Reviews / June 2014 (Issue 24)

Three Generations of Hong Kong English Poetry: Leung Ping-kwan, Agnes Lam and Jennifer Wong

by Michael Tsang

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Leung Ping-kwan, Fly Heads and Bird Claws, MCCM Creations, 2012. 200 pgs.
Agnes Lam, A Pond in the Sky: Selected and New Poems, ASM Poetry, 2013. 195 pgs.
Jennifer Wong, Goldfish, Chameleon Press, 2013. 108 pgs.

Hong Kong is often said to be a categorical hybrid of East and West, but this is no longer a helpful maxim because it relies on mundane and empty labels. Instead, in the three collections under review, even poems on cross-cultural experiences are written from a Hong Kong-based perspective that is so much more than East meets West. And many of the other poems can be seen as representative of a local literature that savours the different lived experiences and modalities in the city and gives out a distinct Hong Kong aroma without losing touch of universal themes and concerns. Reading these three collections, I feel that Hong Kong English poetry is on a good track of development and maturation. As a researcher in Hong Kong Anglophone creative writing, this is all I can hope for.


Fly Heads and Bird Claws may well be the last bilingual publication of Leung Ping-kwan, who sadly left us in 2013, and is so far the only poet to have successfully crossed the stubborn boundary between Chinese and English writing in Hong Kong with such grace and flair. As with many of his other collections, Leung has actively collaborated with his translators to turn his Chinese poems into bilingual gems. For this book, he also worked with the Hong Kong artist Gukzik Lau to provide illustrations that complement the poems.

Many of Leung's poems are about food and eating, and they are motifs he often uses to find a common link with other cultures. When describing a gastronomic encounter, Leung employs synesthesia (a technique in which a writer tries to appeal to several of a reader's senses) to great effect to draw on common experiences:

The city develops different tastes
Yet rice always soothes our pain
The city scars you in seven colours
The rice consoles you in white
The city develops various melancholies
Will rice hold together the shards of our beliefs? ["Nasi Lemak (Malaysian Coconut Rice)"]

Whereas the city hurts us in different ways, the purity and simplicity of rice brings us comfort. Here, taste, sight and touch are used to develop several polarities of experience, through which Leung makes a critical statement on the city and evokes rice as a symbol of peace and solace. Rice as a source of solace is also seen in a number of other poems on Asian dishes. Take for instance these lines from "Nasi Kuning (Indonesian Yellow Rice)":

Rice is our common language
Rice our consoling mother
Rice encompassing all colours
Rice soothing a stomach's old wounds

For Leung, rice is a staple that can build rapport across numerous East, Southeast and South Asian cultures. At the same time, variety is also highlighted in the spices and methods different countries use to cook rice. There is thus variety within unity, mutuality but not singularity.

As for his critique of the "city," the poem "Fragrant Guava," written after a day of searching for the tasty fruit in Taipei, sets a good example:

Large heads of green promise, so fresh
yet rough and dry when you bite down
Why this tasteless flesh?
I don't want to savour the shallow seeds of the times
Will there be other varieties on the other side of the city?

The reluctance to savour the shallowness of the times reads like a statement of Leung's poetic vision. It can be understood as a refusal to be content with the superficial "promise" of appearance. The speaker is even willing to travel to other parts of the city to search for the tasty richness of not only a fruit but also people's lifestyles. This is something that can be extended to every city, and so can Leung's description of the Hong Kong basin feast:

Roast rice-duck and pan-fried prawns are always on top
Class order is precisely laid out in the layers
Nobody can stop the meat juice from trickling down, from allowing
the bottom-most turnip to absorb every flavour in all its sweetness. ["Pun Choi (Hong Kong Basin Feast"]

The food layers can certainly be extrapolated to refer to layers of social class, but the fact that the meat juice (a common symbol for essence) filtrates down to the food most common and base—turnip—suggests that every contact experience with a place will not be fruitful without a determination to discover what is hidden below the beautiful and expensive-looking icing on top. This could be a description of the depths of Hong Kong culture as much as of other cities.

As I alluded to before, Leung either translates his own poems or works closely with his translators. While the translations are high in quality, they vary a lot in style. Some try to be faithful to the original, while others read more like renditions. Leung's own translations usually display a greater freedom, turning statements in the Chinese original to questions in English. Sometimes, however, the uniqueness of the Chinese language makes it difficult to render a poem in English, such as with "Green Salad":

青絲  素縷上  澆層層  時間
新淨  明麗的  還有  那清爽

naked strands pour layers of time over green threads
freshly washed, bright 'n shiny and crisp

Because Chinese characters are ideograms, the internal breaks provide a visual effect that imitates the irregular lengths of shredded vegetables and the mixing of the green slices. This effect is unfortunately hard to reproduce in English.

