On the "Hong Kong" Poetry Contest Winners
by Jason Eng Hun Lee
Before diving into my comments on the finalists’ poems, I want to make a few observations on the submissions we received from the entrants as a whole. As the theme was tied so directly to a single locale, this was a great opportunity for us at Cha
to take stock of the creative pulse of Hongkongers at what appears to be another critical period for the city. The growing dissatisfaction that many people feel about the political status quo, continuing cross-border tensions, the worsening economic disparity, the struggle to retain a sense of place amid the general placelessness of the city’s streets – all these were in some way referenced in the poems that we received.
Aside from these creative and critical responses to the city’s problems, there was also an impressive range of poetic styles that displayed plenty of gusto, sentiment, risk and experimentation. Certainly, what characterised many of the poems was a sense of the ‘now’, and the tone in these entries was by turns urgent, indignant, sometimes bombastic, sometimes preachy, yet nevertheless tinged with an earnest, almost surprising affection for the city. It was heartening to listen to many of our newer, younger voices, and in fact several of these only just missed the final cut as their poems contained just a clumsy expression here or a puzzling shift in focus there. Nevertheless, I am hopeful that the potential we have seen in these poems will bear fruit sooner rather than later, and I would urge many of these poets to continue honing their craft and to send us more of their work in the future.
The poems that were chosen by and large tended to have a formal compactness to them, with strong conceptual frames and well-timed interjections or a nifty turn of phrase. Whether they presented a vision beyond the ordinary, extending our imaginary vista of the city, or whether they dove deep into the social milieu of Hong Kong, these poems all added a layer of depth and insight that served as a reward for the careful and persistent reader. Ultimately, it was these qualities that gave the following poems an edge on the rest, making the judges’ work all the more satisfying for having read them over and over again. First Prize: Hong Kong
This poem won for a whole myriad of reasons. Stylistically, it’s very strong, with tight structure and form, excellent pacing and subtle shifts in cadence, but what impressed me most was its conceptual treatment of nature and the way it defies the clichés that so many writers have about Hong Kong as an urban wasteland. We are given two alternating voices, pitting the mundane against the beautiful in a battle of images, where “traffic fumes join the stench of wet-market fish / While pink orchids tempt us with their light fragrance”. These disconnections become more seamless as the two fuse together in a unity of opposites, with the “sea of businessmen” and the “population of trees” blurring this earlier distinction between nature and the city. In the end, it was this efficacy of nature, ever-present in the final line with the growing realization that both it and the persona had “never even left in the first place”, which made this poem such a pleasure to read from beginning to end. [Read "Hong Kong" here.
Second Prize: Sunset, Kowloon
This was another poem that added another figurative dimension to the city. Here, Hong Kong’s vanishing harbour is reimagined as the River Styx, where a ticket to Kowloon costs “little more than a dollar an eye” and the reference to the Evening Star ferry recalls those magnificent opening lines of Tennyson’s own final journey in ‘Crossing the Bar’: ‘Sunset and evening star / And one clear call for me’. The poem is replete with more images of death, from “the wakes of barges” to the persona’s insistence on fixing his gaze “firmly on the terminal ahead”, and these references infuse the harbor-front scene with something more than just the habitual ‘touristic’ gaze, bedecked as it is with gorgeous imagery, like the skyscrapers “grown upwards like crystals / in waterglass”. That the poet borrows from Turner speaks to us not only of the limitless potential of the artistic imagination; it also allows him to add his own palette of images to repaint an otherwise dreary scene into something magical and transcendent. [Read "Sunset Kowloon" here.
Third Prize: Close Quarters, 1962
It’s the treatment of space combined with the subtle erotic references and ensuing frustrations that earn this poem a spot in the top three. That the denizens of this piece “choose to live on top / of each other” signals both proximity and alienation, a sentiment doubtlessly shared by many urban dwellers. Combined with the projection of the persona, who is “paralyzed with desire”, and the addressee who lamentably is “not bitten once”, this poem refers both to the cramped environs of Hong Kong, and the lonely residents who occupy these “narrow spaces”, perpetually unable to “say the unspeakable”. [Read "Close Quarters, 1962" here.
Highly Recommended: Advice
There is some affectionate but irony-laden banter in this monologue, which critiques the mannerisms and bureaucratic-speak of late colonial Hong Kong where “thinking out of the lunch-box / is not encouraged”. The tone is eloquent and weighty in all the right places, and the humorous take on cultural relativity and lack of social finesse at the end contributes to its light-hearted message, all of which leads us to one final question – to slurp or not to slurp? [Read "Advice" here.
] Highly Recommended: Forgotten Gold
Our final recommended poem returns us to the streets where there is an intricate play on sounds and word order, but also a eulogy for those unfortunate souls who continue to live bric-a-brac lives in this, the most unforgiving of cities. These constant juxtapositions add an element of the extra-ordinary, whether it be in the “treasures of obsolescence”, the “lost things and things lost”, or the most powerful line of them all, the malaise and frustration that’s released when our unfortunate hero encounters that “familiar, familiar nothing”. Like all good poems that attempt to raise our social conscience, it stops short of making a direct call to action, and instead leaves the reader to ponder on their own empathic responses when they encounter Hong Kong’s very own ‘forgotten gold’. [Read "Forgotten Gold" here.