From high to low, from low to high, yet still
Within the bound of this huge concave; here
Must be his home, this valley be his world.
– William Wordsworth, The Recluse (1888)
Who doesn’t love traveling?
I honestly don’t know anyone who doesn’t. From the anticipation of jetting off to another place to the experience of seeing and tasting new things, there’s no denying that traveling is one of the greater joys in life.
“If anyone knows of a pub that has draught stout, open fires, cheap meals, a garden, motherly barmaids and no radio, I should be glad to hear of it, even though its name were something as prosaic as the Red Lion or the Railway Arms.”
-George Orwell, ‘The Moon Under Water’ (1946)
Back when I was studying in the UK, I would notice how many more second-hand bookstores there were when compared to Hong Kong. Sure, you’d see the familiar signs of Waterstones and Foyles in the city centre (think Commercial Press and the former Page One in HK), but people would often go to charity shops, indie bookstores and Sunday markets for the hidden gems, like out of print works, first editions or even unpublished papers.
Recently, I came across the website of an independent second-hand English bookseller called ‘Bleak House Books’, which immediately caught my attention with its nod to Charles Dickens.
The owner, Albert Wan, is a former civil rights lawyer from the US, and he is dedicated to selling “books that people want to read” and building “the best selection of used books in Hong Kong: literature, non-fiction, essays, cookbooks and children’s”. For now, Albert is running his store online, as well as selling second-hand books at pop-up shops and weekend markets all over Hong Kong.
“How do I write? Why do I write? What do I write? This is what I am writing: I am writing Mr. Potter. It begins this way; this is its first sentence: ‘Mr. Potter was my father, my father’s name was Mr. Potter.’ So much went into that one sentence; much happened before I settled on those eleven words.”
-Jamaica Kincaid, ‘Those Words That Echo… Echo… Echo Through Life’ (1999)
Two weeks ago, I went to a writer’s open forum hosted at the University of Hong Kong, titled ‘How, What and Why Do Writers Write? A Conversation between David Tang, Hannah Rothschild, Simon Winchester and Wilbur Smith’.
(From left to right) Simon Winchester, Hannah Rothschild, David Tang, Wilbur Smith
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.
I teach my students in Hong Kong to write wish poems using the subjunctive the conditional the retrospective but this is wrong, this is corrected English and is wrong for them. They write their wishes into the same present tense as the wishing itself. (I wish my mom is a magician.) (I wish I have a silly sister.) (I wish people don’t think I’m weird.) The wish is desired and is.
– Henry Wei Leung, ‘Getting there‘ (2015)
A while ago, I came across an essay titled ‘City without Solitude’ by way of a friend’s recommendation (Brian from my first litera-chat), which – among many things – talks about Hong Kong’s social, political and cultural future as being intricately tied to Hong Kongers’ deeper awareness of the self, and of how solitary reflection may be the panacea to our city’s “mechanized” consciousness.
The author of this essay is Henry Wei Leung, a poet and PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where he teaches courses on poetry and activism. A Kundiman Fellow and Fulbright Scholar, he has a BA in English from Stanford University and an MFA from the University of Michigan. In 2015, he was a visiting fellow at the City University of Hong Kong. He is the author of a chapbook titled Paradise Hunger (2012), as well as a contributor to the Asian literary journal Cha, Crab Orchard Review, Drunken Boat, The Offing, and ZYZZYVA.
“Though I sit alone on a pillar — I exist! I see the sun, and if I don’t see the sun, I know it’s there. And there’s a whole life in that, in knowing that the sun is there.”
– Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (1880)
Nothing makes me happier than milling about in bookstores. Put me in front of a well-stocked shelf and you might as well be looking at an Augustus Gloop who’s been given carte blanche to run wild at the Wonka Chocolate Factory.
Credits to HK Literature House
Naturally then, those who own bookstores hold a special charm for me, which is why I approached Daniel Lee, owner of two independent academic bookshops – HK Reader and The Coming Society, with an interview request. Daniel was gracious enough to accept my offer, and the happy result was a long litera-chat last week, during which we talked about the whys and hows, ins and outs of his bookstores, as well as the high and low tides in Hong Kong’s reading culture.
What is the relationship between the 2014 Umbrella Revolution and a recent surge in the local reading population? Why has the rise of e-books not really affected Daniel’s book business? Who are the people visiting HK Reader on a regular basis, and what does their taste in books bode for the city’s literary culture?
Most of all, how do we get the public to realise that reading, writing and thinking about literature matter to each of our lives and the future of our society? Read on to find out the cultural crusader’s take on these questions, and more.
