Reviews / September 2014 (Issue 25)

Loud and Encore: OutLoud Too

by Michael Tsang


Vaughan Rapatahana, Kate Rogers, Madeleine Slavick (editors), OutLoud Too, MCCM Creations, 2014. 148 pgs.


OutLoud Too is probably the best showcase of English poetic talent in Hong Kong in recent years. With more than 15 years of history, OutLoud, a weekly poetry reading held in the Fringe Club, is Hong Kong's most successful English language poetry forum, and OutLoud Too is the second poetry collection by its participants. It is the fruit of an influential cultural event and a testimony to how Hong Kong can offer poetic inspiration.

Diversity was the key word for me as I read through this collection. Throughout the book, there is a linguistic variety that shows OutLoud's sensitivity to Hong Kong's multi-linguistic make-up and its hospitality to visiting guests from overseas. While most of the works are in English, a few poems are translated to and from Chinese and one is even written in French. Some poems are not about Hong Kong at all ("Kodama," "Letter to India"), but the city did provide a venue for such creativity. There is also a wide array of subject matter in the collection—the stories of multi-national prostitutes in Hong Kong ("The Secret Lives of Hong Kong Butterflies"), the experience of having Chinese hot pot ("Hot Pot") and the anniversary of June Fourth ("I Remember I Forgot").

One of the most prevalent motifs in these poems is a critique of modern life in an era of capitalism and digitalisation, such as in Timothy Kaiser's "Statues":

In a world carved
by statues
the Venus on the train
texts my eyes
before chiselling herself
into her phone.

Perhaps if this poem had been written two decades ago, the line "texts my eyes" would have been something like "eyes me" or "checks me out." But the use of "text" as a verb here without specifying the encrypted message being sent, captures the kind of transient interaction between strangers that one experiences in a modern metropolis. (This sense is also expressed in the brevity of the poem itself.) The use of the active voice in "chiselling herself/into her phone" further makes the poem relevant to our times, as it reveals that humans actively lock themselves in the digital world away from real human contact. On the other hand, even if the speaker and his Venus know each other, the lines would still reinforce the notion that human relationships cannot escape modern technology.

Simon Wu's "Urban Dawn" also uses urban alienation as a theme. In this poem, the city is compared to a profiting, merciless cockerel:

Its overfed body stirs,
It tramples insects underfoot,
Dimly lit by the light of the 7-Eleven,
Their antennae twitch, struggling, surviving.
Its wings are flapping now.
But it can't fly, only strut.

Such animalistic representations of urban scenes alienate us from our perception of the city. Despair seems to fill these lines; despite the bird’s/city’s ruthless treatment of a neglected population, its clumsy body—where fat accumulates in the hands of the upper echelons of society—fails to soar into the sky.

Here, the start of what could be another bustling day is plagued by stagnation:

The unsilent city will crow again,
Yet everywhere you turn,
Silence still rules,
Thicker than blood.

This final stanza of the poem captures the contradictory nature of urban life—the rush of human activity does not guarantee that lively voices fill the air. It also echoes the poem's opening line: "Silence drips from emptiness like blood." Arguably, "emptiness" not only refers to the lack of human activity at dawn, but also to the emptiness of the city's soul amidst the density of urban buildings. This is recognisably Hong Kong, but it could also be Singapore, Tokyo or Seoul. Many writers like to write about the small hours or the liminal moment of daybreak in the city; Wu gives his own twist here by animalising the city with dreary images.

Another common theme in many of the poems, which in a sense also reflects the communal nature of OutLoud itself, is how different people come into contact with each other. Writing from the perspective of tourists, Nashua Gallagher's "Tai O Village" offers a very different side of Hong Kong. In this poem, a group of tourists are passing by a rural home in Tai O on a rainy day. As the residents make "Thunder inside with their mah-jong tiles, / We three still slower than we need be, strolling past / The irony of dried fish hanging in the rain." The scene is by no means tranquil but it carries an air of lethargy. Yet, it is at the moment when the speaker is describing life in rural Hong Kong, that the inhabitants

[…] watch
From inside the hollows of their homes,
We're caught in a spectator sport,
A street show,
Framed through a window

The gazer has now become the gazed upon. The poem ends at this abrupt point and does not say what has travelled between the looks, but the recognition of the other(ed) groups of people in Hong Kong is transmitted at the moment when their eyes meet.

There is a meeting even when eyes are closed. Adam Radford's "Atlantis" recounts the cash-deprived speaker's act of generosity towards a drunken person who he stumbles upon in a Wan Chai alley. As a result of America's fiscal crises, the speaker has gone broke and has become protective of his wallet against aggressive prostitutes. But, despite his proclaiming the absence of chavs and gangsters in Hong Kong (or so he thinks), he still slips his remaining twenty dollars into the drunkard's pocket. The fear can hardly be substantiated, of course, but with the economic anxiety looming around the whole globe, such one-way generosity is ultimately "for ease of mind," as the speaker says; if only to have faith in humanity one last time.

Living, like writing, is a struggle, but one can always do with a light-hearted piece. Lindsay Varty's "Gah Yau Hong Kong!" must have brought smiles to OutLoud participants when it was read. Peppered with snappy rhymes and functional Cantonese phrases such as "'m goi" (thanks) and "yau lok" (I'm getting off), Varty shows that non-Chinese residents who grow up in Hong Kong can fluidly slip into Cantonese culture and develop a sense of belonging to the city, and wish "gah yau" (work hard) to "the Hong Kong that we know and love."

The Hong Kong literary community is growing, and, if a reader from other parts of the world wants to know what English-language poetry Hong Kong can offer, OutLoud Too is one of the first publications they should read, before heading to the monthly OutLoud gathering. In light of this growing enthusiasm for writing in the city, I hope OutLoud will soon present us with OutLoud Three, perhaps with more contributions from local and young voices.

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