By Amy T.Y. Lai
The fifth book of Hong Kong english-language writer, Xu Xi, is entitled bilingually, in Chinese/Cantonese, as Heunggong yahn dik duen liksi (Hong Kong people’s short history), and in English, as History’s Fiction: Stories from the City of Hong Kong (Chameleon Press Ltd, 2001). The former, by implicating the relatively short period for which the city has come into real existence since its colonisation by British in the mid-nineteenth century, in particular delineating the turbulences it encountered from the 1960s to the 1990s, clouds the fact that the book is composed of thirteen short stories. The latter, while informing us of its storytelling narrative, nonetheless tends to divert our attention to the “fictitiousness” of the stories, from the peculiar nature of our history, as well as the “universal quality of our feelings” which, as the author claims in the preface, is her aim of compiling the book. Informative as the bilingual title might sound – perhaps more so than the average monolingual title – it is only by reading the book that you could get to know what it is about, to have some glimpses of Hong Kong from the sixties to the nineties, and to vicariously participate, through fiction, in the lives of these real “Hong Kong yan”.
“Andrew’s Letters” (in the section “The Sixties”), previously unpublished, is one of the short stories I find simple and touching. East-West tension, one of Xu Xi’s preoccupations in her other works, is represented through the eyes of a teenaged girl, forbidden to exchange letters with a guy of mixed English-Chinese descent, labelled a “jhaap jung” – a derogatory way of addressing those of mixed breed – by her mother and the society at large. “Nothing makes sense right now, but that’s just the way things are. You were right. It will be different someday,” she tells him in her farewell letter. The sixties, well before the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984, was the period when Chinese in Hong Kong – be they locally born Chinese, or Mainland Chinese immigrants who fled to Hong Kong during the Cultural Revolution – started to build up and consolidate their Hong Kong identity. It was also a time when the general public had yet to nurture an accepting and embracing attitude toward the West, to not denounce anything or anyone deemed “non-Chinese”.
Their ignorance and fear could also be attributed to the nature of the colonial government. While Britain exercised its political and judicial powers over Hong Kong, it adopted a non-intenventionist policy in matters of society and culture, which led to the cultural insulation of the majority of Hong Kong people and the segregation of the British (and the West at large) and the Chinese. Hence East-West interaction can spell disaster: there was a line, tempting yet dangerous, that should not be crossed. “The Yellow Line” (in “The Seventies”), told through the eyes of a child, carries us on many MTR journeys, which his mother had forbidden him to take, to a brave new world of the wealthy golden-haired foreign kids, but ends abruptly as the child, dying to travel to the last station, throws himself across the yellow line along the platform and falls into the train track pits as the training is arriving. This ending, which I guess is quite awkward and unexpected to the reader, dramatises the pushing of the fear and excitement brought about by the “unknown” to their extreme.
The signing of the Joint-Declaration in 1984 triggered fears and uncertainties of a new kind, that of Hong Kong’s future, which was followed by waves of emigration. Through the years, the city had also become more “cosmopolitan” and its people more open to Western cultures. Though the political theme of handover never emerges in “Allegro Quasi Una Fantasia” (in “The Eighties”) like it does in Xu Xi’s other novels, it problematises the notion of “home”. A college girl leaves Hong Kong, where she has been brought up, and goes on a journey of exploration – free, yet fraught with uncertainies – to London and Paris, in an attempt to find her “new home”. The story does not tell us what constitutes this “home” or where it is, only that it is not geographically or culturally bound.
In “The Nineties”, the political reality of the handover, which is no more than a looming shadow in Xu Xi’s previous fictions, finally intrudes upon her characters with its full impact. This is a complicated picture, as reflected in the cauldron of sentiments in the stories. “It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice,” Deng Xiao Ping says. This saying becomes “insignificant” when a man makes a joke out of his crazy, flea-infested, black-and-white cat that fears mice in one of those “Insignificant Moments in the History of Hong Kong” on the day before Hong Kong’s reversion to Chinese sovereignty. The persona in “Blackjack” is determined to “go home” – “I’m finally going home, going back to Hong Kong”. In the first story of the whole book, “Until the Next Century,” the political re-union of Hong Kong and Mainland ironically coincides with the end of a long extra-marital affair of between a Gwongdung woman and a Beijing man, as the former, firmly and steadily, walks away from the latter.
Interestingly enough, one or two critics wrongly remarked that some stories were written decades ago. However, eleven out of the thirteen stories are actually dated. “Chung King Mansion”, though put in “The Sixties”, is excerpted from Chinese Walls, Xu Xi’s first novel published in 1994. Though the date of composition for “Democracy”, the last story in the same section and in fact the last of the whole collection, is unclear, it first appeared in Dimsum, a Hong Kong literary journal, in 2001. The story takes us back and forth from 1966, with its strikes, demonstrations and pending riots, to 1996, only months before the handover, when the Free Hong Kong Party meets with government officials to restate the importance of democratic elections. That the book is divided into four decades, structured in a chronological order, and a reversed one, from the 90s, through the 80s, 70s, all the way back to the 60s, reinforces a circular structure, which means reading it either forwards or backwards does not make much of a difference. History has now come in full circle. This is strongly suggestive of the theme of “return” – be it the reversion of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty, or the return of many of emigrants to Hong Kong after the handover. We “return”, regardless of how deep a sense of “rootedness” we harbour towards our “home”, or whether there is any attachment in the first place.
It is perhaps no coincidence that right at the beginning of the book, Xu Xi recalls the words of her muse, the English sea goddess Susie, to whom she dedicates the book: “You must collect your stories in a book”. This urgency, even determinism, that has haunted the author (an idea which must be carried out), exerts itself on the alert reader. Reading Xu Xi, at least to me, becomes reminiscent of reading Nobel Prize Winner Gabriel Marquez’s masterpieces, with their themes of eternal return.
This book, with its buffet of characters, scenes and sentiments, has more to offer than Xu Xi’s early works, Chinese Walls, which more or less focuses on a Chinese family from the sixties to the eighties, or even Daughters of Hui, which is made up of four novellas about women. By recreating several decades, it is also more diverse than Xu Xi’s fourth book, The Unwalled City, published in the same year, and which counts down from 1993 to 1997. The historical and the personal, the comic and the tragic, the past and the present are nowhere more intertwined as in here. The book does exceed its bilingual title, and should also leave the new reader curious about her older works, and her avid reader hungry for her new works that are yet to come. We want to know where “the next century” (which is the title of the first story of this collection) will take her, and us.
QLRS Vol. 2 No. 4 Jul 2003