By Xi Xi
Translated by Eva Hung
HONG KONG: RENDITIONS PAPERBACKS, 1993
By Josephine Khu
Hong Kong, a place that is often considered the most international city in Asia, was Britain’s last major colony, and is now the People’s Republic of China’s richest and most cosmopolitan urban center. Yet, for all that Hong Kong is a city open to the world, the works of its writers remain relatively unknown to non-Chinese readers. This translation of one of the most highly regarded novels of one of Hong Kong’s most prominent and prolific authors is a product of the efforts of the Research Centre for Translation of the Chinese University of Hong Kong to make the literature of Hong Kong accessible to a larger audience.
My City was written in the mid-1970s, a particularly interesting period in Hong Kong’s history. It was during this time that a sense of local identity began to assert itself, as the locally born and raised population began to outnumber what had been predominantly a society of immigrants and refugees from mainland China. This period also saw the emergence of other developments and issues that would preoccupy the people of Hong Kong until the end of colonial rule, and to this very day: the impact of vigorous economic growth, new influxes of refugees from China and Vietnam, and the looming issue of the Chinese government’s resumption of sovereignty over Hong Kong.
Although all of these receive direct or indirect mention in its pages, My City is a book to be read less for the purpose of gaining specific insight into social issues, as to achieve a feeling for the ethos of time and place, in which the above developments have combined to create that distinctly Hong Kong atmosphere of EastWest cultural fusion, restless movement and change, and a pervading sense of both anxiety over, and optimism for, the future.
This work is not a particularly easy one to read. It is written in a style which owes much to the influences of magic realism, and in a narrative tone that is at once childlike and wryly mature. There is little in the way of plot or story. What exists may be said to center around the character of Fruits, a child when the story opens, and later a young adult; however, an equal amount of effort is placed upon describing the thoughts and actions of Fruits’s friends and family members. As the translator notes in her preface, the narrative technique adopted in My City has been compared to various approaches used in painting, particularly to the technique of “scattered perspective” in which different objects are shown from different perspectives (xi-xii). With no real center to the book, it is difficult not to occasionally get the feeling that the author is simply rambling on.
Certainly, much of the charm of the book lies in an understanding of the nuances of the language employed. But another difficulty for the non-Chinese reader arises from the fact that My City is very much a work written for a local audience, familiar with Hong Kong scenes and developments, and appreciative of the author’s fondness for punning and word-play in the local Cantonese dialect. The translator’s judicious annotations go a long way towards clarifying what might otherwise be a number of puzzling references, but this is clearly the sort of novel that poses challenges for both translator and reader.
That said, there is a universality in many of the episodes and sentiments narrated in the book, and both poignancy and humor in the author’s language. Particularly memorable are Xi Xi’s comparisons between writing and carpentry, and her subtle reflections on the means and meaning of communicating with fellow human beings. And, as a sample paragraph illustrates, Eva Hung’s competent translation allows the essential beauty of Xi Xi’s writing to shine through:
It is a fine, sunny day; the sun has been shining brilliantly since early morning. The sun shines on the yellow and white stripes of a toy horse floating in the swimming pool inside the high walls. The sun shines on a soft drink bottle on a pile of rubble facing the pavilion on the Peak. The sun shines on the tail of an aeroplane by the side of a cloud shaped like a lamb. On fine, sunny days, these are the things the sun loves to do. When the flowers travel down on the lift, the sun also shines on the cellophane wrapping around the flowers, and the silver-white ribbon, tied in a bow, shoots out arrows of light which pierce many eyes. After a while, the arrows are used up, the petals have fallen into the shadow, and of course the smiles on the flowers have nowhere to stay (p. 6).
As a work for the classroom, My City would be most suitable for college use. It could be employed—most profitably in conjunction with a suitable textbook—in several ways. As a book by a Hong Kong writer, writing about her own city, the work could generate fruitful discussions on the impact of colonialism on a locality, particularly on the local mentality, and on the formation of local consciousness and identity. In a literature class, the work could serve as an example of colonial literature, or alternatively, of the worldwide influence of the literary approach of magic realism. In a class on China, My City, with its many references to things Western as part of everyday life and language, could be used to illustrate the differences between the people and city of Hong Kong and those of mainland China. It could also aid in discussions about Hong Kong’s role in China’s political history and in its economic development.
Most of all, the book can be recommended simply for the innate pleasure afforded when one encounters a worthy piece of literature made available for the first time to an English-speaking audience.