Place: Hong Kong

Reading Resolutions from the Asymptote Team (Part III)

More reading resolutions for 2017

Anna Aresi, Educational Arm Assistant

At the cost of sounding corny, I will say that my reading resolution for 2017 is more than partly informed by the prospect of becoming a mother this forthcoming June. As our baby will grow up in a trilingual environment, with Italian and Cantonese spoken at home and English everywhere else, doing research on trilingualism has intensified my awareness of the absolute need of being global citizens and global readers of the world, not only for one’s own benefit, but also as a major responsibility towards future generations.

To begin with, then, I wish to fill my own embarrassing lack of knowledge of Chinese literature —my husband’s from Hong Kong—perhaps beginning with Tong Xian Zhu’s play The Peony Pavillion, my father-in-law’s all time favorite, and moving on to Tong Xian Zhu’s Not Written Words, which figures in World Literature Today’s list of notable translations of 2016. Xi Xi’s work has been characterized as a portrayal of the “constantly shifting urban space of Hong Kong—between tradition and modernity—as well as the multilingual zones created by its Mandarin and Cantonese speakers;” I can’t wait for literature to do its magic and transport me to a land that I haven’t, so far, visited in person but to which I already feel deeply connected.

anna

Moving from my family’s terrain to the world at large, but staying in Asia, Korean literature will also be a protagonist of my 2017: if reading Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was a defining existential experience of my 2016 and Jung Young Su’s Aficionados, featured in the Autumn 2016 issue of Asymptote, made me laugh my belly off, I can only expect good things from Korea, perhaps beginning with poetry. The anthology Brother Enemy, curated by Ji-moon Suh, is a collection of poems written by twenty-one authors during and following the Korean War, attractive and promising by virtue of its very humane title: what could change if we recognized the enemy as our brother? I hope to find some illuminating words in this volume.

Finally, I wish to follow Daniel Hahn’s appeal and read more children’s book in translation (again, also in preparation for future evenings of bedtime adventures). A simple peek at Pushkin Press’s Children Books page, to name but one, opens up a whole new world; in this case I let my inner child pick the book by its cover and my attention was caught by Tomiko Inui’s The Secret of the Blue Glass (another Asian book! I promise I didn’t do it on purpose!). The scene opens in a dusty library in a Tokyo suburb…what beginning could be more auspicious?

*****

Read More Recommendations from Asymptote Staff:

Dispatch from PEN Hong Kong: In Conversation with Jason Y. Ng

Hopelessness is not constructive—it plays into the hands of the oppressor.

PEN Hong Kong was officially re-launched on 13 November, as Asymptote noted recently. Originally established in the 1980s by expatriate writers in Hong Kong, the organisation later became inactive as key members left the city. A group of professionals working in the field of the written word revived the organisation in September in response to the increasingly hostile environment for free expression in Hong Kong.

Numerous incidents have indicated that freedom of speech in Hong Kong is declining after the handover. PEN America released two reports on the issue, in 2015 and 2016, to explore the deterioration of press freedoms and free expression in the city, as reflected in the increasing economic and political pressures targeted at pro-democracy mass media. The appalling abduction of five Hong Kong booksellers by Chinese authorities that was exposed earlier this year drew further attention to the issue. Self-censorship is also aggravating publishers, media, bookshops, and even academia. PEN Hong Kong’s members take up the mission of celebrating and promoting free, creative expression to guard against political suppression and censorship by uniting advocates who believe in the power of words in Hong Kong and China.

Asymptote’s Hong Kong Editor-at-Large recently interviewed PEN Hong Kong’s President, Jason Y. Ng, who tells us about the establishment of the organisation, its recent activities, future goals, and challenges.

Charlie Ng (CN): Defending freedom of speech in Hong Kong is definitely urgent and necessary in today’s political climate. Could you please introduce the current network of PEN Hong Kong members to us? What is your vision for developing that network in order to achieve the missions of the organisation?

