Stop all the clocks, Hong Kong people.
That which we hold dear about this city
is likely to end in 2047.
But if we do not recognise the objective
passing of time, might we stay
in the present?
– Tammy Ho Lai-Ming, ‘2047’ (2016)
If Hong Kong poets writing in English are few and far between, then female Hong Kong poets writing in English would be the human equivalent of unicorns here, given how uncommon a species they are in this 7.3 million-people city.
But if you think they’re rare, then you’ve not met Tammy Ho Lai-Ming, who is not only a locally born and bred prize-winning poet, but also a Dickens scholar, an English professor, an academic editor and a literary journal co-founder. Prior to completing her PhD in English Language and Literature at King’s College London, Tammy gained a First Class Honours degree in English Studies and Translation at the University of Hong Kong.
As you can tell, Tammy is literary passion personified, a heroine in the tradition of Austen, Woolf and Atwood. At least to a lit lover like yours truly.
About a decade ago, she made a watershed mark in Hong Kong’s cultural landscape by founding the first online English literary journal with Jeff Zroback – Cha, which features Asian-themed poetry, essays, reviews, interviews, photography & art written and contributed by talented writers with links to Hong Kong and Asia at large (Nicholas Wong Yu Bon, recent winner of the prestigious Lambda Literary award and one of my earliest interviewees, is also a contributor at Cha).
To date, Cha has published 32 issues, and it has been featured by CNN, South China Morning Post, China Daily, among many other news outlets worldwide.
Tammy is someone who I feel all local aspiring poets, writers and scholars of my generation would look up to, and I am so honoured to be able to share my interview with her on this blog today.
For more of her poetry, visit https://tammyholaiming.com/p/. To me, her voice is authentic, sensual and diaristic, much like that of one of her favourite poets, Louis MacNiece. Tammy’s latest poem, tellingly titled ‘2047’, was published in the Asia Literary Review on 28 May 2016.
A) The personal stuff: from past to present
Growing up, were you an avid reader of English books and poetry? Before studying English at university, did your learning environment encourage and foster in you a love for literature?
There was not much English anything in the household when I was a little girl, let alone ‘books and poetry’. And I did not grow up surrounded by books. I remember owning a few small volumes of riddles in Chinese bought from cramped stationery shops on the public housing estate I lived in.
At home, I played at running a lending library and my two younger twin sisters were my esteemed patrons who might or might not have indulged me and role-played with me. I don’t remember the details now. But I was naïve then, and happy.
Given your own training at both Hong Kong University and King’s College London, what would you say is the biggest difference between studying English literature in Hong Kong and in London?
I found myself more immersed in literature while studying in London. In London, everywhere you go you see people reading. It is something normal that people do. This environment makes studying literature more enjoyable, and in a way also more relevant.
In Hong Kong, when I see someone reading a book in public, I would be so curious to creepily want to find out what the book is; so rare does such a sight appear in front of me. London is a reading city. Hong Kong is not. This is not to say that no one in Hong Kong reads, however. But I wish there were a stronger reading culture in the city and that reading could become a natural part of people’s conversation.
One of your research interests is Victorian and Neo-Victorian Fiction, and I’ve noticed that your interest in Charles Dickens goes back a long way to when you first presented a paper titled ‘Dickens and reading aloud’ at a HKU seminar: what inspired your interest in this literary period and figure, and do you think the study of Victorianism is witnessing a revival in academia?
I took a course on novels at the University of Hong Kong and read Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, which left a huge impression on me. I suppose I identified with Pip. Actually, I know I identified with Pip. I wanted some sort of benefactor to appear out of a metaphorical cemetery or stagnant marsh and offer me something that I sorely needed—intellectual inheritance.
Just as Pip wanted to become a gentleman I wanted to become someone with knowledge and substance. I suppose I also identified with Estella, for obvious reasons of vanity.
Because of Dickens, I started reading more writers and works from his times and became very interested in all things Victorian (including photography and pornography) and this interest continues today. My PhD thesis, for example, is a study of contemporary re-imaginings of Victorian writers, texts and themes.
B) The literary stuff: poetry & teaching poetry
Do you have a favourite poet, or a poet whose works you keep revisiting and rereading for inspiration?
There are many poets I admire, some of them living, some long dead, some older than me, and some younger. It’s really difficult to name just one, or even thirty. If I must name one poet, right now, I would say Louis MacNeice, whose Autumn Journal I return to again and again. There are so many quotable lines that I love.
‘You were my blizzard who had been my bed. / But taking the whole series of blight and blossom / I would not choose a simpler crop instead; Thank you, my dear — dear against my judgement.’
[Editor’s note: from poem xix in Autumn Journal]
Alas, these lines resonate because, alas, how often do I do things, kiss, and love, against my best judgement.
