EVENESCENT ISLES: FROM MY CITY VILLAGE Xu Xi
Commerce and commingling, then, have been part of this settlement on the
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
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
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
It is to the conundrum of a writer’s existence in
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
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
Though there is much sincerity in the depiction of this struggle to come to terms with what the city of
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
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
It was of first century
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
It could well be, on the other hand, that the future of writing in