queerness in Asia, the idea of foreignness and foreign bodies, the transience of being, and intimacy in all its forms. Recently, Wong launched the online literary platform Writing-Plus together with James Shea, which offers access to free learning materials written by writers, translators, and poets on their own works. For example, there is a unit plan on Hong Kong contemporary poetry, which contains four poems by Jennifer Wong and Nicholas YB Wong (including Postcolonial Zoology).
Mary Jean Chan
When I first read Mary Jean Chan’s poem “Flèche,” I remember feeling cut open, like my flesh was slowly being sliced off. There is such precision in her emotive imagery, in her biographical voice; like a whittling knife, she carves away at observation and experience until you can only feel its core. She writes: “At the age of thirteen, I wielded a blade because I had a firm grip, I was in love with Shakespeare, and the school team needed an épéeist. When my mother flew to Linz to watch me go 3–4 down against a former champion, she gripped the railing until her marriage ring was folded into flesh.” Chan’s award-winning debut poetry collection of the same name centers around her career as a fencing athlete, its title a “cross-linguistic pun [that] presents the queer, non-white body as both vulnerable (‘flesh’) and weaponised (‘flèche’), and evokes the difficulties of reconciling one’s need for safety alongside the desire to shed one’s protective armour in order to fully embrace the world.
I have to confess here that I still haven’t gotten to it yet because I am about ten years late with all of my reading. But to show my weird commitment to getting to it at some point: I keep having this dream where I’m going to a bookstore and am trying to find Flèche. (Once, Adrian Tomine told me it was out of stock.)
Tammy Lai-Ming Ho
I certainly couldn’t leave out Tammy Lai-Ming Ho from this list! Tammy is the co-founder of Cha, Hong Kong’s most prominent English-language literary journal, which has published all of the authors on this list and many more over its 13-year run. Tammy herself has published numerous poetry and prose books and is an educator at Baptist University, where she also publishes Voice & Verse, a bilingual journal dedicated to poetry.