Copyright © 2001 by Timothy Weiss, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.
- A "sojourner," Roland Barthes writes, occupies a kind of amorphous, intermediate space "posited between two strong statuses"; neither voyager nor denizen, he is a "tourist who repeats his desire to remain." The sojourner gains a certain freedom and anonymity, but he runs the risk of rendering himself identityless, of metamorphosing into a "paradoxical being who cannot be classified" (117-118). In reflecting on my own status as sojourner, with its shifting quality of insideness and outsideness, I recognize an element that is characteristic of Hong Kong, an inside-outside place where a belated postcoloniality has produced a problematic in-between status, neither independent from nor identical with mainland China -- a former British colony with continuing ties to but not having a soul of the West. Perhaps only Hong Kong can lay claim to the honor of the twentieth-century’s first virtual (almost) postcolony. But the entity about which I write is a Hong Kong best put in quotation marks; this "Hong Kong" is partly an idea, a myth, as well as a dominant physical presence, a locus of 6.8 million inhabitants, and a criss-crossing assemblage of forces, desires and laws.
- My subject is Hong Kong Stories (1996), a collection of fiction published by one of the very few Hong Kong writers who writes in English, David T.K. Wong, which is also to say that my subject matter is the peculiar identity/postidentity of Hong Kong, and it is the latter subject that I must address first before turning to a discussion of Wong and his stories.
- Although overly subtle at times and a bit rarefied, Ackbar Abbas’s Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance (1997) is the most penetrating analysis in English of contemporary Hong Kong. His study examines a city whose identity does not fit into any easily defined category. Hong Kong people are of course not British, nor are they culturally and politically identical to Chinese mainlanders; they are, Abbas comments, "a bird of a different feather, perhaps a kind of Maltese Falcon" (Abbas ii). He then elaborates some of the city’s "unusual and even paradoxical features." First, the "uneasy relationship" between Hong Kong’s "‘floating’ identity" and its need "to establish something more definite in response to current political exigencies" (iv). In the future, Hong Kong "will increasingly be at the intersections of different times or speeds," yet its "port mentality" (a place of transience) must be complemented by a stable identity vis-a-vis mainland China. Second, the "decadent" quality of Hong Kong’s celebrated vitality -- a kind of "decadence" because it is "an energy that gets largely channeled into one direction," that is, primarily economic (iv-v). When peoples aspirations (e.g., political independence) are blocked then these will take other forms: "the citizens’ belief that they might have a hand in shaping their own history, gets replaced by speculation on the property or stock markets, or by an obsession with fashion or consumerism" (v). Third, the "radically changed status of culture itself" in contemporary Hong Kong. Before the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984, Hong Kong citizens tended to think of culture as an imported commodity; today the "imminence of its disappearance" has "precipitated an intense and unprecedented interest in Hong Kong culture" (vii). "The change in status of culture in Hong Kong can be described as follows," Abbas explains: a movement "from reverse hallucination, which sees only desert [i.e., Hong Kong does not have its own culture], to a culture of disappearance, whose appearance is posited on the imminence of its disappearance" (vii). To clarify this rather convoluted point Abbas quotes Louis Aragon, who, writing in the 1920s about the disappearing Parisian arcades, remarks: "It is only today, when the pickaxe menaces them, that they have at last become the true sanctuaries of the cult of the ephemeral. . ." (viii).
- Binarisms such as East/West, traditional/modern, and colonial/postcolonial do not enable us to penetrate the nature of culture and society in contemporary Hong Kong, Abbas reiterates. In a sense, the city’s postcoloniality began before 1997, when people found themselves thinking and acting in a way different from the thought and behaviour that distinguished the period of British rule prior to the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984; nor, he emphasizes, did colonialism in Hong Kong necessarily come to an end with the closing of British rule in 1997. It survives in certain aspects of globalism that would fix the SAR (Special Administrative Region) in a new kind of colonial dependency. Hong Kong’s challenge is to cultivate an ambivalence, a shifting identity -- or so I interpret Abbas’s words:A culture of disappearance gives us identities to take away our subjectivity, emotions to take away our affectivity, a voice to take away representation. However . . . such a situation can be turned against itself: the wiping out of identity may not be an entirely negative thing, if it can be taken far enough. Not all identities are worth preserving. This is to say that disappearance is not only a threat -- it is also an opportunity. . . . There is one essential condition . . . if the postcolonial subject is not to be reabsorbed and assimilated: it must not be another stable appearance, another stable identity. It must learn how to survive a culture of disappearance by adopting strategies of disappearance as its own, by giving disappearance itself a different inflection. (xiv-xv)This is enigmatic, to say the least. To comprehend what it might mean, we have to consider other popular strategies of identity construction and the manner in which they do not fit the Hong Kong context.
- Since the 1950s, throughout the world, different strategies of resisting and overcoming a mutant colonialism in an emerging postcolonial epoch have been put forward; none of them, however, seem completely applicable to Hong Kong. Abbas, for example, dismisses what he calls "the temptation of the local, the marginal, [and] the cosmopolitan," or the "fallacies of three worldism, two worldism, and one worldism" (xi). Let us look more closely at what constitutes these strategies and how Hong Kong constitutes an exception. Localism, or nativism, emphasizes radical difference and makes its most persuasive argument in a context in which the values of an ethnic group and/or a cultural locale are undermined or attacked by values perceived to be alien or external to the group or locale. Francophone colonial writers of the early and mid-twentieth century -- Aimé Césaire, Léopold Senghor, Frantz Fanon, and Albert Memmi, to name just a few -- often formulated their arguments within this context and under these circumstances.
- Although the nativist argument has become less popular in the 1980s and ‘90s, it persists in altered form in fundamentalist religious and cultural movements and in the writings of certain influential postcolonial writers such as the Kenyan Ngugi wa Thiong'o, whose Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (1986) and Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms (1993) contend that, at the end of the twentieth century, imperialism is still very much alive and that its effects on native cultures, at least in certain regions of the world, are devastating. "[T]he biggest weapon wielded and actually daily unleashed by imperialism," Ngugi writes, "is the cultural bomb," the effect of which is "to annihilate a people's belief in their names, in their languages, in the environment, in their heritage of struggle, in their unity, in their capacities and ultimately in themselves. It makes them see their past as one wasteland of non-achievement and it makes them want to distance themselves from that wasteland" (Decolonising 3). Language is a key in countering the ill effects of imperialism and re-establishing a society’s identity: "The choice of language and the use to which language is put is central to a people's definition of themselves in relation to their natural and social environment, indeed in relation to the entire universe" (Decolonizing 4). For this reason, Ngugi, who made his reputation during the 1960s and 1970s as an anglophone author, now prefers to write and publish in his native African language, Gikuyu; in the same vein, he advocates teaching African languages and cultures at the tertiary level as a road to creation of a different, non-Western identity for today's East Africans.
