Can We Say Hong Kong?

A speech given at Hong Kong Baptist University on Friday, November 4, 2016

At first glance, “Can we say Hong Kong?” might appear a slightly silly question, superfluous indeed. Of course we can say “Hong Kong.” I am saying the name of my city right now and no one is stopping me. And you can say it, too, without any difficulty. In fact, we can collectively say it, chant it—even sing it. This closed question can be answered by a simple and resounding “Yes.” Or to give a longer answer, “Yes, we can say Hong Kong.”

Photograph of an arm with "democr" written in marker
Image courtesy of Aaron Anfinson

But can you imagine under what circumstances this question might take on a more serious cast? Here are some scenarios:

  1. “Hong Kong” has become an obsolete term, replaced by something else, and so thus saying it is incorrect or inaccurate – “Can we still say Hong Kong?”
  2. “Hong Kong” is a taboo. It offends others’ sensibilities and triggers unpleasant thoughts – “Can we say Hong Kong? Don’t say that word—it’s offensive!”; and
  3. the name “Hong Kong” has been censored and people are forbidden to use it. “Can we say Hong Kong here? Don’t say that. They’re listening.”

Thankfully, these scenarios are no more than imaginary and cautionary: “Hong Kong” is not obsolete; “Hong Kong” is not a taboo; “Hong Kong” is not—or at least, not yet—censored. We can say the name with confidence, and we can also say it, confident that others will understand what we mean. We can use it without any explanation or justification or without causing confusion. In fact, we generally say “Hong Kong” without even a second thought, so used we are to saying it and hearing it.

But by calling this talk “Can we say Hong Kong?” I am asking you, prompting you—forcing you even—to pause and reflect on something that we take for granted—namely, saying “Hong Kong” with such certainty and confidence—and to imagine the possibility of there being a day when we cannot say the city name anymore, or at least not in the way we prefer. In asking the question, I am also interested in exploring the act of “saying” Hong Kong. The act of “saying,” I believe, can be extended to refer to the act of “expressing,” “articulating,” and “representing.” Is this act possible? How is this act performed? And what are the implications, constraints and complexities of performing such an act?

Image courtesy of Aaron Anfinson

I take the title of this talk from Xi Xi’s poem “Can We Say” (Fig. 1). The English translator of the poem, Jennifer Feeley (2015), explains her translation in a note in the volume in which it appears:

In Chinese, countable nouns are preceded by classifiers, also known as measure words. In English, such examples include a piece of paper, a stick of gum, a loaf of bread, etc., but not every noun must be used with a measure word. Conversely, in Chinese, whenever a noun is quantified, it must be paired with the appropriate classifier.


(Fig 1)

Xi Xi, described by Fred Armentrout as “the foremost contemporary Hong Kong Chinese creative writer” and well known for incorporating elements of whimsical wordplay in her work, is both playful and humorous in the poem. But she also challenges the Chinese language’s rigid linguistic formulations which dictate what can or can’t be be said, or what sounds appropriate and what doesn’t. The title of the poem—“Can We Say”—like the topic of the talk today—is not concerned about ability, for of course we can say all those things in the poem. Nor is it really about asking for permission. It is more a suggestion. It is a suggestion, insistent but disguised as wordplay. A suggestion not necessarily to adopt the use of these particular unusual combinations of measure words and nouns, but rather a suggestion to look at things differently, and not always follow what is generally deemed to be acceptable. This is a suggestion to challenge accepted patterns, rules, and thinking. Xi Xi’s language in the poem is invigorating and inspiring precisely because it does not conform to normal Chinese usage. If the poem were composed of entirely mundane, day-to-day combinations of countable nouns and classifiers, its conceit would not hold and it would be devoid of interest for the reader.

While the poem calls for creative use of language to subvert accepted patterns in Chinese, what I want to do, by asking “Can we say Hong Kong?” is to suggest that saying “Hong Kong” in certain contexts is already in itself an unusual act. This doesn’t mean that it is something for which we necessarily need permission, but rather an act that suggests a possibility that has not been seriously considered. This leads to my next question: “Can we say Hong Kong literature?”

