Thursday 13 August 2020

Hong Kong, Inside and Out: Two Guest Poets Write Home

More than a year since pro-democracy protestors took to the streets in Hong Kong, the city has faded somewhat from headlines around the world, eclipsed by the uncertainties of a global pandemic and fast-changing events elsewhere. But for Hong Kongers at home and abroad, political and cultural upheavals on the island continue to take centre stage, while the fate of their city as they know it hangs in the balance. 

What does it mean to write from, to, and about a changing city? To start a conversation between writers within and outside the city, we invited two guest poets – one based in Hong Kong, to write about a fellow Hong Kong poet living abroad; and the other based overseas, to write about a fellow poet living in Hong Kong. Together, this pair of contributions reimagines Hong Kong as a larger, enduring community that transcends the island’s boundaries. 

Nashua Gallagher (based in Hong Kong), on Jennifer Wong (in the UK): 

I was at the book launch for Jennifer Wong’s ‘Summer Cicadas’ (Chameleon Press) in 2006. Here was a poet in her early 20s, already with a book under her belt chronicling the experience of leaving Hong Kong to read literature at Oxford. Of homesickness and culture shock, provoked by distance; a first-person narrative both fresh-faced and weary. As an aspiring poet with over a decade to go before my own book would contain similar cultural entanglements (though somewhat in reverse), I was moved by her evolving sense of home, and expansion of identity.

Her first book featured charming anecdotes, such as developing a taste for British-style Chinese food, and observations - keen and casual. The narrative voice, fittingly, was that of the on-looker, given the context of the time it was written, with newness and the shock of otherness.

Jennifer’s most recent collection of poetry, Letters From Home (Nine Arches Press, 2020) is a vibrant offering, thrumming with rich and familiar references which reveal the constant pull of her two homes. It opens, in the poem ‘of butterflies’, with the following lines: “Neither do I / know after all these years /  if I am a Chinese girl who / wanted to go home / or a woman from Hong Kong / who will stay in England. / It’s British summer time in my living room / but my watch in the drawer moves seven hours ahead.” Her young daughter is another significant presence in the book, pointing subtly to the passage of time since her previous work. Jennifer’s tender poems dip into the every-day moments that make up the mosaic of parenting a young child, but also highlight the responsibility of a heritage to bestow along with the anxiety of passing along an uncertain future. 

There is much to recognise, mull over and appreciate in this collection. It is unapologetic in its pull from memory and history and much of the work is a sensory delight. Distance brings clarity and nostalgia perfumes the page, but this is no rose-tinted ballad of the emigrè poet. What emerges from these pages is a clear yearning for a home that is, or was - underscored by questions of identity and filial obligation - feelings further challenged by the recent flare of political turmoil. This is interesting, because these are not sentiments exclusive to Hong Kong poets outside the city. As Jennifer writes in the poem Metamorphosis, “I wonder how a city / can outgrow the country, / whether going home is still an option.” This captures fluently the agony of loving a home that is in a constant state of flux, which is status quo, in many ways, for this city.

Rachel Leung (based in the UK), on Louise Law (in Hong Kong):

I first got to make Louise’s acquaintance through the kind introduction of translator Jennifer Feeley, as an amateur translator trying my hand at different types of poetry. 

It’s commonly said that “Nobody reads more closely than a translator.”, and I arrived at Louise’s work through the lens of delicate inquisition into her poetic craft and practice. Perhaps owing to her background in philosophy, or a general poetic disposition, Louise’s poetry is wrought with strains of philosophical inquiry and thought. Without veering into anything explicitly theoretical, her work is serenely meditative and ruminative- a tentative peeling back of the layers veiling existence and being, to distil what is “yet to exist” in creation.

This gingerness and tentativeness lends itself to the title of her 2018 collection “As If“ 《而又彷彿》and its titular poem, which reads: 

“...every line on the page/ All of them eager to distance itself slightly from the/ inexplicable, preceding line which sticks to its backside, All eager to deviate from/ this pavement-like line spacing...”  

(...頁上每一行字/ 都渴望稍稍離開貼在它背面的/ 難以理喻的一行,都渴望乖離/ 行人路似的行距...)

I find this a most apt description for the poet’s own work. Louise’s writing is often described as soft, clear and airy, allowing the natural landscape, which often figures as the central theme of her work, to take centre stage. In my own personal reading however I find Louise’s words to be clear and limpid, yes, but also sonorous, demonstrating the very desire of the written word depicted in the aforementioned lines: an unbridled, almost assault on convention, and a yearning to lift off from the page. 

“As If” was written in partial seclusion. Having moved to to one of Hong Kong’s outlying islands, the mountains, ridges and waters amongst which the poet dwelled and routinely ferried through heavily informed her “contemporary landscape writing”. Yet despite this, there is nothing new-age about her poetry. One of my personal favourites,  “Air”《空氣》 juxtaposes the tenderness found in nature on both macro and micro scales (“...the creases of a new leaf,/ buds like a newborn’s fist” ...新葉的皺褶、/ 初生嬰兒拳頭般的花苞) with what is decidedly mundane and callous (“the frozen fish fillets which just arrived wrapped in cling film;/ the wing-bones of the magpies which visited last year” 剛送來被保鮮紙包著的急凍魚柳;/...去年來過的喜鵲的翅骨).

Louise has written at length about poetry in general, but of her own poetry, she writes in Issue 26 of “BieZi” as such:

“I have no idea if I will be writing poetry in the future. The only thing that is of importance is to preserve oneself, to find oneself and to understand the world. Poems are merely vessels of preservation."


Louise’s poetry has preserved a slice of her world and self to be found, excavated- whatever one may call it. Undoubtedly, this (literary) manifestation of the self has not only been an inquisition into being and existence, but also holds the key to poetic creation in bottling what is “yet to be”. 

About the poets: 

Nashua Gallagher is the Sri-Lankan born, Hong Kong-raised author of ‘All the Words a Stage’ (Chameleon Press, 2018). She is the founding director of Peel Street Poetry, a literary collective. Her work sits somewhere between page and stage and has been anthologised widely across both print and performance. 

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Jennifer Wong studied English at Oxford University and has a creative writing PhD from Oxford Brookes University. She is the author of Goldfish (2013) and teaches part-time at City Lit and Oxford Brookes.

Leung Rachel Ka Yin is a poet, writer and editor from Hong Kong. She is the winner of the Sir Roger Newdigate Prize, and her work has also been awarded or recognized in the Proverse Poetry Prize, Oxford Brookes International Poetry Competition, Acumen, and Out-Spoken Poetry Prize. Her debut poetry pamphlet was published with the Hedgehog Poetry Press in March 2020. Her work can be found on her website

Louise Law Lok Man (羅樂敏) is a poet, writer, editor, translator, publisher and literary arts administrator based in Hong Kong. She majored in Philosophy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where she also obtained her MPhil in English. Louise is the former editor of literary magazine “Fleurs de lettres”, published by Spicy Fish Cultural Productions, of which she is currently Director.