“Impromptu Performances and Wild Exhibitions: Christopher DeWolf’s Borrowed Spaces” by Jason S Polley

JSP reviews Borrowed Spaces.jpg

Christopher DeWolf, Borrowed Spaces: Life Between the Cracks of Modern Hong Kong, Penguin, 2017, 100 pags. Pictured above: Jason S Polley.

My best literary friend in undergrad, then in his early 20s, and, à la Beat and Bukowski imaginary, never to be seen sans burning cigarette, bottled beer and dog-eared book, said something like this when he happened upon me in the park hunched over Lady Chatterley’s Lover: “Reading this Lawrence is an exercise in splendour and restraint. You don’t want to read the next sentence because it can’t be as good as the present one. You don’t want to read the next paragraph because it just can’t continue being so good. You don’t want to turn the page because … But, man, it just keeps getting better!”

Christopher DeWolf’s 2017 book Borrowed Spaces, tellingly subtitled “Life Between the Cracks of Modern Hong Kong,” evinces Todd Macfie’s Lawrence appraisal, a super apposite (to me) ad hoc review I’ve only recalled a handful of times over the past two decades. I’ve appropriated and applied said assessment only a few times: to John Banville, to Arundhati Roy and to Mike Davis. And why to urban theorist Mike Davis? Well, for the same reason I’m now applying it to DeWolf. Banville and Roy judiciously invest their texts with the musical and metrical precisions of poetry, especially in the lyrical prose of the former’s erudite acting trilogy (EclipseShroudAncient Light) and in the playful pastiche of the latter’s critical fiction (The God of Small ThingsThe Ministry of Utmost Happiness). Davis and DeWolf do something analogous in terms of the form of their respective social histories. Not unlike Davis’s City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles, DeWolf’s Borrowed Spaces makes a virtue of both official and unofficial stories; DeWolf too delivers said formal narratives and informal ones in precise, catchy, often cyberpunk-inflected phonology.


DeWolf offers Foucault on surveillance and control. He coolly counters with De Certeau on subversion and creativity. In the background, in the cracks, DeWolf also delivers an inspired human geography of HK, one as indebted to Davis’ analysis of public space in LA (City of Quartz) and Davis’ global study of informal communities (Planet of Slums), as it is to “no man’s land” Kowloon’s The Mango King, to locavore M+ Museum designer Aric Chen, to hawker control officers (or policies, rather) at the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department, to an 1873 letter by missionary Reverend J. Nacken, to half-century-long Yau Ma Tei café owner Yeung Hon-yuen, to erstwhile rooftop coloniser and retired architect Alfred Tam, to the engineered obsolescence of the dai pai dong (the outdoor “big license [food]stalls” whose numbers have declined from 3000 in the 1950s to 25 today), to the night-long Fishball Revolution and its two gunshots on Chinese New Year 2016, to the 79-day Umbrella Movement lasting almost the length of fall 2014, to three-decade-long Mong Kok alleyway flower-stall owner Cheung Yuk-hing, to the 30,000 HKD (in 1978!) 3 x 2.4 metre iconic “Take me to the Cow!” sign abutting Sammy Yip’s Sammy’s Kitchen Ltd. in Sai Ying Pun from 1978 to just a handful of years ago, to …

{Read the entire review, published on Cha Review of Books and Filmshere.}


jspJason S Polley is Associate Professor at the Department of English Language and Literature. [Click here to read all entries by JSP.]


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