Long Live Hong Kong Poetry: Conversations with Jason Eng Hun Lee and Jennifer Wong
“Is that a country?” “A city?” “Part of China?”
As a Scotland-based, mixed-race writer with Hong Kong heritage, these are a few of the questions I get frequently asked when I mention my roots. And truthfully, they are difficult questions for me to answer. There is an ever-widening gap between the responses I want to give and the responses that I feel are truthful. At the same time, as the political situation escalates in the region, it’s hard to know exactly what to do, as a member of the wider diaspora, to make any shred of difference. I was recently in the audience for an online poetry event organised by Poetry OutLoud HK, a Hong Kong based, predominantly English-language poetry group, featuring writers both local to Hong Kong and international, and headlined by UK-based writer, translator and reviewer Jennifer Wong.
After the event, I talked with Jason Eng Hun Lee, co-ordinator for Poetry OutLoud, lecturer at Hong Kong Baptist University and author of the time-and-place-spanning poetry collection Beds in the East (Eyewear, 2019).
JASON ENG HUN LEE was born in the UK and is a poet of mixed British and Chinese-Malaysian ancestry. He has been published and anthologised in the UK, Hong Kong, Singapore, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2010 and was a finalist for the Hong Kong University Prize (2010) and runner-up for the Melita Hume Prize (2012).
JENNIFER WONG is a writer and translator who grew up in Hong Kong and is now living in the UK. 回家 Letters Home was named a Wild Card choice by the Poetry Book Society and she is also the author of Goldfish (Chameleon Press, 2013) and the pamphlet Diary of a Miu Miu Salesgirl (Bitter Melon Poetry, 2019). In 2014 she received the Young Artist Award in Literary Arts from the Hong Kong Arts Development Council and she was also the runner-up in the Bi’an Writers Awards, 2018.
SWK: How would you describe a typical OutLoud event to an outsider?
JEHL: OutLoud events range from big featured sets to small intimate gatherings, depending on the venue and occasion. We’ve had some big launches of anthologies and individual collections in the past, and some small intimate workshops numbering less than 10. Our monthly open mics are very welcoming to outsiders, as we love to encourage people to share their work. We have a number of revolving emcees who control how the event is run, but in general the open mics are split into two rounds, with either a featured set, a round robin, or workshop proceedings, followed by a second round where latecomers, those with extra poems to read, or even writers penning their work during the break, share their work.
SWK: Given OutLoud’s emphasis on performative / open-mic style events, what do you think the advantages are to giving literature a live voice in front of an audience?
JEHL: Well, I’ve certainly benefited from my 15 year association with OutLoud and our sister group, Peel Street Poetry. In my opinion, there’s no substitute for a live reading. Being able to stand in front of a group of discerning audience members and carry a poem throughout trains you in so many different skill sets. Increasing your confidence, learning to gauge and respond to the audience’s mood, eliciting different emotions in them, judging your words against the page — these are all tremendously useful for anyone starting out with their poetry. Whilst there still remains a split between what might be called slam or performance poets, versus poets who work more traditionally with the page, I think both camps can learn from each other. Particularly with newer poets who are still experimenting with the medium, I always encourage my students who’ve shown interest in poetry to give their work a live reading, as it seems to accelerate their learning curve by a wide margin. I think that’s part of what the community offers — a sense of validation, as well as a support network and the chance to write with a regular performance date and venue in mind.
SWK: From a Western perspective it feels like there has been an increase in international media attention on the role of literature in HK in recent years, thanks in part to poetic placards at events like the Umbrella Revolution, the written work of activists such as Joshua Wong and the ‘disappearances’ of booksellers. Has this been felt within the HK and/or OutLoud poetry scene as well? And if so, how has poetry there been impacted?
JEHL: Well, events in the city always have a way of seeping through into the poetry, however obliquely, but yes, the media spotlight on Hong Kong has certainly prompted many of our community members to write in response, and to help round out the narrative of what is ‘really’ going on here in the city. Some of the poems are written directly in response to specific episodes, others are more reflective and wistful, but the tone of the poems certainly seems a lot more urgent than in the past. As you’ve said, there’s been a big uptake in visibility for Hong Kong poetry, whether this is by local, expatriate or diasporic poets, and part of that comes down to the effort by individual poets, academics and editors to use literature to help navigate these tensions we’re seeing here. There’s also been a lot more dissemination of work via online venues which have helped push Hong Kong into other literary spaces globally, and I think this more than anything has really helped the scene grow and connect to other people and places.
