Yvonne Wong reads a collection of essays that continues to have something important to say about the liminal spaces of Hong Kong.
Janel Curry and Paul Hanstedt (eds), Reading Hong Kong, Reading Ourselves (City University of Hong Kong Press, 2014), pp.336.
The tried and tired postcard image of Hong Kong – a reddish brown sailboat with boastful, incense-red flags cruising the greyish blue fragrant harbour, surrounded by the greenish hills at the far end of the picture – is still one of the designs of the city’s postal stamps. No doubt, a city chooses its preferred way(s) of (re)presenting itself to the world, and this, we have to bear in mind, is but one lens through which a city can be seen. When we desire something less official, less self-conscious or self-promoting, we might perhaps benefit from glancing through how visitors to the city render on their canvases their recollections of the place. After all, “a city is an endless running collection of commentaries about itself through … visitors who aim to get under the skin of the city,” as Glenn Shive puts it in his preface to Reading Hong Kong, Reading Ourselves (2014). Hong Kong, as an outpost, an entrepôt, a gateway, or, even a getaway, is never short of such “commentaries.” Yet, what pertains to these loaded nouns that wish to capture the multifaceted identities of Hong Kong, spanning her layered history, is the subtle yet persistent undertone of cultural liminality. Reading Hong Kong, Reading Ourselves is a recent example of such “commentaries,” a collection of fourteen writings carefully curated into five sections, penned in a variety of genres, by fourteen Fulbright Scholars from the US, about their experiences in Hong Kong.
Liminality: A brief etymological detour around its meaning
When attempting to define the term “liminal” through a critical lens, it is vital for us not to forget its etymology, while ready-made definitions are easily available, thanks to the rising relevance and popularity of this very word in the past few decades. To save you from the pain of digging, allow me here to simply present what’s been dug up, a brutal simplification of the meaning of this contentious term, solely from its etymology. The word “liminal” points to a space or place (however you want to define or distinguish the two) where a limit or a boundary is drawn and/or crossed, where another dimension or horizon can be reached and/or entered. Hong Kong, with its intriguing past, has been the place where cultures play around with and step into one another’s boundaries, a quality that fits this version of the definition well.
Crossing cultural liminality
Back to the story. Encountering and entering a liminal space like Hong Kong, the scholars who contribute to this collection, each with their own cultural positions and disciplinary backgrounds, felt compelled to cross their own boundaries during their year-long stay in the city. Neither short-term visitors nor fleeting holidaymakers, these scholars were temporary residents of Hong Kong. The implication of this condition of stay was that they had to make sense of, if not grapple with, the particular way of life of a foreign place, day in and day out. Being Americans in Hong Kong, trying to see the values that underpin the meanings that govern the how and the why of how Hong Kong people behave, was the first terrain these ‘gweilos’ and ‘gweipors’ had to navigate.
Examples of this sort abound throughout the collection, and the first entry of the collection, “The Experience of a Food Lover and Nutritional Scientist,” written by the nutritionist Hedley Freake, reflects this point deliciously with his daring food-hunting trips. In “testing” his “food boundaries,” Freake not only ventured to Sheung Wan for snake soup and Mong Kok for fermented bean curd, but deep into Yuen Long to “order a large bowl of a sexual organ stew” (10–11). While the food “was rather tasty, rich, and savory,” what amused the food scientist was “how much the other customers were enjoying the sight of this bunch of white men taking great and public delight in eating sexual organs” (10–11, author’s emphasis). Here, who or what, was the subject of consumption, one can’t help but wonder.
Less appetizing, but perhaps more visible a marker of the cultural difference that foreigners in Hong Kong tend to notice, is Hongkongers’ “civil inattention” when compared with other Western cultures. As David Jaffee notes in his chapter, “Street Level Sociology in Hong Kong,” one example of this is the gesture of holding the door. While it is a common piece of civil etiquette practiced in the West (so much so that it is an almost unthinking gesture for most), it is mostly absent among Hong Kong people. While Jaffee is rather critical in his tone when analysing this habitual local behaviour, he also probes deeply into the larger cultural and ideological context that forms this distinctively local behaviour: the intensely competitive culture local children are raised in that hinders them from trusting others (33).
Also, as most of the contributors are academics, what they had to relearn in local university classrooms and academic settings was also indicative of their courage and tactfulness when crossing cultural boundaries. One common wound that many of these American scholars bore when teaching, or trying to communicate with, their audience in local university settings was the failure in actively engaging their audience. (A pain that local teachers know by heart.) “Poker faces,” silent rooms, frozen or even hostile atmospheres, were the common consequences when they threw a question at the audience. Yet, through trial and error, reflecting and re-tuning, most of these once affronted scholars came to realise the importance of inviting the audience “to share good ideas that they had heard offered by” their peers, instead of asking them to directly give their answers, as Susan Gano-Phillips puts it in her chapter, “Learning and Teaching in Hong Kong” (270). In this way, these scholars cautiously “respected the cultural traditions that suggest bringing attention to oneself is boastful and unproductive for the harmony of the group” (270), a cultural mindset that is very different to the common American one. These attempts at cultural exploration, comparison, evaluation, negotiation, and adaptation constitute the pieces throughout the collection, in one way or the other.
Crossing disciplinary liminality
Hong Kong is used to receiving commentaries or narratives from foreign visitors, yet this collection of commentaries stands out amongst the other countless writings of this sort. Its unique feature lies in how these pieces are composed. Specifically, it is important to understand from what vantage points the city has been observed, analysed, and rendered. When these temporary locals have, each in their own ways, crossed a cultural limin, the writings themselves demonstrate a crossing of disciplinary liminality. Upon reading terms such as “cultural relativism” and Simmel’s concept of the “Stranger,” readers know that they are hearing the voice of a sociologist. Smirking at anecdotes about the dux from one of the oldest missionary schools on the Hong Kong Island, it is clear that a historian is fondly recalling his childhood spent in Hong Kong. Indeed, this last chapter of the collection is a warm piece about how this form of colonial education differs from the Western systems, seen through the delicate haze of memory, told in the seasoned tone of an established academic from the US.
Other academic disciplines represented in the collection include linguistics, philosophy, and geography. To give another layer of flavour to a collection that might otherwise seem heavily academic in its selection, it includes a lively entry written by a practitioner of the Alexander Technique – a form of alternative therapy that “teaches improved posture and movement, which is believed to help reduce and prevent problems caused by unhelpful habits.” Given this particular professional background, the writer listened to how bodies talk in Hong Kong’s public spaces. It did not take long for her to instinctively sense the way that local people move in public spaces, coining the term “Hong Kong weave” as a means to describe the almost liquid flow of human bodies traversing through the city space. Fusing together the academic with the professional, the formal with the casual or even the creative (one of the pieces is a short story appropriating the Western classic Hamlet!), the collection offers a buffet of entry points through which readers can embark on their own journeys of savouring the myriad sights and sounds of the city.
Stories record, or render, a select(ed) moment in time, and this work is no exception. This collection of writings, with the cultural and disciplinary liminality it crosses, is a kaleidoscopic set of mirrors reflecting not only the splendour of the city, but also that of the visitors, in their multitude of lights and colours.
Yvonne Wong holds a PhD in English Literature from Durham University, UK. She has published on Dorothy Richardson and popular culture. She has taught literature in the UK and in Hong Kong, and is currently teaching at Hong Kong Baptist University. Her research interests include modernism, phenomenology, women writers, space and place in literature and inter-arts studies. A cat and art lover who enjoys the company of nature and anything beautiful.