Candid Hong Kong7 min read

Michael Tsang reviews PEN Hong Kong’s anthology Hong Kong 20/20

That Hong Kong finally has its own center of PEN International – the writer’s organization devoted to promoting human rights and freedom of expression – is a promising reflection of the ever-maturing literary scene in the city. And that PEN Hong Kong has managed to put together this star-studded debut anthology, with contributions from a large number of the big names from Hong Kong’s literati, is a testimony to the collective power of the pen. Titled Hong Kong 20/20, this collection of essays, poetry, fiction and even cartoons aims to provide a magnified picture of post-Umbrella Movement Hong Kong, and it does not disappoint.

Instead of facilely celebrating contemporary Hong Kong or being overly hopeful about its future, the anthology offers difficult conversations about the city’s prospects and social progress. Reading through the contributions by famous figures, such as Lau Chun To, Chip Tsao, Tang Siu Wa, Xu Xi and student leader Joshua Wong, one feels a strong sense that post-Umbrella Movement Hong Kong is living through a period of loss and chaos. The works in the collection tackle a wide range of topics, some still controversial, such as barrister Margaret Ng’s reflection on the future of political parties in the city and Marco Wan’s take on LGBTQ rights. Taken together, the works more identify  problems than offer solutions, but this has value in itself because it is a diagnosis of what Hong Kong is going through. In short, negative emotions have significance. As the PEN editorial committee states in their introduction, it is OK to recognize that negative emotions play a part in shaping the quest for a Hong Kong identity “as long as Hong Kong continues its struggle to speak its mind.” Timothy O’Leary makes a similar point when he writes in his essay, “The challenge for all of us in a post-Umbrella Movement Hong Kong is to hold on to both our anger and our love.” This is easier said than done, of course, which is why there’s a need for O’Leary to say it out loud.

Michael O’Sullivan’s essay, “Reflections from a Gweilo on Being Out of the Loop,” addresses the elephant in the room, namely, the language barrier that exists between non-Cantonese-speaking expats and Hong Kong Chinese residents, and the resultant gap in understanding about the city’s situation. The fact that O’Sullivan’s students were eloquent in their socio-political assessment of Hong Kong shows that a lot of what the younger generation are thinking is left uncommunicated not only to the world but even within Hong Kong.

Fortunately, the anthology does not commit the same mistake, thanks to its English translations of Chinese works. The merit of having works originally written in Chinese is that they complement nicely what Anglophone writing often ignores. For example, the first three of Chow Hon Fai’s five poems, translated by Chris Song, are about a small locale in the New Territories. These poems correct the Hong Kong Island focus of much expat writing, and remind us that Hong Kong is not just about cultured urban areas. His poem “A Curious Encounter” is particularly perceptive. Set in “Tin Shui Wai North,” a district with many immigrants from mainland China, the poem will nonetheless resonate with many non-Cantonese-speaking expats:

Two footbridges across intersections are locked in
a tug-of-war. Think of an old friend. Climb up there.
Forget him. Pause. Pray for a string of hints.
The last car streams past beneath. The air up here
chokes and rings in the ears […]
[…] He waves hands and you follow him
down the bridge. One or two cargo trucks. Soles tremble and itch.
Hearing’s back. And his first words—
Your Cantonese sucks. Where the hell are you from?

The rapid rhythm (of life and the poetic lines), the symbolism of the footbridge and the connotation of linguistic identity all could be describing a scene in Central. (Indeed, the deliberate way in which I excerpted the poem suggests that the scene could have been as easily set in Central as in Tin Shui Wai North.) What makes it clear that this is not Central is the fact that the little boy – the “he” in the lines – is one of a group of children chasing after a football, something you don’t often see in the Island’s main business district. But it is also this key difference that suggests an alternative lifestyle to the multiculturalism of Hong Kong Island: later on in the poem, we learn that the boy’s parents often bring him to Shenzhen just across the border in China on weekends, presumably because of family ties or cheaper prices. The inclusion of this activity common to many Hong Kong Chinese subtly reminds us of the different lived experiences of the city’s various social classes.

Probably because hope for the future seems so fragile in Hong Kong these days, the noir and dystopic genre is particularly prominent among the stories in this anthology. Jason Y. Ng’s “Castaway” imagines what happens when an ordinary Hong Kong Chinese resident becomes a modern-day Crusoe, with the suggestive background of a shipwreck on July 1. Kate Whitehead’s story, “The Peak,” is an attempt to show on one hand that an expat growing up in Hong Kong can and should be considered a Hongkonger, and on the other hand to reveal the typical arrogance of aspirant Mainlanders working in the city. The story candidly displays prejudices held by both sides, and the surprise ending does not offer the comfort of an easy a solution. Moreover, despite the Western character’s fluency in Cantonese, there is still a gap between the expat’s experiences and those of the majority of Hong Kong Chinese, and the absence of a major Hong Kong Chinese character may be read as a further dramatization of how communication has completely broken down among the three groups, as no one has the patience or means to listen to the others’ opinions or perspectives.

Perhaps the most disturbing of all the stories is Shen Jian’s “It Was All Wasted,” a dystopic reimagination of the Umbrella Movement in a parallel universe where the Chinese People’s Liberation Army has killed protestors. This crackdown, the ensuing implementation of martial law and the city’s crumbling economy may be what some Mainlanders would have wanted, but for Hongkongers, the story’s terrifying alternative future speaks directly to our collective fears. The story also finds other echoes in real life. For example, the rise of underground armed resistance groups in the story parallels the radical localists’ call to use force to defend police oppression. And the story’s overall pessimism about armed resistance – revealed via a pragmatic and hesitant narrator whose younger brother has joined underground groups – ultimately brings us back to the same question that the localists have been asking: what should then be done apart from waiting with love and peace? The story may use some very obvious allegory, such as the death of the brothers’ father on the day of the 1997 handover, paralleling the departure of British administration, which in a way had “brought up” Hong Kong. But the story’s strength lies in its highlighting the loss of direction in post-Umbrella Movement social activism.

I applaud the many contributors of this volume for being frank about their thoughts and reflections, and for not forcing a contrived sense of hope onto its pages. One cannot be truly optimistic, unless one is first willing to acknowledge their surroundings and confront their own insecurities. ∎

Hong Kong 20/20: Reflections on a Borrowed Place, Blacksmith Books, 2017.
This review was first published in Issue 28 (December 2017) of Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, and is reposted here with permission of the author and publisher.