There are many other good moments in the collection. The first poem, "Picking Plums," includes variations on Hong Kong nursery rhymes. It is good to see Leung bringing spoken Cantonese into his poetry, particularly when Hong Kong is in dire need of a vernacular literature:


But the translator Brian Holton does an equally brilliant job combining features of English nursery rhymes (e.g. names such as "Jenny" and "Jackie") with food imagery commonly found in Hong Kong:

our little Jenny
stole a little penny
to buy a bun
muck instead of make-up
crack-pot on her head
just for fun

Bilingual readers will notice the skilful replacement of Cantonese anadiplosis with English alliteration. This is only one example of the brilliant translations offered in this book.


Agnes Lam's A Pond in the Sky is a volume of selected poems from her first two collections, Woman to woman and other poems (1997) and Water wood pure splendour (2001), together with new works written since 2003. Unlike Leung's collection, Lam's poems are translated from English to Chinese.

Ever since Woman to woman, Lam has been known for her sensibility of writing and observing from a female perspective. A series of three poems from this collection, "My mother-in-law," "Holiday at home" and "Silk underwear," establishes matrilineal relations between mother, daughter and in-laws as one of the main themes in Lam's work. "My mother-in-law" is especially touching as it reveals how cross-generational female bonds can be formed beyond language barriers. Without knowledge of Teochew, the speaker, an English-speaking daughter-in-law has "only ears and no words," but somehow becomes the favourite of her mother-in-law, who eventually moves in with the younger woman. As the speaker eases the elder women's phlegm through massage while wondering how "this matriarch from of old" could have brought up so many children and grandchildren, the poem closes with these last stanzas:

As I row my small hand,
you turn,
look at me
with your one remaining eye –
I smile
and you smile

And I
my mother's words,
'Be good
to your mother

Here, we see that the bond between female in-laws does not require speech. The only thing that hangs between them is the filial gesture of massage. The act also reminds the speaker of her late mother, and thus filial piety to her own family is observed. Finally, that the mother's words signal back to the mother-in-law completes a triangular bond between the two old women and a common "daughter."

The style in "My mother-in-law" is vintage Agnes Lam: short lines exposing the smallest details in a scene. The use of frequent line breaks lengthens the reading time and stretches the reading experience—a highly effective method of producing room for the reader to contemplate and comprehend the richness (both the happy and sad times) in any long-term human relationship.

Water wood pure splendour also contains poems directly exploring Hong Kong and its cultural and socio-historical context. "The rape of a nation," an electrifying poem opening the selections from Water wood pure splendour, was written on 22nd June 1997, and catches the fraught moment between the eighth anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre (4th June 1997) and Hong Kong's return to China (1st July 1997). The use of rhetorical synesthesia in the lines "I was watching/by the side with others. […] But I could hear the screams,/smell the wet of the blood, see the red of fire" adds to the vividness of the destructive images and the impact they have on the speaker. But just as we think the poem is frozen in the horrors of June 1989, a string of questions in the last stanza silently moves the setting forward to 1997:

Was it from another time?
Another space?
Was it just television?
Or a hallucination? A prophecy?
A fragment of collective memory?

The questioning tone of this stanza registers the anxiety and unease felt by many Hongkongers in 1997, with the events of Tiananmen not yet forgotten. But the questions remind one to stay alert, to not forget the brutality done before. Reading this in 2014, amidst escalating social tensions between Hong Kong and Mainland China, the line "A prophecy?" certainly provokes mixed feelings in the reader.

Despite the looming shadow of Tiananmen, Lam seems to be generally hopeful for the SAR, as can be seen from the poem "My city," where she expresses her pride of living in Hong Kong and proclaims it her "city/of poetry." Even here, however, she does not forget to add that "[t]his is our city/where spies abound" and a city "with a history/unforetold". Anything can still happen; and I learnt from these poems that we must not forget.