Comp Lit scholar Mary Ann Caws once wrote an introduction to a book on Futurism, titled ‘Poetry can be any Damn Thing it wants’: do you believe that there is a set of criteria that poetry must follow, or are you more of the opinion that poetry-writing is largely an exercise in creative freedom?
I believe poetry, despite what I teach in class, can be very subjective, both in its writing and appreciation. One person’s poetry is another’s garbage. And also: I know it’s poetry when I read it.
Towards the end of your 2015 poem ‘Too Too Too Too’, you write:
Just because you’ve read, and understood, so well,
all these big novels, doesn’t mean that you’re smart,
or necessarily admirable. You’re too easily impressed.
From your personal experience, is intellectual arrogance (coupled with a lack of self-awareness) a common trait among men (or even women) in the field of academia?
Yes, I would say ‘intellectual arrogance’ is a common trait among everyone in the field of academia. But perhaps ‘arrogance’ is too harsh. Maybe ‘pride’ is better. ‘Confidence’. If you cannot take pride in what you do and believe in, what’s the point?
At the start of your 2016 poem ‘The Bookseller’, you write that –
There is a small city like all cities
in which booksellers seldom make the news.
Apart from the Lee Bo incident, quite a few independent local booksellers such as The Coming Society and Book Life (at Wanchai pier) have indeed been making the news lately – not for selling banned books, but for closing down because of rising rent cost and a lack of public support.
What do you think this implies about Hong Kong’s cultural priorities, or, to quote the final line of your poem, do you think the gradual diminishing of bookstores will affect the determination of those who want to “sell, print, write”?
Hong Kong’s priorities are monetary, not cultural. What worries me more, however, is not the economic preoccupations of the city and its citizens, but how democracy and freedom of expression are increasingly being blatantly threatened.
Earlier this week, one of the five abducted Causeway Bay booksellers, Lam Wing-kee, revealed at a press conference in Hong Kong how he was confined and abused in the mainland—‘eight months of mental torture’—and apart from feeling grateful for and being awed by his courageous disclosure, many people, myself included, became very fearful of what might happen to him and his girlfriend.
Why are we worried about Lam’s life? We have been brainwashed. We are conditioned to think that bad things will happen to those who dare to dissent, disagree.
Do you see a budding crop of literary enthusiasts among your English students at Baptist University? Or do most of them look at ‘English’ solely as an academic commitment and don’t really see it as a creative pursuit that they can develop beyond their university years?
I have been teaching at Hong Kong Baptist University for a few years now and during this time I have encountered quite a few students who are genuinely interested in literature. They do more than read course texts for assignments and examinations. They want to read more, explore more. I hope they will stay curious and continue to read and write after graduation.
C) The cultural stuff: on Cha An Asian Literary Journal
What inspired you to set up Cha: An Asian Literary Journal back in 2007?
Jeff Zroback (my co-editor) and I started Cha in the summer of 2007 because we saw that Hong Kong did not have an English online literary journal. Such journals are rather common in the West but less so in Asia (at least back then).
From our observation, we also knew that there is a lot of great writing in English in the region but that it often goes unnoticed. We therefore decided to found Cha, as a means of trying to support new writing from and about Asia. Since Jeff is an editor by trade and I had edited several literary collections, we felt we were in a reasonably good position to start the journal.
What are the difficulties involved in running a literary journal in Hong Kong? And where do you see Cha in 10 years’ time?
Running an online literary journal anywhere is not that difficult in this age. I do hope we can broaden our readership and attract more attention from local media, however. In ten years’ time, I hope Cha still exists and that we can claim to have contributed something to the literary exchange between Hong Kong and other parts of the world.
Would the journal ever consider publishing politically contentious essays or poems (e.g. a work that carries anti-Beijing messages or advocate for Hong Kong independence)?
We have published overtly political pieces in Cha before. For example, we published a section titled “Whither Hong Kong?” in response to the Umbrella Movement in September 2014 and to register ‘our collective desire for democracy’ (from the Introduction to the section).
We at Cha have never been and never will be afraid of publishing political works and we have never attempted to hide our political views. We are for democracy. We are very open about that.
D) Would you rather…
Write the best unpublished poem in the world, the most popular bestselling novel of all time, or the most cited academic article on JSTOR?
Write the most cited poem.
Spend a sunny day at your favourite bookstore or go on a rainy date with a mediocre lover?
A rainy day at my favourite bookstore with an excellent lover.
Drink a cup of fine Earl Grey or Pu Er?
Earl Grey and Pu Er alternatively!
[photo credits: Tammy Ho Lai-Ming, voanews, Cha An Asian Literary Journal, Kin Cheung]