by Michael Tsang
Tammy Ho Lai-ming, Hula Hooping, Chameleon Press, 2015. 108 pgs.
The first half of 2015 has been an exciting time for the English literary scene in Hong Kong, as it has seen the publication of two poetry collections by key members of the writing community: Tammy Ho Lai-Ming's Hula Hooping and Nicholas Wong's Crevasse (also reviewed in this issue of Cha). Hula Hooping, which took fifteen years to brew according to the blurb on the cover, is the long-awaited debut from Cha's co-founder.
A voice that takes fifteen years to hone provides a unique and consistent poetics. The strength of Ho's poetry lies in her skill in regarding and contemplating the world around her. She often seeks to be descriptive with her lines; sometimes a long line will contain a tightly packed image (here one feels the influence of Hong Kong's unnoffical poet laureate, Louise Ho). Only a handful of Tammy Ho's poems consist of a single stanza; most have several of varying lengths, and some works come in multiple sections. A single stanza often carries one perspective or point of view, and finally they are stitched together into a story. A poem for Ho is thus the mingling ground where perspectives clash and echo with each other. Each of her poems, not just those in the section "Story Poems," contains a narrative, the foundational element in Ho's poetry.
Hula Hooping is a relatively long collection, and it could potentially do with fewer sections so as to let readers work out the categories themselves. However, this does not tarnish the essence of Ho's poetic style, one which is shaped by the architecture of her works. Hers is a very well-rounded kind of poetry, and so it is perhaps no coincidence that Ho chooses a Chinese-style circular doorknob—obviously a variation of the hoop in the title—as the cover image to the collection. Once you flip open the pages—akin to opening the door on the cover—you experience Ho's world through her powers of meticulous observation. This sense of observation allows her speaker(s) to have a thorough and rich knowledge of herself and others. The very long and dense envoi, "Hula hooping," is a perfect closer to the collection and best demonstrates the spirit of the book. It was undoudtedly a tedious exercise to write and can be an exhausting piece to read, as the speaker herself admits in the last stanza/paragraph. But, as the piece seems to suggest, the more one hula hoops, the more one spins out knowledge and perspectives of oneself, the rounder and wiser one becomes.
The concept of roundness is the key to understanding the title of the collection. More than just a childhood activity, hula hooping evokes a spirited attempt to conjure smooth circles around oneself—circles not of self-protection, but of understanding, of inclusiveness. The speaker in "Hula hooping," incidentally, likes the letter "O." O for openness, of an all-encompassing kind.
Constantly reflecting on herself and the happenings around her, Ho's poetic persona is like an unpretentious, bardic flaneuse who sings her own stories, as well as her interpretations of other people's lives. Consider, for example, the opening poem of the collection:
Like her mother before her, she used
the scissors to cut food into small pieces.
Toothless, gums eroded like seaside rocks,
eating was not enjoyed, only endured.
She never learnt Cantonese, despite
living in Hong Kong most her life.
She held the belief that Hakka, if uttered slowly,
would be universally understood.
Her eldest granddaughter, I was the one
for whom nothing was misunderstood.
In the last week, she gave me her scissors,
and reminded me that I'd too one day be toothless. ("Tiny scissors")
Despite being in the "Family affairs" section, the poem foreshadows many issues explored in the rest of the book, such as the possibility or failure of understanding through or not through language. But the grandmother's inability to make herself understood is a double bind: not only is she toothless and hence unable to pronounce clearly, but she also does not speak Cantonese, the predominant oral language of Hong Kong. It is perhaps miraculous that the granddaughter understands her granddaughter so well, but one also feels as if the speaker seeks to speak and be understood as much as possible through the global language of English, lest one day she too becomes toothless, or loses the means to express herself.
While the speaker is largely non-judgmental, she does become sassy when different perspectives are in conflict, but even then, the ascerbic, pointed remarks are glossed with the occasional disarming rhyme:
You took from me your little death;
then buttoned your jeans, caught your breath.
Stale sandwiches, bad coffee at the terminal.
I drank the carafe of tears
you left on the café table.
I'm not worth a river. I'm only rental.
I dream a little death too.
Part of my heart belongs to you.
Your death is temporary, plebeian.
Mine is self-inflicted, permanent.
It left a brown scar. ("Post mortem")
The seesaw dissing between "you" and "I," combined with the caesura and playful rhymes, convey the impression that a sly tango is taking place.
The last major section includes poems on China, elsewhere and Hong Kong. In the poems on Hong Kong, Ho applies her talent for observation to the social context in which she grew up. Take, for example, the poems "269C" and "Tin Shui Wai," two of my favourites. The former refers to a bus journey between Tin Shui Wai, a marginal town in the northwest New Territories, and urban Kowloon, whereas the latter describes daily life in the same town. Both use short stanzas to juxtapose snapshots of passengers or people in the district:
The woman in front of me
divides her ride into units –
one spent curling the eyelashes,
one colouring the lips,
two obsessively combing the hair
and the last one, messing it up again,
pretending to set it free.
Getting off the bus, I see an old woman
squatting beside a slowly growing pile
of newspapers, given to her by commuters.
She can sell them for a few dollars. ("269C")
Divorced women on the bus talk
about taking whole-day bus rides
to while away time and how it's better
than being alone at home, facing four walls. ("Tin Shui Wai")
The motif of the bus journey connects and contrasts the woman who puts on make-up, perhaps on her way to work, the lonely divorcée and the old woman who sells newspapers for a living, highlighting the multi-faceted exploitations of Hong Kong's efficient, pragmatic and suffocating way of life. Poet Shirley Lim praises the collection as "unapologetically socially engaged." What does this mean? I think that poems like "269C" and "Tin Shui Wai" are the answers, because they gesture towards the new towns of the New Territories, which have been largely ignored in Hong Kong's English language writing so far. Ho reminds us through her writing about the reality of those who are often neglected in mainstream multicultural and metropolitan impressions of Hong Kong.
Ultimately, at the heart of this inclusivity and roundedness is a particular kind of cosmopolitanism that wants to include everyone, to acknowledge every view. The poem "To see the world" opens with a dilemma: "If you had to choose / between travelling around the world in one day / and waiting for the train with me for five minutes, / which would you choose?" We are given the choice of an epic journey on the one hand, and an intimate moment of departure on the other. But it ends by pointing out that the question is false, for waiting together "can still the world / in an eternity of nanoseconds," and "if you are bored of this compressed lifetime, / another one is pressing down the track." The world awaits, the time to leave will come, but for a brief while at least, the world consists only of the speaker, her friend and their bond of friendship. Ho clearly sees the beauty in all things, people and moments, and this beauty—in which the personal takes in the whole world—is what she celebrates in her poetry.