Essays / December 2017 (Issue 38: Writing Hong Kong)

Hong Kong Has A Poetic Future

by Brian Ng

Nicholas Wong, one of the best Hong Kong English-language poets working, is starting to suspect that "poetry is not Hong Kong's genre after all." "I believe that this medium will fade out in maybe twenty or thirty years; perhaps no one will write in English anymore … Its value will be how it records the earliest days of Hong Kong when Anglophone writing first entered the city, till when it disappears." Crushed by the political impasse in Hong Kong since the events of the Umbrella Movement, Wong remarks on his creative slump: "The energy of the city has changed … the subject has overridden the entire city—it's shattered it."

The setbacks on creating a viable political resistance in Hong Kong are no cause for resignation but provide an opportunity for Hong Kong poets to imagine a new aesthetic. I argue how leveraging the complex specifics of Hong Kong's political situation, rather than excluding those not in its public, can create insightful, unstable categories of transnational solidarity. The pronouncement of the death of Hong Kong Anglophone poetry dismisses the work of a new generation of poets—including Henry W. Leung and Mary Jean Chan. We are witnessing the beginning of a conversation, not its end.


Writing is work, and publication is an industry. Identity—whether by race, gender and sexual orientation or geographical locale—marks the division of rewards for its stakeholders. The end of last century in Anglophone literature has been marked by the recovery of marginalised identities. There is no shortage of East-Asian American poets who articulate the silences that mark transnational and interracial experience: like Monica Youn, Cathy Park Hong, Jane Wong and Jenny Zhang. Wong makes no bones about exploring a Hong Kong gay identity, with poems that probe the hysterical and grave tribulations of queer bodies in a patriarchal society.

However, the market's reductive reading of poets' subjectivities by their labels, and not their content, is also an irresponsible form of criticism. Rather than recover narratives from the margin, this style of representation politics forcibly typifies subjects into visibly performing their category. The notion that poets are competing with each other for places of thought leadership is pure capitalist paranoia; rather, writers should be translating and addressing each other. That people aren't reading Hong Kong poetry for the auspices of "having checked the box of reading Hong Kong poetry" is a terrible reason for us to stop writing as Hong Kong poets. It should make us rethink what and who Hong Kong poets speak for.

The political strength of Hong Kong poetry often lies in not who the poet is, but who the poet could not be—that determines, seductively, what the poet could become. Henry W. Leung's "Disobedience," written on the events of the Umbrella Movement, is an example of this. The subject begins literally as an emptying, nameless vessel:

I myself have been here:
been a hollowing throng of sweat
hoping for a name

Yet the subject emphasises its distinction from others, by a reflexive pronoun—"I myself." It is witnessing the beginning of another recurrence ("have been here,") already ashamed of its reluctance:

or blessing, been among
the lonely
solidaire offstage
banking on a harbor breeze;

With "lonely / solidaire" we encounter the paradox of public protest—protest activism transforms the individual into a part of a crowd, albeit not fully ("lonely"), in order to reach towards a public ("solidaire"). The verb, "bank," explodes. First it implies the noun "waterbank," setting the scene adjacent to a harbour, then the phrasal verb "banking on," which means both to "rely on" and to "finance." The undertones of the latter imply the insinuations of financial investiture; are the unnamed people commodities? Or perhaps impoverished agents, awaiting a "breeze" to muster their political convictions, to instantiate their desires as social change?

The tension between these lines rests on the poetics of disappointment: that one cannot be the political actor one wishes to be, that a movement with such moving potential and civility could receive a merciless clampdown. Leung, though he participated in the Umbrella Movement, was not born and raised in Hong Kong; neither was Wordsworth as he wrote on the French Revolution or Byron on the Greek war of independence. But the idea of their romantic finitude, or the fantasy of a re-enchantment of the world, can't sincerely exist in Hong Kong: there has never been a period of godly enchantment to return to.

The uniquely Hong Kong character of the poem is not just made of the lines of specific reference—the "blank votes" counted, the "cell phone lights," the joke about being "more than shopping"—but the poem's relationship with political despair and reluctance. Leung's prayers for "forgiveness" work with relative ingenuity because they move within a nascent political awakening, where it is moral and timely to plumb the roots of our disobedience, the "foreign question: what is / a freedom when divorced from / from?"

