Letter from Hong Kong

The Smell of Home by Sarah Howe

Sarah HoweEvery time I land in Hong Kong and the plane doors hiss open, I’m greeted by a smell I find almost impossible to describe, but which takes me back to the earliest phase of my childhood. I might even call it the smell of home. “Sea-drizzle, diesel, damp, black hair”: a line from one of my poems is the closest I’ve managed to get to it in language. When my flight lands in late July, it’s less a fragrance that hits me than a sheet of humidity. My three-day visit coincides with the hottest day of the year. 

I have been sponsored by the British Council to attend this year’s Hong Kong Book Fair. I’m told the fair started out as an effort to boost the city’s cultural life during the dead lull of summer: more than a million visitors will cross its threshold over the week. On the opening morning, snaking their way between metal barriers are the sorts of queues one would normally associate with Disneyland. Decanted from buses chugging on the forecourt, classfulls of uniformed primary school children take turns to enter the revolving doors. The event takes place annually in the Wan Chai Convention Centre, a vast construction of glass and steel shaped like a stack of temple roof tiles, commanding panoramic views across Victoria harbour. The building was completed after my family left for the UK in 1991, in time to serve as the backdrop for the iconic handover ceremony that marked the end of colonial rule. It was within these same walls, beneath two huge national flags, that Chris Patten, Robin Cook, Tony Blair and a mournful-looking Prince Charles lined up opposite the Beijing delegation on the night of 30 June 1997. I remember watching the footage of the ceremony with my parents, taped because of the time difference, on the VCR in our lounge in Watford.

My mother is a hoarder, worst of all of books, which line her bedroom walls four-deep: a habit she attributes to their scarcity in an impoverished 1950s Hong Kong upbringing. Watching the crowds thronging the Book Fair’s stalls, you might think today’s Hongkongers suffer the same pang. Families turn out across several generations, filling up suitcases with their purchases. A little boy of about six trundles past me with a miniature SpongeBob SquarePants wheelie, soon to be loaded up with school exam preparation manuals. Jason Ng, in his Hong Kong State of Mind (2010), takes a wry glance at his countrymen’s reading habits: “The perennial bestsellers are fortune-telling or feng shui manuals, investment how-to books and guidebooks to exotic foreign cities. Any tourist who stumbles into one of our local bookstores would easily conclude that we are a superstitious, money-grubbing bunch who can’t wait to leave town the first chance we get.” The fair’s Chinese offerings dwarf the modest English-language aisle, with its stacked displays of commercial fiction and celebrity cookbooks: Nigella and Jamie Oliver are, it seems, big in Hong Kong. My plan to browse the English poetry section for local titles is thwarted when, after a couple of circuits, I realise it doesn’t exist. I’m disappointed, having hoped to stock up on the backlist from Hong Kong’s main independent poetry publishing house, Chameleon Press. Some of Chameleon’s poets are already well known to me, including UK-based Jennifer Wong and Tammy Ho-Lai Ming, the editor of Cha, Hong Kong’s premiere English-language poetry journal, who I’d be meeting that afternoon for an interview.

The evening event at the Book Fair is the first time I have ever read my work in the city where I was born. It’s hard to say, between myself and my mum waiting back in England, which of us is more nervous. For me, reading in front of a Hong Kong Chinese audience opens up anxieties I feel inured to back in the West. Here I’m vulnerable all over again: why on earth would these people need a half-gweipo, absent more than twenty years, to describe for them the city where they live? Hosting the session is Peter Gordon, editor of the Asian Review of Books and long-term American expat, who begins by asking, “What is Hong Kong literature?” I start by chipping away at another, related question, which journalists have levelled at me again and again during my stay: “Do you think of yourself as a Hong Kong poet?” My answer is still evolving: the label ‘Hong Kong poet’ is a privilege I had never thought to claim for myself. Yet it’s a title this place and its people, against all expectation, seem to want to offer. To me that says something about the encompassing nature of Hong Kong identity, which might stretch further than I had first thought; that Hong Kong is changed and enriched by all the people who move through it, whatever their backgrounds and ancestral connections. In the signing line after the reading, which stretches to the back of the hall, I am so touched by the words of welcome and vouchsafed emotional connection that I end up hugging several strangers. My conjured fears of hostility and rejection melt away: this is what it must feel like to come home with an Olympic medal!

