Staring deep into the ink pond
By Jonathan Chan
The Ink Cloud Reader
There has been a recent slate of publications of poets of Hong Kong origin in the United Kingdom. These include the works of writers who arrived in the UK for their tertiary education, such as Jennifer Wong's 回家 Letters Home (2020), Laura Jane Lee's flinch & air (2021), Mary Jean Chan's Bright Fear (2023) or the winning poem of the 2021 National Poetry Competition by Eric Yip. Writers of mixed descent with Hong Kong roots, such as Sarah Howe, author of Loop of Jade (2015), and Sean Wai Keung, author of sikfan glaschu (2021), could also be regarded as part of this increasing visibility of Hong Kong authors in the UK. These accompany UK-published anthologies that spotlight Hong Kong writers, including the KongPoWriMo 2020 Anthology (Verve Poetry Press, 2020) and the forthcoming State of Play: Poets of East & Southeast Asian Heritage in Conversation (Out-Spoken Press, 2023), edited by Wong and Hong Kong-based Singaporean poet Eddie Tay.
This efflorescence of UK-based writers with some relation to Hong Kong, or the warming reception of the British reading public, is a phenomenon perhaps brokered by recent attention given to writers of East or Southeast Asian descent, such as the aforementioned Howe who received the T.S. Eliot Prize in 2015. One could also read this as a corrective to the Sinophobia that became rampant in Britain during Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, or perhaps a growing sense of sympathy in the aftermath of political crackdowns in Hong Kong itself, galvanising an influx of new migrants to the country. This has, however, led to instances of self-orientalisation: mythologising of the narratives of mothers and grandmothers, emphases on ornate imagery, poems composed from plays on Chinese pictograms. While this could be seen as a reclamation of one's identity through familiar elements, it could also be regarded as an attempt to meet the gaze of a British public, itself beholden to certain ideas of East and Southeast Asia.
Finding themselves minoritised within Britain's racial schema has led many to identify as BAME, or black, Asian and minority ethnic. The brokering of space for writers of East and Southeast Asian descent has been necessary against the stifling traditionalism of a predominantly white poetry community in the UK, with the pressures of anti-Asian violence helping to shape a growing communal literary and political consciousness. One might find evidence of this in the recent publication of the essay collection East Side Voices, bringing together writers such as Mary Jean Chan alongside writers with Malaysian (Tash Aw), Singaporean (Sharlene Teo and Zing Tsjeng) and Indonesian (Will Harris) roots. Admittedly, BAME was a formulation with which I had an uneasy relationship with as an international student in England, for while some of my peers were quick to see themselves as BAME owing to their new minority positions or shared histories of colonial dispossession, it felt innocuous to equate a potentially temporal marginalisation with the experiences of those who grew up as minorities across the UK.
The consolidation of East and Southeast Asian voices in anthologies in part alludes to the challenging position some writers in the community experience, with the performance of a kind of strategic essentialism in the brokering of this space for representation. As defined by literary critic Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, strategic essentialism is a political tactic in which minority groups, nationalities or ethnic groups mobilise on the basis of shared gendered, cultural or political identity to represent themselves. At the same time, the success of Anglophone Hong Kong writers in the UK can also bring to mind the relative marginality of Anglophone literature in Hong Kong itself, a reflection of the vexed status of English as a literary language itself. Poets may find themselves facing a small domestic reading public in the city due to a preference for Chinese as a literary language, compounded by the relative disinterest taken by many towards poetry in general. Efforts like KongPoWriMo have helped to revive an interest in Anglophone poetry, while also providing a platform to experiment with Kongish or even new bilingual experiments, such as between Cantonese and Old English. But for many of the aforementioned writers, publication in the UK ensures not just legitimacy within an Anglophone centre of literary production, but also a means of bypassing the difficulties of limited reading audiences and reach.
Kit Fan is not new to the UK's Anglophone poetry scene, though his third collection, The Ink Cloud Reader, arrives amidst this uptick in publications of writers with ties to Hong Kong. Fan has lived in the UK for the past 20 years, having arrived at the age of 21 and completed a doctorate on the works of Thom Gunn at the University of York. More senior in literary stature, having been elected a Fellow with the Royal Society of Literature in 2022, while also possessed of an uncommon elegance in his writing, Fan could be seen as anticipating a subsequent wave of East and Southeast Asian writers in the UK. His seniority, however, has not precluded his participation in Hong Kong's literary scene, with The Ink Cloud Reader including poems featured in Cha and 聲韻詩刊Voice and Verse Poetry Magazine, as well as a poem featured in poetry.sg's HK-SG Digital Travel Bubble, paired with a poem by Yeow Kai Chai. While the articulation of Hong Kong's postcolonial position is present in Fan's debut novel Diamond Hill (2021), The Ink Cloud Reader takes on a perhaps more recognisably autobiographical imprint. In an interview, Fan describes the book as having arrived after a watershed in his life, sense of arriving and departing. A sudden illness and intimation of mortality, coupled with the political turmoil that had beset Hong Kong, help provide the emotional context for the book. In one of the collection's early poems, 'Cumulonimbus', Fan writes:
One gets the sense of a poet at a precipice, a crossroads, confronted almost by a need to be shocked from stupor, to be made aware of human frailty, and to resist the determinations of time.