Leung deals with our political ambivalence, where many on the side of opposition negotiate between those opinions and the exigencies of them damaging our professional and personal lives. Leung does not employ the melodrama of victimhood. (Leung and Wong's work, more broadly, deal with their failure to meet patriarchal obligations with both transgressive, cynical provocation and genuine tenderness in their midst. Just read their titles: Leung's "Disobedience," Wong's "Seeking Parental Guidance of Absence.") The setting of Hong Kong allows for Leung to route outside the genres of litany and complaint, address his moral responsibilities and articulates his political subjectivity.

Still, it is unclear who Hong Kong political poets are writing for. Who is the intended public for poems that relate to local events and cultures, when locals do not speak its language as their first, and non-local readers couldn't care less about the events presented? What political power do these poems hold when they, neutered by a language barrier, cannot disseminate resistance akin to samizdat? Which tradition does Hong Kong poetry live in? Is it courageous to wax on about liberalism with colonial overtones to the small audience who is already on your side, to a government that implicitly considers your audience too small to censor?


Returning to Wong: "I think the label of 'Hong Kong' writer or poet isn't just a geographical indication," Wong says on the fetish for authenticity in Hong Kong poets. "I think it's that on some level, this location has to have given you the nutrients [for writing]." Let's take this manifesto even further—what if Hong Kong were "anonymous," signifying nothing; to steal John Ashbery's phrase about New York, "a logarithm of other cities"? What happens if we embrace the transience of Hong Kong's populace; the shifting, makeshift faux-sovereignty of "one country, two systems"? How can we talk about sovereignty and civic intimacy sincerely, in a city where the strength of Chinese belonging has plummeted to the lowest in decades? Can we think of Hong Kong as not a locale of belonging, but a constellation of many migrations?

We should reimagine Hong Kong English, not necessarily even as a diminutive pidgin, a colonial residue, or even a hybrid dialect, but as a flow of codes fitting between power structures. In a moment of Mary Jean Chan's "How It Must Be Said," she switches between tabs to Google "shakespeare" and "homoeroticism": "My desires dressed themselves in a hurry of English to avoid my mother's gaze." What we assume to be a dominant, colonial voice, English—a lingua franca, the language of commerce and liquid capital—becomes a shibboleth, a rope for escape, a queer tryst. Elsewhere, poets like Mary Jean Chan and Louise Ho have interpolated Chinese characters and Cantonese into formal forms to destabilise the poem's frame of reference.

Much more than the binary exhibitionist talk of "East meets West," or the dripping nostalgia of photographs of junks, Hong Kong is a venue where intercultural, commercial contact is so profuse that it is goes by almost unremarked. That is an opportunity for us to act as cultural translators, magpies and interlopers. The Umbrella Movement was itself inspired by the Sunflower Student Movement in Taiwan and even borrowed a chant from the protests at Ferguson. The International Poetry Festival has brought the spotlight on writers in translation and recognition for Hong Kong poets. Jennifer Feeley's translations of experimental Hong Kong poet Xi Xi won the 2017 Lucien Stryk Asian Translation Prize, recovering a pop idiom conversant with sparkling linguistic spareness.

It is clear that in the interview, Nicholas Wong is not coming from an attitude of dismissal, but frustration. "The Hong Kong mass seems to be more perceptive towards paragraphs. They don't want to spend a lot of time to digest a passage." Yet this is poetry's work: more than other traditions in text, poetry makes us conscious about form, voice and metre. It slows down our experience of time. It directs us from the material into the spiritual labour of understanding who we are and what we should do. We need poetries that answer to our political and social conditions for us to discuss and translate.

A reimagination of Hong Kong without "Hong Kongness" isn't at all the erasure of our identities and lives, or a call to write only about bold generalities. Instead, it invokes a sense of self-discovery: to slow and quicken the pace of consciousness, to recover our selfhood from being drowned by capital. We are poised to address such a difficulty.


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