In the wake of the anti-extradition protests in 2019 and the implementation of the National Security Law in June 2020, Hong Kong—and, consequently, its literature—has increasingly been in the spotlight. In this conversation, writer and editor Louise Law Lok-Man and literary translator Jennifer Feeley discuss a range of topics related to Sinophone Hong Kong literature, including the construction of a vibrant local literary scene amid the territory’s transition from British to Chinese rule; various creative writing projects in the city; linguistic experiments in poetry, fiction, and opera; the legacy of pioneering authors and the newer literary trends among emerging writers; and the challenges and opportunities in bringing Sinophone literature from Hong Kong to the rest of the world. As Law and Feeley aim to demonstrate, Hong Kong literature is more than just political.
Jennifer Feeley (JF): How do you conceive of Hong Kong literature, which is so rich and varied?
Louise Law Lok-man (LL): Hong Kong is far more complex than the stereotype of a small fishing village off the coast of Guangdong Province that came into its own a hundred years ago; so is its literature. While the earliest literary journal in Hong Kong can be dated back to 1907, the vast body of Hong Kong literature in Chinese gradually took shape in the 1930s. Even though many of these writers were elites and literary figures who’d migrated from mainland China during turbulent times, including the Second World War, many came to recognize Hong Kong as a unique place in terms of culture, politics, and society, shaped in many ways by British colonial rule. These elites and intellectuals also were greatly influenced by the ideological clash of the Cold War period, as well as the rise of international leftists during the 1970s. Soon after, in 1974, Chinese was recognized as an official language alongside English, and a new wave of Hong Kong writing, represented by Xi Xi, Leung Ping-kwan (Ye Si), and other writers, became prominent. They were keen to write about the cityscape, culture, and local places in Hong Kong, expressing their sense of belonging and Hong Kong identity. Over the last fifty years, Hong Kong has become an international financial center while transitioning from British rule to Chinese administration. This transition has brought drastic and historical changes to the island, resulting in a variety of writings that reveal the agony of a people in a well-developed society who are gradually losing their freedom, as well as love, admiration, and memories of a city that is ever-changing.
JF: You are the director of Spicy Fish Cultural Production Ltd. Can you introduce Spicy Fish’s mission and some of your projects?
LL: We are one of Hong Kong’s longest-standing literary organizations, going on fifteen years strong, growing alongside Hong Kong society. We started off publishing a literary bimonthly in Chinese called Fleurs des lettres. We then extended our reach to develop educational programming for secondary school students, an overseas exchange program for authors, and community development programming for the elderly. One of our latest projects is called “Speak, Life,” which aims to reduce intergenerational exclusion by initiating conversations between students and the elderly. Students are taught to write creatively about the stories of older people’s lives.
JF: Can you say more about Fleurs des lettres?
LL: Fleurs des lettres was established in 2006, after Hong Kong had slowly recovered from the SARS outbreak of 2003. A group of young writers then in their thirties, including Tang Siu-wa, Dorothy Tse Hiu-hung, Hon Lai-chu, and Yuen Siu-cheong, who envisaged a visually vibrant literary magazine that engaged the social, cultural, and political aspects of the city, called for writers to contribute their creative works and critical reflections on a range of important topics. A bimonthly averaging 80,000 characters per issue over the past fifteen years, it has published writings by over 700 Hong Kong writers across various generations and backgrounds.
JF: 700! And some people question whether Hong Kong literature even exists! What kinds of work can readers expect to find in Fleurs des lettres?
LL: Fleurs des lettres curates a feature for each issue, ranging from lifestyle topics such as “Buying” (#1), “Soccer” (25), and “Books and Loneliness” (#59); social and political issues, including “We Cannot Vote for Anyone” (#33), “Counting Down to 1984” (#51), and “Goodbye, Hong Kong” (#65); and cultural issues, such as “Homosexuality” (#45), “Toward a Cantophone Literature”(#49), and “Aging” (#61) . . .
JF: I’ve really enjoyed reading the features in Fleurs des lettres. One that stands out to me is “Toward a Cantophone Literature.” In my work as a translator of Hong Kong literature, I’ve encountered more and more writers, especially younger writers, who incorporate Cantonese into their work, as opposed to only writing in standard written Chinese. For example, I’ve been translating work by the post-1990s writer Wong Yi, both her short stories and her libretto for the Cantonese chamber opera Women Like Us. Wong Yi uses standard written Chinese for her exposition but switches to Cantonese for dialogue or when writing her characters’ inner thoughts. In this way, she reduces the gap between the written and spoken language, with her dialogue reflecting how Hong Kong Cantonese speakers actually talk.