Ink is the primary image around which the book is structured. The book's cover, as well as the images that adorn the beginning of each section, are beautiful pictures of marble captured by Fan. Their shapes and stains are not unlike that of ink moving through water. The book's first poem is untitled, laid against an image of marble, and recounts a story the speaker hears from a teacher of Chinese calligraphy about Wang Xizhi, "probably the greatest calligrapher / in China". The speaker recalls:
The "ink cloud" that lends the book its title is not a cloud of ink, but rather a reflection of the clouds in ink. It is a phenomenon made possible by imperfection and failure, the pond representing Wang's many mistakes in the midst of perfecting his craft. There is a sense of restraint and a sense of discipline of the image that this poem demonstrates, prefacing the book with a mix of delicacy and pensiveness. Calligraphy has long connoted a sense not only of discipline, but of scholarly and aesthetic refinement. Taken simplistically, calligraphic ink may represent the act of writing itself. The ink pond a metaphor for its difficulties and depositions. Perhaps it is almost akin to saying that each of Fan's poems in the collection is an example of a poem that has survived the ink pond – surviving failure and frustration to preserve certain images from Fan's imagination.
The Ink Cloud Reader consists of three sections, 'Once Upon a Cloud', 'Hong Kong, China', and 'Broken Nosed Jizō'. 'Once Upon a Cloud' is perhaps closest to the two poems previously cited that begin the collection. Many are attentive to processions of images, whether to describe periods of Fan's life and their passing or the ubiquity of ink as an idea in Fan's experiences. The poem 'Suddenly' captures this, playing on Elmore Leonard's observation that "suddenly" is the "most overused" word in fiction. Anaphoric and repetitive, the poem uses the word "suddenly" to frame incidents that are recognisably from Fan's life, from when "Suddenly, the cloud-knots unravelled and a droplet fell from a womb" to when "Suddenly, at 14, on a bridge, he vowed never to / reproduce" to:
An immigrant story is wrapped in the incidental nature of that which occurs "suddenly". So too as the speaker suddenly encounters people who "speak Yorkshire", or the sudden finding of "love and blockades" or when suddenly "he failed, and blamed the words / and the swifts' saliva". The poem is among Fan's strongest in the collection, carefully capturing a compressed sense of the passage of time, woven through moments that can seem like coincidence. Yet, Fan is too thoughtful of a writer to allow his poems to be governed merely by a sense of fate.
'Suddenly' contrasts with the next poem 'Delphi', which is also structured anaphorically. It features the repetition of the word "IF". The conditional a contrast to the incidental in the previous poem. The poem is presented as six columns, read vertically, resisting the conventional ordering of stanzas from top to bottom. Something of it resembles text presented in Chinese calligraphy. Conditionality is linked to the oracular and the prophetic in the poem. The speaker is beset by an eschatological anxiety, mulling over conditions of reincarnation or annihilation. The feared "end" is "nothingness", bereft of "even the ink / and the clouds", nothing "left of me". The self is tied intimately to the "books / I read / and the books / I wrote". Fan's fears are expressed rhetorically, folded within Biblical and Roman allusion. These two poems may be taken as representative of Fan's existentialism at the book's onset.
Other poems in 'Once Upon a Cloud' that stand out include gorgeous 'Geraniums in May', which swaps brooding introspection for an explosive joy for the speaker's "orange-scented babies", and 'Many Junes', a meditation of taste and light. Poems like 'The Art of Reading' and 'In the Photocopying Room' pick up and extend the metaphor of ink, the former a tribute to Fan's love of reading across a variety of countries, cities and locales, and the latter a gracefully executed ode to Fan's graduate studies through the image of reading being photocopied. References to theory and Coleridge feel organic, rather than imposed. Poems like 'Yew' and 'Glück' are somewhat less successful, the former's cadences disrupted by epistrophe and end-rhymes, and the latter presented as a two-act play between Sun and Shade without a strong denouement. The section's final poem returns to an earlier anxiety, a reflection on a desire to leave behind the sensuous and decadent as the speaker asks:
Perhaps this is fitting, as the section that follows, 'Hong Kong, China', is framed as a meditation on loss, the ending of a significant period of Hong Kong's autonomy and sense of identity. It is prefaced in Chinese and English by a quote from the writer Xixi, who writes of Hong Kong, "Things quietly depart, gradually disappear". The firm designation of Hong Kong as part of China emphasises a sense of time's passage, an old Hong Kong fading and confronting a new, inchoate, postcolonial identity, This is an anxiety that writer Dong Kai-cheung has traced cartographically and scholar Leo Ou-fan Lee has written of sentimentally.