As for the nature of ‘Hong Kong literature’, I feel like I only begin to glimpse the question’s true scope and complexity the following day, during a conversation with Nicholas Wong, whose American-published debut, Crevasse, recently won the international Lambda Literary Award in Gay Poetry. It’s an exhilarating book. One poem anagrams “capitalism” to “I am plastic”. Another opens with a deceptive insouciance:

He taught me about empires, got spotted
in a ferry leaning almost too close to a man
in the same tee. People like us traveled a lot […]

In these restless pieces, lyric and experimental collide with a luxuriance of phrasing and ferocity of witness that feel totally new among the Hong Kong poets I’ve read. This is partly a matter of Wong’s American lodestars, I suspect, but not wholly attributable to that influence. Wong described to me the fraught choice – which thanks to his colonial literary education was, he says, never really a choice – for a poet like him to write in a language not his mother tongue. I couldn’t help thinking of Beckett switching to French to hobble his fluency. Writing in English in Asia means writing from the edge, Wong explained: it’s a peripheral vantage that often leaves you gazing across to the UK or US for a wider readership. But he also recounted the writerly pleasure of occupying such an edge – now less a margin than a blade – to create poems postcolonial and queer and triumphantly hard-to-pin-down.

What does it mean to be a Hong Kong poet? In these days of constitutional uncertainty, the former colony’s poets seem to find politics unavoidable, even compulsive. The student placards adorning the Umbrella Movement of two years ago were, as they had been at Tiananmen in 1989, covered in poetry. In the wake of the peaceful protests that brought Hong Kong to a standstill in autumn 2014, the disappointments of the pro-democracy cause have given way to still more frightening political developments, as well as a great deal of frustration and anger. The principle of ‘one country, two systems’ – meant to guarantee Hong Kong fifty years from 1997 of continuing freedoms under its present regime – seems increasingly under threat from heavy-handed authorities in Beijing.

My mother’s own anxieties about my trip to Hong Kong had nothing to do with sceptical audiences at the Book Fair, and everything to do with five Causeway Bay booksellers ‘disappeared’ by Chinese authorities in early 2016. The five men were taken, it is thought, to secret mainland detention cells for their track record of publishing and stocking books banned in China, including scurrilous sexual exposés about President Xi Jinping. Despite my repeated attempts to reassure her, I fear my mum spent most of the early summer imagining me being bundled from my hotel lobby into the back of a white van. 

The bookseller abductions set alarm bells ringing in Hong Kong, where fear has long been mounting over the erosion of freedom of speech and the press. Feverish speculation about the incident’s larger significance swirled around the fact that one man, Lee Bo, appeared not only to have been spirited across the border from within Hong Kong itself, but to be a British citizen. A recent poem by Tammy Ho-Lai Ming, ‘The Bookseller’, punctures the local populace’s initial complacency:

[…] booksellers seldom make the news.
Then one day this all changes when five
go missing, one by one.

People care a little, not too much,
about the first four: after all, they vanished
elsewhere. So long as the fire
does not burn too near, it’s all right.

Ho’s poem ends by aligning its own act of writing with the defiance of the vanished: “Some remove books banned / across the border or close their doors. / Others, trepidatious yet defiant, / continue to sell, print, write.” A fortnight before my July visit, the last of the five men to resurface, Lam Wing Kee, sensationally emerged from solitary confinement to tell journalists of months of interrogations, forced confessions and suicide watches. Fleeing his mainland captors, Lam claimed he had been permitted temporarily to return to Hong Kong for the purpose of bringing back to his interrogators a full list of customers’ names from the Causeway Bay bookshop. Across the store’s shut-up frontage there still hang messages of support: prayers to “come home safely” or warnings that “mainland public security roam here”, alongside a pledge: “freedom of speech never dies”.


The Poetry Review 106:3 drop shadowFirst published in The Poetry Review, 106:3, Autumn 2016 © The Poetry Review and the author. Sarah Howe’s first collection, Loop of Jade (Chatto & Windus, 2015), won the T.S. Eliot Prize. She will co-edit the Winter 2016 issue of The Poetry Review with Maurice Riordan.