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Review by Joel Swann

David McKirdy and Peter Gordon (eds.). Eight Hong Kong Poets. Chameleon Press: Hong Kong, 2015. pp. viii + 123. HK $120 / US $15 / £12

This slim volume offers a stimulating introduction to the poetry of Hong Kong. Featuring the work of well-known poets such as Leung Ping-Kwan, Shirley Geok-lin Lim and Eddie Tay it is useful as a statement of what Hong Kong poetry has been; its attention to those with a growing reputation, such as Jennifer Wong and Tammy Ho Lai-ming, make it a valuable as a suggestion of what Hong Kong poetry is and could become. The collection is all the more interesting for its inclusion of Sarah Howe, whose deserved success in winning the TS Eliot makes questions of Hong Kong’s distinctive poetic activity all the more urgent. Eight Hong Kong Poets gives us a convenient and accessible place to begin thinking about such questions.

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We might as well as start with one of the few poems that deal head-on with social class. ‘Shining’ by David McKirdy begins with a ‘proud man’ and ends with a ‘happy man’, a conditions which the poem shows to be tenuous and problematic. The ‘proud man’ is ‘Mr. Lee the shoe-shine boy’ –

still working at 82

still paying his way.

He’ll shine my shoes for free

because I give him “face”

calling him “Uncle”

conversing, showing respect.

The persistence of a particular material reality (‘still working… still paying’) is wrapped up in the language-games of respect and hierarchy: even if the inadvertently condescending ‘boy’ registers, it is ‘uncle’ that is spoken. If part of Lee’s job is to polish shoes, another part is to flatter his customers with their grasp of a hidden spiritual depth so often appears missing in modern life. ‘He says I see into his heart’, the poem states flatly, and the reward is a free shine from Mr Lee. That is not the end:

I accept the gift of shiny shoes

and reciprocate with tea-money.

He claims to be the finest shiner in Hong Kong

he’s certainly the best psychologist

I pay fifty bucks over the odds

and leave a happy man.

The happiness of the ‘happy man’ might depend on uncritically enjoying the claims of this ‘psychologist’, to the extent of paying a very high price for shined shoes. Or, perhaps he is grateful to have an excuse to help the elder in a small way. The claims of real intimacy and presence that underscore that happiness are precarious, contingent on the success of a material transaction: the spoken pretence of friendship stand in for unspoken rules of financial need.

Another poem that picks up on a significant absence is ‘Shanghai Street’ by Jennifer Wong. In Cantonese, the words ‘death’ and ‘four’ sound very similar, and for good luck the floors of building, or even blocks, are often labelled without the unfortunate number. The poem links this practice to the elusive names of shops in Yau Ma Tei’s Shanghai Street, about which ‘we suspect foreigners may be confused’. Getting to know their meaning is no easy feat:

When I was a kid I use to think

they were toy shops – all those

paper houses, paper dolls,

paper shirts and even mobile phones.

I didn’t know until the day I saw

Grandmother burned them after purchase.

This makes the surprising suggestion that the experiences of the ‘native’ child and the foreign colonist-tourist are broadly; both are confused by the incongruity of signs and objects, and must come to learn about them as new things. Whatever discovery takes place is hardly satisfying. The physically hollow, flimsy, miniature objects are imbued with an unstated allegorical significance through an act of destruction, an act which leaves us with a ‘riddle’. The final lines, ‘how strange it feels, / things we don’t talk about’, suggests that if death the ‘strange’ centre of growing up, it stands to be attended by a fuller range of strange experience.

Some of the poems in this collection appear do come close to nostalgia, and romanticising an older or younger generation in a way that it is too easy to do. However, coming close to nostalgia is not the same as indulging it, as another poem connected to a location, ‘Ladder Street’ by Leung Ping-Kwan (here appearing in a translation by Gordon T Osing), shows –

It’s got to be magic, old clogs in Ladder Street,

my shadow and I scraping along, clacking back the years,

noting solely ankle spreading to ankle.

Carefree escapades on a street made up of stairs on Hong Kong island could be one kind of ‘magic’, but so could the memory itself, with the shrill ‘scraping’ and ‘clacking’ standing out from a background of ‘shadows’. If memory has any magic its imperfections are all too obvious: it ‘cuts lots of things into silhouettes’, here, a form of selective detail and momentary entertainment. The poem is not just of the loss of detail, but of authentic connection altogether; the second stanza presents the shock of the new:

Then modern buildings shot up, and storm clouds rolled.

I hunkered here in the concrete, felt for my shadow.

In spite of roads above and below, I heard your voice,

a jump-rope song, “the flowers bloomed then, one and ten…”

I could barely make it out for the cars.

Again, experience and memory are not strictly distinguished: if the modern city puts an end to childhood experiences, it also puts an end to their memory. Walter Benjamin offers us another way of thinking about the voices of the past, and chose to describe differences between the Old and New Berlin, in terms of the persistent continuities in speech of tradesmen and women:

When you hear a speech like this, there’s no need to mourn old Berlin, because it can still be found here in the new Berlin, where it’s a indestructible as our speaker’s collar stiffener.

With LPK we may well think of what has been drowned out in Hong Kong, and how Hong Kong has been complicit in drowning it out – but it might make us think of what remains stiff alive, well, and ‘indestructible’ in its historical continuities. As far as this collection of goes, it may be the subtlety of silences that persists, as much as the noisy clack of clogs on concrete.

Joel Swann lives and works in Manchester.

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