Wasafiri’s “Writing Hong Kong” issue

HK Buildings

At the British Council in Hong Kong on Friday, the UK literary quarterly Wasafiri launched an issue dedicated to writing from the former British colony. [1]In the interests of full disclosure, I should note that I, this publication and several Chameleon Press volumes are referenced in this issue of Wasafiri, and that Chameleon Press and the Asian Review of Books have published several of the contributors. Entitled “Writing Hong Kong”, the journal, say editors Jeffrey Mather and Florian Stadtler,


with its blend of non-fiction articles, short fiction, poetry, and reviews – presented itself as the perfect forum through which to consider new critical and creative approaches that directly engage with Hong Kong’s geography, history, politics and poetics.


The issue contains essays, interviews, reviews, original fiction and poetry. TS Eliot Prize winner Sarah Howe and Commonwealth Poetry Prize and American Book Prize winner Shirley Geok-lin Lim are names whose reach clearly transcends the city; others such as Xu Xi, Jennifer Wong and Tammy Ho have established followings in wider English-speaking world.

It is positioned as rather a serious and weighty undertaking: the essays are academic and intellectual in tone. These, the interviews and other non-creative prose outweigh the original poetry and fiction.


Wasafiri, Issue 91, Autumn 2017
Wasafiri, Issue 91, Autumn 2017

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.

Tammy Ho, in her essay “Something Sets Us Looking for a Place: Poetry of Jennifer Wong and Sarah Howe”, (gratifyingly) quotes my review of Howe’s debut collection Loop of Jade:


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.


Ho then goes on to provide a gloss:


The reviewer’s tone here is ironic, although, one might also say, slightly defensive. It is as though he is pre-empting objections to Howe’s status as a Hong Kong poet or concerns that her poetry should not be viewed as Hong Kong literature.


My review was not as profound as all that. I was suggesting that Hong Kong literature is defined by examples, rather than some set of strictures. It was also an advocacy (strategic, albeit opportunistic) position, ie that “we” (those of us in Hong Kong who do literary things) should take such first-mover advantages that are being presented to us.

The editors, however, as well as several of the commentators, evidently feel something more than an ad hoc approach is needed. Both Ho in her essay and Grant Hamilton and David Huddart in “Writing from the Outside? Post-1997 Expatriate Writing in Hong Kong” discuss the question in an academic sort of way. Neither of Ho’s subjects actually live in Hong Kong although both did and have family roots here, but her conclusion also pretty much seems to be that we know Hong Kong poetry when we see it.

Given that Hong Kong is the place it is, so-called “expat writing” occupies a great deal of brainspace. Grant Hamilton and David Huddart use this lens to look at the vexing question of Hong Kong identity. One of their interesting observations is that the question of the expat/local divide is no longer, as it traditionally was, restricted to Caucasians. Singaporean poet Eddie Tay, a long-time resident, and Xu Xi, once a resident and now a peripatetic global citizen, are both discussed. Some of the essay is, however, inside baseball, notably the mention of the several months-long spat between expat poet Kate Rogers and her reviewer that played out in the literary journal Cha.

While the question is not uninteresting, one is nevertheless left wondering whether—at a time when the Man Booker Prize has stopped trying to distinguish between American and British writers—it actually makes any difference.

Consistency sometimes being the hobgoblin of little minds, the book review section itself includes books from several writers who have no real connection to Hong Kong: Guo Xiaolu’s memoir Once Upon a Time in the East, Diao Dou’s short story collection Points of Origin, Karan Mahajan’s novel The Association of Small Bombs and a number of others.


Another issue lurking under the surface is whether Hong Kong writing is itself worthy of consumption, let alone study as writing rather than as a sort of political or social artifact. The editors, in their editorial, never actually make this claim nor attempt to demonstrate it; instead they write:


In the mainstream press, Hong Kong is dramatically, even tragically, represented as being embroiled in an epic struggle against an infinitely larger foe in the form of the Chinese Communist Party. Hong Kong is depicted as a castaway, an odd remnant of the British Empire, left to fight for itself. To us, this seems a distorted view and only part of the story of Hong Kong. Instead, upon closer reading, there are many other stories, some of which are deeply introspective and sometimes contradictory in terms of locating or understanding ‘Hong Kong identity’. We hope that this issue will open a window into these important debates and concerns.


Fair enough; perhaps they feel that the quality of Hong Kong writing is self-evident. It is however nevertheless the case that Hong Kong writing per se has not been terribly successful in broaching the literary mainstream. Those writers and works which have, are to some extent exceptions that prove the rule: Sarah Howe is a literary dual-national; Janice Y.K. Lee, one of the most successful Hong Kong novelists (The Piano Teacher and Expatriates) decamped to New York.

This issue of Wasafiri is perhaps not the place to make the case, but the case is worth making. Hong Kong poetry in particular can be vibrant, immediate and accessible; in an increasingly small and integrated world, Hong Kong writers have much to say—and not just about democracy.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.

Notes   [ + ]

1. In the interests of full disclosure, I should note that I, this publication and several Chameleon Press volumes are referenced in this issue of Wasafiri, and that Chameleon Press and the Asian Review of Books have published several of the contributors.