- The concept of radical difference opposes globalization (which it perceives as a mutant colonialism) with efforts to nourish a strong native/local culture, one able to resist different sorts of imperialism and homogenization in world capitalist culture. The cultural conflicts, social precariousness, and fundamental inequality about which Ngugi writes apply most dramatically to contemporary sub-Sahara Africa, although he also intends a broad application of this assessment of the damaging effects of imperialism at the end of the twentieth century. Does Ngugi's argument have much force in today’s Hong Kong? It does have some. The influence of Japan -- its high-tech products and its trends, for example -- is strong here, perhaps just as strong as that of England and the United States. Similarly, in a bilingual environment, in Hong Kong as in postcolonial Africa, there are crucial issues about language education that must be resolved. In the Hong Kong of David T.K. Wong’s short stories, tradition (i.e., the privileging of native/local values) is the subject of several stories, but in them tradition sometimes immobilizes and suffocates rather than heals or wisely guides. If we accept the localist notion of fixed places, then all value-and-identity construction must take place somewhere, in some locus, yet the nativist argument has been diminished by the problematic nature of locales today and by the critique of cultural essences that poststructuralism and postcoloniality have brought to bear on it.
- Cosmopolitanism makes another sort of appeal -- in Abbas’s dismissal, the temptation of "threeworldism" (xi). "No one today is purely one thing," Edward Said writes in Culture and Imperialism. "Labels like Indian, or woman, or Muslim, or American are no more than starting-points, which if followed into actual experience for only a moment are quickly left behind" (336) Said’s statement, which echoes those of James Clifford and other cultural anthropologists, encapsulates the core idea of this second framework of identity and value construction, that is, hybridity and syncretism. "Imperialism consolidated the mixture of cultures and identities on a global scale," Said explains. "But its worst and most paradoxical gift was to allow people to believe that they were only, mainly, exclusively, white, or Black, or Western, or Oriental.
- Yet just as human beings make their own history, they also make their cultures and ethnic identities" (336). Indeed, perhaps the defining characteristic of postcoloniality is its sense of diversity and plurality within individual cultural identity. Whereas coloniality emphasizes black-versus-white divisions and separations, postcoloniality emphasizes the inevitability of mixing and the construction of new identities. "It is from [a] hybrid location of cultural values -- the transnational as the translational," Homi Bhabha writes, "that the postcolonial intellectual attempts to elaborate a historical and literary project" (439). Hybridity as a framework of identity and value construction is most compelling in dynamically multicultural contexts; it is much less compelling, however, where one culture or a cluster of related cultures is predominant, as is the case of Hong Kong, which is not multicultural in the same sense as, for example, the Mediterranean basin or the Caribbean. Ninety-eight percent of Hong Kong's inhabitants are ethnically Chinese; Chinese culture, with its long traditions, dominates here as no single culture does in these other exemplary regions. Still, Hong Kong is -- and has the ambition to be even more so in the future -- an international place where Eastern and Western cultural elements co-exist. They co-exist sometimes gracefully, sometimes awkwardly, and often without much interaction, like the diversity of cultures represented by stores in a Hong Kong shopping mall, with everything from Marks & Spencer, to Suzuya, to the Disney Store and the very Chinese "wet market." Tourists can be struck by this outrageous mix more than the old expats, who get hardened to their own alienation from the Chinese-ness of Hong Kong and begin not to notice how things fit together so incongruously here. In themselves, neither the concept of localism nor cosomopolitanism, then, would seem an adequate framework for analyzing culture and identity construction in Hong Kong.
- Furthermore, Abbas’s own conceptual rubric -- "culture of disappearance" -- may itself already have become caduc. The 1997-phenomenon has come and gone; Hong Kong has passed through some economic hard times, and is struggling to define itself in new ways (not to hang on to something that is disappearing). I prefer to think of Hong Kong not so much as an identity, but rather, a process of identity making that never reaches its terminus. It is a labyrinth, which involves two dynamics: a testing -- a posing and solving of problems -- and a ceaseless transformation in the process. Culture is not only something rooted locally in a single place, but also something in motion, throwing out "lines of flight," to use Deleuze’s term, in multiple directions (Deleuze 34-36). In this sense, identity and culture are "rhizomes"; they are dimensions or "directions in motion." Conceived of as a rhizome, culture "has neither beginning nor end, but always a middle [milieu] from which it grows and which it overspills" (34-36). Strategies of cultural identity such as localism and cosmopolitanism begin to weaken when considered in this framework, for the local is always connected to other places, and the cosmopolitan does not necessarily make us all one, belonging to a universal culture and society, but rather, it may render us all relatively strangers, relatively sojourners in a virtual, kaleidoscopic landscape. We are constantly transformed, and in turn transform ourselves as we cannot help but "deterritorialize" old places and "reterritorialize" new ones. That, I believe, is where we are today -- a place/state of mind that Martinican poet, novelist, and intellectual, Édouard Glissant, calls the "tout-monde."
- But let us turn now to the predicament of the Hong Kong writer and specifically to David T. K. Wong’s short-story collection. Whether writing in Chinese or English, a Hong Kong writer confronts significant economic and cultural "blockages" (Abbas 117). First, serious writing is not an occupation by which one can make a living in Hong Kong. Second, which is also a restatement of the first point, serious writers require a community, an audience, and here the audience for writing in either Chinese or English is very limited. Third, Hong Kong as subject matter is illusive and labyrinthine, frustrating the writer at each turn with its false passage ways and culs-de-sac. Take the matter of East and West, or Hong Kong as the proverbial meeting place of East and West. "Of all the binarisms that keep things in place, perhaps the most pernicious in the Hong Kong context is that of East and West," Ackbar Abbas cautions, adding "[t]his is not to say that there are no differences, but that the differences are not stable; they migrate, metastasize" (117). Furthermore, although limited to a relatively small geographic space, Hong Kong cannot be easily rendered or defined: "in its amorphousness and diversity [it] often strikes one as being made up of an anthology of lifestyles" (117). In this sense Wong’s Hong Kong Stories could certainly be classified as a contemporary anthology of the city, one writer’s attempt to represent its rhizomic diversity as well as to engage in the making/remaking of its myth.
