Reviews / March 2012 (Issue 16)


Giving Reader Access: Xu Xi's ACCESS: Thirteen Tales

by Michael Tsang


Xu Xi, ACCESS Thirteen Tales, Signal 8 Press, 2011. 214 pgs.

Xu Xi is undoubtedly one of Hong Kong's foremost English language writers, and ACCESS: Thirteen Tales is the latest addition to her impressive oeuvre. Divided into five sections—"Tall Tales," "Circular Tales," "Fairy Tales," "Old Wives' Tales" and "Beastly Tales"—its stories use a wide and varied cast of characters to powerfully explore different notions of desire and access.

The finest stories in the collection—"Famine" and "Lady Day"—offer perfect illustrations of the psychological and emotional intricacies of Xu Xi's work. "Famine" portrays a dutiful daughter's ambivalent thirst for independence from the haunting control of her father. The narrator begins the story with two succinct words, "I escape," and then relates her attempts to shake off her father's presence—first through teaching English (a language unknown to and thus unavailable to her parents), and, after their death, by fleeing to New York and indulging in foreign delicacies. The story draws on a central concern of Chinese culture and family life—eating. Most of the heroine's memories of her father are related to food and eating and thus they are closely linked with her Chinese background within the narrative. The irony of the story, then, is that although the daughter longs for a completely Western emancipation, this escape partly involves indulging herself at Michelin-starred restaurants, a fact which makes the reader wonder if she has really freed herself from her food-filled past.

"Lady Day" relates the tale of a Chinese escort confronted by a careless exposé of her former clients. As the story progresses, the reader learns that the prostitute is an intersexual, a person with a combination of female and male characteristics, and though the events of the story, she is reminded of a desire to seek vengeance on the boys who bulled her at school. By charting out her difficult life, from her unloving father and school bullies to the hardships of prostitution, the story touches on themes of loneliness, trust, integrity and acceptance and showcases the author's range and depth.

Xu Xi often uses sex to challenge social norms, and as with her previous works, such as the 2011 novel Habit of a Foreign Sky, ACCESS is preoccupied with sexuality on the margins of morality and legitimacy. This is particularly evident in the first section of the collection, "Tall Tales." In "Iron Light," for example, the protagonist Ida Ching is reminded of a past affair and is subsequently filled with a desire for casual sex while her lover is out of reach for a day.

In "Iron Light," Xu Xi kick-starts the collection with what she is good at, depicting the love live of a cosmopolitan, financially independent Chinese woman, yet the stories move onto a wide variety of female characters. Xu Xi has described herself as feminist, for example in a recent interview with Time Out Hong Kong, and her writing reveals a concern for women of all social strata. She not only pays attention to career-savvy women with top-tier jobs and those with extravagant material lives (as her previous works have often depicted), but also to women leading difficult existences and struggling to make ends meet. Several stories in ACCESS fit this category. "To Body To Chicken" focuses on a massage girl named Teresa Teng Lai-sin (her name alludes to the Chinese singer Teresa Tang Lai-kwan) and her encounter with a generous American customer whom she calls by his home state, Tennessee. The story addresses the social misconception that a massage girl—massage is the "to body" of the title—is necessarily involved in prostitution—"to chicken" is Cantonese slang for "prostitute." The narrative displays the subtle ripples in Teresa's life—her encounter with Tennessee, the English she learns from lessons and her relationship with her aggrieved father.

The title story, "Access," contains feminist themes but also uses the idea of access to money to explore the inequalities of capitalism. The heroine, Elna, watches her savings explode into an eight-digit sum through internet banking, but is ironically unable to withdraw any of it since she does not have an ATM card. Xu Xi ends the story with this meditation:

Elna thought about all the access denied to her and people everywhere, how so much of it was simply beyond ordinary control. She thought of Mexican cleaning ladies and Filipino domestics, especially illegal ones, all part of that huge, unbelievable mess that was downtown Manhattan, how those victims might never get a cent of the monies donated to all the good causes […] because the real war, the one, true, never-ending war, was right here and also faraway, out of their range of vision, and fought by those who might never, ever, in their wildest imaginings, be able to open a bank account anywhere in the real or virtual world.

This passage can certainly be read in the context of the recent economic crash and Occupy movements, but it also reveals Xu Xi's concern about the effects that unequal access to money has on women in particular. In this collection, her feminism is not only defined by her high-achieving characters, who are the beneficiaries of our economic system, but also by her attention to women from all different walks of life, especially those who face social and economic barriers. She should be applauded for shining a light on women who lead modest lives, but who are nonetheless charming, enchanting and authentic.

Through complicated characters trapped in predicaments with no obvious solutions, the stories in this book probe deeply into what it means to desire and to seek access. But there is also one last way to understand the theme of access in this collection, and that is in terms of the privileged admission readers are granted to explore a world which is much broader and fuller than those found in most short stories. Readers need only take up the book to accept Xu Xi's offer.

 
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