In her introduction to Dung Kai-cheung’s Atlas, Bonnie McDougall (2012) writes, “It has been suggested that Hong Kong lacks the literary identity to be the subject of attention of an international reading public” before going on to point out that “fiction written in English, set in Hong Kong and telling Hong Kong stories, has been consistently popular beyond East Asia.” She cites a number of examples such as Han Suying’s A Many-Splendoured Thing (1952), Richard Mason’s The World of Suzie Wong (1957), Paul Theroux’s Kowloon Tong (1997) and John Lancaster’s Fragrant Harbour (2002). However, McDougall says, “These novelists are outsiders, temporarily resident in Hong Kong.” More recently, Henry Wei Leung, a former Fulbright Fellow who studied in Hong Kong in 2014, remarks that “there still isn’t a recognized Hong Kong literary sensibility” (2016, emphasis original).

Both McDougall and Leung are skeptical about a recognized Hong Kong literature that attracts the attention of an international readership. Others, however, have felt more confident defining and identifying a home-grown Hong Kong literature for their research subject. Heidi Huang, a scholar on Transcultural Studies, for one, suggests in her essay “The Hong Kong Dilemma and a Constellation Solution” (2015) that to talk about Hong Kong literature is to think about two “mutually determined elements”: “the human agency in literature (‘Hong Kong writer’) and the aesthetic idiosyncrasy of their writings (‘Hong Kong flavour’)” (p. 372). The optimistic underlying assumption of Huang’s essay is that it is possible to discuss Hong Kong literature and that there is such a thing, however elusive, to consider.

Heidi Huang’s focus in her essay is primarily on the definition of Hong Kong literature written in Chinese. While it may seem easier to imagine Hong Kong literature in Chinese (as opposed to English), the reality is more complicated due to the city’s political and cultural subordination to the mainland. Rey Chow, a cultural critic, in her essay “Can One Say No to China?” (1997), the second text that informs the title of this talk, examines China’s relationship with its Chinese-speaking neighbors. She argues that China is often assumed to be “more or less a stable and unquestionable signified” and that there is not sufficient interrogation of “China’s own hegemony – its cultural centrism” (150). She points out that there should be more discussion not on the “well-worn theme of China’s relation to the West” but instead on “the scarcely touched issue of China’s relation to those whom it deems politically and culturally subordinate” (p. 151, emphasis added). As examples of places subordinated to China, she mentions Tibet, Taiwan, and Hong Kong—and we must also add Macau, which was returned to China’s rule by Portugal in 1999—as they are “cultures which, despite their own histories, are simply denied identity and validity in the eyes of the People’s Republic.” According to Chow, “These other ‘Chinese’ cultures should be a vital part of any consideration of ‘Chinese cultural studies.’” She ends her essay by saying that “From the perspectives of those in Tibet, Taiwan and Hong Kong, the predominant question is therefore not how and why China can say no to the West. Rather, it is: Can one say no to China?” (p. 151). What Chow asks here is really, “Can one say no to China’s centrism?” It suggests a rejection of the kind of homogenizing and undifferentiating vision of China, which subsumes the identities of “other Chinese cultures.” Chow’s discussion though is not itself entirely unproblematic, as she considers the cultures of “Tibet” and “Taiwan” as “Chinese,” a label that many Tibetans or indigenous Taiwanese would likely reject. And, of course, Hong Kongers may also not feel completely comfortable having our culture defined simply as “Chinese.”

Getting back to the question “Can we say Hong Kong literature?” it might be useful to look at Hong Kong literature as something more than texts written by Hong Kong writers or with Hong Kong flavor. But it has to be acknowledged that in the larger political and cultural context, merely talking about Hong Kong culture and literature could be challenging, as the city’s identity is often elided, pushed as it is to the Chinese periphery.

Image courtesy of Aaron Anfinson

If thinking about Hong Kong culture and literature in the context of Chinese is difficult, the question “Can we say Hong Kong literature in English?” is an even trickier one, not least because English’s place in Hong Kong is itself a complicated matter. Douglas Kerr, a literature professor at the University of Hong Kong, highlights a common question regarding the use of English in the narration of Hong Kong in an essay: 

Hong Kong is a Chinese city, full of Chinese people, and there is a Chinese language, with, of course, an incomparable literary tradition. Why articulate a modern Hong Kong Chinese experience in a residual colonial English language brought to the China coast with the traders, the missionaries, and the gunboats of empire? (p. 82)

For Kerr, however, the postcolonial background of Hong Kong does not in itself explain the use of English by its Hong Kong Chinese writers, as “English is not the national language in Hong Kong, nor a linguistic hegemony threatening to engulf a relatively weak indigenous language, nor the only medium available whereby a local writer might hope to reach a larger readership” (p. 83). Writing about the English-language poetry of the Malaysian-Chinese writer Wong Phui Nam, Kerr argues that “To turn to English does not have to entail turning one’s back on one’s own place, nor is it always necessary, desirable or possible to purge English of its accumulated connotations” (p. 84). Furthermore, he points out that though it is strange for a poet to use English, when it is not his or her native language, we must also remember that “literary language is an alienated language, anyway” (Ho, qtd. in Kerr, p. 86). Kerr believes that “[a] poet is always in some sense a stranger. Formally and rhetorically – and institutionally too – poetic writing is already apostatic, standing aside; though it must be rooted in ordinary discourse it is also a divergence from it, and would not otherwise be poetry” (86).

