Emily Chow-Quesada reviews the Hong Kong Writers Circle’s 16th annual anthology of tales about the city.

Nathan Lauer and Winnie el Chingón (eds.), Masking the City: Hong Kong in Allegory (Hong Kong Writers Circle, 2020), 183pp.

This is the sixteenth anthology of the Hong Kong Writers Circle since its debut in 2005. As the title suggests, this one concerns masks, masking, and allegory in particular. Hong Kong, similar to many other places in the world, finds its mask-clad citizens living side by side under COVID-19. As a matter of fact, just a few months before the first wave of the pandemic, the HKSAR government made it illegal to wear masks without legitimate reasons, to counter the social movement against the extradition law. With many still recovering from the political turmoil and heavily hit by the pandemic, psychologically and financially, the anthology summarises the recent ups and downs (mostly the latter) of the city in one word: mask. This anthology is not for the fainthearted. Jason Y. Ng’s “The Visits,” Chris Maden’s “A Chilling Effect,” Winnie el Chingón’s “Sheep,” and “Ditto, Unicorn” written by an anonymous writer exemplify this quality.

Jason Y. Ng’s “The Visits” tells the story of a social worker dealing with a case of a fourteen-year-old juvenile returning to his home after living with his foster parents for ten years. Such narratives are not uncommon in Hong Kong. Jake, the protagonist, was forced to leave his biological parents because of financial difficulty and domestic violence. Nonetheless, the real tragedy lies in how the seemingly perfect family reunion turns out to be another trauma. Jake’s parents, who promised to retain his “westernised” lifestyle, inherited from his foster parents, find themselves irritated by who their son has become. Even the English name of Jake is an eyesore to them. Domestic violence resumes as a result. The readers are left with the powerless social worker who can do nothing with the case: “The system is broken and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.” In many ways, Jake and his parents are an allegory for Hong Kong and the PRC government. How could Jake readapt to a place, a people, a language, and a lifestyle he is supposed to call “home”?

Upon finishing the anthology, one might be tempted to parallel Chris Maden’s “A Chilling Effect” with Winnie el Chingón’s “Sheep.” Maden’s mysterious protagonist, Winnie, is responsible for supervising “wards of birds” that lay golden eggs in the “Sanctuary.” Chaos begins with a problematic bird, Ping, who comes from “the pre-Sanctuary era, polychromatic days of sensory overload which battered the wards with bizarre and incorrect modes of conduct and thought. When violence was rampant and unsanctioned emotions were rife.” Ping, the “trouble-maker” to Winnie, is given an ironic “choice” – being “chilled or be frozen.” But the most compelling passage depicts Winnie cruelly killing some birds who would like to revolt against her:

She rises, panting. A drip of blood falls from her eyelash, a lump of brain slides off her nose. She shoves the last piece of gore down a drain with her foot. “Let it be understood,” she decrees, “nobody died.” Subdued glances, quivering lips, are the response. “There are no corpses,” she reiterates, pointing at the dais. “So nobody died.” The wards nod. Memories are such plastic things.

Indeed, “memories are such plastic things,” but what is also plastic is reality. How many truths and realities exist in Winnie’s wards? There could be several, but all will be and must be converged to one – one that is endorsed by Winnie. At this point, Maden’s allusion cannot be clearer.

Winnie el Chingón’s “Sheep” echoes Maden’s “A Chilling Effect” in the recurrent sense of the dystopian. The anonymous narrator begins the tale peacefully: “Being in Factory is such a blessing. I have a job, I have regular meals, and I have a place to sleep. Everything is perfect when I work hard enough. I am delighted; in fact, I am honoured to be in Factory.” Being one of the many “sheep” working in “Factory,” the narrator finds herself perfectly content with “following wherever Mother takes us.” “Mother” never appears but the sheep are under constant surveillance of the “watchmen” in a “green uniform, a black helmet,” and “a black gas mask with an exaggerated round ventilator in the middle resembling a pig’s snout.” The narrator later finds herself a former revolt leader of the sheep with her memories removed but only to be brainwashed again by the watchmen:

Naked on the stone-cold slab with my arms raised and my legs spread, my fear of uncertainty is magnified. A man wearing nothing but a mask enters the room … This man behind the pale mask – he has torn off his face to create this mask and then sewn it back on – starts licking me with his slimy tongue. I know who he is; everything is clear now: Grandfather. There is no Mother in Factory. Mother is just the mask offering us an illusion we are under a pair of safe hands. Grandfather is the only one dictating Factory. Everything comes from Grandfather; we are in his game all along.

The sheep, with her memories removed, then starts a normal day as a normal sheep in the Factory and continues her endless loop of servitude. Again, Chingón’s narrative reminds her readers so much of Hong Kong. Yet, before equalising any event or person between the fictive world and the city, it is of outmost importance to remind us that this is an allegory only.

Masks run through many stories in the anthology as a symbol. This is perhaps clearest in “Ditto, Unicorn,” in which the writer literally masks himself and remains anonymous. Similar to Maden’s and Chingón’s stories, the readers are introduced to an unreal setting:

Doctor Moreau seized The Island, where I live, from the Kingdom of Cats in the late 1800s. Under foreign rule the indigenous culture of The Island hybridised with those of its immigrants and occupiers. Over the later twentieth century, Emperor Mao I revolutionised the culture of the nascent Polity Ruled by Cats, turning away from traditional feline folkways, after the Manor Farm model of Animalism. When, at last, sovereignty was handed over to the PRC, The Island was to have remained outside of its Animalist system. By the word of Mao VIII, The Island was to have been ruled by the Law.

The anonymous writer’s use of language brilliantly unfolds the power relations between the Island and the PRC (Polity Ruled by Cats). The sense of delicacy between the Island and the Polity Ruled by Cats cannot be more patent than in the repeated phrase “was to have been.” In fact, the opening seems to be hinting at a careful moulding of historical reality. In a way, this tale summarises the anthology best: “I am afraid to speak plainly. Plain language has become increasingly problematic on the Island: in some specific cases, unsafe to a degree once unthinkable.” With “safety concerns” in mind, it is not difficult to understand the importance of the connotation and denotation of “mask and allegory.” Nonetheless, the question is how many truths and realities can be masked and unmasked?

The Hong Kong Writers Circle has published yet another thrilling and unique anthology of narratives about Hong Kong. As always, the collection of stories not only cuts through but penetrates deep into various dimensions of the city. The past two years are perhaps the most intriguing years in Hong Kong’s history – a time fuelled with uncertainty, anxiety, and despair. I reckon this might be one of the most compelling collections yet published by HKWC, one that reflects and refracts changes brought to the people. A symphony of tales that reveals new emerging realities of Hong Kong.

Emily Chow-Quesada researches on world literature, postcolonial literature, and representations of Africa in Hong Kong. She has published journal articles and book chapters on Anglophone African literature and representation of African cultures. Her current project looks into the representations of blackness in Hong Kong media. She has taught courses in world literature, postcolonial literature, African literature, representations of blackness, and cultural studies. She is also the editor of the “Hong Kong and Chinese Literature and Culture” section of The Hong Kong Review of Books.

One thought on “Masking the City

  1. Pingback: Chris Maden Masking the City

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