Now, with the recent passing of the National Security Law, there’s a lot of apprehension about how it will impact poetry and be used as a tool for suppressing free speech, which is still, at least technically, guaranteed under the Basic Law. I’ve already seen evidence of ‘forced self-censorship’ amongst friends and community members, and the worry is that even in English-language venues (which might still be seen as a fairly marginal space in Hong Kong), the scope for discussing politics in the city might get narrower and narrower. Whilst OutLoud remains committed to freedom of expression in all its forms, I sometimes wonder how we can afford to operate in this climate of fear, given our responsibilities to the wider collective and the venues that host us. I guess it’s easy enough to read a poem in an intimate setting, but print and online publications, anything that has permanence really, may eventually suffer from some form of erasure or censorship, and I think that is where the current lines are being drawn in terms of what is or should be permissible under this new law. It’s a very depressing time for everyone, so the least that I and my fellow emcees can do is ensure a safe space for all our poets and listeners to share and discuss their ideas, and, ultimately find some small solace in the words they write.
SWK: Is there such a thing as a ‘Hong Kong poem’ or ‘Hong Kong poet’ identity? Would you say there were any common themes or approaches to practice, for instance?
JEHL: Probably many people before me have been asked this exact question, or a similar variant of it, but personally I always find the moniker of a ‘Hong Kong poem’ continually elusive. I guess there’s still an unspoken categorization between local and international perspectives on the city, which itself can seem quite blurry, given that some of our more ‘successful’ (however you define that) poets are not writing purely from within the geographical space that we would call Hong Kong. Initially, I think the conundrum came down as much to sample size as anything else, as we had so few poets of the previous generation who managed to break through into a wider readership, like Leung Ping Kwan and Louise Ho for instance. I think in some cases we are still searching for that quintessential Hong Kong poem, though with the increased number of poets from or with affiliation to Hong Kong today, there are so many different Hong Kong imaginaries, each of which captures something that we can all readily identify as coming from the city.
As for ‘Hong Kong poet’, I find the term even more perplexing, particularly as we have the additional handicap of language to deal with, and the crossovers between English and Cantonese poetry is still fundamentally underdeveloped, though I think this has been changing slowly with the work of bilingual magazines and anthologies. There’s a perception, which is not entirely untrue, that the expatriate scene remains indifferent to events in Hong Kong, or are at least cool and detached from the everyday realities that the local Cantonese-speaking Hongkongers experience. I’d temper that with the very real emergence of a new generation of Hong Kong poets, many of whom have lived or studied overseas, who are comfortable expressing themselves in these spaces we’ve created, and who I see as the future stakeholders and organizers of OutLoud.
Probably for all the reasons I’ve mentioned above, I often choose to define myself as a transnational mixed British and Chinese-Malaysian poet with roots in Hong Kong, which gives me the freedom to write on a whole myriad of topics without having to pigeon-hole myself. That said, I’ve committed to writing directly about Hong Kong in my next few collections Hongkongopoly and The Lost City. Having now lived here longer than anywhere else, I think it’s time I do right by the city that I live in and call home, for better or for worse.
SWK: How important do you see digital connection between international poets specifically for those with HK connections, and are there any plans in place for more similar events?
JEHL: Well, OutLoud has been a part of the HK literary scene for over 20 years now, and the scene has changed a lot since OutLoud came onto the scene shortly after the Handover in 1997, in large part because there are other organizations and events that have sprung up in the intervening period. That said, I think OutLoud still has a lot to offer the community besides its longevity and early history. As a fairly transient city, we’ve seen many talented poets, both experienced and emerging, come and go, and I thought it’d be a shame to lose all that energy and investment that they’ve put into the scene. Also, with the virus putting a stop to many of our live performances, it made sense for us to follow in the footsteps of other organizations and open up our organization to readers from overseas, and I think that’s helped us clarify who we are and how we can best contribute to the city. We’ll still host our intimate monthly gatherings of course, but in terms of future plans, we’ll add more international readings on an ad hoc basis, linking our current members and attendees with veteran OutLouders from a number of locations such as the UK, the US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and wherever else people end up.
SWK: HK is a place of many languages and cultures. How are predominantly English-language lit spaces, like OutLoud in particular, viewed and/or utilised within such a diverse range of people and backgrounds?
