The world is perhaps changing when translations from Chinese feature as the first volume in a series of just about anything. Two Lines Press, an independent publisher based in San Francisco, has recently launched the Calico Series of translated literature. “Each Calico is a vibrant snapshot that explores one aspect of the present moment, offering the voices of previously inaccessible, highly innovative writers from around the world.” That We May Live is the first in the series and features seven stories in translation from authors in Hong Kong and China.
The theme of this collection is speculative fiction, a genre which, according to the publishers, blends reality with fantasy and absurdity. There is plenty to speculate about in Hong Kong and China, and these authors tackle income disparity, urbanization, and sexual harassment but not necessarily in a Hong Kong or Chinese context.
Enoch Tam, translated by Jeremy Tiang, has two stories in this collection, both of which take shots at property developers and a government that supports gentrification at the expense of low-income residents. In “Auntie Han’s Modern Life”, we are introduced to the garden-keepers, those responsible for tearing down old buildings and constructing modern, shiny high-rises. Auntie Han witnesses this transformation and it has devastating effects on the shopkeepers and residents.
She liked exploring the alleyways that looked both familiar and new to her. Even though the houses were old and their exterior walls had peeled badly over the decades, she’d never considered leaving. Every time she came home, she felt as if it were to a different house on a different street. Later on, the garden-keepers planted a couple of skyscrapers in front of the village, blocking the path of the restless houses.
Tam’s second piece in the collection appears a few stories later in “The Mushroom Houses Proliferated in District M”, also translated by Jeremy Tiang. Tam never explicitly states that he’s writing about Hong Kong, but his stories are certainly relevant to urbanization and the destruction of Hong Kong’s neighborhoods. The garden-keepers are more central to this story.
As for the residents who refused to move out of M, they asked the government to rebuild their houses so they’d have somewhere to live. The government had no choice but to construct some old-style boxes for them. Eventually though, they gave up and got some experts to declare that District M was full of toxins from the decomposing mushrooms and no longer fit for human habitation. They urged the remaining residents to leave voluntarily, before they got forcibly removed.
Author Chen Si’an criticizes the pressure to succeed and get ahead. In her story, A Counterfeit Life, translated by Canaan Morse, her characters don’t have typical names, but instead are referred to by numbers. Started by #1, the characters belong to a group of people who eschew traditional professions and imitate others. #1 was out of work when someone mistook him for a wedding emcee. He was roped into officiating the ceremony and reception, and none of the guests or the wedding party questioned his expertise or his presence at the wedding. He realized he could make a living by imitating others and standing in when the real professionals failed to show up. #1 recruits others to engage in the line of work so he can feel part of a community. Best of all, #1 and his protegés are able to escape the pressure to succeed.
Were one to ask if he had figured anything out, he could say he at least understood this much: the commandment “You need to have a stable and respectable job in order to be happy,” which had been forced-fed to him for the first twenty-plus years of his life, was false.
The other stories address the environment, sexual harassment in the workplace, and a feminist take on Little Red Riding Hood, in which Dorothy Tse’s character F rides a series of trains to visit her grandma and learns the mysteries behind her grandmother’s unusual tea. The stories all give the reader an oblique insight into contemporary social issues in Hong Kong and China, issues which however, could occur just about anywhere.