LL: Hong Kong writers have long been experimenting with using both our spoken and written language in their work, and I believe this will continue. Aside from fiction writers, Hong Kong poets also incorporate Cantonese and many modes of language into their writing to convey a sense of playfulness, modernity, and sometimes sarcasm, creating a unique postcolonial voice. Some examples include Quanan, Yam Gong, and Choi Yim-pui.
Quanan’s poem “Flag,” written in the 1960s, is a collage of standard written Chinese, English, and Classical Chinese that aims to challenge the colonial voice. Even though the poem isn’t directly written in Cantonese, it can be read aloud in Cantonese, revealing a distinct hybrid voice and the way various modes of language merge in daily life. Meanwhile, Choi Yim-pui naturally incorporates Cantonese into his poems. His works are a mix of Cantonese and Classical Chinese, conveying a sense of playfulness and crafting a special type of lyrical colloquialism. Yam Gong's work is unique in its repetition, allusions to various texts, and rich colloquial language.
Apart from these ongoing linguistic experiments by Sinophone Hong Kong writers, in the past two years there’s also been a growing trend of writing only in Cantonese, due to the strengthening of a distinct Hong Kong identity during the recent political movements. A new magazine dedicated to Cantonese-only writings was launched in 2020, and a category of Cantonese-only short stories has just been added to one of the most important literary writing competitions in Hong Kong.
“It surprises me that more popular Hong Kong literature hasn’t been translated.”
JF: This linguistic experimentation is one of the things that makes Hong Kong literature so interesting to me, even if it makes translating Hong Kong literature especially challenging at times.
Right now, I’m translating Lau Yee-Wa’s chilling noir novel Tongueless, which is set against the backdrop of a growing trend in Hong Kong schools to transition to Mandarin instead of Cantonese as a medium of Chinese-language instruction, due to mounting political pressures. The novel explores the increased politicization of the educational environment in Hong Kong, with schools transformed into ideological battlegrounds divided by the version of Chinese used in the classroom, and takes as one of its protagonists a Chinese-language teacher who dies by suicide after becoming pathologically obsessed with learning Mandarin.
Much of the novel’s dialogue is written in Cantonese, but one of the protagonists insists on speaking Mandarin all the time, even though she struggles with it. The character’s shoddy grasp of the language is reflected through dialogue written in a non-standard Mandarin that’s slightly off. These linguistic shifts are fascinating from a reader’s perspective, but from a translator’s viewpoint, I have to come up with creative ways to reflect this juxtaposition in English.
LL: Translating something so local to Hong Kong and so firmly rooted in language must be especially difficult. How did you get interested in Hong Kong literature in the first place? What was the first Hong Kong literary work you translated?
JF: The writer Leung Ping-kwan, whom you mentioned above, recommended Yau Ching’s poetry to me. I picked up Yau’s bilingual poetry collection The Impossible Home (2000), in which some of the poems were originally written in Chinese and others in English before being self-translated into the other language. I was immediately intrigued by how she transforms poetry into an act of linguistic and cultural translation between Cantonese, Mandarin, and English, which led me to write an academic article on her work and sparked my larger interest in Hong Kong literature.
As for my first translations of Hong Kong literature, I translated an essay by Leung Ping-kwan called “Confronting the Multiple Deaths of the Chinese Language,” followed by a couple of Xi Xi’s poems. Interestingly, all of these works are centered around language. Leung’s essay laments the various “deaths” of the Chinese language, whereas the first Xi Xi poems I translated celebrate and play with the malleability of language. I fell so much in love with the way that Xi Xi delights in language that I ended up translating an entire book of her poems. While translating work that hinges on language play is daunting, it’s extremely rewarding to be able to push the limits of English.
LL: You mentioned Xi Xi, who is one of Hong Kong’s most prominent authors. The entire July 2019 special issue of Fleurs des lettres was devoted to her, celebrating her sixty years of writing. Her style has inspired many generations of Hong Kong authors, forming a body of work that is allegorical and fantastical and displays a keen observation of ordinary life in Hong Kong.
