Emily Chow reviews a collection of short stories that unfold the various facets of Hong Kong written by writers based in Hong Kong.
Chris Made, Dominic Sargent, and Lilla Csorgo, Hong Kong Highs and Lows (Hong Kong Writers’ Circle, December 2018), 290 pp.
It is not the first time that the Hong Kong Writers’ Circle has published an anthology. This one coming out in festive December is another stunning collection of stories that capture social, cultural, and political realities of contemporary Hong Kong. Composed of 21 stories edited by Chris Maden, Dominic Sargent, and Lilla Csorgo the book boasts contributions from writers with backgrounds that most local HongKongers would call “foreign”. Nonetheless, all of the stories exhibit an intimate knowledge of Hong Kong as they unfold narratives that stride across all sections of Hong Kong life.
Gender is an intriguing issue to several contributions. Take for example, “Higher than Air”. Here, Emily Peddle shows readers the life of a woman who has a complicated relationship with an affluent man. The story is multi-layered in the sense that it explores gender roles through intricate father-daughter and mother-daughter relationships. The mother is the “role model” of the daughter’s project to climb the social ladder, whereas the father does not support the daughter’s ambitions. The divorced parents reflect not only ideological differences but also stark class differences, as reflected in the father’s bitter comments on his daughter’s life:
This is the problem with your world. I always hated how easily your mother was sucked into it. You too. All this social climbing. It’s unhealthy. The way you live… the way I’ve heard you speak to people who help you. It’s just… excessive. It’s not like my little girl.
When the heart-broken daughter comes face-to-face with her ultimate failure in moving up the social ladder, the sense of disillusionment and powerlessness of women being trapped in Hong Kong’s capitalist society could not be more explicit.
The recurrent use of untranslated Cantonese words in the anthology is another notable feature that colours the anthology. In “A Whisper that Guides her,” a story co-written by Reena Bhojwani and Chris Maden, Cantonese words are employed to capture the tone of Hong Kong. Narrating how the protagonist is guided by ancestors during the Hungry Ghost Festival in lunar July, the delicate details transform the haunting atmosphere of the festival to a time and space that allows connections and communication to be made across generations. Interestingly, Bhojwani’s and Maden’s story not only unfolds the rituals of Hong Kong but also offers a note on its politics. Uncle Kwok, the reader is told, was one of the many who made his way to Hong Kong because of Cultural Revolution. The protagonist, Ah-Ping, then realises that he “was like a suckling pig to the Communists; one that they felt they could easily devour.” Although politics is not a major focus of Bhojwani and Maden, details such as this certainly reminds readers of the long and tangled history of Hong Kong and China.
Similar to “A Whisper that Guides Her,” “The Trade Deficit” also touches on politics but in a much more explicit manner. Dr Tse Yuzai researches in medicine in a company in China. On a trip to Hong Kong, he secretly arranged to meet an American consulate, Andy, to sell his newly invented drug in exchange for his family’s residency in the US. However, it takes only a short time for Tse to realise that both Andy and a man who claims to be the Consulate General are in fact Chinese spies:
Andy stepped back and then launched his fist forward pumping it like a piston into my guts. And then he opened the hand and slapped me hard in the face. He said in flawless Mandarin, “You pathetic traitor. You disgust me. After everything the mother country has done for you.” He spoke into a microphone to distant listeners. “The interrogation is complete. He’s made a full confession. I’ll bring him in. Bring the vehicle around the back road to collect us. I’m afraid he put up a bit of a fight, and lost consciousness.”
The scene is undoubtedly a brutal betrayal of Tse’s American dream, but the resonance of this stunning plot twist actually lies in the political anxiety that is getting ever stronger in Hong Kong. What is the real identity of that man? Is he a man to be trusted? This story is brilliant in highlighting one of the worst political nightmares for Hongkongers.
Hong Kong is undeniably experiencing rapid changes politically, socially, and culturally. But if there is any essence that lies at the core of the city amidst all these changes, capitalism is definitely one of them. In “Night Fugue,” Laura Ruggeri portrays how changes and memory are interwoven together through the story of two friends – one who has committed suicide and the other, the narrator, mourning her through her memories. Rather than simply presenting nostalgic sentiments, Ruggeri cleverly contrasts the stillness of the death of the narrator’s friend with the imagery of a transient Hong Kong:
The places we frequented religiously, with their high priests the DJs and barmen, have either disappeared under the wrecking ball or morphed into shops, restaurants, upscale lounges. I had assumed that these places would be more permanent than the people we met there. How wrong I was. In Hong Kong, transience applies to both people and places because there is nothing more sacred than the maximization of profit. The urban fabric of this city has been likened to a magnetic tape that can be erased and reused, leaving no traces of previous uses. But have my memories also been written over and erased? How do I hold on to them, when there are no anchors left?
In the face of the loss of a close friend, the narrator cannot help but wonder how insignificant her death is in a city that is interested most in the making money. The narrative is intriguing and echoes the concerns of people living in the city – how far are we going to go in this capitalist pursuit? How should one situate oneself in this era?
All in all, the Hong Kong Writers Circle has published yet another anthology of short stories that is very much needed in the city. Capturing the heated debates and concerns of contemporary Hong Kong, the book is a collage that presents various landscapes of Hong Kong. It is indeed a kaleidoscope that juxtaposes different facets of the city. The bravery and passion of the editors and publisher in presenting stories fully engaged with political, cultural, and power discourse is one that must continue to be seen in Hong Kong.
Emily Chow holds a PhD in English (Literary Studies) from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. She has published journal articles and book chapters on Anglophone African literature and taught courses in postcolonial literature, African Nobel laureates in literature, and representations of blackness in Asia. Her research interests include postcolonial literature, literary theory, and philosophy and literature. She is now working on a project that looks into the representations of blackness in media in Hong Kong and China. She is also the editor of the Hong Kong and Chinese Literature and Culture section of the Hong Kong Review of Books.