Hands: On Two Hong Kong Prose Essays by Xi Xi

August 17, 2021
A postcard, mostly white with fields of green, blue, and read below, suggestive of waves. The text reads "Everyday in this city, there are always some things or others quietly bidding us farewell, and them gradually disappearing."
Postcard for One City One Book Hong Kong 2020, which featured Xi Xi’s My City

The Shanghai-born Hong Kong writer Xi Xi (b. 1937) was the 2019 winner of the Newman Prize for Chinese Literature and Sweden’s Cikada Prize. A selection of her poetry translated by Jennifer Feeley from Chinese into English, Not Written Words, won the Lucien Stryk Asian Translation Prize in 2017 and brought Xi Xi’s poetry to a wider international readership. Xi Xi was also honoured in her home city in 2020, when her novel My City was chosen for the One City One Book Hong Kong programme, which promotes the reading of a selected book among the general public through a series of events. My City was first serialised in Hong Kong Express Daily in 1975 and appeared in book form in 1979.

Xi Xi’s career spans seven decades, over fifty books in a diverse range of genres. To date, only a fraction of these have been translated into English, including A Girl Like Me and Other Stories (1986), My City (1993), Marvels of a Floating City (1997), Not Written Words (2016), and most recently, The Teddy Bear Chronicles (2020), though they serve as an adequate starting point for readers new to Xi Xi’s writing.

In this essay, however, I focus on the untranslated <<花木欄>>—its title meaning literally flowers (), wood/trees (), fences or columns ()—published in 1990. The book is a collection of prose essays (in Chinese, 散文, or texts that are loose or scattered) written for publications in Hong Kong between 1975 and 1989. In the afterword to the book, she writes: “I’ve been writing columns for newspapers and magazines intermittently for years, happily planting these small flowers and small trees in small free gardens [“free” 自由 here, meaning at liberty], and now that they are collected in a book, let me title it The Flower Tree Column.” This is an example of Xi Xi’s familiar wordplay. The Chinese character can mean both “columns” and “fences,” and either meaning would be fitting for the book, while the Chinese title <<花木欄>> is a homophone of 花木蘭 ( contains the “wood” radical while has the “grass” radical), the Xianbei heroine now known globally as Mulan, an example of Xi Xi’s linguistic creativity that would perforce elude non-Chinese speakers.

Xi Xi / Courtesy of the Plain Leaves Workshop

There is no apparent overarching principle regarding the selection and organisation of the essays in The Flower Tree Column, which are arranged neither chronologically nor thematically. The topics of the essays are wide-ranging and everyday, although certain subjects stand out, reflecting recurrent preoccupations and interests of the writer. I am particularly interested in two essays, first published in August 1989, that appear at the start of the book, 1989 being an especially significant year in recent Chinese history. The Tiananmen Square massacre took place in June of that year, when protests led by students, but also joined by workers and some party members, calling for democracy and free speech in China, were met with a bloody crackdown.

The first of these two essays is <司空餅兒> “Scones,” which appeared, translated by Jennifer Feeley, in the first city issue of World Literature Today, on Hong Kong, which I guest-edited in 2019. The essay consists of four short paragraphs and begins with a reference to an essay by Eileen Chang (1920–1995), “On Eating and Drawing Cakes to Stave Off Hunger,” published in The Sequel (1988). Western readers would be most likely to know Chang from her novella Lust, Caution, later adapted into a film of the same name directed by Ang Lee. In the essay, Chang writes about a number of food items from all over the world that she had tasted. Numerous places and dishes are mentioned in the piece, and Hong Kong makes several appearances.

Xi Xi opens “Scones,” in Feeley’s translation:

In Eileen Chang’s The Sequel, there is an essay entitled “On Eating Cakes and Drawing Cakes to Stave Off Hunger” that references the Bluebird Café near the Star Ferry Pier in the Central District of Hong Kong. When she was a university student, every time she went into the city, she always bought half a dozen scones.

“Scones” is ostensibly about having English afternoon tea in Hong Kong. The fine china and silverware, the different types of sandwiches, the scones, the cakes, the Devonshire cream. But the essay is about more than a privileged colonial lifestyle. In the second paragraph, Xi Xi remarks, rather abruptly, that “whenever Eileen Chang passed through Hong Kong, it always seemed to be in the middle of a historical turning point.” This is no exaggeration. Chang’s education at the University of Hong Kong, which began in 1939, was interrupted by the Japanese occupation of the city. She left Hong Kong without completing her degree in May 1942. She returned to the city in 1952 for three years, and these were the years leading up to the Double Ten Riots of October 1956 between rival Nationalist and Communist factions. What is particularly interesting is what Xi Xi writes next: “Now, Hong Kong is once again on the verge of a historical turning point.” Rather enigmatically, Xi Xi does not elaborate on this statement. She seems to be stating a fact known to everybody. Feeley in her translator’s note writes: It is noteworthy that Xi Xi wrote this piece in August 1989, two months after the Tiananmen Square massacre, when Hong Kong ‘was once again on the verge of a historical turning point.’”