Unfortunately, the translations in this volume suffer from many problems. Five lines are left untranslated in "Woman to woman," and the completion date for "Apology" does not match the English original. In "Three white hairs," the "father-in-law" of the female speaker is incorrectly translated as 岳父, which is how a son-in-law addresses the father of his wife, whereas the correct term of address for a daughter-in-law should be 家翁. In "We played with fire," a poem about lanterns in Mid-Autumn Festival, the "ruby-red transparent paper" is translated literally and dully as 透明紙. Given Lam's own childhood and the poem's Hong Kong setting, the phrase would evoke a more "local" sensibility if it were rendered as 玻璃紙 (literally "glass paper"), as it is commonly known in Hong Kong. This last point highlights that a translator must be sensitive to the locale of the poem, especially as the Chinese language is heterogeneous and full of regional varieties. Unfortunately, the many questionable translations undermine this collection.


The third collection under review is Jennifer Wong's Goldfish. Wong is without a doubt one of the more prominent of Hong Kong's younger English-language poets. Goldfish is her second book, and it continues to demonstrate many the features of her debut, Summer Cicadas (2006). Both are divided into six sections, and both contain many poems on crossing cultural boundaries, or "cultural liminality" as Mike Ingham tells us in his introduction. The poetic style in Goldfish is also consistent with her Summer Cicadas, and while reading her latest book, I was reminded of a poem from her first collection: "I give you the words and images … Just do not always look to me for guidance … I only claim limited responsibility." ("The Poet") As we can see in the naming of her collections "goldfish" and "summer cicadas," Wong likes to invite readers to ponder new possibilities for seemingly mundane images. Likewise, while the poems in Goldfish tend to portray small daily episodes, the use of simple, unpretentious images and naturally flowing phrases often articulates the rich feelings experienced by the speaker. The first stanza of "Secret" gives us a taste:

I've seen you make those
plenty of times:
tights, lingerie, lumps of cotton.
Scissors and strings.
For days you'd sit
cold on the newspapered floor,
fervently twisting them into shape,
wringing beauty
out of a lack of proportion.

Titled "Companions" in an earlier version published in Cha and later commented on the journal’s critique column A Cup of Fine Tea, the poem evokes an eerie and disconcerting feeling right from its first stanza. In "wringing beauty" from lingerie, the poem suggests an obsession with making an alternative form of intimate art. But it is also out of proportion and darkened by the lurking undertones of destruction suggested by "scissors and strings." The emotions central to the poem—obsession, intimacy and destruction—are already evident from the beginning.

In spite of the similarities to Summer Cicadas, Goldfish showcases more of Wong's poetic talents by engaging with themes and subject matter absent in her debut collection. For example, Summer Cicadas mostly presents poems on Wong's experiences shuttling between the UK for studies and Hong Kong for vacation. In Goldfish, however, there is a considerable number of poems on multicultural experiences other than those found in Britain and Hong Kong: "Roppongi Hills" and "Seijin no Hi" are about Japanese culture; "Praia do Titan" connects the reader to Portugal. Of course, many poems are still about life in Wong's hometown of Hong Kong. There are poems, for example, on turtle jelly, a herbal snack commonly found in the city, and on local funeral customs. I particularly like the way she is reminded of her home here:

The more you think of it the less
there is to miss—
and with a steady hand you empty
the jug in your head—multi-storeys
bullet lifts flyovers red taxis impatient
narrow-lane traffic and women
in wet markets haggling. ("Home")

For Wong, recalling things back home is an act as natural (and regular) as the action of pouring water from a jug. The word "steady" further suggests thinking of home is something one can do easily and frequently. This sense is further supported by the poem's string of images in stream of consciousness style: when you miss home, memories and impressions rush to you spontaneously, and flow in a fluid and illogical way.

Many other poems in the collection are about the variety of human relationships. One feature absent in Summer Cicadas but emerging here is Wong's sensitivity to motherhood. There are a few poems exploring mother-daughter relationships at different stages of life. "Ceremony" contrasts a mother's mentality with a daughter's anxiety on the night before her wedding. Another excellent example is the poem "Amniotic," in which the speaker takes a stroll down memory lane, recollecting her mother pressing coins into her palm before boarding the school bus, her childhood jealousy for the luxury of piano lessons, her mother's "cast-iron discipline" and the intimate moment of sharing a sago pudding in a dessert shop. As the speaker becomes a mother of two, however, she discovers that she is "wading through the same oceans" as her mum. The last line, "Mother, we're the same woman" is epiphanic: perhaps it is when she too becomes a mother that she appreciates motherhood entails the same kind of intimacy, protection, sacrifice and difficulty, regardless of generational differences. In general, while these poems may lack Agnes Lam's sophistication in creating poetic tension, the matrilineal exploration definitely marks Wong's growing maturity as a poet.

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