The Asian Review of Books is not given to running op-eds, but a recent article in Electric Lit entitled “Where Is Hong Kong Literature When We Need It Most?” merits some reflection. In it, Evelyn Fok writes
Books about Hong Kong are almost never written by people who were born and raised there—and in a time of upheaval, our perspective is necessary.
Fok has already been taken to task on Twitter for apparently being unaware of the English translations of Xi Xi, and for not having mentioned such authors as Louis Cha, Chan Ho-Kei, Dung Kai-Cheung, Hon Lai-Chu or Dorothy Tse.
But it is worth asking (again, for it has been asked before) what constitutes Hong Kong literature and who qualifies as a Hong Kong writer, involving as it does questions of identity, language and physical location of the author as well as the subject matter of the work in question. “English literature” is generally considered to refer to the language, not to citizenship or setting. The characterization of Hong Kong literature is, in its way, more complex.
Hong Kong writes in two languages, neither of which are specific to it, while each of which are themselves almost bottomless sources of literature. Exactly who is a Hong Konger writer and who not is contextual: it depends what question is being asked. But the formulation that only “people who were born and raised there” are eligible is decidedly fraught. One understands where this idea comes from, but if the same criterion were applied to Asian-American writers, it would likely be condemned. However much they may value their Asian heritage, one presumes that Ha Jin, Jiayang Fan, Jumpha Lahiri, et al, all consider themselves—and are considered—American writers despite having been born and, in several cases, brought up elsewhere. Surely, as in many other things, if someone self-identifies as a “Hong Kong writer”, that choice—faute de mieux—should be respected.
In a review of the poetry collection Loop of Jade by Sarah Howe, who went on to win the TS Eliot Prize, I wrote:
It’s not usually a good idea to start a review with a rhetorical question. Sarah Howe’s debut poetry collection Loop of Jade nevertheless poses one: is there such a thing as Hong Kong literature and, if so, what is it? This is a two-part question, for Hong Kong writing in Chinese and English are, like much of Hong Kong society, largely separate activities. English, for its part, is the imposed colonial language which, in spite of sometimes committed and sometimes desultory efforts to embed it more deeply, floats like a sheen of oil on the deeper pool that is Chinese, and which, like oil, can evanesce only to be redeposited in other parts.
Howe is a British writer, but was “Made in Hong Kong”, as she put it, the product of a Chinese mother and English father. She left Hong Kong as a child, yet Hong Kong is deeply embedded in her poetry. An expansive view of belonging would furthermore net several other fine Hong Kong Chinese poets—enough so that an attempt to list them risks leaving some out—other award winners among them, who write in English.
Hong Kong is not and never has been either monolingual or mono-ethnic. Timothy Mo, the author of the Booker-shortlist Sour Sweet, is from Hong Kong, but left for Britain at age 10. Martin Booth, on the other hand, moved to Hong Kong at age 8, and was brought up here, as was John Lanchester. Korean-American Janice YK Lee, author of the Piano Teacher, was “born and raised” in Hong Kong, as was Xu Xi, shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize. These writers, it is true, predate Hong Kong’s “time of upheaval”—or at least the present one: Hong Kong has been through upheaval before.
It is true that Hong Kong writing in English can be placed in the English lit box, as can Hong Kong writing in Chinese be placed in the Chinese lit box, as of course it is. Neither placement disqualifies any given work from also being considered Hong Kong literature.
Although Fok seems uninterested in English-language writing from Hong Kong, her measure of success curiously remains “Hong Kong representation in the English medium”, as if only translated works count. But who would these translated works be for? Not, surely, the majority of Hong Kong people who read Chinese and who Fok thinks are deprived of literature. But she goes on:
Hong Kong, with a population double LA’s and a millions-strong diaspora, is yet to produce stories of its own that enter the global consciousness.
A work of literature does not require translation into English to validate it.
These are not easy questions. Hong Kong literature is not synonymous with books about or set in Hong Kong. Somerset Maughman’s The Painted Veil may be a “Hong Kong book”, but would probably not figure in a corpus of Hong Kong literature. Louis Cha, on the other hand, a pillar of the Hong Kong literary establishment, set his books in a pre-Hong Kong China. And where would one place Shi Shuqing, author of the Hong Kong-set saga City of the Queen? Shi is Taiwanese but lived in Hong Kong for twenty years. Eileen Chang spent some time in Hong Kong; is Love in a Fallen City a work of Hong Kong literature? Merely asking the question emphasizes how slippery the concept is. A few years ago, back in late 2017, I wrote about a special issue of the journal Wasafiri on “Writing Hong Kong”:
One existential question lurking in the background is whether there is such a thing as “Hong Kong writing” at all, at least in English (the Chinese side of Hong Kong literature also suffers from a slightly different linguistic angst). One approach to this question—which has largely been mine as a publisher—is to shrug and take the position that Hong Kong writing is relatively easy to recognize—we know it when we see it—and a Hong Kong writer is thus one who produces Hong Kong writing and, second, has some concrete physical relation to the place.
And finally, one is left with the question of what Hong Kong literature is for, as if literature is itself not its own justification. One can politicize it if one wants to, and some literature of course is explicitly political, but there other lenses than the political through literature can be viewed.
But, yes, there is Hong Kong literature, much of it hiding in plain sight.
Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.