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Poetry: Loop of Jade by Sarah Howe

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.

Poetry: Loop of Jade by Sarah Howe
Loop of Jade, Sarah Howe (Chatto & Windus, May 2015)

Howe, now at Cambridge, was “Made in Hong Kong”, the product of a Chinese mother and English father, but left for Britain early on. A common enough beginning; her accomplished and polished poetry is anything but.

The irregular or occasional reader of poetry who—much like me—might have grown up with Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost or John Betjeman, and who likes poetry that is immediate, accessible and that speaks clearly and memorably, will find much to appreciate in this slim volume. Indeed, one can pick a page almost at random, and find lines that echo—in rhythm, sound or imagery—a favorite poet from before:


Across the road, the girls quit the school in threes
and fours, tripping off at speed to stations


or familiar cars, their silhouettes, slung
with shoulder bags and hockey sticks, like mules.


(And Robert Frost? “Something sets us looking for a place” goes an initial line.)  


This alone is perhaps not that striking: regardless of the condition of publishing, it seems that there is something in the human condition that just turns out poets, and the more than occasional good one among them.

But readers from Asia, East Asia anyway, and those no longer here but who  have passed through, will find that Howe has applied these same gifts to the Chinese side of her heritage and to the particular nature of being, like Hong Kong, two things at once.


I counted out the change in Cantonese.
Yut, ye, sam, sei. Like a baby ...


Whether by explicit design or not, she catches things that anyone who has lived here immediately recognizes:


The bus sinks

with a hydraulic sigh.


And with palpable feeling and nostalgia:


At the boarding school we used to chant them
Ping Chau, Cheung Chau, Lantau, Lamma...
I rolled their sounds around my mouth
till they were strange again, like savouring
those New Year candies — small translucent moons
waning on the tongue.


The topics range from rain in London and a journey down the Yangtze, to nighttime in Arizona and references and quotations from Chinese, with bric-a-brac and probing family memories interspersed. Some are just a few lines and others several pages. It is an eclectic and varied selection that nevertheless forms an integrated whole: England balancing Asia, long giving way to short, expansive and reflective, direct and personal to oblique and thoughtful.

If there is such a thing as Hong Kong literature in English, Loop of Jade comes pretty close to it. And if there isn’t, Hong Kong would do well to claim Sarah Howe for its own regardless of what anyone else thinks.

Peter Gordon is editor of The Asian Review of Books.