Anglophone City Poetics and the Asian Experience: An interview with Jennifer Wong

Jennifer Wong (photo: Tai Ngai Lung) Jennifer Wong (photo: Tai Ngai Lung)

Tammy Ho Lai-Ming and Jason Eng Hun Lee spoke with Jennifer Wong, poet and author of Goldfish.


This interview is part of a study that charts the recent development of local Anglophone poetics in Hong Kong and Singapore and connects each city to a wider narrative of the evolving Asian city experience.


Do you think or write in any other language besides English?


Most of the time I think in Chinese rather than in English. I suppose I started learning English as I went to an English medium high school in Hong Kong, which made me (and my peers) think that we have to be excellent in English to make something out of life. I used to be pretty incapable of expressing my thoughts in English, verbally and in written form. I failed in my English literature exam in my first year of high school! I was so upset by that I would never imagine, back then, that it would become my favorite subject.


You are no longer living in your home city of Hong Kong. How often do you write about it? Does living outside of your home city affect how you represent it in your writing?  


I suppose it does, but in various directions and sometimes in contradictory, complex ways. I do write about Hong Kong when I am away. In the early period living abroad (away from my home city), it is almost unthinkable not to write about it, because it filters through all my experiences.


Over the years, what changes (both subtle and obvious) have you noticed in your home city? Do you feel compelled to write about them?


The many tensions between the Mainland and Hong Kong have channeled into my writing. At the same time I look for ways to detonate the tensions.


Does Hong Kong’s colonial past/history have any bearing on your writing of place?


Yes. It helps me appreciate the hard-working character of the people and the different ways or values of the older and younger generations. The actual time (in terms of colonial history) a person spent in Hong Kong might affect his impression of it.


Goldfish, Jennifer Wong (Chameleon Press , April 2015)
Goldfish, Jennifer Wong (Chameleon Press , April 2015)

Do you think of your poems as writing against or in response to dominant Western/colonial representations of your home city?


I remember thinking, after reading books by expats / Eurasians on Hong Kong, that I wanted to write about my city from a point of view of a local Hong Kong girl, because I never experienced the city in the same way as the expats (their familiarity with the Hong Kong Island, the Lan Kwai Fong, the bars in Wanchai etc).

My city is a very different city, where local blue and white collar workers toiled in busy jobs, ate noodles in small shops, and would walk a long way to tap their Octopus cards just to save two dollars. In my city, people played mahjong. They would have some oranges and take a walk after dinner, not head to the bars along the Mid-level escalators.

It’s a place where the very rich, the very poor, the very old and the very young rub shoulders daily. While I embrace the writings on Hong Kong regardless, I hope there are more voices that reveal a glimpse of what it’s like for the local Chinese people.


What is your reaction towards the expression “the Asian experience”? Is this a meaningful idea? Have you explored notions of an Asian identity in your poetry? What issues or difficulties have you faced in writing about Asian identity?


I think home is always an important subject for my writing, both in terms of my family and all that goes into my origins. Being an Asian, or being a Chinese, a Hong Kong-er, part of me is always trying to understand who I am. At the same time, I don’t think we are defined by just our ethnicity.

I think it’s meaningful in the sense that we all write from a lived position or a perspective.  Writing about life the way we know it or experience it or contemplate it. But “Asia” is huge—48 nations and 44 million square kilometers—obviously the experience of each Asian from each culture or region is different. It’s the same for Caucasians: it’s very misleading to generalize a white person’s perspective. Nevertheless, I think overall it’s useful to discuss or write about “Asian” experience because it suggests human empathy for crossing cultural borders, rather than indifference.

When I write, all that I am—my Asian values or knowledge of its traditions—enters it. So there’s no escaping. They enter the text with or without my knowing. Yet what I write is also specifically my own experience, and they don’t present everyone’s Hong Kong(s).


How do you think Hong Kong differs from other Asian cities?


I love the way Hong Kong’s history, vibe, and the way it embraces contradictions. It’s so Chinese and non-Chinese at the same time. Above all, there is a strong sense of now-ness in Hong Kong, where everyone is so preoccupied or obsessed with the moment they dwell in, while the city itself is steeped with history and identifies with a culture so embedded with rituals and traditions. It is also very different because it was a British colony and is no longer one.

Cities tend to have some similarities among them: the hustle-bustle, the diversity of peoples, the sheer amount of narratives in them… On the other hand, Asian cities probably do share some similarities, because of their relatively similar cultures. I find it easier to understand a fellow Asian writer or person, for example, from Japan, Korea, Singapore or Mainland China. In Asia, family is the fundamental social unit, while looking after your parents or your siblings is not uncommon. There’s also a stronger sense of conformity to culture.


What positive and negative impact has globalization made on your home city?


I suppose the positive and negative impact it has can be found in my home city as well as other cities: the way cultures collide and converge more often within the same space, and the way it makes life more homogeneous. It has also encouraged more interaction among different peoples, and has made life outside one’s home city more bearable.

Generally speaking, there is a lot of attention towards the post-handover state of Hong Kong and its question of freedom. Being a poet, I’d like to express my feelings and reflections in a more oblique way. On another dimension, Hong Kong is also seen as less interesting compared to its Mainland counterparts, because so much has already been known to the Western world.

On the literary front, I think it is great that there is an evolving, continuous and in some sense rather diverse Hong Kong literature, which used to be mainly just in Chinese but now there’s also an Anglophone tradition.


If Hong Kong could answer your questions, what would you ask it?


I’d want to know how it feels about going back to its “mother” country.


What would your city ask you?


The city might ask me to come back.

Tammy Ho Lai-Ming is a founding co-editor of the journal Cha and a Vice President of PEN Hong Kong. She is the author of Hula Hooping and a co-editor of the Desde Hong Kong and Quixotica anthologies. She is an assistant professor at Hong Kong Baptist University. Jason Eng Hun Lee is a lecturer at the same university.