- Composed of thirteen stories, some of which were originally published during the 1990s and late 1980s in anthologies and magazines in the United States, England, and Asia, Hong Kong Stories would seem to have an international audience in mind although the collection has a local publisher, CDN Publishing Limited. Wong is a skilled writer, and this is a clever and appealing collection of stories, some of which have won awards and short-story competitions and have been read in programs of the British Broadcasting Corporation. In Hong Kong Stories Wong delineates the city less by descriptions of place than by dramatizations of predicaments and tests -- of the labyrinths, so to speak, within which his characters must find their way. The stories present a range of characters and professional categories, socioeconomic classes and values; the reader encounters colonial administrators, a tycoon, a policeman, a trade negotiator, a jockey, an illegal construction worker, a bartender, journalists, a nightclub hostess, intellectuals, a typesetter/nightwatchman, Communists, a sinologist and a collector of chicken-blood seals, a housewife, an honorable councilor split between his public Western identity and his private, Chinese identity.
- One must be careful not to reduce a disparate collection like this, whose stories were written over a period of years, to a single, overall theme; however, given that qualification, what I find most interesting in Hong Kong Stories is the value system that these stories collectively put forward. The values do vary from story to story, but one can make some generalizations about the entire collection. Pragmatic values take precedence over transcendent values; the latter tend to demand obedience, whereas the former -- Deleuze argues -- tend to encourage thought, the capacity to find new solutions to problems, and a sense that the individual can determine a part of his destiny by choosing those encounters that have a good effect as opposed to those that have a bad effect. The book’s dedication -- to Hong Kong -- and its epigraph ("May its spirit of freedom, irreverence and enterprise remain forever intact") celebrate pragmatic values with a certain orientation toward Western individualism. Those characters in Wong’s stories who live according to transcendent values, whether Eastern or Western, eventually become paralyzed and unable to resolve a central problem in their lives. The collection is a kind of Hong Kong Dubliners in a minor, more popular vein.
- Let us consider how the collection works with these issues. At least five of the thirteen stories deal overtly with questions of tradition and honor in a postmodern world where these values have an increasingly marginal place. The past may serve as a guidepost, but it also may deceive, torment, and render false in the context of the changing complications of the present. The story "Blood Debt" raises a question echoed in other stories: "what [is] the use of precepts about justice and loyalty and honour in a hostile world?" (43) There is a certain ambivalence in Wong’s answer: in this story, for instance, the demand of honor, to repay a blood debt, leads Chief Inspector Hung into an ethical trap; to extricate himself, he chooses honor, but he pays with his life, literally with his blood. "We owe the Ma family a debt of gratitude," Hung’s father explains. "If not for Uncle Ma, we would be unable to earn a living. Debts of money can sometimes be overlooked, but debts of gratitude must be repaid. That is the Chinese way. You must help the Ma children. . . . Should you in later life find yourself in a position to do them a service, you must not hesitate" (43). Decades later Hung remembers his father's words, and his obedience to them wishes leads him into a labyrinth of physical and ethical dimensions:The patched-together shelters, made with corrugated metal sheets, salvaged bricks, planks, plywood, tar paper and a variety of handy materials, shared with flies, mosquitoes, cockroaches and rodents, seemed as mean and dispiriting as ever. Electric wires, dangling like festoons from overhead cables, evidenced the continuing theft of electricity. The odours of stale food, hemmed-in humanity and rotting garbage soured the air.Life in Hong Kong can resemble a maze, and for those who are poor, the life it offers can seem illusory. "We'll never escape from here," Ma the Second, laments; "[t]he promises of the city are just there to torment us, like a mirage" (47). The Ma family turn to crime and prostitution as a way out of their social caste; they enlist a reluctant Hung in a scheme that turns out to be profitable for both parties. In this story traditional values are treated ironically in that, firstly, they lead Hung into a trap and secondly, they lead to an act of futility. Inspector Hung does not resolve his ethical crisis; he commits a kind of hari-kari, saving his professional reputation but leaving others to clean up the mess and enact a justice that the story has already called into question by illuminating injustices of Hong Kong society. The application of traditional values to modern problems leads Hung along a labyrinthine path with unpredictable complications and unexpected outcomes.
The sights, sounds and smells dragged him back to the past. The treacherous turnings and random hazards of the encampment had once been a daily gauntlet he had to run. (36-37).
- Three related stories -- "Voices in the Heart," "The Chicken Blood Seal," and "Anniversary" -- treat traditional values and ideological value systems either with ambivalence or with implied disapproval. The first of these stories appears to praise the values of resistance and revolt in the face of authoritarianism. "Winning does not always equate with success, nor defeat, failure," Uncle Poon, the patriarchal figure of "Voices in the Heart" counsels (191). This is a lesson that Keung, the story's protagonist, learns only after long years of feeling that he has abandoned those who put their confidence in him when they sent him, at the age of 15, on a journey from Canton to Hong Kong, "to help set up clandestine supply lines" for the Communist Party (190). In Hong Kong, Keung must battle for his daily survival; forgetting his mission and his ambitions, he works as a typesetter and a nightwatchman during the course of the next 45 years. The story ends with Keung's decision to return to Canton to pay tribute to Uncle Poon and his wife Red Hope, and in so doing to confront the Chinese government that has "betrayed" communism’s ideals (201). Keung will shout his final judgment to all who will listen: "Is it not time to ask why we are so filled with hatred and violence? Is it not time to demand of our leaders where cruelties and fratricides are leading?" (202) Keung knows that the Red Guard will knock him down and smash his spectacles, but it does not matter: "If a single person could be moved to ponder, then hope would remain alive and he would have fulfilled his destiny" (202). This conclusion would seem a personal redemption, but there is an aspect of futility as well as heroism in Keung’s imagined defiance, and that is perhaps the key point: the defiance is not manifest; it remains an idea, a kind of nostalgic resolve, not a completed action that has an effect and consequences.