It was highly possible that Xi Xi was referring to the then-recent Tiananmen Square Massacre, given that the event was of such immense magnitude, shocking people in China, Hong Kong, and abroad. But she might also have been thinking of the transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong. In the last paragraph of “Scones,” Xi Xi laments “the old days” when she hung out with friends in cafés on weekend afternoons, “chatting freely about everything under the sun.” Those days were now of the past and had “suddenly become a floating uncertainty.” This sense of uncertainty is brought on by the imminent handover in 1997. The last sentence of “Scones” reads: “The more you drink English afternoon tea, the less it tastes like it used to.” Uncertainties abound. The flavour of colonialism is fading.

In “Suddenly July,” another essay in The Flower Wood Column that was also written in August 1989, Xi Xi explicitly talks about the handover of Hong Kong to China, calling it “a historical moment.” Here’s my translation of the essay, published for the first time:

Suddenly it’s July. In July in eight years’ time, Hong Kong will return to China’s sovereignty. It’s about 2,900 more days, as though we are holding a persistently burning, shrinking candle. I heard people have booked hotel rooms for June 30, 1997, because it will be a historical moment.

Speaking of “historical moment,” since April this year, many have gone north, to see, to witness, to experience the emotional excitement of the spirit of the May Fourth Movement. The chants of freedom and democracy rang through China. However, what we could touch was only the wounds of history.

Two years ago, several people in the culture industry here in Hong Kong printed a calendar, intended to count down the days. Beginning from three thousand days away, counting down, the last day would be July 1, 1997. What kind of day will that be, the day of the handover? A bang? Or a whimper? Silent.

A friend of mine loves cats. A calendar page she is responsible for is full of cats. She was interviewed by a Japanese journalist, who was baffled: what do cats have to do with 1997? But I think my friend’s worry is obvious: if people don’t have freedom, how can we expect cats’ lives to be better?

What kind of month is July? There’s the American national day, the two-hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution, the Marco Polo Bridge Incident 七七蘆溝橋事. And in Hong Kong, we work hard to save Hong Kong as Hongkongers, we stay here as Hongkongers, we build and rebuild Hong Kong as Hongkongers. The Statue of Liberty, gifted to the United States by France, only needs one hand to raise the torch of freedom, but our Tiananmen Statue of Liberty needs both hands. How heavy, how heavy, is our torch of freedom?

Xi Xi’s sentiments and concerns about China’s looming repossession of Hong Kong are clear. The waiting days are compared to a “burning, shrinking” candle, as though once the countdown is complete, the light will be extinguished. In the second paragraph, even when Xi Xi writes about the elation felt by Hongkongers and their optimism for reform on the mainland, for her, it’s the metaphorical wound, the scar, the scab, of history, that will linger. The apprehension is also expressed somewhat obliquely, filtered through cats: “If people don’t have freedom, how can we expect cats’ lives to be better?” Xi Xi’s sense of whimsy is constant, regardless of subject matter—perhaps it’s a grand force of habit, in her bones, innate in her pen.

“How heavy, how heavy, is our torch of freedom?”—Xi Xi

Xi Xi’s proud identification with and proclamation of Hong Kong identity in “Suddenly July” stands out in the essay. She writes: “And in Hong Kong, we work hard to save Hong Kong as Hongkongers, we stay here as Hongkongers, we build and rebuild Hong Kong as Hongkongers.” Although born in Shanghai, Xi Xi’s affiliation with Hong Kong, to which she moved as a young girl, is unquestionable. This is evident in the verbs she uses: stay, save, build—monosyllabic both in written Chinese and in English translation—are saturated with deep conviction. It is also deeply moving to read about Xi Xi’s 1989 observation of the two statues of liberty, one in the United States, a gift from France, and the other in Tiananmen Square. Both are women, burdened by excess responsibility and symbolism. But for Xi Xi, there is an asymmetry between the two figures: the former raises the torch of freedom aloft with one hand, while the one in Beijing must use both hands to do the same. It’s a clear reflection of the doubly laborious struggle for freedom on the mainland, a fact she was acutely aware of in 1989. “How heavy, how heavy, is our torch of freedom?” It is a pointed remark, replete with pathos and wisdom.

It is deeply moving to read about Xi Xi’s 1989 observation of the two statues of liberty, one in the United States, a gift from France, and the other in Tiananmen Square.

* * *

“Historical turning point” and “historical moment” are themselves a connecting node between the essays “Scones” and “Suddenly July.” In recent years, there has been not one singular historical turning point or moment in Hong Kong but a seemingly interminable series of turning points, from the Umbrella Movement in 2014 to the Anti-Extradition Bill Protests of 2019 and on to the introduction of the National Security Law in June 2020. “Freedom,” one of the most basic human rights, is mentioned four times in “Suddenly July.” And we recall Xi Xi’s afterword to The Flower Wood Column: “. . . happily planting these small flowers and small tress in free small gardens.” Gardens that are free space for flowers and trees to blossom and grow are becoming increasingly rare in Hong Kong and other parts of the world, and “chatting freely about everything under the sun” is a luxury activity. Where and how should we continue to plant words to mark historical moments?

Hong Kong Baptist University

Tammy Lai-Ming Ho is the founding co-editor of Asian Cha and an editor of the academic journal Hong Kong Studies. She is an associate professor at Hong Kong Baptist University and a recipient of the Young Artist Award in Literary Arts presented by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council.