Snow and Shadow by Dorothy Tse, translated by Nicky Harman
Rudyard Kipling’s famous maxim that “East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet” might have been written specifically to describe Hong Kong’s writing scene.
If I were to ask English-language readers to name a Hong Kong writer, I am certain that almost everyone, especially when it came to prose, would come up blank. Timothy Mo left town decades ago; Martin Booth, Christopher New and John Lanchester may have lived here for some time, but are—or were—arguably part of an international English-language mainstream. Those who follow such things may know of Leung Ping-kwan, who managed better than perhaps anyone else to bridge the Chinese-English divide; he however was a poet.
There are course Hong Kong writers who publish in Chinese, but these are—I think it is fair to say—largely unknown outside Chinese literary circles. One can pick out Dung Kai-Cheung, author of Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City and Chan Koonchung, author of Fat Years. Still, for a city of seven million, that’s not many who are accessible to English-language readers.
Hong Kong publisher Muse is, therefore, to be commended for bringing out Dorothy Tse’s short story collection Snow and Shadow. And not just bring it out, one has to add, but in an elegant edition. Tse is a winner of the Hong Kong Award for Chinese Literature as well several literary awards in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
These stories “are not for the faint-hearted”, writes translator Nicky Harman’s in her introduction, a comment reprised by Leo Ou-fan Lee on the back cover. Indeed, they are not: “limbs, and even heads,” Harman goes on, “are lopped off with alarming regularity.”
Nor are they easy reads. Most employ a heavy dose of the surreal or, perhaps, an extremely warped version of a city that is recognizable, albeit barely, as Hong Kong. Characters are referred to as letters or are given evocative names like “Flower”, “Tree” and “Wood”. The stories may start normally
Neither of them remembered exactly when things went wrong. But at some point Knife began to cough.
but slowly or abruptly enter a dreamlike state or go completely off the rails. Some stories start off that way:
When Flower got up that morning, Tree’s head had vanished.
She got a bamboo clothes pole and poked around under the bed and in the cracks in the walls, opened every drawer one by one, and searched through the cans of KK chocolate creams and cream twists. (Her son had once said he liked the brand.) But there was no sign of Tree’s head.
Tse furthermore has something of an obsession with insects and, well, vermin which appear in one role or another in most of the stories.
(For those who wish a taste, one of the stories, “Woman Fish”, appeared in The Guardian, where it can be read online.)
This is a collection that is, in sum, uncomfortable, weird and disturbing, requiring close reading but which can also prove thought-provoking. It is not immediately clear, nor indeed is it clear after some considerable reflection, exactly what Tse is up to. What may be most surprising for English-language readers—for whom Hong Kong has seemed a rather placid place—is the undercurrent of, if not anger then, as Harman quotes the author in her useful and entirely necessary introduction, “resistance”. Tse goes on: “In Hong Kong, writing is itself an active rejection of utilitarian society and mundane everyday life.”
“Surrealism,” writes Harman, “occupies a special place in Hong Kong writing.” From the small sample of Hong Chinese literature in translation I have access to, that—without dwelling too much on the exact literary definition of surrealism—seems to be the case. Dung Kai-Cheung’s Atlas is also a rather strange book, a novel largely without plot or even characters.
Snow and Shadow would seem to confirm that Chinese- and English-language writing from Hong Kong are on quite different tracks. It is only with translations such as this that the twain might possibly meet.