- A certain futility also moves as an undercurrent in "The Chicken Blood Seal." Although primarily a story about a generation gap and a conflict of values between Soong, who stands for Chinese tradition, and his son, a successful banker who stands for modernity, the larger question that the story poses concerns Hong Kong's future: will that future take shape with a knowledge of the past to guide it? Whether in China, dominated by an ideology that is destroying the family and traditional values, or in Hong Kong, where capitalism fosters greed and selfishness, a new "Dark Age" has arrived -- that, at least is Old Soong’s analysis. The story's narrator, a British colonial who becomes a sinologist thanks to Soong's inspiring tutelage, wonders whether generations formed by such different circumstances and exigencies can possibly share the same fundamental values. At the end of his commemorative recounting of Soong’s life, he thinks of the chicken blood seal that the latter has inscribed for his recently born grandson:The characters read simply: 'To go far is to return.' . . ."The Chicken Blood Seal" is rich with ambivalences. Soong is admirable, but he has a "faraway look" in his eyes and he lives -- in his son’s judgment -- out of touch with the world, among a museum of dead things. The narrator’s attitude toward Soong and Chinese tradition is consistently respectful, yet his description of the son's frustration and turmoil show that he also comprehends that tradition can harm. For Soong, has not tradition become a withdrawal from life rather than an engagement with its changing demands and challenges? The story concludes with a final ambivalence: Soong leaves his magnificent art collection not to his son, but to the British Museum and other art foundations in England.
I wonder whether the grandson will be able to decipher that ancient script. If he can, what meaning will he draw from that message? If he cannot, will those archaic and incomprehensible characters launch him on an intellectual and spiritual odyssey as magnificent as his grandfather's? (241)
- "Anniversary" focuses on the cumulative effect in modern Hong Kong of two value systems, Chinese traditional values and Christian morality; their hybrid combination frames the predicament that Mei-ling confronts in her unhappy marriage and assures that Kwan, her dear friend, will be unable to throw aside his own moral scruples to come to her aid. In this story, as in almost all stories in the collection, appearances differ from reality. Thus, in Kwan’s as well as society’s eyes, John Sham (his very name raises suspicion) and Mei-ling are the ideal couple: not only are they "popular, charming and devouted to each other," but they are also "socially prominent and active in the charitable work of the Catholic Church" (243). Their marriage has a secret darkness, though: John’s sexual impotency and Mei-ling’s guilt and frustration as a woman. Her Catholic morality combined with her Chinese dedication to her husband impede her finding a resolution to the marital crisis; she feels suffocated by moral standards inappropriate to her dilemma, yet she is incapable of altering her situation. She eventually commits suicide, slashing her wrists with her husband’s razor blade -- "to end her life in mortal sin" (256-57). To the Western reader, accustomed to the idea of divorce and other practical resolutions of such marital difficulties, the story’s ending is pure melodrama. Perhaps only an Asian reader can appreciate the depth of Mei-ling’s turmoil and predicament as a woman and wife. Her hybrid morality -- a Chinese devotion and a Christian sense of sin and guilt -- assures that there can be no non-destructive way out of desire’s impasse. Here, as in other stories, Wong uses irony to question transcendent values; he shows the futility that arises when they are not informed by a practical good whose reference is human nature and modern circumstances.
- A second group of stories, including "Hammer and Tong," "Uncle Tuck," and "Crippled Sunday," specifically treats East-West cultural conflict and cultural hybridity. The author, although himself a hybrid of Hong Kong and London, of Chinese and English cultures, would seem to view the notion of cultural mixing with a certain skepticism. "Hammer and Tong" recounts the transformation of a young Chinese civil servant who rises from his humble village origins to become an exemplary junior officer -- too exemplary, in fact, for senior administrators who begin to fear his scrutiny of their sometimes illegal management of funds. To refine his manners (i.e., to teach him "to pass the port") -- and to get him out of the way -- Tong is sent to Oxford for special training, where he westernizes himself far beyond the expectations of his superiors. He falls under the power of a Swedish student of anthropology who convinces him that he must liberate himself from his colonial masters. He resigns his Hong Kong post and causes a scandal when the tub in which he is bathing with his Swedish girlfriend crashes through the upper floor into the kitchen of a genteel Oxford house. Hammer, the Deputy Financial Secretary and Tong’s superior, imagines with horror the newspaper headline, one that might well appear even today in the South China Morning Post: "Sex in Bath Lands Hong Kong Official in Chicken Soup." "Hammer and Tong" takes polite revenge on all those who would advocate one culture's assimilation of another and pokes fun at the hypocrisy of colonial morality. Do the British really want the Chinese to be like them? No, they simply want them to learn to play the game, even when they themselves conveniently break the rules.
- An entrepreneur and distinguished public figure, Leung Shing-Chee, the main character of "Crippled Sunday," cultivates a Western modernity with triumph, yet on Sunday, when away from the public eye, he exchanges his pinstripe suit for a Chinese suit and shoes, and transforms his character, even his physical features. A crooked smile and comic nose yield to the cast of a "prize-fighter on the point of achieving a knockout"; the modern "corporate wizard" is "at heart a traditionalist, harbouring deep attachments to roots and continuity" (261-62). Early in his life Leung's father teaches him to distrust the world: he instructs his son to jump from the cockloft of the family grocery store, but at the last moment he withdraws his arms and allows his son to fall to the ground, becoming permanently crippled. "You trusted me and I let you down," he explains. "I did that to teach you something important. We live in treacherous times. It is dangerous to put too much trust in anyone. Even those dearest to you are capable of betrayal" (264). The distrust that this betrayal engenders lies at the core of Leung’s success as well as failure; by dint of hard work and clever calculation, he conquers the business world and the colonial public domain. He seems a perfect mesh of East and West, yet his hybridity is a Dr. Jeckyll-Mr Hyde fusion; he must be two very different persons, one on weekdays, the other on weekends. In "Crippled Sunday," then, Wong textualizes a certain skepticism about hybridity and cultural assimilation -- we see the same patterns of mixed dressing and "a fateful fall" in "Hammer and Tong." Is it Leung's Chinese body that resists a total assimilation of Western culture, or is it merely his will to conquer two different worlds no matter the personal cost? Leung's failures -- to produce an heir, for example -- might also be thought of as urgent communications, in the sense that Nietzsche writes of the body: "we question the body and reject the evidence of the sharpened senses: we try, if you like, to see whether the inferior parts themselves cannot enter into communication with us" (Qtd. in Karantani 93).
