Reviews / March 2016 (Issue 31)

A Hong Kong Poetic Modernity: Eight Hong Kong Poets

by Michael Tsang


David McKirdy and Peter Gordon (editors), Eight Hong Kong Poets, Chameleon Press, 2015. 136 pgs.


In 1993, the now defunct Big Weather Press published a pioneering poetry collection called VS.: 12 Hong Kong Poets. The collection features Louise Ho, the grande dame of Hong Kong poetry; Gordon T. Osing, a translator of the late Leung Ping-kwan and Andrew Parkin, former Chair of English at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. Its forward documents the editors' painstaking and lonely efforts to uncover the city's hidden poets, at one point lamenting that "few of the poems actually take Hong Kong as their central theme."

In the two decades since the publication of that collection, Hong Kong's English poetry community has undergone an astonishing development—Eight Hong Kong Poets is a testimony to this evolution. The community now boasts sustainable press houses, popular reading events and a more coordinated network of writers. The poets featured in Eight Hong Kong Poets reflect the vibrancy of this community: Leung Ping-kwan, often described as the Poet Laureate of Hong Kong, was a key promoter and teacher of literature, a mantel which has been taken up by Shirley Geok-lin Lim, Tammy Ho, Timothy Kaiser and Eddie Tay; David McKirdy and Jennifer Wong have both published collections and Sarah Howe's beautifully crafted debut, Loop of Jade, has just won the prestigious T.S. Eliot Poetry Prize. We should, however, remember that this anthology only has room to present eight of the best Hong Kong poets, and there are many others who would have been worthy of inclusion such as Nicholas Wong, Kit Fan, Agnes Lam and Arthur Leung.

Unlike VS., Eight Hong Kong Poets is not only a showcase of poetic talents from or in Hong Kong, but a collection that portrays a poetic modernity that offers insights into different aspects of life in the city. For instance, Leung Ping-kwan's Wanchai, with its decrepit buildings, evokes a metropolitanism that reincarnates the glamorous encounters between western sailors and elegant-looking Chinese women from Hong Kong's colonial history ("Wanchai"). Timothy Kaiser's Wanchai, on the other hand, provides an interesting contemporary view of the city's red light district: beautiful women in cheongsam become rentgirls whose job "is to ignore the bald spot / and accept everything including American Express." The theme of worldly decadence perpetuates the poem:

when backpackers and American sailors feign broken antennae
a drunken businessman
the world his urinal
tries to do up his belt
beside a beggar
limbs swallowed by sidewalk
neither of them notice
the black moths nibbling at their fabric. ("Still Life: Wan Chai At Night")

The collection also reveals the dilemmas that Hong Kong presents for its residents. In "Languages," Tammy Ho explores the nuances of the city's polyglossia, particularly the hypocritical relation between perceived social class and the linguistic capital of English proficiency (especially as it relates to one's accent). Eddie Tay, in his selection, the most consistent out of the eight, contemplates how the poet balances parenting, language, culture and creative writing in this capitalist city, this cauldron of concrete. The speaker's children in "Letter to My Baby Daughter Born in Hong Kong" are conditioned to accept MTR, the acronym for Hong Kong's subway, as correct and thus find the name of his home metro system, Singapore's MRT, reversed. For the speaker, this simple inversion represents the loss of his daughter's Singaporean roots to the local realities of Hong Kong.

Other poets in the collection also explore how the flow of people to and from the city affects language. For example, we see how David McKirdy, an expat who has lived in Hong Kong for most of his life, communicates with a five-year-old boy in Cantonese ("Homecoming"), but also how the British-Chinese Sarah Howe, who was born in Hong Kong but grew up largely in the UK, recalls that the only thing she can do in Cantonese is count ("Crossing from Guangdong").

The speakers in these two poems express complicated attitudes about the idea of home and birthplace. For McKirdy's speaker, Hong Kong is home while the land of his birth is not, but he still admits, after being asked by the little boy, that he is a "foreigner" with an "inscrutable Western smile" because he was not Hong Kong-born, reflecting also a categorical presumption of ethnicity on the part of most Hongkongers. But his connection to his birthplace has not been fully erased as he expresses the routineness of his parents' funeral: "rituals performed, eulogy delivered / orphaned and pensive." Howe's poetic persona, on the other hand, seems actively engaged in a search for her roots, saying "Something sets us looking for a place. / Old stories tell that if we could only / get there, all distances would be erased." She travels to a "fragrant city," i.e. Hong Kong, "looking for a familiar face." This trip mirrors her mother's own journey from China to Hong Kong after the establishment of the PRC. In the poem, Howe expresses the ambivalence and uneasiness she feels about her journey by giving the reader a rich and extended description of her experiences in China and of crossing the China-Hong Kong border, the time required to read the passage emulating the persona's own anxiety.

In the same poem, Howe expands on the issues of legacy and inheritance, especially across generations. She imagines her mother's childhood in 1950s Hong Kong and juxtaposes this with the recollection of the more contemporary Hong Kong that she herself grew up in:

I try to imagine you as a girl –
a street of four-storey plaster buildings,
carved wooden doors, weathered, almost shrines
[…] half-finished bowls
of rice, the ivory Mah Jong tablets
clacking, like joints, swift and mechanical,
shrill cries – ay-yah! Fah! – late into the night.
from the Mid-Levels flat where I grew up,
set in the bamboo grove – from the kumquat-
lined windows on the twenty-fifth floor
tinted to bear the condensation's glare […]

Instead of showing the convergence of lineage, the lines quoted above show a divergence of experiences brought on by the city's rapid transformation. At the end of the poem, the speaker realises that as she successfully reaches (and returns to) Hong Kong, her mother is no longer there to help her connect the past and present—an inheritance unfulfilled.

Jennifer Wong's speaker in "Mother and Child" is luckier by comparison, as she fondly recollects her mother's love and wisdom shown in the moments they spent together, expressed in Wong's characteristically pithy and honest style. The last two stanzas—

And that first time I stood on the swing,
facing the wind, flying forward,
seeing the world with your help,

leaving but not leaving you.

—suggest a much stronger mother-daughter bond than the one in Howe's poem, and reminds us that the younger generation often enjoys broader opportunities thanks to the efforts of the previous generation.

What these poems show is that as Hong Kong transforms, each generation experiences the city and the world differently. Perhaps, then, modernity should also entail an element of looking forward. This sentiment is enunciated in Shirley Geok-lin Lim's two poems on the 2014 Umbrella Movement. "The Children's Movement" records the epiphanic moment when Hong Kong realises that it can no longer believe the platitudes of its imperial, uncaring parents, and must begin to stand up for its own future, claiming that sometimes "Love is disobedience, disobedience love." "Hong Kong in Black: Festival Walk," originally published in Cha, celebrates the unified subjectivity of a "Hong Kong born-again" and the beauty of the ordinary within the extraordinary—a people who sacrifice their time off work and school to brace against "canisters, batons, bullets." Hong Kong's post-handover challenges provide new inspiration for Hong Kong writers, and Lim and so many others have shown that they are not afraid to confront them in their works.

It is with this sense of the future that I end this review. When one considers the breadth and depth of the works offered in Eight Hong Kong Poets and realises what a long way we have come from VS.: Hong Kong Poets, one has reason to look forward to an even more vibrant and well-rounded English poetry scene in the city.

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