Jason Y. Ng (JN): We’re very fortunate to have a number of prominent authors, academics, and journalists serving on our executive committee. They also represent a good balance between local Chinese writers and expatriates working and living in Hong Kong.

We encourage anyone interested in PEN Hong Kong to check out their bios at our website and to find out how to join us. An organization is only as good as its members, and we’re eager to recruit members of the literary community who are committed to promoting literature – in both Chinese and English – and defending free expression in Hong Kong.

CN: Would you like to tell us about PEN Hong Kong’s participation in the 82th PEN Congress?

JN: We sent three delegates – award-winning poet Nicholas Wong, seasoned journalist Kris Cheng, and human rights advocate Patrick Poon – to the Galicia Congress this past October. All three are founding members of PEN Hong Kong. They participated in several panel discussions, announcing the revival of our chapter and giving updates on the freedom of expression situation in Hong Kong. We were heartened to see that there was a lot of interest among the global audiences in the missing booksellers controversy and Beijing’s tightening grip on civil liberties in Hong Kong.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

The latest literary news from South Africa, Nigeria, Hong Kong, and Singapore

Catch up with latest book festivals, translation awards, and advances in the fight against free speech restrictions with the Asymptote team this week. Editor-at-Large for Hong Kong Charlie Ng reports on the a new PEN branch, while Executive Assistant Theophilus Kwek sends us the scoop on graffiti-poetry and more from Singapore. Editor-at-Large Alice Inggs knows the best new publications coming out of South Africa and Nigeria and takes us along on the lit festival circuit. 

Editor-at-Large Charlie Ng Chak-Kwan calls in the news from Hong Kong:

PEN Hong Kong was re-established this September. The official launch of the organisation was held on 13 November to introduce its mission, work, and founding members to the community of writers, journalists, translators, publishers, and those interested in writing or concerned with free expression in Hong Kong. The re-launch at this timely moment is aimed at addressing the restraints on freedom of speech in Hong Kong in face of tightening political control from the Chinese Government, seen in such incidents as the disappearance of five members of a Hong Kong bookstore that sold publications critical of Chinese leaders. Additionally, Beijing’s interpretation of Article 104 of the Basic Law has led to the disqualification of two newly elected pro-democratic Legislative Councillors.

Besides featuring the launch of PEN Hong Kong, the Hong Kong International Literary Festival this year put together a broad range of activities for all literary lovers. Hong Kong-born, Chinese-British poet and winner of the 2015 T. S. Eliot Prize Sarah Howe read from her poetry collection Loop of Jade and gave a lecture at the University of Hong Kong. Meanwhile, renowned Chinese Misty poet Bei Dao also gave a poetry reading in the Festival. The two panels, ‘Lost and Found in Translation I and II‘, shed light on the significance of translation for poetry, fiction, and cultural exchange.

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Nicholas Wong talks love, the body, desire, and post-colonialism

No one can ever demolish heteronormativity, but there’s no need to reaffirm and reinforce it.

At the 28th Lambda Literary Awards earlier this year, Nicholas Wong walked away with a top-place finish in the Gay Poetry category of this important international LGBT literary prize. Born and educated in Hong Kong, Wong chose to write poetry in English—a second language he would rather consider “alternative native.” The innovative space between linguistic familiarity and alienation is Wong’s poetic playground, and the award-winning collection Crevasse, slim as it is, touches upon a wide range of topics from love, the body, and desire to post-colonialism, identity, and the social implications of writing about selfhood. Asymptote’s Hong Kong Editor-at-Large, Charlie Ng, conversed with the poet over email about themes in Crevasse, the significance of the Hong Kong context, translation, what’s next, and more.

Charlie Ng (CN): Crevasse begins with a quotation from Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception. The philosopher sees the body as expression and vice versa; together they form the horizon connecting the self to the world. Your poetry explores much about embodiment and language.