- Conversely, "Uncle Tuck" celebrates cultural mixing, with its protagonist exemplifying the spirit of "freedom, irreverence, and enterprise" to which the author has dedicated this collection. Tuck embodies something of the character of San Tuck, "the fighting monk from Shaolin Temple who was never above breaking his vegetarian vows for a good feed, and Friar Tuck, that jolly companion of Robin Hood" (173-174). An-Shan, Tuck's nephew and the story’s narrative focal point, recalls his uncle's bits of wisdom, outrageous acts and genius for unconventional living, and thus duly honors him with gaiety rather than sadness. Jazz, not dirge, graces Tuck’s funeral; later, defying time, the deceased, by written command, throws a post-mortem party. Overall, the story has a nostalgic, commemorative quality, as if Tuck's death, and the hybrid, East-West genius that he exemplified, prefigures a larger event, the end of an epoch. Perhaps this is one reason that, on Hong Kong Stories' book jacket, the (in)famous year "1997" appears in red letters on the front page of the newspaper that a rickshaw driver is reading.
- A third group of stories, of which I will very briefly mention five -- "The Cocktail Party," "Miss Tsushima," "Dead Cert," "The Revolt of Grass," and "Szeto's Bar" -- dwells on moral and ethical complications and the twists and turns of fate. Life in Hong Kong has a labyrinthine quality; things are never quite what they seem, and one rarely achieves one’s ends by proceeding in a straight line. Each story features some act that conceals a truth or breaks a cultural taboo, social convention, or governmental law. In "The Cocktail Party," a middle-aged entrepreneur, K. B. Woo, recalls the reception at which he first met the twenty-year old, Lulu, who, during the past five years, has been the libidinal flame of his life. A married man, with a simple, uneducated wife selected for him by his father, had he lived in another time, he would have taken Lulu as his concubine, but in colonial Hong Kong, morality intervenes: "everywhere that they went the British had to spread their obsession with monogamy like a contagion," K.B. bemoans (31). A man of cosmopolitan tastes, he wines and dines Lulu and tutors her in the entrepreneurial spirit, so much so that he later learns that it is she who has been managing him. K.B. may be the master of the "multifarious uses" of the cocktail party, but in the end it is Lulu who concocts the most ingenious party -- to introduce K.B. to her future husband, another aging entrepreneur whom she has been seeing on Wednesdays all the while that she sees K.B. on Fridays. K.B. is duly humbled, but he recognizes that Lulu is not to blame, for her principles of getting ahead in the world are exactly the ethics that he himself has taught her. What makes the end of this short story work so well is K.B.’s refusal to mope when Lulu stands him on his head; he understands that sadness is not compatible with his life of practical decisions and action. In defeat, he still affirms the values by which he lives. Are K.B.’s and Lulu’s values Hong Kong’s? The collection does show the effects of money on people's values, but it also breaks down stereotypes about Hong Kong. The Western image of the city/territory is that it is, above all, money-minded and crassly materialistic; Hong Kong Stories dismantles this stereotype because it shows that money is also something human and complex and almost always other than itself. The collection is quite interesting in its different depictions of the effects and meanings of money. Certainly there is nothing crass, for example, about K.B.'s attitude toward money; he uses it like a magic carpet to transport Lulu to Paris and to shower her with flowers and gifts.
- "Miss Tsushima" also concerns the encounter between a middle-aged man and a young woman; here the encounter leads not to an affair but to a strange absolution and an affirmation of humanistic values. Yung, a Hong Kong trade-negotiator, and Miss Tsushima, a translator and liaison assigned to aid him during his conference participation in Tokyo and Japan, share an intimacy; what Yung does not understand is that Miss Tsushima, who is engaged to be married very soon, allows herself to be seduced by him as a way of atoning for the crimes that her father committed during the Second World War. To explain the story is such a straight-forward manner, though, depletes it of its subtleties and its intimations of unconscious forces guiding the behavior of Yung and Miss Tsushima, directing them toward a moment of larger-than-individual comprehension. The author depicts this poetically, in haiku-like images. The trees in Kyoto, where Yung and Miss Tsushima spend the day sightseeing, are full of blossoms, flowers that will be rent by the first rain. "Is that not the law of nature, Yung-san?" Miss Tsushima inquires. "Petals must fall sooner or later from even the most beautiful blooms. Is it not the very transitoriness of things that makes life precious?" (72) When the rain arrives and does its expected damage, Miss Tsushima cannot resist being overwhelmed with sadness: the "petals f[a]ll as if with a sigh, like so many white, wounded butterflies" (72). Yung feels that he is witnessing a "sacrilege." Certainly on one level of interpretation, this scene enacts a sacrifice, one that will be repeated in a different form when Miss Tsushima offers her virginity to Yung. What motivates her action is not sexual desire, but a deep sense of an individual’s implication in the actions and destiny of one’s ancestors. Yung tells Miss Tsushima that his father, a pharmacist seeking to aid an ailing friend, was executed by the Japanese military for smuggling medicine into an internment camp (75). Upon hearing this story, Miss Tsushima bows deeply and asks for forgiveness. Yung does not make an immediate connection between Miss Tsushima's bow and their intimacy later in the evening; two weeks before her marriage she sleeps with a man other than her fiancé in order to, as she says, "repay a debt, to atone" for her father, who, during the campaign in Nanking, engaged in a fury of looting, rape, and murder (78). The experience marks him permanently, leaving him mentally imbalanced and suicidal. "I thought if I atoned . . . for my father's crimes, by offering you what is most precious to me and what only can be offered once," she explains, "the gods might take pity and grant my father peace. It was a silly idea, I now realize, but I meant no harm" (81).
