Friday, October 31, 2008

Suzy Wong Doesn't Live Here Anymore

This appeared in the Sept-Oct issue of Biblio.


Hong Kong is an outcome of the law of unintended consequences. This once-humble trading port fell into the hands of the British in 1842 as one of the fallouts of the First Opium War, and then served as an entrepot of their empire in the east before, of course, being handed back to the Chinese People’s Republic in 1997.

Commerce and commingling, then, have been part of this settlement on the Pearl River delta from the start, and continue to shape its growth. The mash-up of mainland Chinese, Caucasian, South-east Asian and “Hong Kong Chinese” cultures lends to the city a distinctive, frenetic sensibility. You can see it on the faces of passengers on the Star Ferry criss-crossing the harbour; in the meretricious neon signs on Nathan Road; in the gyrations of Canto-pop stars on music channels; on the flashy boutiques in Causeway Bay; and in the packed skyscraper elevators carrying employees towards their offices in Central.

It’s Hong Kong’s film-makers who have been the most visibly inspired by this feverish ethos of one of the world’s most thickly-populated places – with John Woo and Wong Kar Wai being two obvious examples. Local writers have had a harder time of it: their thunder has been stolen by writers from mainland China, either in English or in translation, with those such as Ha Jin and Gao Xingjian, for example, gaining readers across the world.

The character of the city itself seems ill-suited to the creation of literature, with financial indices being more willingly pored over than novels. In addition, the multi-ethnic nature of the region, with its diverse languages, makes it daunting for one voice to represent the particolored jigsaw city of the present. Long gone are the comfortable certainties that gave Dickens, Proust and Joyce the confidence to create fictional and complete versions of London, Paris and Dublin, respectively.

As the peripatetic Indonesian-Chinese author Xu Xi, who claims kinship with the community of Hongkongers, wrote in an introduction to an anthology of Hong Kong writing, “We in Hong Kong exist in such a perpetually tense present of frenzy that the idea of ‘racing’ to tell any kind of Hong Kong story, especially in English, seems like an unnecessary effort. It isn’t profitable, which our culture instinctively abhors, and does not seem to suit the international buyer’s market that prefers the musings of those who write ‘real’ English, an added burden indeed for the hapless writer.”

It is to the conundrum of a writer’s existence in Hong Kong that Xu Xi returns in Evanescent Isles: from my City Village, a slim volume of loosely-linked essays that speaks of her growing years, her struggles to be a writer and her perception of the city’s volatile character. In this context, however, the use of the word ‘evanescent’ is perplexing, with its associations of being fleeting and not always perceptible. As Xu Xi’s essays show, the reality is that the city is an all-too-solid though chameleonic jumble.

Of the origins of these musings, she writes: “…I began wandering through my life in this, my birth city. It seemed at first an aimless journey though memory, supplemented by present-day conversations about Hong Kong, provoked by the stimuli offered by the city’s writing, art, performances, photography, films, as well as by the minutiae of day-to-day living.” The rest of the book is true to this observation, with passages inspired by her walks and journeys through the city and the memories they provoke, her meetings with friends and relatives and her eavesdropping on strangers’ conversations on board buses and trams.

It’s clearly a city that is close to her heart; in one passage, she reflects on its inevitable “glocalisation”: “[A]s I meander from Sai Wan Ho at the eastern side of Hong Kong island to Mei Foo Sun Cheun in northwest Kowloon peninsula, or from Siu Hong in the far west of the New Territories, [I find] there is a 7-11 or K-Mart convenience store in every district, a Giordano or Bossini clothing retail outlet in every shopping mall, a Wing Wah or St Honore cake shop in every MTR or KCR station. You need never leave your district to experience a Hong Kong that is much like the one an hour’s journey away, even on the small outlying islands of Peng Chau, Lamma or Cheung Chau.”

With a structure like that, chronology is the first thing to be tossed out of the way, and in these pages, she ranges from past to present to near-present with sometimes-confusing agility. For this writer, “chronological exactitude is an unnecessary hobgoblin in the telling of tales”. Thus, she ranges over her family background, from rich to shabby-genteel, her relationship with parents, her teen obsession with American culture, one she never entirely grew out of, her memories of the teacher who awoke in her a love for literature, her first forays into writing, her two divorces, her experiences staying alone in Hong Kong, and more.

Though there is much sincerity in the depiction of this struggle to come to terms with what the city of Hong Kong means to her, there are also many occasions when a generalizing naiveté comes to the fore. “All we humans can do is touch each other a moment and move on, across this strange globe of ours, trusting in dreams and desire, placing faith in the fiction that shapes our lives,” she says at one point, and then in another: “Literature is a passion that must somehow find a voice”. No argument there.

In one of the more light-hearted essays, she attempts to provide a glossary of Hong Kong English, in the manner of Ambrose Bierce’s dictionary for 19th century America. Unfortunately, Xu Xi’s version is less funny, if as acerbic. “Freedom of speech” is defined here, for example, as “What the local media claims it has”, and “Tiananmen” is “a large public square in Beijing where the Olympic torch will blaze and which was the site of some historical incidents, we forget what”.

She is also scathing about questions of identity, with the contrasting pulls of the colonial past and the “one-country-two-systems” of the present day. In an unwitting echo of Amartya Sen’s more polished line of reasoning in The Argumentative Indian, she writes: “How hypocritical, this nationalized concern over identity! There is an archaic definition of the word to mean an ‘individual or real existence’. How refreshing to think that identity could be linked instead to the idea of existence. I exist in this space called Hong Kong from which I consequently derive an identity. Of course, if I happen to be Cantonese or Shanghainese or some other kind of Chinese, or perhaps not even ethnically Chinese at all, but if I happen to exist here, this space will certainly lay some claim on me. To limit identity to a political or national construct, or to demand that it be a choice certifying loyalty to the nation seems unbearably sad. Identity emerges from who we feel we are, who we have evolved to become over time, and is larger than mere nationality or political bias.”

It was of first century Rome that Juvenal famously commented that “everything now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses”. All these centuries later, Xu Xi’s comments on her city’s “Disney democracy” remind us of just how little has changed: “[It] was good enough because even when the economy tanked, bird flu invaded, S.A.R.S. terrorized and little changes insinuated their way into the world…life was and still is about fun, fun, fun.”

This, of course, can also be read as a reprise of her earlier observations on the comparative lack of works of literary merit. In another essay, Xu Xi cites three reasons for the absence of a thriving literary culture: it doesn’t pay the bills; it won’t change anything; and, importantly, “our parents won’t let us”. Asian values, anyone?

Though her criticism is clearly born out of affection, there does seem to be grounds for hope. Such seeds are to be found in literary magazines such as The Asia Literary Review, in the efforts of local publishing houses, in seminars, classes and publications by the Hong Kong academy, and, of course, in events such as the prestigious Man Hong Kong International Literary Festival that seems to attract more writers from across the world every year.

It could well be, on the other hand, that the future of writing in Hong Kong lies more in the newsroom than in the ivory tower. On the horizon could appear an Eastern version of Tom Wolfe’s brand of new journalism, an exuberant, vivid style of social realism capturing voices and attitudes across the archipelago and demonstrating that the city is no longer is the world of Suzy Wongs, noble houses and honourable schoolboys, and never quite was.

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