JF: That issue serves as a testament to Xi Xi’s cultural impact, featuring many younger authors’ rewritings of her famous poems and stories.
Personally, I’ve noticed affinities between her work and the writings of Dung Kai-cheung, Hon Lai-chu, and Dorothy Tse in how they blur the real and the fantastic. I also see Xi Xi’s influence in Wong Yi’s work, particularly her use of defamiliarization and the childlike wonder with which some of her characters approach the world, such as in her short story collection The Four Seasons of Lam Yip.
Wong Yi’s recent Cantonese chamber opera libretto (music composed by Daniel Lo), Women Like Us, was adapted from two of Xi Xi’s short stories “A Woman Like Me” and “The Cold.” In translating the surtitles for the opera, I found myself not only rereading Xi Xi’s stories but also falling down numerous rabbit holes related to the multiple intertextual references Xi Xi makes in both works. Wong Yi’s libretto inscribes new meanings onto these stories, changing the characters’ fates. In her forthcoming short fiction collection Ways to Love in a Crowded City, Wong Yi also rewrites “The Cold” as a short story set in the present day, updating Xi Xi’s tragic love story for the twenty-first century—for example, whereas Xi Xi’s story alludes to classical Chinese poetry, Wong Yi’s adaptation cites contemporary Cantonese pop songs.
LL: You brought up writers such as Dorothy Tse and Hon Lai-chu, who, like Xi Xi, construct an allegorical Hong Kong in their works. Meanwhile, a group of writers born in the 1980s and 1990s are attempting a more realistic approach, depicting various walks of life and revealing the psychological turmoil that plagues the younger generation in Hong Kong. One such up-and-coming author is Leung Lee-chi. She’s only twenty-six but already has published two short story collections and a volume of poetry, and she’s been awarded several important prizes in Hong Kong and Taiwan. While she is still exploring her own form and style, she has shown an acute observation and understanding of the social fabric of Hong Kong, highlighting the pressures and struggles facing its youth.
JF: Leung Lee-chi is a daring young author. I recently translated her short story “Empty Rooms,” which is about an upper-middle-class family leaving Hong Kong, narrated from the perspectives of various household objects (and a sick cat). Even though Leung Lee-chi writes in a more realistic vein, “Empty Rooms” reminds me of Xi Xi’s story “Apple,” written in 1982, shortly after Deng Xiaoping and Margaret Thatcher launched the first formal negotiations of the Sino-British Joint Declaration. In “Apple,” the residents of a mythical town set off on a worldwide quest to find and eat Snow White’s poisoned apple so they can sleep through the uncertainty of the future. Leung’s story is more direct, though we only come to understand why the family is moving away through the viewpoints of quotidian objects.
LL: Everything seems to lead back to Xi Xi! Aside from her and Leung Lee-chi, you’ve translated work by several other Hong Kong writers, including Wong Yi, Chan Lai-kuen, Ng Mei-kwan, Tang Siu-wa, Leung Ping-kwan, and me! These are mainly literary writers. Have you considered translating more popular Hong Kong literature, such as martial arts or romance fiction?
JF: I’ve actually translated popular literature from mainland China—two books in the middle-grade series White Fox by Chen Jiatong—which was a lot of fun. I would love to translate more popular literature from Hong Kong, including works for younger readers. I’ve started translating Lau Yee-Wa’s Tongueless, as I mentioned above; while it’s mainly a literary novel, it incorporates elements of noir, horror, and psychological suspense, and is an extremely gripping book that’s hard to put down.
It surprises me that more popular Hong Kong literature hasn’t been translated. I’m excited that Jin Yong’s epic Legend of Condor Heroes series has been translated by an excellent team—Anna Holmwood, Gigi Chang, and Shelly Bryant––and Jeremy Tiang’s brilliant renderings of two of Chan Ho-kei’s acclaimed crime novels are now available in English. Andrea Lingenfelter also published groundbreaking English translations of two novels by best-selling author Lilian Lee Pik-wah back in the early 1990s. At the same time, I’m shocked that two of Hong Kong’s best-selling authors, the romance novelist Yi Shu and her brother, the science fiction writer Ni Kuang, have almost no work available in English translation. Certainly, there’s a lot more work to be done on this front.