- Among other things, "Miss Tsushima" is a kind of morality play about memory and individual responsibility; the present is unable to forget the past, it suggests, and this is an awareness that our twentieth-first century global society often lacks. To find one's way through the labyrinth of today’s interconnected world, Jacques Attali argues, memory is crucial (180). One problem with cosmopolitanism as a concept is that it seems devoid of a time-sense, an historical sense of the strata of human experiences that must be comprehended and commemorated in order for the world to become truly global in its knowledge and sensibility. In "Miss Tsushima" it is a fragment of a very particular China and a very particular Japan that reaches a new understanding. Globalism and international interrelatedness must be viewed as a labyrinth with hidden passages like those that Yung and Miss Tsushima intuitively and then consciously follow. They actualize a potential that exists in the world today, but this global potential can only be tapped through millions of individual, local encounters, all of which have their own ambiguities.
- "Dead Cert," "The Revolt of Grass," and "Szeto's Bar" concern choices of survival and dignity in a world ruled by autocratic decree on one side of the border and, in Wong's words, the "green-eyed monster" on the other. The main characters in these stories enter a modern-day labyrinth; through their actions they must construct a new value system and a new sense of their identity. Above all, they must survive. In "Dead Cert" Tiger Yang overcomes numerous handicaps; through a fighting spirit and an acquired understanding of the unwritten rules of racing he becomes a champion jockey. Learning to be a jockey involves learning more than riding horses; it also involves, Tiger is told, understanding people’s motivations and the effect of money on them. If a jockey ever needs to win big, Tiger's mentor explains, he must be prepared to betray everyone (88). Tiger prepares carefully for the perfect moment; he is sure, riding Dead Cert, that he is going to fool everyone, win a bundle of money, and then retire in high style. Chance -- or is it destiny? -- has the final say, though. During the race a horse falls in his path; hurled to the ground, Tiger meets life’s only sure outcome. Wong enjoys constructing plots that elude conventional endings; he believes in the twists and turns and unpredictability of life. To a certain extent, life in Hong Kong Stories is a gamble and a game, just as writing these short stories, all of them about different Hong Kong people with different fates, is a writerly game.
- In "Dead Cert," we understand Tiger Yang, who is essentially a little guy trying to beat an unfair system; we also understand Yun, the proletarian hero of "The Revolt of Grass," an illegal worker who tries to pull his family in China out of poverty. Crossing the border, Yun enters a labyrinth; each day he plays a high-risk game, hoping to elude the Hong Kong immigration authorities long enough to recross the frontier and take care of his family’s needs. He is betrayed. The foreman of Yun’s workcrew arranges a police raid of the construction site a few hours before paytime so that the illegal workers will be rounded up and the construction company will not have to dispense their wages. When the police arrive, Yun is laying bricks on the 26th floor, so there can be no escape from the fate awaiting him below. "A blade of grass survives storms better than a tree braving the wind," Yun’s father has instructed (96). Following his father’s wisdom, Yun has often submitted, humbling himself in the face of authority. But this time his anger, long held within, breaks; he chooses to ignore the commands shouted at him on police bullhorns and to perch on a ledge throughout the night rather than descend and surrender to authorities. "He felt as if he were poised on the edge of the world, charged in some inexplicable way with defending his fellow men from some encroaching darkness. . . . His tiredness fell away and he felt unaccountably refreshed. He did not know what tomorrow would bring but he knew if he clung to his perch long enough he would be rewarded by the sight of a new dawn" (112). It is in the vein of modern existentialist heroes that Yun disobeys; he chooses, and therefore he takes charge of his fate. He will go to jail and eventually be sent back to China, but he has not been broken as a human being, as an individual. It might be argued that Yun's decision is also a pragmatic one, because in the long-term his self-esteem is more precious than wages lost during a certain number of weeks or months of detention. What values does Hong Kong make available to its citizens -- and to those, on the other side of the border, who are not its inhabitants but who are drawn into Hong Kong's stories? "The true city," Spinoza remarks, "offer citizens the love of freedom instead of the hope of rewards or even the security of possessions; for ‘it is slaves, not free men, who are given rewards for virtue’" (Spinoza qtd. in Deleuze 76). To disobey can be a first step towards freedom, and even grass can revolt, the story’s title affirms.
- "Szeto's Bar" puts into play the different value systems that inform the collection -- tradition, East-West hybridity, labyrinthine modernity -- without seeking to resolve them into simplistic formulas. Like "The Revolt of Grass" and "Voices in the Heart," the story is an anti-capitalist tale, for the demands of money and success pull the story’s two lovers, Yuen and Ching Ching, apart. Childhood sweethearts who plan to marry, they are separated by Yuen's decision to accept a scholarship to study in the United States and by the death of Ching Ching's father, which forces the mother to take the children to Singapore; the family departs without leaving a forwarding address, and Yuen and Ching Ching fall out of touch. In order to support the family, she becomes a dance hostess; years later, by chance Yuen meets her again, though now she is known as Jade Lotus, queen of the Hong Kong dance halls. The clock cannot be turned back; their respective fates cannot be recast. She is a great, though tainted success, and he is a cynical journalist who drinks too much and whose salary is much too low to support Ching Ching and her family. Besides, still a traditional Chinese woman within, she views herself as fallen, albeit a successful businesswomen who must cater to the rich men who pay for her services. When Yuen interferes, believing that he is defending Ching Ching's honor, he unwittingly sets in motion events that lead to her death.
- This tragic love story is framed within the story of Szeto and his bar, which are mentioned in three of the collection’s other stories; it is Szeto, for example, who gives Uncle Tuck’s magnificent funeral oration. The balding Szeto is an unorthodox mixture of businessman, psychologist, and philosopher; he allows his customers the freedom to indulge to their desire’s content -- to become merry or sad, it matters not to him -- and the only rules in his bar are practical ones that apply to its smooth functioning: no unescorted women and no passing out from alcoholic excess. If a customer drinks too much and collapses, Szeto has him drug to a dark room, itself a kind of labyrinth. A clever system of locks insures that only someone who is moderately sober will be able to open the door and find his way down the alley: "the departure would be undignified, involving unpleasant navigation through a back alley cluttered with overflowing garbage bins, discarded containers and colonies of stray cats" (114). Opposed to Szeto’s pragmatism is Yuen’s romanticism and sadness. Yuen regrets his decisions and grieves the loss of the woman that he loved. Intensified by alcohol, this sadness and romanticism decompose his character; physically and morally he deteriorates. Yuen’s telling of his story to Szeto has a therapeutic effect, though; at the end Szeto comforts him with what could be interpreted as an affirmation of a cultural value (i.e., a belief in everlasting love) or an illusion that suits his romanticism. In listening to Yuen’s story, Szeto has understood the problem and has responded in a way that allows Yuen to be reconciled with his grief and to leave the bar with dignity.
