Jun 07, 2012|
My parents came to Hong Kong in ‘49. That was the year I was born, and that was also the year the People’s Republic of China was born. My parents were intellectuals, so they didn’t bring in enough money, but brought a lot of books. They first settled in Aberdeen… They grew vegetables and had chickens.
I read modern literature and a lot of the classics in translation... My mother used to recite poetry in Cantonese. It’s very playful—having fun, singing a song. It’s not like a lecture you have to memorize.
In primary school, I moved to North Point. I came from an old-fashioned, traditional family, so the modern way of life had an attraction to me—the freedom of the city, the choices.
I walked around to find out more about the city. I found it different from things I read in classical and modern Chinese literature—they always write about the villages.
I started writing in high school. No one from past generations wanted to write about Hong Kong. They were immigrants; they thought it was a transitional place.
But we grew up here.
In classical Chinese poetry, we have these seven- or five-character structures. But we were influenced by Modernist poetry. I read foreign writers like T.S. Eliot and E.E. Cummings. This new form of poetry [free verse] seemed attractive, and convenient for expressing my feelings.
When I graduated from university, I worked for a newspaper for eight years and wrote short stories and a novella. In Hong Kong, you can never survive as a writer.
In the late 60s, I did a series of translations of works including… so-called underground writing from the United States, and lyrics by Bob Dylan which I was totally absorbed with at the time. I guess I was the only one in Hong Kong who subscribed to the Village Voice.
I was regarded as one of the first people to use conversational [language]. Like if you translate Jack Kerouac, you cannot use formal Chinese. It helped me mold my own language.
Latin American literature was a great discovery for me. My first volume of short stories used a kind of magical realism [to write] about Hong Kong. I think people found it very new. You didn’t have to write about factories or soldiers or peasants.
I was interested in issues of identity. A lot of people were worried about what was going to happen after ‘97. What were the things we really treasured and didn’t want to lose? It’s not just [about] a cup of milk tea.
I think Hong Kong is a place that is really misunderstood by all sides—by Taiwan, by the mainland of course, and then by Britain and so forth. They think that Hong Kong people are indifferent, that they don’t care, but I think that they should also understand our particular cultural and political context, that people were not allowed to have a choice, or freedom in elections—not just during the handover.
The government worries that if they talk too much about the differences [between Hong Kong and China], mainlanders will think [the government is] trying to do something against them. But I think it’s important we understand our own culture and heritage.
When I am here, I am critical. But when I am abroad, I try to defend Hong Kong. When we talk about Chinese culture, we should not ignore Hong Kong because it has developed an alternative culture.
I have written poems about yuan-yang, the tea-coffee drink; and poon choi. I wanted to use something substantial to examine Hong Kong culture. I wanted to get back to the streets, to talk about Hong Kong in its post-colonial state—not in a theoretical way but in a down-to-earth way.
As a writer in Hong Kong, you face more problems than other writers in other cities. One problem is that we don’t have a lot of bookstores. A lot of the good Chinese bookstores had to move to the second floor because they couldn’t afford the rent, and now they have [had] to move to the 16th floor because the rent is really impossible.
The mainstream media promotes commercial things—to buy things, to own things, to get brand-name things. Literature is a reflection of what’s happening in the city and how people could live a better life. But less and less people like to read, and don’t believe in the values that exist in literature.
I am taking Chinese medicine, too, [in addition to conventional treatments
for cancer]. I’m in comparative literature, so I do both. The tumor is still there... but it’s under control. So I live with it.
That’s why I continue to write—I don’t have one statement that [describes] what Hong Kong is, so I have to keep going.