This is quite a romantic view of poetry, and suggests that whatever language one uses to write, the particular language of poetry itself—“poetry language,” if you will—is alienating. But that alone cannot resolve the question of non-native speakers using English to write poetry. Using the example of Louise Ho, a Hong Kong-born poet who writes in English, Kerr maintains that “she is from beginning to end a poet of Hong Kong experience and history” (p. 86). While Ho’s subject matter is “Hong Kong experience and history” her poetry does not necessarily follow any particular moral or aesthetic agenda. Nor does her use of English mean that she rejects local sensibilities and linguistic idiosyncrasies. Indeed, she often integrates Cantonese words and sounds in her English poems, and she describes one of her goals as the creation of “a space where the English literary language expresses as well as is incorporated into the local ethos” (qtd. in Kerr, p. 86).

What Ho does, and what Kerr deems admirable, is to use English as a tool to express “Hong Kong experience and history,” while at the same time incorporating it “into the local ethos,” in other words, made into Hong Kong, creating a third space that is neither entirely English, nor entirely Chinese. This echoes what Rey Chow (2012) says elsewhere about Hong Kong being “a third space between the coloniser and the dominant native culture, a space that cannot simply be collapsed into the latter even as resistance to the former remains foremost” (p. 158). Louise Ho and poets like her from non-native backgrounds who write in English use language in a way reminiscent of Xi Xi’s poem “Can We Say”, in which we are prompted to think about countable nouns and classifiers that are apparently mismatched and thus challenge the conventions of the Chinese language. In an analogous fashion we expect non-native writers to write in their own language, and yet they challenge this assumption by writing about “local ethos” in a second or third one, and in the process, they transform this second or third language into their own and incorporate it—made into Hong Kong.

Image courtesy of Aaron Anfinson

I began this talk by drawing your attention to the fact that we take the act of saying “Hong Kong” for granted, and then went on to explore how we can complicate the question “Can we say Hong Kong?” and make it relevant to the discussion of Hong Kong literature. This discussion makes reference to two texts, Xi Xi’s poem “Can We Say” and Rey Chow’s essay “Can One Say No to China?”, which provide an anchor for my argument. The question “Can we say Hong Kong?” was modified and expanded to “Can we say Hong Kong literature?” and then expanded again to “Can we say Hong Kong literature in English?”. The answer to the last question is “Yes, we can,” and it has been done, and it has continued to be done after the Handover in 1997, the starting point of the fading of the use of English language in the city and of the increase in the use of Chinese in the form of Putonghua, where Cantonese is caught in the middle.

Works Cited

Armentrout, Fred. “Canto-culture — Loving a Floating City”, 2007. np.

Chow, Rey. “Between Colonizers: Hong Kong’s Postcolonial Self-writing in the 1990s.” Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies 2:2 (1992): pp. 151-70.

—. “Can One Say No to China?” New Literary History 28:1 (1997): pp. 147-151.

Xi, Xi. Not Written Words (translated by Jennifer Feeley). US: Zephyr Press, 2015.

Feeley, Jennifer. “Notes”. Xi Xi’s Not Written Words (translated by Jennifer Feeley). US: Zephyr Press, 2015.

Huang Heidi. “The Hong Kong Dilemma and A Constellation Solution”. Modern Language Quarterly: A Journal of Literary History 763:4 (2015): pp. 369-391.

Kerr, Douglas. “Louise Ho and the Local Turn: The Place of English Poetry in Hong Kong”. Hong Kong Culture: Word and Image (ed. Kam Louie). Hong Kong” Hong Kong University Press, 2010, pp. 75-96.

Leung, Henry Wei. “Five Questions for Henry Wei Leung”. Paul & Daisy SOROS Fellowships for New Americans. 2016. np.

McDougall, Bonnie. “Introduction”. Dung Kai-Cheung’s Atlas: The Archaeology of An Imaginary City. New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 19-40.

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