- Having discussed in brief several of the collection’s stories, I would like to make some generalizations about my overall reading of it. One perspective from which Hong Kong Stories can be analyzed is characterization: to what degree do its characters possess an interiority, a self-reflexion, or conversely, to what degree are their identities limited to the social roles that they perform? In "Gender Constructs and Chinese Womanhood," Kwok-kan Tam states: "In the Chinese tradition, the formation of selfhood is not based on the construction of the ego as self-identity. . . . As demonstrated in Daxue . . . , the process of the 'cultivation of personal life, regulation of the family, ordering the state, bringing peace throughout the world' . . . prescribes a strong sense of communitarianism, in which the self is just a relational self-role. In Confucianism the self is described always in relation to others, but never as a separate category" (4-5).
- Perhaps one could argue that Asian texts that conform to such a tradition could be classified as "oriental," whereas texts that depart from this tradition could be classified as showing a Western influence. For example, contemporary texts by Asian writers which assign "established discourse roles," such as "mothers, daughters, wives, girl friends," and established "discourse positions," such as "marginal, passive, dependent," (Ho 31) to female characters might be considered Eastern as opposed to Western. In this regard Hong Kong Stories seems to me a split book: it is chiefly oriental in its female characterization, yet occidental in its male characterization. This is not true for every character, of course, but this seems to me the tendency of the book. Female characters are absent from several of the stories; in others, females have minor and traditional roles. They are chiefly supportive, as is Red Hope in "Voices in the Heart," the wife who seeks to reconcile father and son in "The Chicken Blood Seal," Mei-ling the frustrated wife in "Anniversary," and the wife back in China in "The Revolt of Grass." Red Hope and Adelaide (Tuck's wife and An-shan's secret flame in "Uncle Tuck") are two similar versions of the female who serves the role of moral inspiration and physical comforter. With the possible exception of "Miss Tsushima," whose heroine is Japanese not Chinese, none of the stories focuses exclusively on a female character; as in Szeto’s bar, it would seem that unaccompanied women are not allowed. We see aspects of this principle in the framing devices of the various stories. There must first be a male counterpart to establish the space within which a female character can then exist; for example, in "The Cocktail Party," it is K.B.'s story that frames Lulu's; in "Miss Tsushima," it is Yung’s story that frames Miss Tsushima’s, and in "Anniversary," it is Kwan's story that frames Mei-ling's. The assignment of characters’ professional identities shows a similar female dependency on male authority. Only three women, Miss Tsushima, Lulu, and Ching Ching, have a professional identity; Lulu and Ching Ching enter the entrepreneurial world of Hong Kong and achieve a certain success, but both must use their bodies to help them find their place. Lulu gets her boutique by way of her sexual relationship with K.B., and Ching Ching uses her beauty and charm to transform herself into Jade Lotus, the queen of the nightclubs, and thus to support her family. The Hong Kong of these stories, then, is not a woman’s place, though females are important to its male characters; they are, variously, supports and sources of desire and inspiration. This could be interpreted as an Orientalist aspect of the collection, which perhaps reflects a Hong Kong of the 1970s and early 1980s rather than of the 1990s. Of course, in today's Hong Kong, women are present everywhere; they occupy the full range of positions, from highest government officials to business executives, university professors, truck and taxi drivers, and construction workers.
- Conversely, the short story collection tends to westernize Chinese male characters' motivations and actions. I think, for example, of Uncle Tuck, Yun of "The Revolt of Grass," Tong of "Hammer and Tong," Tiger Yang of "Dead Cert," and Yuen of "Szeto's Bar." In these characters we see something of the modern individualist striking out against authoritarian and bureaucratic systems. When we consider these male characters in relation to success and failure, we find that traditional values such as diligence, hard work, loyalty, and obedience are often ineffectual. "The world is perilous," various characters of Hong Kong Stories assert; the "rules of the game" change rapidly and unpredictably, and sometimes there are even no rules. Certain characters may place themselves in opposition to such a world, but they do not intervene in it or struggle against it, or perhaps they intervene or struggle in the wrong way. Tong, of "Hammer and Tong," gets himself into trouble because he does his job so efficiently, inadvertently exposing the questionable practices of his seniors; Yun, the illegal worker of "The Revolt of Grass" raises suspicions of the construction foreman when he lays his bricks with care and attention to the final product. Inspector’s Hung’s loyalty to his father entraps him in criminal activities that ruin his career; Old Soong’s loyalty to tradition isolates him and distances him from the needs of his son; Kwan’s loyalty impedes him from responding to the predicament of Mei-ling, his friend's wife. Generally speaking, the short story collection affirms other qualities and values, such as cleverness, toughmindedness, a capacity to adapt to change and modernity, and a capacity for generosity and love. It is interesting that in this story collection about an Asian place and people, readers’ sympathies are rarely on the side of the law; in a social context in which authority is still the dominant regulator of individual behavior, Wong would seem to view a capacity for disobedience, revolt, and nonconformism as vital in today's world. At least ten of the thirteen stories treat individual acts that rebel against or break a cultural proscription, social convention, or law. If only in a minor key, Tong, K.B., Miss Tsushima, Yun, Uncle Tuck, and Keung are all rebels, at some point in their lives breaking either taboo, convention, or law. Similarly, betrayal is a recurrent theme in the story collection; like revolt and law-breaking, betrayal depends on a certain interiority and self-reflexion. A character who rebels or betrays must be given a sense of self in order to account for the motivation to rebel or betray. In these two aspects of Hong Kong Stories, then, we see features of a Westernization of the subject matter, or an inverse Orientalism that structures Chinese male characterization in Wong's work. (This Westernization informs the narration itself, whose plots depend on action and process, and a certain teleological view of the universe that they carry with them. Anarchy is not Wong’s implied comment, but the comment is definitely a modern Western one: that in a hostile, unstable, bureaucratic order, the individual must sometimes take a stand; otherwise he/she will be brushed aside in a world that rapidly changes with no consideration to good behavior and past virtue. In an authoritarian, bureaucratic society the individual is always in danger of losing his interiority, his self-reflexion, and of becoming totally externalized. He turns into routines, conventions, duties, the people, statistics, etc. Wong dedicated his story collection -- "To Hong Kong. May its spirit of freedom, irreverence and enterprise remain forever intact" -- with this peril in mind.