(For example: 

“Use a pen to write on the body,/then use the body to unbind/the heart. Roll the heart over a few pages of grammar”—“Trio With Hsia Yü”

 “The porn star died the day the Yew dropped,/lots of iku/kimochi/kinky chin chin and noun-and-verb confusion between his legs.”—“Star Gazing”

“Body as a verb     in/-transitive in/transit     from one/arm to an/other”—“Light Deposit”) 

How do you understand the relationship between language and the body? How would you describe the interplay of the two in your poetry?

Nicholas Wong (NW): Some poems in Crevasse are concerned with what the body (hence desire and sexuality) means to me both as a gay man and a gay poet. Hasn’t the body become a new language for most gay men? Look at the boom of gym culture, especially in Asia, in the past few years. A new sense of the aesthetics of the body and the way it is presented has been taking shape on different social apps. And if we do speak more with the body (parts) than we do verbally, how are we going to translate this transition into creative language? What does the body require to be “embodied?” The body is always the most immediate plane of loneliness—at least this was what I believed in when I was putting poems together for Crevasse. Among the examples you cited, I particularly like the poem “Star Gazing,” which was written to pay tribute to the late Japanese porn star Masaki Goh. I wanted to know how old he was when he passed, but the Internet had no information about it. It was very sad. His body has been fantasized, filmed and desired, but there was no official source that confirmed its origin. This trouble always opens up a creative realm. 

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The Day I Got Hit on the Head with Books by Chan Koonchung

"When the population of book readers shrank to a critical point, all book readers in the town realized that they had acquired a sixth sense."

Translator’s note: The story was inspired by an accident that took place on 4 February 2008, in which the owner, Law Chi-wah, of a famous independent bookshop in Hong Kong, Ching Man Bookshop, was buried alive by almost two dozen boxes of books when he was sorting the books in the bookshop’s warehouse. Law Chi-wah was a veteran Hong Kong culturati. He took over the running of Ching Man Bookshop in 1988. Ching Man Bookshop suspended its retail business in 2006 because of rental issues, and its book stock was moved to a warehouse while its publishing business continued. A new location for reopening the bookshop had already been arranged before the accident. Ching Man Bookshop was permanently closed upon the death of Law. The story also pays tributes to independent bookshops in Hong Kong, as running an independent bookshop is a very difficult task in the city with its high property rent. More independent bookshops have moved to higher floors in old buildings or even closed down due to financial stress.

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Deng3. Cantonese for hit, throw, strike, smash or toss with force 

At some point today, a pile of books fell on my head. According to the Society’s memorandum, if one of its members is hit on the head with books, that person is to report, record, and file his case immediately and go to the designated location for emergency treatment. The European grammar of the memorandum’s written Chinese phrases this in the passive voice as “being hit with books,” as if there is another subject, such as a person, who is doing the throwing. But this time, books simply fell on my head. The books themselves were the subject. Whether I was hit as defined is hard to say; I am not good at grammar. Maybe a certain unwitting action of mine triggered, or even my long-term habitual pretense eventually led to a chain reaction, the butterfly effect, quantitative and qualitative changes etc. that caused the books above my head inevitably to fall on me at a certain time. As such, I was the one who hit myself, I become the subject who threw the books. Although in this case, to say the books “hit” me is somewhat inappropriate; they “fell on” or, better, “smashed” me. But who cares about such a semantic trifle? The fact is, books have fallen on my head. My metamorphosis is about to take place.

I hesitate to disturb comrades of the Book Preservation Society. I don’t want to cause any trouble for them. They are accustomed to hiding in the city like phantoms. With only a few exceptions, most of them don’t enjoy interacting, let alone attracting attention. Only when they occasionally bump into each other do they greet themselves timidly, like hedgehogs in winter that can only touch each other hastily, who want to snuggle for warmth but are put off by a greater fear of being hurt by others’ spines. Sorry, passive voice again.

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