'Mother's Ink', the first poem in the section, contains a surfeit of ink and cloud imagery. The word ink is repeated eight times, illustrating a pre-history and early history of the speaker, from the child seen as "a cloud of messy flesh waiting at the gate / redder than ink" to the speaker wanting "ink greedily". The speaker is delivered by vacuum extraction, "the hard plastic on the suction cap". The speaker's mother decides "she only wanted good ink for [him]", opting to "[hide] the teargas and bullets". The poem's tactility illustrates a history of pain, of the physical exertion behind the speaker's entering into existence, of a ravenous hunger for stories.
The elegant, narrative impulse present in this poem underpins many others in the section. 'Mnemosyne', so named for the Greek goddess of memory, is an elegiac tribute to those who lived through Hong Kong's protests and police violence. It recalls, however briefly, Theresa Cha's Dictée, in which the past is evoked through the apparatus of speech, through the voices of the daughters of Mnemosyne. Cha's sequence also recalls a painful past: anti-colonial uprisings against Japanese brutality, the brutal tactics taken to suppress domestic dissent. 'Mnemosyne' honours Hong Kong's democratic movement, described as "the water movement" in the poem, itself defiant against an erosion of the city's autonomy and the acceleration of China's consolidation of power in the city. This poem, too, bears certain calligraphic elements, with four-line stanzas scattered across the page, text fading from the first to last line. The speaker's comparison of himself to "a disremembered / joint declaration" draws attention to the unfulfilled promise of maintaining Hong Kong's special status as a territory at the time of its handover in 1997. The poem holds the fading memory of the city and the violence wrought upon its citizens in gentle balance, anger swallowed by melancholy.
Other poems in the section are anchored in this melancholy. 'The Shape of the Wind' recalls Fan's departure from Hong Kong and the speaker's reluctance to speak of "the shape of the wind", described as "a passing rain / the eyes' salt crystals, a long-distance call / from where fear lodges". Fan's metaphors pre-empt an inevitable longing and homesickness. 'How To Be a Fern' describes the "city in me I can't return / to", a city "I loved whose name I've erased". In 'Hong Kong and the Echo', Fan imagines an interaction between Hong Kong and an echoing response, with an anthropomorphised Hong Kong declaring, "if the only way the sea can speak to the hills is through the moon / I will speak to you from the ink-dark / about the changing tides, the slow equivocal pain / of transition".
'June', a response to the work of poet Bei Dao, styles itself as a farewell to the city, while 'Pui O', referring to the beach, enacts a reversing of Hong Kong's history, the speaker's yearning to "see my home blind, / undivided", as "the re-undiscovered fishing village / where the seafoam covers". And 'A Long Story of Moon', a tribute to Fan's mother, seems to recall Sarah Howe and Laura Jane Lee, containing the pain and difficulty she experienced after being widowed, leaving her son "in a pigsty", "[swimming] across Shenzhen Bay at night" and finding "shelter in Lau Fau Shan".
Fan's poem races backward and returns to the present, reflections of a poet processing the transformation and hollowing of a city from afar. In '2047: A Hong Kong Space Odyssey', the speaker is told "Don't hyper-process the past […] they can detect nostalgia, even the literary kind". The poem then launches into a series of rhetorical questions asking "Do you remember", compressing memories both personal and collective of Hong Kong's history. 'The Art of Descent' juxtaposes the deterioration of Fan's mother with his own joy and health, with his life in Britain likened to "blinking and thinking / with Orpheus". A refusal, or resistance, to not look back.
One might have reasonably expected the collection to end on its second section, an elegiac note for a poet wistful for a disappearing home. Yet, it proceeds to 'Broken Nosed Jizō', prefaced by a quote from Ocean Vuong likening a throat to an inkwell. Fan's focus shifts, decisively, to an engagement with Japanese aesthetics and myth. It was here where I felt a kind of suspicion towards orientalism or japonisme emerge, a fear of racial performance for a predominantly white British reading audience. The allure of Japan in the European imagination has endured ever since the forced reopening of trade with the country in 1858. To take Japan as culturally emblematic of all of East Asia has not been an uncommon practice historically, from the logic of the expanding Japanese Empire to its pre-eminence in the 20th century. For Fan to frame his final section, set primarily outside of Hong Kong, through the prism of a Japanese myth could be seen as participating in a form of self-orientalising, with the section concluding on a poem set in Hokkaido. However, this would also do a disservice to the poems where Fan's attention is directed elsewhere.