LL: It’s interesting to learn about what does and what doesn’t get translated. How would you position Hong Kong literature among the body of Sinophone literature that’s been translated into English so far?
JF: The majority of Chinese-language literature that’s been translated into English is from mainland China and, to a lesser extent, Taiwan. In her short story “An Addendum to Cosmicomics,” Xi Xi references “a writer who lamented that his southern hometown was so small it was like a postage stamp.” In comparison, the narrator of the story regards Hong Kong’s fictional counterpart as merely “a butterfly’s teardrop.” To borrow this analogy, translated Sinophone literature is probably a postage stamp in the larger realm of literature translated into English, while translated Hong Kong literature is only the size of a butterfly’s teardrop.
I believe there are a couple of key reasons for this. One is funding, and another is the market. There are more funding opportunities to translate literature from the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan, whereas only Hong Kong residents seem eligible to apply for translation grants from the Hong Kong Arts Development Council. Adding to this insularity, most translated Hong Kong literature has historically been published within Hong Kong, which can hamper access to these works outside of the island due to lack of distribution. This dearth is not limited to works translated into English either.
“I do not want the world to see only the ‘political’ side of Hong Kong literature.”
Fortunately, opportunities to publish Hong Kong literature in English translation are increasing. The Hong Kong Atlas book series, spearheaded by Christopher Mattison, has cast a spotlight on translated poetry and fiction from the territory. Partnering with presses in Hong Kong and the US, the first round of the project features both established and emerging voices. And the Penguin Specials Hong Kong Series includes translations of Hong Kong literature into English as well as Hong Kong literature originally composed in English. Most recently, John Minford has joined forces with The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press and Columbia University Press to publish the Hong Kong Literature Series, showcasing pioneering authors such as Leung Ping-kwan, Xi Xi, and Liu Yichang.
Meanwhile, translated Hong Kong literature has been garnering attention outside of the territory. Three of the National Endowment for the Arts Literature Translation Fellowships in the past seven years have been awarded to projects centered on translating Hong Kong literature: Andrea Lingenfelter’s translation of Hon Lai-chu’s The Kite Family, Dorothy Tse’s and James Shea’s forthcoming translation of Yam Gong’s selected poetry, and my own translation of Xi Xi’s Mourning a Breast. Chenxin Jiang’s translation of Yau Ching’s poem “Trial Run” was one of the winners of the 2020 Words Without Borders Poems in Translation Contest, and Natascha Bruce’s translation of Dorothy Tse’s poem “Cloth Birds” was one of the winners of the 2019 Words Without Borders Poems in Translation Contest. May Huang’s translation of Chung Kwok-keung’s poetry earned an Honorable Mention for the 2020 Gulf Coast Prize in Translation as well. Recently, Fitzcarraldo Editions won a seven-way auction to publish the English translation of Dorothy Tse’s novel Owlish, to be translated by Natascha Bruce (who also was awarded a PEN/Heim grant to translate the novel). All of this is very promising!
LL: I’m heartened to see that Hong Kong literature is gaining more recognition outside of Hong Kong.
JF: You’re a big part of that! What are some new projects you’re working on? And can you tell us about the challenges you’ve faced in introducing Hong Kong literature abroad?
LL: I am working on a funded translation project called “The Ark,” which involves crafting book proposals and translation samples for a selection of Hong Kong literature to be pitched in the international book market. While this is a common practice in the world publishing industry, it is absent in Hong Kong because the conversation between publishers and literary scouts has long been lost and the costs for funding translations are too high. Hong Kong is very different from Taiwan, which is the main conduit between the traditional Chinese market and the rest of the world. Taiwanese literary agents have solid connections with foreign publishers and agents, facilitating the promotion of Taiwanese authors to the international book market, while I have to work from scratch to approach publishers and agents.
Moreover, I do not want the world to see only the “political” side of Hong Kong literature. The 2019 political movement caught the attention of the rest of the world, and several related writings are coming out. However, Hong Kong literature is more than just a political voice. It captures a specific culture, lifestyle, and way of thinking in a highly capitalized international city, which I find unique in the world.
JF: If there was one thing you would like people to know about Hong Kong literature, what would it be?
LL: I want people to know Hong Kong literature’s “rawness.” It is like a gnawing fox hidden in the woods. It may seem to be in a weak position, but power resides within it. And you must watch out.