JEHL: It’s true to say that Hong Kong as a place contains many languages, and sometimes the split between the Cantonese-language majority of Hong Kong and the more functional language of English can be hard to reconcile, but I do hope that OutLoud can still be seen as a gathering point for people of diverse cultures and backgrounds. We do operate predominantly on an English-language platform, though we’ve held events with a focus on poetry in other languages to great success, and we’ve never turned away anyone wanting to read a Pablo Neruda or Li Bai in their original language. Perhaps people still associate OutLoud with the expat crowd, but we’ve become far more than just a collective of teachers, academics, and other elite professions. Indeed I don’t think we were ever that to begin with, but I hope that perception will keep shifting over time.
SWK: On a more personal note, the older generation of my family migrated from HK to the UK in the 1940s/50s along with many others. Growing up in the younger generation, I had a particular image of HK that was informed by their wartime and pre-war experiences and whenever I went over I realised how different things were from that image. Given your own mixed/diaspora background, do you see any differences between the way places like HK are depicted in diaspora poetry as opposed to poetry written by residents and/or locals?
JEHL: I think if you conduct a deep reading of the poetry of those who now live abroad versus those who are in Hong Kong, you’ll find a few subtle differences. Local writers (including expatriate writers) are perhaps burdened by that sense of representation, especially in a fast-paced, continually hollowed out space like Hong Kong, which can sometimes verge on the surreal. There’s also that sense of having to deal more directly with the colonial/postcolonial legacy of the city, which can lead to varying ‘anxieties of influence’ amongst poets and a dilemma in terms of who their ideal readership should be. Perhaps for reasons of creating a more diverse audience, those who’ve published in the UK, US and elsewhere tend to play, however subconsciously, on the contact zones between cultures, the displacement of home and past ancestral experiences and so forth. These are perhaps becoming more and more of a tired cliche in some quarters, but the model seems to hold for many writers, especially those trying to gain a foothold in the market with their first collections.
SWK: Your own poetry collection, Beds in the East, speaks a lot of movements between East/West, time, place and generational travel. Do you have any advice for other writers who may want to explore similar themes, but perhaps find it difficult to pick a starting point?
JEHL: I’d say probably the best thing to do is to write freely with whatever comes to mind, and then gradually let the poems settle themselves into a sequence. A lot of it will be grounded on subjective, personal experience at first. I found that I wrote more vividly of my past childhood experiences when I was physically removed from those surroundings. So, when I first settled in Hong Kong in 2006, I found it easier to recollect my early years in Borneo with the fresh monsoon rains and the very multicultural neighbourhood I grew up in. Likewise, it was easier for me to transport myself back into my adolescent period in the UK and the rites of passage that led me to where I am today. This isn’t surprising to the diasporic writer, but it does give you a sense of self-positioning in the world and allow you to think of this idea of not being at home. The other piece of advice I’d give is to not be afraid to go ‘out of your lane’ as it were; there’s a certain magic in trying to excavate spaces outside of the self. As long as it’s respectful of other cultures or situations, it can help generate greater empathy in the poet and the reader and enlarge one’s curiosity for the world. That’s what I would like to encompass with my own writing, though I understand that everyone will have their own point of view and differing levels of comfort with this.
Following on from my conversation with Jason, I also had an opportunity to sit down with Jennifer Wong and talk about her recent collection, 回家 Letters Home (Nine Arches Press, 2020), an incredible exploration of place, identity and culture both in Hong Kong and in the UK.
SWK: How did you come to write poetry? Was it a natural process or something you felt you had to slowly discover for yourself?
JW: I find poetry a natural medium for me because of its brevity: I like the way each word carries so much power and weight. I also find it interesting to experience a new identity when writing in English, which isn’t my mother tongue. I find it natural in the sense that it is a genre that comes more naturally to me. But writing in a very precise way comes with practice, learning and patience, because it entails a lot of thinking: how to translate ideas, how to pack everything into those lines, how to also make those poems my own.
SWK: Is there any such thing as a ‘Hong Kong poem’ or ‘Hong Kong poet’ identity? Would you say there were any common themes or approaches to practice, for instance?
JW: This is a fascinating question. I think by evoking a sense of the local place or language or community, some poems can trigger the reader to think about or reimagine Hong Kong in some way. And by that I don’t mean that the poets are necessarily based in Hong Kong, but that their work can bring out certain features of Hong Kong or translate their concerns about the city.
I think the themes or approaches/forms for these poems are constantly changing as well. The Hong Kong poems I used to read when I grew up used to be more about culture, family and food, for example. Some poets write more about the Handover and Hong Kong as a colony in transition. Nowadays, quite a lot of poems from or about Hong Kong may explore the growing consciousness of the people who live there and their values, and they may try to understand the sense of divisive society we have arrived at. And because of the bilingual nature of Hong Kong society, I think quite a lot of the poems also explore the collision of these languages and what they represent.
