by Eddie Tay
Xu Xi, Evanescent Isles: from my City-Village, Hong Kong University Press, 2008. 115 pgs.
Evanescent Isles is a work of creative non-fiction. It is a memoir as well as a book about Hong Kong. Its collection of interrelated essays is at various moments impassioned, despondent, wistful and mischievous. The title is particularly evocative, suggesting that the book is not just about the Hong Kong of time past and time present, but also about the fragmentary islands of time that have culminated into a life in the city.
There is in the essays a strong sense of self, or rather, of the many selves that left and returned to Hong Kong many times. There is Xu Xi the girl who witnessed the decline of her family’s fortunes as narrated in the section "Cracks in Space of an Over-Privileged Childhood". There is Xu Xi the young woman who worked for an airline company. There is Xu Xi the aspiring writer who "wanted to save enough money to quit [her] job at The Asian Wall Street Journal and lead a ‘real writer’s life’". Finally, there is a wiser and world-weary Xu Xi who writes candidly of her relationships with men.
Even as the memoir tells of the mutability of the self, it also portrays a life which is intertwined with Hong Kong:
Here are the districts of my life in this city: Tsimshatsui by the harbour that used to be a mile wide at its narrowest span; Shatin of the paddy fields and train carriages; Sai Kung, in a tiny village, remote, overlooking a pristine bay; Kowloon Tong of elegant pre-war homes turned love motels, surrounded by trees and privacy … Mid Levels of mosquitoes, narrow streets, noisy buses and overpriced flats.
We sense, in the above passage, a Hong Kong that can only be experienced by someone who is in love with it. Even as we are shown glimpses of Hong Kong’s past, we are also shown a Hong Kong that is presently at the crossroads of the world:
We have become a cosmopolitan people, though still undeniably a brand of Chinese, who trade in the languages and commodities of the world. To be a "Hong Kong citizen" allows you to absorb the best of east and more east, and to know the nuance of west vs. east if you choose. Do the twain really meet? ... We like to insist our contemporary culture is less global-Western-ized, democratic, and confused than it really is.
As we can see, her writing is exuberant. It is unapologetic in its celebration of Hong Kong even as it maintains its critical stance.
At other times, the writing takes on a tone of resentment, especially when discussing how others cleave to their myopic view of Hong Kong. She writes of her experience of being commissioned by an American culture magazine to write about Hong Kong’s jazz scene. She recalls having written of the day-to-day struggles of local musicians who had to take on "hotel and other pseudo-jazz gigs to support real jazz performances", of how hard it was for musicians "to get Hong Kong to care about the real thing", as well as of "racist attitudes towards Filipinos or African Americans", only to have her essay rejected because it told a story that was at odds with the American experience of the jazz scene in Hong Kong. Nonsense, she was told, "there were lots of gigs and … local audiences loved jazz". As Xu Xi argues, the American understanding of the jazz scene was one-sided; it was "part of the five-star international hotel circuit gig scene … that most local musicians do not get hired for".
At times, the writing is somewhat self-deprecating. We are told that the essay "Pop Goes the Idol: Why Hong Kong Can’t Write or the William Hung Theory of Writing and Literature with Apologies to J. M. Coetzee" was "adapted from a pseudo-academic paper". This self-deprecation is perhaps a symptom of the ambition of the book, which straddles the line between critical analysis and creative writing. One detects a struggle between the voice of a scholarly critic and that of a creative writer. On the one hand, it wants to take on seriously the work of observing and commenting on Hong Kong culture; on the other hand, it wants to avoid what is often perceived as the restrained and pedantic tone of a scholarly voice.
This is why the book, and especially this essay, is such a pleasure to read. The essay looks into the precarious situation of English language literary writing and raises questions concerning literary and artistic pursuits in Hong Kong. Xu Xi is critical of the William Hung phenomenon; at the same time, she identifies with the Hong Kong-born youth who left for the United States and who appeared on American Idol. Despite the lack of vocal talent and skills in showmanship, Hung managed to draw a cult following and has since released three albums and appeared on commercials and on various television programmes. The William Hung phenomenon says something about the gap between fame and artistic abilities and the way this gap is perceived by Hong Kong people. As Xu Xi points out, the success of William Hung and the way he has been received by Hong Kong people is evidence that "no one questions commercial and financial success". On the other hand, it is those five words — "I already gave my best" — uttered unabashedly by Hung when excoriated by the judges of American Idol that redeems him in Xu Xi’s eyes.
Has Xu Xi given her best as a writer? This question forms the undercurrents of the essay. Sentences such as the following which occur alongside a discussion of Hong Kong’s pragmatic culture come straight from the author’s heart:
There are no guarantees, no insurance policies to buy, no well-paid jobs at the end just because you work hard or have a dream or get a degree … Art and literature arise from genuine passion which is often the catalyst to make you a laughing-stock, or at worst, a miserable failure.
It is clear that Xu Xi is writing about her anxieties as well as the anxieties of those who chose to obey their artistic and literary callings in Hong Kong.
As Louise Ho puts it in her poem — "Island", Hong Kong is "A city with a country / An international city becoming national". There is much to unpack in that line, and this latest book by Xu Xi manages to do so, portraying and commenting candidly on Hong Kong and her many lives in the city.
Ho, Louise. New End, Old Beginnings. Hong Kong: Asia 2000 Limited, 1997.
Editors' note: "Confucius and Hair" by Xu Xi is featured in this issue (issue#6) of Cha.