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Dorothy Tse at the Fringe Club, May 2014

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Thursday Fiction Corner: An Interview with Dorothy Tse

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Dorothy Tse on “Writing Between Languages” in Hong Kong

What is a foreign language, and what is a native one? Are the boundaries clear?

Living in Hong Kong is an experience of living in several languages. Every road sign that appears on the street of this city is written in both Chinese and English. English was long the official language for this former British Colony. It is still a medium of instruction as well as a common language used in the commercial sector. We use rapidly changing Cantonese to fill up our daily dialogue, yet we automatically shift into English when we reply to an email. The first language I learned from my parents and forgot gradually as I grew up was, in fact, the Chaozhou dialect. Parents who were immigrants from mainland China in earlier days still talk to us in their specific Chinese dialects when people of my generation return home. With the handover of Hong Kong from the British to the Mainland Chinese in 1997, the importance of Mandarin in the commercial and political sector has been growing. Now we are trying very hard to practice a language that we are unfamiliar with. To us, hovering among languages is also hovering among different roles and identities.

Using a language that is not taken for granted should be regarded as a good opportunity and not a detriment to writing. It is a language of distance and requires meditation.

Ackbar Abbas said Hong Kong’s culture is based on an energy that is largely channeled into one direction, the economic sphere. He said, “Historical imagination, the citizen’s belief that they might have a hand in shaping their own history, gets replaced by speculation on the property or stock markets, or by an obsession with fashion or consumerism.” It is difficult for one to explain his identity as a writer in Hong Kong. For most people in Hong Kong, local literature does not even exist. Reading “serious” literature is such an embarrassing act that a public intellectual once said he had to hide his book behind a porn magazine while reading on public transportation. Rather paradoxically in such a commercial city, the boundary between literature and the popular culture is distinct.

In the field of literature, written Chinese has undergone great changes in different Chinese-speaking regions since 1949 when the communist government began its rule over mainland China.

For instance, whereas mainland literature tried to borrow languages from the working class and the farmers in the 1950s as a way to reach the public, Hong Kong’s literature has a tradition of resistance to the language of daily life. Its highly experimental language is a strategy to distinguish a literary work from an entertaining and commercial one. In Hong Kong, writing itself is an active rejection of utilitarian society and mundane everyday life.

The Drinker, a novel written by Hong Kong author Liu Yichang in the 1960s, is a good example. It was the first Chinese novel to adopt the technique of stream-of-consciousness. The first-person narrator, modeled on the writer, was a highly literate man who came to Hong Kong from Shanghai during the Sino-Japanese War. Once the editor of a literary magazine, he is forced to write pornographic novels in Hong Kong in order to make a living. He can only express his true beliefs about literature when he is drunk, in a fragmented yet poetic language. The author uses experimental language not only to simulate the drinker’s stream-of-consciousness, but also to provide an escape from the reality of everyday life, from the feeling of being trapped.

Escaping from being a commercial city under British rule does not imply identification with a Chinese nationality or traditional Chinese culture. There was a heated debate over “motherland literature” in Taiwan during the 1970s, and there was a cultural and literary movement named “root-searching” in mainland China during the 1980s. But the image of the land or soil seldom appears in Hong Kong literature. In Hong Kong, writing is never an act that naturally brings one to the theme of nationality or cultural tradition.

Instead of motherland, the widely accepted image of Hong Kong is that of a “floating city.” The image was introduced by writer Xi Xi in her famous short story of the 1980s, which borrows from a painting by Rene Magritte to describe Hong Kong’s situation of in-betweenness. As described in the story, it is a city that hangs in the sky between the clouds above and the sea below—that is, China and Britain, respectively.

Like the city itself, the language of Hong Kong writers should be described as floating as well, a language that is in-between. It is dangerous to hang in the sky, yet it is this dangerous situation that makes the miracle of the city, as well as its literature, possible.