The section begins with the poem 'Broken Nosed Jizō', describing the speaker's encounter with a jizō sculpture, itself the deity of children and travellers. The speaker asks "if I gave you a new head, would your nose still be / broken for the good / deeds / I may or may not have done?" The statue answers:
It is a response that rouses violence in the speaker, aiming a "stone at his nose". For the Broken Nosed Jizō responds sagely to critique the speaker's obsessions, desires and predilections. Fan's notion here is of a larger set of existential failings, ones that he sees humanity as unwilling to reckon with. In the margins of the poem, Fan recalls the story of how the jizō's nose was broken – by a master striking an apprentice who he presumed had been stealing his lunch when he had been offering it to the jizō. Blood runs down the jizō's face, affected by this instance of violence, suspicion and misapprehension.
This allows for a more capacious framing of the collection's final section. Fan engages and grapples with varying displays of violence and conflict, undergirded by suspicion. In 'From the Yemen Data Project', the speaker traces a history of killing, strikes enacted upon Yemen over the course of its civil war, and the difficulties in accurately recording the precise number of fatalities. 'The Chinese In Schönbrunn Palace' alludes to two cabinets in the Austrian palace, containing porcelain, lacquer work, silk and wooden panelling. The poem describes the "tall white bluish urns" loved by "Maria Teresa", oblivious to the "aged corpse" whose remains are found inside, who could not have imagined "seeing hundreds / of one-child-policy kids line up in bow-ties / and chiffon" for their parents' photos. Fan ruminates on the sort of consumption that occurs within a tourist setting, as well as the legacies of chinoiserie in Europe. 'After the Quake' details the aftermath of an earthquake, and 'What You Look Like' uses the simile of a courtroom sketch to depict the beleaguered East Asian victims of pandemic-related violence.
The collection's final suite moves away from these meditations on suffering. They seem to take a more abstract turn offering meditations on art and landscapes, perhaps suggesting where Fan's introspection can come into focus. 'Moon Salutation' is a shape poem, elegantly devised, crafted to resemble a crescent moon.
The poem draws attention to its own lyrical, rhythmic qualities, to the posture and an awareness of a body, allowing for a momentary diversion to a scene of violence, before moving back to a thought of reincarnation under a lunar gaze. The poem 'Noh Mask, Yaseonna' provides a poem not grounded in an aesthetic object in the way Keats' might. Rather, the mask provokes an image of the speaker's mother, her face "a desert face, squid-white", her body beset by "cancerous cells that kiss / her elongated back". Yase Onna, after all, is the "emaciated woman", a ghost who suffered a tragic love affair in life and whose soul is tormented because of the loss of her lover. 'Epidaurus', an ancient, small city in Greece, holds the sanctuary of Asclepius, deity of medicine and a theatre, where the speaker imagines "[playing] all the Odysseuses". Encounters with ancient and natural splendour, "the sight of sea quills, the scent of pine" are insufficient to
Beauty holds no salve for suffering, but draws the speaker into a place of awe nevertheless.
Where the collection ends is somewhat distant from where it begins. From processions of images of clouds and ink to nostalgia for a bygone Hong Kong to ruminations of the experiences of those who suffer, Fan ends his collection with a poem titled 'Hokkaido'. To Fan, the city of Hokkaido seems a third place, not Hong Kong, not Britain. The speaker is at a hot spring, "halfway / through my life measuring / this, that." The temptation would be to read Fan's conclusion as a surrender to mono no aware:
Mortality is entwined with an awareness of ephemerality. Mortality, in its potency to a poet at mid-age, returns to a desire for peace and safety. The speaker's realisation undoes worries over "this, that", over the great many tensions that come in at the inflection point of a life.
Fan's collection fulfils an elegiac function for a disappearing Hong Kong, a nostalgic function for the life Fan has lived in Britain and elsewhere, and an emblematic function for the survival of Fan and those he writes about. It stands both as part of and separate from the works of other writers affiliated with Hong Kong in the UK. To Fan, poetry arrives aware of its many limitations, of its inability to capture the totality of the world's beauty and suffering. Fan's collection stands as a testament to the necessity of resisting such futility.QLRS Vol. 22 No. 4 Oct 2023