Speak My Language8 min read

Hong Kong Voices in Dung Kai-cheung’s Cantonese Love Stories – reviewed by Karen Cheung


The residents of Hong Kong were treated to a range of celebrations in the weeks leading up to the 20th anniversary of the handover last July: road blockages to welcome Chinese President Xi Jinping, a fireworks display blurred by rainstorms, and promises of prosperity amid countless clashes between police and protesters. We had no say in the festivities, just as we had no say in the handover.

Around the same time, Penguins Specials released its inaugural series on Hong Kong, including Dung Kai-cheung’s Cantonese Love Stories: Twenty-Five Vignettes of a City. For a book published in conjunction with the anniversary of the handover, it is devoid of references to it. These stories, written in 1998 and 1999 and newly translated from the Cantonese by Bonnie S. McDougall and Anders Hansson, portray a post-handover lifestyle, but never outrightly acknowledge this. Rather, Dung tells tales of the forgotten, the outliers who do not fit into any grand narrative of the city’s political future.

There is Yuen Hong Kwong, who works at a shop on the idyllic island of Cheung Chau and buys an authentic Bathing Ape shirt to impress Siu Yuen, a girl residing on the island, but their attraction is to doomed to remain unconsummated. There is Peach-pocket Girl, who steals letters from mailboxes. There is Che, a girl in a Che Guevara T-shirt whose boyfriend dies in a gang fight over her. There is Tam Chi Wing, who runs away from her flat in the public housing estate when her parents fight and from school when she forgets to bring her homework, and tries to run away from the rest of the world with her Red Wing shoes.

These characters are reminiscent of Mid Autumn and his two sidekicks in Made in Hong Kong, a film at the centre of the last story in this slim volume. A 1997 low-budget indie that garnered a cult following and later achieved art-house status, Made in Hong Kong returned to the big screens on July 1 this year to mark two decades since the transfer of sovereignty. Although its reputation is as a “handover film,” the movie itself speaks little about the event, working instead through allegory and symbolism. In both the film and Dung’s book, there are no heroes, no happy endings: instead, we are given flawed individuals who harbor unfulfilled desires and quietly accept fate – or die trying. If these are the prevailing sentiments in what we, with the benefit of hindsight, consider to be the city’s best and most representative works in the first years after the handover, it says a lot about how we see the event today.

Despite its lack of a clear historical marker, Dung’s stories still carry a distinctive sense of nostalgia, and for Hong Kong millennials (or “post-90s,” to use the local term) like myself – I was four years old at the time of the handover – its release in English has come just at the right time. Memorabilia from my childhood are scattered across just the titles of the stories: “Agnès B.,” the brand whose bags my secondary school friends and I were willing to starve in order to save up for. “Hello Kitty,” whose face was ubiquitously stamped across our stationery and school bags. “Konjac Jellies,” in all shapes and colors, that we sucked on and traded at recess. “Photo Stickers,” which as teenage girls we made in booths after school to decorate our wallets with photos of ourselves and our loved ones. Stories such as “Pasteis de Nata,” featuring a supernatural connection to Portuguese egg tarts, dust the city with magical realism, but the references always bring me home.

Cantonese Love Stories is infinitely endearing to me, in a way no other English-language book has been before. This should not be a rare occurrence, and yet it is. English is an official language in Hong Kong, but it is also the language of our colonizers, and it remains largely inaccessible to the city’s working class population. In postcolonial Hong Kong, English still belongs to a privileged minority: expats, second generation immigrants, and upper-middle class Chinese who can afford to send their children overseas or to international schools.

Many of Hong Kong’s English-language writers fit into these categories as well. The exceptions – such as poets Tammy Ho, Louise Ho and Nicholas Wong, all of whom are on the bill for this year’s Hong Kong International Literary Festival, at which Dung will speak on Saturday – are far and few between. “I suppose one of the challenges is that you can feel lonely sometimes, as there are not really that many English-language poets and creative writers in Hong Kong,” Tammy Ho recently told Christopher Dewolf, another Penguin Series author. “There are even fewer of them who were born and educated in the city and whose first language is not English. It is not a very big circle.” Perhaps for this reason, Cantonese Love Stories is the only work of fiction in the Penguin series.

For an English reader in Hong Kong like myself, it takes effort to fish through the sludge for work that shakes the soul. Grand yet graceless stories that make overt references to the city’s politics and leave one feeling rather bloated have become trendy, probably because it sells. The working class and the misfits Dung writes about are reduced to stock characters in sob stories, if they are written about at all. It seems the writers have chosen to exercise their powers of imagination rather than observation when it comes to writing about the city and its less-than-privileged inhabitants. These alternate-reality portrayals of Hong Kong rarely do the city justice and often come off to a local reader as more alienating than works that make no such pretense.

Cantonese Love Stories is also the only work in the series that comes from a purely local perspective. The others are written by authors who have been in the city from less than five years to several decades, but Dung has only ever called Hong Kong home. This should not be a benchmark upon which their works are to be judged, nor should it boost or undermine their credibility, and there is value in fresh, outside perspective on the city’s political and cultural scenes. Nevertheless, it is problematic when these voices dominate. As Michael Tsang has argued, “Hong Kong English writing need not discard its marginal perspective, but, first, it need not have a marginal participation, and second, this marginal perspective need not be the only perspective.”

These writers probably didn’t ask for the heavy responsibility of representing Hong Kong on the world stage of literature. But the lack of diversity is not the fault of locals, who are discouraged from writing in their second language in a place that values neither literature nor the English language. So what are we to do? Ideally, the city should create an environment for local writers to grow and flourish. But in the meantime, translation can bring native Hong Kong voices to the world.

Dung had worked with both translators before, on Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City (reviewed in LARB in 2013). The result is diction that stays faithful to the locality: rather than employing British or Americanized English, the prose speaks to a Hong Kong audience. There have been no attempts to give the characters English names, despite the confusion it may cause a non-Cantonese reader. The translators have kept terms like “Hawker Control Teams” (officers that govern street hawkers), “O Camp” (university orientation camps), the “MTR” (the subway system), “tea cafes” (cha chaan teng) and “public housing estates”, as well as pop culture references, such as the once hugely popular television series Healing Hands. This approach to translation means that even though the stories are now presented in English, the core of its intended audience remains Hong Kong readers, despite its ability to reach a wider population. These stories speak my language, tell my story, and are written and translated for me. I have never felt this way about any other existing English-language work of fiction.

Last year, it was not in Hong Kong but at San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore that I first picked up a copy of Hong Kong poet Xi Xi’s poetry collection Not Written Words, in parallel text with translation by Jennifer Feeley. These translations can project our voices in world literature and address the uncomfortable problem of representation. As Peter Gordon writes in his review of Dung’s book for the Asian Review of Books, “translated Hong Kong Chinese literature remains all too uncommon.” It’s time for that to change. ∎


Dung Kai-cheung, Cantonese Love Stories: Twenty-Five Vignettes of a City (Penguin, October 2017).
See Dung in conversation at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival on Saturday.