“A Catalog of Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made On” by Dung Kai-cheung

Dung Kai-cheung Dung Kai-cheung

Dung Kai-cheung’s A Catalog of Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made On is an exercise in the influence of late-90s, mainly Japanese, popular culture on young women in end-of-the-century Hong Kong. The “catalog” consists of ninety-nine sketches, perhaps in an homage to Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style, where Queneau took an unremarkable short episode and retold it in ninety-nine discursive styles. Queneau’s exercises are clever play with the structures and uses of language. Dung Kai-cheung’s catalog is a cultural “thick description” of popular culture filled with dry wit and humor. His sketches are not short stories. He offers flights of fancy.

In his preface to the English translation, Dung Kai-cheung identifies the constraints on his exercise:


I selected new topics from local entertainment and fashion magazines every week from 1998 to 1999, letting my imagination run free in associations triggered by names, forms, usages, characteristics, promotional slogans, or popular comments.


As a further “thick description”, this English translation provides half or more of the sketches with brief introductions identifying relevant popular items and assistance in identifying the fun, featuring, among other things, musicians, songs, toys, food, magazines, and fashion.

Odd circumstances abound. What happens if a young woman starts walking backward? More surprising, what if she doesn’t notice? “Converse Lo Tec” explores this question in the most matter-of-fact prose. A young woman, Pat Pat, buys a pair of Converse canvas shoes after a strap on her sandal breaks. A series of minor problems ensue. Her young male friend isn’t happy since it violates the fashion sense guiding the rest of her outfit. With her walking, he thinks she is making him seem weird.  He walks faster than she does and disappears. People avoid her on trains and in restaurants. She begins dating an art-intellectual who thinks she is playing. She isn’t. They break up. She sees a middle-aged woman walking backward out of a fast food restaurant. The woman spies Pat Pat following her.


So you are one of us too! she said. And you’re so young!
      What do you mean by us? Pat Pat asked.
      There’s quite a number of us, we live all over the place and we just press ahead.


Her old boyfriend returns. He’s been practicing walking backward. They meet in a park and race. He trips. The sketch ends with a simple observation, one that answers one underlying question as to whether walking backwards is connected to Converses.


With his feet toward the sky, his machine-like Nike Foamposites were raised high in the air.


Of course they are Foamposites. Air Jordans trigger their own sketch, as do Adidas, Birkenstocks, Red Wings, ballet shoes, flip flops, and sandals.


A Catalog of Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made On, Dung Kai-cheung, Bonnie S McDougall (trans), Anders Hansson (trans) (Columbia University Press, June 2022)
A Catalog of Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made On, Dung Kai-cheung, Bonnie S McDougall (trans), Anders Hansson (trans) (Columbia University Press, June 2022)

Dung Kai-cheung’s references to clothing and fashion extend well beyond footwear, many inspired by the Japanese fashion magazine non-no. There are sketches centered around combat trousers, one of the few referencing historical events; aprons, which are sexier than the gowns with “plunging low necklines” worn by society beauties; tank tops, which wouldn’t be removed even when making love; a pleated skirt, a duffel coat, scarves, and more.

Dung Kai-cheung plays with literature and entertainment as well, with sketches prompted by authors, movies, television shows, and singer/songwriters. In one, he pays homage to the magic realism of Haruki Murakami, specifically his short story “A Slow Boat to China”, by naming a bar Slow Boat. Here he places Yau Yau, who always wears a bucket hat and never the same one twice. She offers a variety of reasons why:


One was that her hair had been badly dyed, another that it had been burnt when her father maltreated her, yet another that her natural head shape was freakish and could not be shown in public.


From there they grow more bizarre:


She also claimed that she’d had extremely dangerous brain surgery, which had left a great scar; that she had not a single hair actually growing on her head, and so the hair showing under the hat was false; that she was a devil woman with the number 666 on top of her head; that she was an alien Teletubby with an antenna on top of her head; that she was an Urusei Yatsura girl with horns on her head; that she was a unicorn spirit; and so forth.


In the final moment, there is the veiled reference to Franz Kafka when a post-graduate entomology student, in a bit of physical confrontation, finds her red bucket hat removed. Yau Yau vanishes, replaced by a red Japanese horned beetle.


Dung Kai-cheung also directs the fun toward himself. In one of the sketches that plays with technology, a young woman purchases a Mebuis laptop and sits in a tearoom writing a novel whose main female character is a salesgirl in a fashion store who always wears fake brands. Midway through the sketch, the writer comes up with a new idea:


she would write stories about the popular consumer goods that she was most familiar with, love stories happening because of Prada, Hello Kitty, photo stickers, and bucket hats.


In another, seeking something Japanese, Ngoi Kam steps into a record store where the clerk plays a CD of shakuhachi, which “was exactly like the harrowing sound of a bamboo flute in a Japanese horror movie.” She comes to like it to the dismay of her family.


They accused her of being so besotted with Japanese things that she’d taken leave of her senses. Ngoi Kam, however, seemed only to hear the ethereal sound coming from a far distance.


A Catalog of Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made On continues Dung Kai-cheung’s construction of Hong Kong as a linguistic hybrid of fiction/history published a year earlier. In that fiction, Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City, he plays with the time and space occupied by Hong Kong as a collection of fragmented and overlapping wonders made possible by language.

Rick Henry was a Professor of English at SUNY—Potsdam where he directed the BFA in Creative Writing.