Miguel Antonio N. Lizada reviews the latest anthology from the Hong Kong Writer’s Circle.
Alan Smithee (ed.), A Book of Changes (Hong Kong Writers Circle, 2022), 189pp.
Even for those unfamiliar with the anthology’s material of reference, the title of the Hong Kong Writers’ Circle eighteenth anthology A Book of Changes already generates a wealth of connotations and ambiguities. For one, it suggests that this is a trove of creative meditations on living in a city that is indeed undergoing a tremendous amount of change: the burgeoning presence of the Central Government from across the border, the economic and social repercussions of the city’s strict pandemic measures (at the time of the book’s development), and the mass outbound movement of residents seeking a new start and a new life.
The book’s cover features three coins laying on a brick surface. While obviously a visual representation of the divination process of the reference material (more on this later), it is also a reference to loose change. Jingling and clinking inside one’s pockets, loose change allows one quick trips and occasional snacks in the city where larger bills are not accepted and forms of digital currency conk out. As many of us experience, loose change may also be a source of delightful surprise (when paying up in cash, a one-dollar coin lodged between the wallet’s edges completes a clean transaction and saves one the trouble of taking home more coins) or nuisance (a two-dollar coin jamming the washing machine). A reader therefore can treat the pieces in the anthology as loose change itself, that is, each piece granting a quick trip to a writer’s revisioning of the world of Hong Kong leading to a delightful and unexpected surprise of a revelation or perhaps a snapshot of urban life that unsettles one’s experience of living in the so-called Fragrant Harbor.
An initial impression I had when going through the rich and diverse works in A Book of Changes was that there seemed to be an imbalance of “genres.” Of the seventeen pieces, eleven were works of prose fiction. More importantly, virtually half of such fictional works fall under the category conventionally known as “speculative fiction.” While this may simply be circumstantial (that is, the preference of a majority of the anthology’s contributors), the overabundance of prose and more importantly, the speculative tenor that such works adopt tie in nicely with the anthology’s explicitly chosen point of reference and creative framework: the I Ching.
Known also as The Book of Changes, the I Ching is a Chinese divination text that utilizes 64 hexagrams (in this case, six stacked horizontal lines that can either be unbroken to represent yang or broken to represent yin) as starting points for meditations and interpretations for moral, philosophical, and spiritual guidance. The process itself is an interface of chance and control. On the one hand, practitioners, in the past and present, have used stalks, dice, and coins, leaving partially the gift of insight to gravity’s natural sleight of hand. And yet on the other, the practitioner’s interaction with the interpretations in I Ching also makes the whole process a subjective, if not empowering practice of meaning-making: What does it mean for you? In other words, the process of reading the I Ching may itself be a product of speculation and creative interpretation.
The link between the interpretative nature of the I Ching’s creative praxis and the speculative orientation of some of the anthology’s pieces thus works nicely in this regard. One can see that Hong Kong itself has turned into a city straight out of a work of speculative fiction. At the book’s time of writing, residents still masked up and entered places of study, leisure, and work with an app that recorded one’s health status and identification number; this, after a period of disembodied experience of working and learning where one gets berated by his boss in pyjamas while his son takes an exam in another room. The various subjects for these fictionalized demonstrate the extensive range and reach of the anthology’s engagement with actual existing realities in Hong Kong. For instance, SCC Overton’s “The Map” which features an omnipresent apparatus that allows one to replay and revisit moments in the past as well as Stewart McKay’s “Chosen Ones”, a twist of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and perhaps even Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, engage in varying degrees the increasing panoptic and state-controlled paradigms that are slowly but surely curtaining the city. Reena Bhojwani’s comic but also dramatic “The Renewal” on the other hand touches on a poignant theme of “starting over,” a theme meditated on by the filmmakers of the Hong Kong Second Wave, suggesting an existentialist continuity between the immediate Handover artists and those who live in its aftermath decades later.
Even the works with a more realist tenor still adopt in varying degrees a more speculative orientation, in that they creatively reimagine societal conditions that already exist. For instance, Julien Pantz’s “Black Olives,” Neil Frank Shastry’s “There are Better Lives Out There” and Allan Westphall’s “Living with the Gods” feature individuals constantly in search of someone or something. In a city constantly in flux and perpetually in motion and yet simultaneously locked in place, as in the once laughable and aborted “Cruise to Nowhere” tour, the perennial search for constancy and permanence becomes an unfortunate journey that often indeed ends up everywhere and nowhere. The four poems (in content and form) in the anthology contribute to this creative refraction of the dystopic tendencies.
One challenge a reader may encounter when reading the short stories is distinguishing whether the work falls under the category of realism and speculative fiction. For instance, Overton’s “The Map” begins with an image of the protagonist, Jack “following himself down the street.” Such an image at first could be interpreted as a metaphysical of solitude and spiritual fragmentation. That is not however the case because as we will see later, this ability is one of the features of The (so-called) Map. When Dominic Sargent writes “Books engulfed the pavement by the Cultural Centre” in his story, “High West,” are the readers supposed to take this literally (as in “The Map”) or is it a hyperbole to describe a book sale? Far from being a case of bad writing, the confusion in terms of genre is in fact a feature of the anthology: the absurdity of life in contemporary in Hong Kong has rendered realism and dystopia indistinguishable from one another.
How can all of these be related to the I Ching? As mentioned earlier, the interface between the reader, the text, and the objects used for cleromancy is a dynamic activity of chance and interpretation. Divination in this respect is not about locating one’s destiny within the stars but coordinating one’s circumstance with the irrational probability of the cosmos. In other words, divination is both an affirmation and restoration of agency against absurdity. A Book of Changes in this way is a collection of voices that respond to the absurdity of the times. Undergirding the speculative tenor of the anthology is a considerable effort of literary language to encapsulate the complexity of present-day Hong Kong. For some, the turn to realism is to make sense of the intangible absurdities of the zeitgeist. For others, to rewrite the city in fantastic turns is to divine a world both familiar and strange in the search for existential comprehension. While it may be criticized as a collection dominated primarily by “expat writing,” the visions and revisions nonetheless form vital voices in the cacophony of sounds that make up a city in constant flux and reinvention.
Miguel Antonio N. Lizada is a Lecturer in the Department of English at The Hang Seng University of Hong Kong. His research areas are Asian literatures in English, Asian popular culture, and queer politics in postcolonial contexts. He is also a creative writer. His creative works have been anthologized in various literary volumes, including Mindanao Harvest 4: A 21st Century Literary Anthology.