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.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Travel Travail

The is from today's The Sunday Express.


Paul Theroux doesn’t think highly of travel writers. Their occupation is “one of the laziest ways on earth of passing the time…an elaborate bumming evasion.” They’re fond of “jumping to conclusions, and so most travel books are superfluous.” He’s even more scathing about those who retrace the footsteps of other writers: “opportunistic punks” indulging in a “glib debunking effort for a shallower, younger, impressionable writer”.

Having got that off his chest, he justifies his return to the terrain he wrote about in The Great Railway Bazaar. “Curiosity” and “dreams” are among his compelling reasons. And so, 33 years after he embarked on that expedition at the age of 33, Theroux boards the 12.09 to Paris from Waterloo to find out what’s changed and what hasn’t.

The actions of politicians and warlords meant that returning to Iran and Afghanistan was out; instead, he travels through Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. City squares, streets and bylanes, bars, massage parlours and other dives are the places that he primarily talks about, apart of course from his train journeys, the stations, food and passengers.

Serendipity and the ability to not too take oneself too seriously, those essential companions of the interesting traveller, are largely absent here. Even though it’s clear he hasn’t planned every detail, most of his accounts have the same ring to them. He likes places that haven’t changed all that much, among them Amritsar and Myanmar (the country not the government). He’s scornful about Singapore, heaping pages of criticism on its authoritarianism. He’s illuminating about how the totalitarian regimes of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have turned the lives of citizens into a low farce. And his Vietnam sojourn – among the most moving in the book – reveals that the spirited Vietnamese bear no ill-will towards America; they just want to get on with their lives.

Theroux, of course, has many novels to his credit, and seeks out other writers too. He dines with Orhan Pamuk in enchanting Istanbul, modestly confessing that “he reminded me of myself"; finds Elif Shafak “so beautiful [that] writing seemed irrelevant”; visits an absent-minded Arthur C. Clarke in Colombo; strolls around Tokyo and visits a porn emporium with Haruki Murakami; and gossips about writing, the strangeness of Japan and V.S. Naipaul with Pico Iyer in Kyoto and Nara.

In India, he discovers fresh confidence and optimism – nothing unusual in that – and finds that “everyone talked about the new India but the old India was never very far away”. Nothing revelatory in that either. His trip to the country is full of the contrasts between growth and grime, from the slums of Dharavi to the BPOs of Bangalore. Though he doesn’t break new ground, one sympathises with his reason to move on: an aversion to the “colossal agglomeration of elbowing and contending Indians.”

Towards the end, he experiences an epiphany. “What’s the big difference between then and now? …The greatest difference was in me”. In contrast to his younger self, the 66-year-old Theroux is more comfortable in his own skin, at ease with writing and traveling, with a home he looks forward to returning to. Alas, his conclusion is that the world is shrinking into “a ball of bungled desolation” and if there is hope, it is only to be found in the kindness of strangers. They say travel broadens the mind; perhaps too much travel simply makes it tetchy.

Friday, October 3, 2008

A Situation In New Delhi

This appeared in the latest TimeOut Mumbai.

Tim Parks

With Dreams of Rivers and Seas, Tim Parks takes his novelistic gaze away from decadent Europe and brings us a story of overseas visitors in India. Fortunately, it’s one that’s far more nuanced and complex than Paul Theroux’s recent The Elephanta Suite.

The central -- though absent -- presence here is that of Albert James, a discipline-crossing anthropologist, loosely based on Gregory Bateson. Albert dies of prostate cancer while in New Delhi and, following a phone call from his wife, Helen, their son John arrives from London for the funeral. Also in the mix is journalist Paul Roberts, long-time admirer of Albert, who hopes to persuade Helen to assent to his plan of writing a biography of her late husband. The pas de troix that now ensues is complicated a while later with the arrival of John’s girlfriend, Elaine.

The plot arises organically out of John’s tortured thoughts, Helen’s helpless bravado and Paul’s self-serving curiosity. Parks has a keen eye for Delhi’s crowds, traffic and chaos, efficiently delineating his characters’ complex responses to them. He spins a spider’s web of ideas to do with the commonalities and differences in the ways which we interact and, as such, the novel also deals with more modern modes of communication such as text messages and e-mail.

Grace, despair, patterns of relationships, the inability to recognise one’s ambitions and the strength to endure are what fill these pages. Dreams of Rivers and Seas is at times dense, at times unnecessarily drawn out, at times unnerving – and always absorbing.