“I find it amazing that the most prominent kingdom of the Indian diaspora completely evaporated, leaving nothing behind other than these stones.”
– Samuel Ferrer, The Last Gods of Indochine (2016)
I will admit it – I’m a picky reader.
There are certain genres that I used to love but now wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole (chick lit lad lit I’m lookin’ atcha), and I secretly wish that Top 10 Bestseller shelves could be consigned to the dusts of bibliographic oblivion.
Fie! Fie! Get thee gone
I’ve written about my (much contested) aversion to sci-fi before, and I’ve always found the idea of fictionalising history a bit unsettling.
This is why, when author, double bassist and jazz musician Samuel Ferrer reached out to me a while ago with an invitation to read his historical fiction novel, The Last Gods of Indochine, I was skeptical. Looking back, I’d say I was thrown out of my ‘reading comfort zone’, given that a large part of it is set in medieval Cambodia – a period in history which I have absolutely no knowledge about.
“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charity shops, indie bookstores and Sunday markets for the hidden gems, like out of print works, first editions or even unpublished papers.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.
In this post, I feature my first ever guest blogger, Ray Hecht, an American writer who has published books about Ohio, California, Hong Kong and Shenzhen, where he has been living since 2008.
You can find out more about him through his blog: https://rayhecht.com/
“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
…The country you live in is like a wife. Sometimes, when you’ve been in one place too long, you start to wonder what else is out there. So you flirt with other countries and realize that, holy shit, they are all crazy or super high-maintenance.
– George Ding, ‘Why I’m Coming Back to China’, published in The Beijinger, 5 Dec 2012
This is George. He’s not sure where his hands should go, but that’s everyone when asked to pose for a photo.
Have you ever met a CBA writer with an English aristocratic first name (‘George’) and an onomatopoeic surname that could not ring more Chinese (‘Ding’)?
BTW, ‘CBA’ in this case doesn’t mean ‘can’t be arsed’ (as per my usual usage), but ‘Chinese-born American’, although I reckon the CBA I’m about to introduce to you all genuinely CBA if you think of him as a CBA or an ABC or even, eh, a BAC (Bacon And Cheese Sammich). He’s got enough cyber street cred to not care about what ‘type’ he fits into – he’s a writer who says what he thinks, and haters gon’ hate but he’s still gon’ do his thing (“You’re an idiot, go back to folding jeans in retail” is one of the many vitriolic comments he got for a satirical article he wrote back in 2012).
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.