“Cantonese Love Stories: Twenty-Five Vignettes of a City” by Dung Kai-Cheung

Dung Kai-Cheung

Most places other than those where English is the main language are usually—in terms of literature—defined by works in the local language; English-readers view this tradition via translations. But the situation in Hong Kong is reversed: because Hong Kong Chinese works are so rarely translated, and because there is a considerable body of Hong Kong writing in English, Hong Kong has come to most non-Chinese readers via the English rather than the Chinese tradition. Translated Hong Kong Chinese literature remains all too uncommon, so the small (but numerous) morsels in Cantonese Love Stories, a collection of twenty-five short pieces by Dung Ka-Cheung, are very welcome.

Most of the few other extant examples of Hong Kong Chinese literature in English—for example, Snow and Shadow by Dorothy Tse, The Kite Family by Hon Lai-Chu and Dung’s own Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City—seem to bear little relation if any in style or substance to English-language fiction about the city. Foreigners, for example, hardly if ever appear; more fundamentally, the style is as often as not experimental, with surrealism, illusion and magic realism predominating. (The Borrowed by Chan Ho-Kei, a noir crime novel, is one of the exceptions.)

Cantonese Love Stories: Twenty-Five Vignettes of a City, Dung Kai-cheung
Cantonese Love Stories: Twenty-Five Vignettes of a City, Dung Kai-cheung, Bonnie S McDougal (trans), Anders Hansson (trans) (Penguin, July 2017)

Dung’s stories clock in at about 1000 words each. As such, they would seem to fit squarely within a broader Chinese tradition of very short fiction; while longer, perhaps, than many “short-shorts”, these nevertheless have the characteristics of flash fiction. Although Dung (so goes the introductory essay) prefers to call these “sketches” rather than “stories”, each has a plot and while many are left unresolved, almost all have—in spite of their brevity—character development, a narrative arc and a dénouement. There is a love element, or at least a relationship, behind each one. The stories are, almost without exception, snappy.

Each is intimately tied to the city, with pop culture as well as geographical references. A good many of these references, whether to Hello Kitty merchandise, television and film, or “Lord Snow’s egg tarts” will be recognizable to those who have spend any time in Hong Kong, especially those who can remember the 1990s; for those who haven’t, the translators have helpfully placed brief explanatory notes in front of those selections that need them.

And while verisimilitude and transparency as not necessarily Dung’s intentions, these stories—perhaps as a result or curation—are considerably less avant-garde, surreal or opaque than Atlas or the collections of Tse or Hon. That being said, almost all the stories have an element of strangeness or obsession about them. As a result, this small book perhaps serves as a better introduction to Hong Kong literature than it does to Hong Kong itself.

 

Cantonese Love Stories has been ably translated by Bonnie S McDougal and Anders Hansson, who also undertook the English version of Atlas. In the translators’ note, they patiently explain such terms as “office lady” and VCD (video compact disk).

The stories are preceded by an essay by Virginia Anderson, whom the publishers have curiously left unidentified. Although Anderson apparently interviewed Dung, the essay is as much about the Hong Kong-born, Eurasian Anderson herself as it is about the author of the collection. She does take a stab at addressing the question of what it means for a text to be in “Cantonese” given that, nominally, all written Chinese is independent of the vagaries of any given spoken form. But Hong Kong writers have found ways to differentiate; in Dung’s case, she says that it is with “text that highlights the shades, texture, tone and rhythm peculiar to the linguistic community” without defining what these might be. Cantonese is described as

 

a language of love and loss, a language of laughter and slang, la language rich in sentiment yet defying characterisation…

 

something while undoubtedly true, might apply just as well to any number of other languages; Italian, to say nothing of Sicilian, might make a similar claim. The question of literary “Cantonese-ness” remains elusive.

It hard to say whether these vignettes will make those who have not experienced Hong Kong any the wiser, but for those who have, these very short fictional stories should resonate and, more importantly, provide a rare opportunity to pull back the linguistic veil that can hide so much of this city even to long-term foreign residents.


Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.