But it will be quite difficult to generalise what is a typical Hong Kong poem because there isn’t any such thing. Sarah Howe’s poem on Hong Kong will be quite different from a poem by Kit Fan, Nicholas Wong or Tammy Ho.
SWK: Many of the poems in 回家 Letters Home have a very direct link between the UK and Hong Kong.In From Beckenham to Tsim Sha Tsui for instance we are taken along with the poem on a train journey through London and HK and, through this, also on a journey of remembrance. Do you think there is a difference between the way Hong Kong is represented in diaspora memory as opposed to by currently resident/local writers?
JW: To a certain extent, yes. The local writers or those who are currently in the city will no doubt be able to evoke a sense of the local place, of the people’s lives and what they face. I think for the diasporic writers, too, their work is important in the sense that it is a cross between memory and imagination, a weaving together of the present and the past. Because they are outside the territory, they can also see more clearly and write more freely about their homeland. For example, if I were to continue to live in Hong Kong, there will be certain poems in 回家 Letters Home that I wouldn’t write, such as ‘Trace’, ‘From Beckenham to Tsim Sha Tsui’, or ‘Metamorphosis’.
SWK: It feels like there has been an increase in international media attention on the role of literature in Hong Kong in recent years, thanks in part to poetic placards at events like the Umbrella Revolution, the tweets and books of activists such as Joshua Wong and the ‘disappearances’ of booksellers. What role, if any, do you think diaspora poets can or should play in this situation?
JW: I agree with you. This new sense of Hong Kong identity and the interest in social justice has triggered interests toward the city and the people’s lives as well as their dilemmas there. Connected to their homelands or home culture through family ties and memories, as well as a certain sense of belonging, I think diasporic poets have the license and freedom to respond to these happenings, to re-visit the city in light of their own experiences, beliefs and poetics. I think we should allow for a diversity of responses, as Hong Kong is so rich in its cultural, linguistic and historical legacy, there is the potential for the city to be re-interpreted.
SWK: There is a common use of brands and shops in your poetry, most notably in Diary of a Miu Miu Salesgirl. Do you think there is something particular about consumerism/fashion that speaks to the diaspora experience? That two vastly different cities may have different shops but that ultimately wherever we are we can still buy iPhones and Prada?
JW: As someone who grew up in Hong Kong, it is impossible to not think about consumerism in writing about home. I think other than the interest of the people in consuming, it is a political act to me, this sense that the Hong Kong people’s or Chinese people’s willingness to subscribe to a more consumerist culture so as to satisfy their desire, because there’s a part of their desires — a genuine and powerful desire — that cannot be satisfied. Even the act of portraying the Chinese customer or the Chinese producer is political because it is about assuming power or how one maintains that power. There is also the question about what is or what causes the perceived lack in the Chinese person, the way he or she hopes to become more ‘Westernised’, the racism or racial stereotypes that he or she is trying to run away from, or bail out of, and the impossibility of becoming them. To me, there is a discourse about the hierarchy of power in that. It is both fascinating and saddening.
SWK: Did the process of writing/editing 回家 Letters Home have any impact on the way you viewed either Hong Kong or the UK in your mind?
JW: Yes it does. When I first started out writing 回家 Letters Home, I thought I have a clear picture of what Hong Kong is like. But as I continued to edit and reshape the poems, I realised that it has turned into many things at once. It is certainly no longer just a physical location. It is so much more than a city. I thought what I missed were my family, my friends, the food...but it was also the language, the history...What makes Hong Kong different is how the people there live, what they care about, how they think. Seeing ‘Mountain City’ emerge after many drafts, for example, gives me great pleasure, as I realised what those images that haunted my mind mean: it is a longing to show the reader what being a Hong Kong-er or a Chinese person means to me, and how important it is to respect an immigrant’s otherness or the story they have. And in many poems I feel I am writing about Hong Kong as well as the UK, for they both matter to me. For example, ‘The Colour of Race’ and ‘Maria’ actually speak to each other, even though one is about racial diversity in Britain while the other is about foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong. By the title ‘Letters Home’, I am trying to address that tension or merging of possibilities and realities that remains. Even in writing about England, I know that there are the different versions of it: the England that I dreamed about when in Hong Kong, the country that I saw and experienced as a student, and later, as an immigrant. The England in which I became a writer, a mother. I feel that the sense of knowledge and longing I have about places is forever shifting.