“It is a common rule of propriety that culturally inferior foreign peoples should respect the Central Kingdom.” So begins a 1374 letter from Ming China’s founding Hongwu Emperor to a regional ruler in Japan. It continues: “One principle in both ancient and modern times has been for the small to serve the great.”
A few weeks ago in front of Lincoln Center in New York, while Women in The World Summit was about to start, a woman who seemed to like she could move mountains called Tina Brown was telling me, “I very much liked your description… What was it? ‘Having a sword fight with the ghosts’.”
New operas are not perhaps as rare as sometimes made out to be, but it is nevertheless hard to underestimate the significance of Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber appearing at the Hong Kong Arts Festival so soon after its premiere at the San Francisco opera last Autumn.
At first glance, “Can we say Hong Kong?” might appear a slightly silly question, superfluous indeed. Of course we can say “Hong Kong.” I am saying the name of my city right now and no one is stopping me. And you can say it, too, without any difficulty. In fact, we can collectively say it, chant it—even sing it. This closed question can be answered by a simple and resounding “Yes.” Or to give a longer answer, “Yes, we can say Hong Kong.”
Andrés de Urdaneta is a name that few other than specialist historians will immediately recognise. He was one of the last of the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century explorers and navigators from the Iberian peninsula whose voyages resulted in redrawing the globe in more or less the form we know it today. Christopher Columbus has a country and several cities named after him; Ferdinand Magellan has the famous straits. But Urdaneta has no such monuments.
Perhaps this is because Urdaneta didn’t discover how to get anywhere, but rather less glamorously but no less importantly discovered how to get back. Until 1565, no fleet had succeeded in sailing east from Asia back across the Pacific to the Americas. It was Urdaneta, a survivor of earlier expeditions, who first worked out the right winds and currents across the uncharted waters of this vast ocean. His discovery was called the tornaviaje, or ‘return trip’.
No opera composer turned to William Shakespeare more often than Giuseppe Verdi, who composed three works, Macbeth, Otello and Falstaff, based on the Bard’s plays. But if it hadn’t been for the persistence of his publisher Ricordi and would-be librettist Arrigo Boito, Verdi might well have stopped at one. He had to be coaxed out of a post-Aida retirement to write Otello, which finally premiered in 1887, sixteen years later.
But Otello was worth waiting for. A masterpiece, a thorough integration of music, words and drama that, astoundingly, manages to illuminate the original work—itself an unequalled masterpiece—on which it is based.
Reading and translating Taiwanese poet Ling Yu reminds me much of American writer, environmentalist, and activist Terry Tempest Williams’s wisdom: There is an art to writing, and it is not always disclosure. The act itself can be beautiful, revelatory, and private.
In my opinion, Ling Yu’s poetry contains the above qualities: perhaps aware of how several poets in her country and language are prone to cultivating celebrity fame and fan culture, or capitalizing on Facebook or Twitter to sustain their poetic careers and publicity, Ling Yu strives to create a Beckettian lyricism and silence—in life and her art. What results is a poetic voice that often does not need to be loud or echoey in order to assert its confidence, passion, and weight. On the contrary, it may be heard and felt through the imagery or ambiance it evokes, hence an overall Impressionist effect that comes across as distinctly moving yet oblique.