- In La Sagesse des modernes: Dix questions pour notre temps (Wisdom of the Moderns: Ten Questions for Our Time) (1998), the French philosopher Luc Ferry makes a simple but profound point about the nature of identity that I would like to apply to the concept of the labyrinth and the particularities of Hong Kong culture. Individuality, he explains, is a synthesis, a reconciliation, of the particular and the universal; this is a definition that goes back to Aristotle and that runs through the philosophic tradition of the West (246). And yet, we have fallen into the trap of defining individual identity as something unique, as something that must be exclusive of -- and therefore in conflict with -- all other identities.
- The labyrinth is a universal symbol, ancient as well as modern, and I see nothing that diminishes Hong Kong specialness -- "a bird of a different feather" -- to argue that the city, as labyrinth, is a paradigm of postmodernity as well as something quite particular and different from other cities. The lines of movements and acts of problem-solving that construct identity today do not proceed in straight lines; because they move against intricate resistances within ourselves and the world, they twist and turn like a rhizome, like a labyrinth, one of the oldest symbols of humanity. In the classical world, the labyrinth recounted the interior voyage of man in search of meaning; with the Renaissance, however, the West began to reject the labyrinth, with its sinuous lines and occult intimations, for the simplicity and transparency of the straight line (Qtd. in Attali 209). In the twentieth century, Jacques Attali argues, the labyrinth in its many manifestations -- from the Freudian and Lacanian concept of the unconscious, to the layout of the modern megacity, to the computer chip and the intricately branching Internet -- has returned to once again define aspects of the nature of identity and the search for meaning (160-62). Life is a journey through labyrinths; qualities that one needs to succeed in this journey are curiosity, cleverness, improvisation, perseverance, suppleness, irony, and mastery of self. Detours and reverses, blockages and turns into the unknown define the movement within the labyrinth, which is not, Foucault interjects, "the place where one loses oneself" but "the place from which one always leaves lost."
- Hong Kong is many things. Historically, it has been principally three things: "a transit point between China and the world, refugee haven, and site of belonging for many of its local inhabitants" (Ho 44). Wong's collection portrays each of these aspects of the city/territory; in this sense his stories seek a realism -- the realism of popular fiction. But they also make and remake myth, focusing on paradigms of testing and game-playing. This latter Hong Kong especially, in both its traditional and postmodern qualities, is a labyrinth: a testing, a convoluted evolution, a confronting and responding to late twentieth-century problems of local and global proportions.
Roland Barthes, New Critical Essays (New York: Hill and Wang, 1980): 117-118. I came to the concept of the "sojourner" by way of Barthes and Pierre Loti, but of course "sojourner" is now a popular term in discussions of the Chinese disapora. Victor Hao Li writes:Virtually all started as sojourners. We left a place we wished to leave, whether for economic or political reasons. We went to a place we thought we wished to go, whether for a better livelihood or education or safety. . . .See Victor Hao Li, "From Qiao to Qiao," The Living Tree: The Changing Meaning of Being Chinese Today, ed. Tu Wei-ming (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994): 213-220. Back
Leaving the Central Country was also an important symbolic act. In mainstream Chinese culture, a person was not defined by individual attributes as in the West, where 'I' carried my persona and my soul with me and could establish a New World wherever I went. Instead, the individual was at the nexus of a broad network of relationships that connected the person to ancestors and descendants, family, the community, and the state. . . . Weakening or severing these links diminished or even destroyed a person.
Sojourners could handle these problems more readily than emigrants. Sojourners were, in theory, physically away for a time and spiritually away only in part. At the symbolic plane, they yielded almost nothing and never really left. (213-14)
By "bilingual" I mean that more than one language is spoken. Back
Concerning the notion of cultural essences and Chinese culture, David Yen-ho Wu asserts:Recent studies . . . have shown that the existence of a superior Chinese culture is, at best, a myth. The Chinese people and Chinese culture have been constantly amalgamating, restructuring, reinventing, and reinterpreting themselves; the seemingly static Chinese culture has been in a continuous process of assigning important new meanings about being Chinese. However, the Chinese people have not been conscious of using such a cultural construction, and it has significantly affected Chinese individuals in peripheral areas because they are socially and politcally situated on the border between the non-Chinese and the category of people considered Chinese.Hong Kong would seem a perhipheral region of this sort, where the idea of radical difference, of Chinese-ness, takes shape in discourse structured by various socio-economic and political pressures and exigencies. See David Yen-ho Wu, "The Construction of Chinese and Non-Chinese Identity," The Living Tree: The Changing Meaning of Being Chinese Today, ed. Tu Wei-ming (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994): 151. Back
Abbas approaches this interpretation of Hong Kong when he remarks that cultural forms constitute a "rebus" of the "city’s desires and fears, . . . a rebus of a particularly complex kind" (i, x). Back
See Tout-Monde (Paris: Gallimard, 1993) and Introduction à une Poétique du Divers (Paris: Gallimard, 1997). Back
For a discussion of the terms, "Good versus"Evil," and "good" versus "bad" see Gilles Deleuze's essay on Spinoza, "Ethics Without Morality," in The Deleuze Reader: 69-77. Back
I think of a passage in Jorge Lu’s Borges's "The Zahir":there is nothing less material than money, since any coin whatsoever . . . is strictly speaking, a repertory of possible futures. Money is abstract, . . . ; money is the future tense. It can be an evening in the suburbs, or music by Brahms; it can be maps, or chess, or coffee; it can be the words of Epictetus . . . ; it is a Proteus more versatile than the one on the isle of Pharos. It is unforeseeable time, . . . . a coin symbolizes man’s free will.See Labryinths, ed. Donald A. Yates & James E. Irby, Pref. André Maurois (New York: New Directions, 1964), 159. Back
See the discussion of "Fictions and Fabrications" in The Rhetoric of Confession: Shishosetsu in Early Twentieth-Centruy Japanese Fiction (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1988): 3-28. Back
Quoted in Attali 209. To be "lost" can take on a positive meaning in that a lost person has a sense of the limits of his knowledge; his very uncertainity can create a heightened attentiveness and receptivity to the world and the possibility of seeing a problem in a new way. Back
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