(Clicking on each link will take you to the respective section)
We went to the West, away
from communist coxswains, but were whittled
to sculptures called ‘second-tier citizens’,
second to terriers
– Nicholas YB Wong, ‘Postcolonial Zoology’ (2012)
Nicholas Wong, HK poet and “firestarter”
In my second episode of ‘Litera-chats with Jen’, I talk to home-grown poet and scholar Nicholas Wong Yu Bon about the beginnings of his interest in poetry, his creative writing process and the state of reading and literature in Hong Kong today.
Considered a “radically inventive” writer and “the future of poetry” by Ravi Shankar, Pushcart Prize winning poet and Founding Editor of Drunken Boat, Nicholas has published his works in a number of literary journals, in addition to two collections – Cities of Sameness (2012) and Crevasse (2015). He is currently on the 2016 Writers list of the Hong Kong International Literary Festival.
Aside from being a poet, Nic is also a Fellow at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, where he teaches contemporary poetry, creative writing, film and gender studies.
Oh, and if T.S. Eliot and Allen Ginsberg had a baby, I feel like it’d be him.
‘Litera-Chats with Jen’ is a series of interviews that I’ll doing with anyone who’s got the reading and/or writing itch. Down the line, some of my interviewees will be writers, established or budding alike, but for now most of them will just be friends and family, aka peeps who have enough love/tolerance/patience to put up with my cross-examining curveballs.
In my first ever ‘litera-chat’, I feature Brian Ng, a friend and fellow lit-lover who studies English Literature and Economics at the University of Chicago. His writing has appeared on Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Business Insider, the Chicago Maroon, and the South China Morning Post.
Brian has an opinion about a lot of things. He dislikes how the word ‘liminal’ is used to death in undergraduate English papers; he despises the Swiss-born, Cambridge-educated philosopher-writer Alain de Botton whose “ideal audience”, he says, “is a UBS Managing Director who wants to convince his therapist that he’s interesting”, and he has very little time for the cultural philistinism that pervades Hong Kong, the city which both of us call home.
“Ah! I’ll never, never meet such a man again. You ought to have heard him recite poetry—his own too it was, he told me. Poetry!” He rolled his eyes at the recollection of these delights. “Oh, he enlarged my mind!” “Goodbye,” said I. He shook hands and vanished in the night.
– Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (1899), Ch. 3
I’m sat in a coffee shop at one of Hong Kong’s biggest book stores, waiting for my interviewee to show up. Just as I suspect he’s going to stand me up, he arrives looking slightly sheepish, both hands holding onto a copy of Balzac’s Father Goriot. This makes it difficult for hand-shaking, but we give it a half-arsed go anyway. I notice that his hands are cold. I apologise for not specifying the locale while he tries to make himself comfortable in a seat that’s too big for him. He fails, and his discomfort translates into more ways than one. His eyes are shifty. His arms are crossed. His torso is turned to an awkward angle. Negative body language code red alert. He’s expecting the Spanish Inquisition treatment, and we’ve not even started yet. This is going to be a tough nut to crack, I think to myself, but we’ll play it by ear and see how it goes.
There’s been a marked change in the way I interact with others these days. Where I used to be on the receiving end of questions from cross-examining parents and sceptical professors, I seem to be the one asking all the questions lately – both inside and outside the classroom ambit.
My targets range from high school students to unpublished writers, who I approach in the semi-professional capacity of a teacher/interviewer-cum-friend. It’s a kind of legitimised nosiness, I guess, having carte blanche to probe the other person’s brain while being able to absorb and mull over all kinds of exclusive, ungoogleable information.
(A) In order to understand what he is, a man must first understand the whole mystery of humanity, which is made up of people like him with no understanding of themselves.
(B) In infinite space and infinite time, infinitesimal particles mutate with infinite complexity, and when you have understood the laws of mutation, you will understand why you are living.
– Leo Tolstoy, A Confession, 1882
The Aberdeen Floating Restaurant: when pagoda architecture meets urban skyscrapers
Hey blog, it’s been a while.
Not the most original of openings, but as an understated ‘I miss you’, it’ll suffice.
These days, I find myself missing a lot of things.
I miss space. I miss spacing out. I miss air. I miss not needing the air-con. I miss not sweating. I miss not having to edge my way through crowds with a BRFesque frown. I miss not seeing skyscrapers everywhere. I miss not having to take the metro. I miss walking to places. I miss having the energy and time to read whatever I want. I miss libraries. I miss silence. I miss _________.
I miss so many things we could turn this into a marathon of Mad Libs and most words would still fit. I miss I miss I miss.
Bikes over Lamborghinis. Breakfast tea over Soho martinis. Home-baked lasagne over gourmet fettuccine.