Connecting the Dots
I never knew English poetry could look like this, something so close to daily life. I invite you to read the poem below aloud, which contains the sounds from many Hongkongers’ teenage years:
by Felix Chow
They sat on mallside bannisters
smoking IQOS. Screaming spring.
Contact-covered eyes behind
a greasy, fringy frame.
Bright-haired street signs all bedecked
with Off-White Thrasher hoodies
pairs of Yeezys costing half
a month of part-time salary.
Fuccbois. The best of them. Neway sing K 2am.
Famjs with their monthly catch
take sticker pics in pink machines.
Enter. Print out. Exit. Seen ✓✓
like Chan Ho Nam in movie scenes.
Laugh at street-gang videos
where a beefball beats a teen.
“So MK.” A catch-all tag
for Hong Kong’s emo poseurs
A sight as ever-present as
black smog and gadget stores
But Hoi Ting swapped her cigarettes
for files and OL lace.
and the fuccbois left their I-One haunt
for work in Greater Bay.
Red vans killed by MTR,
street art cleared in days.
sik6 waan4 bark at siu2 faan3
to get out of the way.
At the Poetics of Home: A Chinese Diaspora Poetry Festival, Felix deliberately accentuated his Cantonese-English accent to read the poem “So MK”. The Zoom chat room blew up. Cantonese-speaking audiences identified specific moments in their own lives. Dr Jennifer Wong, the curator for the festival, a UK-based Hong Kong poet whose writing workshop I joined, said she missed going to the karaoke upon the line “Neway Sing K 2 am”. Others, including myself, were overjoyed at the mention of Hoi Ting, a Hong Kong Internet personality in the early 2000s, who is revived through an endearingly ironic series of memes and hip-hop songs. It is fun to be bad, if not “badder” than Hoi Ting, who could smoke two cigarettes when still in Secondary One. We typed too many exclamation marks to express our awe. Our thirst for contemporary local cultural references was strong.
There was also a sense of secrecy, if not revenge: it is not often we hear an English poem that is more intelligible to a bilingual audience (who use English as a second language) than a monolingual Anglophone one. Nicholas Wong, one of the many Hong Kong poets I look up to and have had the honour to work with, puts this sentiment regarding the (un)familiarity of language in English poems in a sharper way. He often gets annoyed when he comes across French words in English poems. By putting Chinese characters without translation in his poems, he aims to make the Eurocentric Anglophone reader experience the linguistic barrier too.
After Felix’s delivery, Dr Tammy Lai-Ming, the moderator for the reading—my first poetry professor who made publication possible for many aspiring Asian writers through her teaching and projects—drew attention to Felix’s use of footnotes. This reminds me of conversations I have had with Felix, whom I met at the Cha Reading Series. We often send each other drafts of our poems for comments. While both of us write a lot about Hong Kong, sometimes we diverge in balancing poetic devices and their political implications.
By political implications in poetry, I am not just referring to the age-old debate on the tension between the personal and the political. Every personal poem could be political for its situatedness in a specific time and space. Private emotions (in my opinion, tragically) have their roots and roles in the public space. Yes, all that. What Felix and I often talk about is how intelligible a certain phrase in our poems has to be; whether such intelligibility only applies to the poet who has written the poem or the in-group who understand the references; whether we have to compromise our voice to achieve a more universal intelligibility; whether the emotions conveyed will render the poem another sob story that does not bring any insight.
In the panel discussion “Poetry and the Art of Resistance” at the Push the Boat Out Festival, Nadine Aisha Jassat pointed out that a politically powerful poem can link personal experiences to convey a sense of connection between the readers’ and the writer’s respective journeys. She often feels that she has other people’s voices weighing on her shoulders. By choosing a poetic form, we could engage with a language that is on our own terms and refresh our attention. Dr Vahni (Anthony Ezekiel) Capildeo, on the other hand, contended that poetic forms require knowledge embedded in colonial power structures, which may render some poems more transparent than others. Adding context notes to a poem is an implicit admission of the poem’s otherness. Marcas Mac an Tuairneir welcomed that idea of “anti-readership” to challenge a reader’s engagement in social issues through poems.
As a lover of poetry who is grounded in local culture, I have faced many instances where local elements cannot be fully transparent in the English poems I have written. I remember sending Felix one of my poems. He thought the “billowing white cloth” I depicted was an analogy for tear gas. It was literally just a white cloth that covered Sheung Tak Car Park, where Alex Chow Tsz-Lok fell. That conversation struck me as telling of one of the many difficulties of writing poems on/from/about Hong Kong: how does one write or read about the rain without thinking of the Umbrella Movement? The political tension is so overwhelming that it erodes images and politicises their interpretation(s).
I also remember writing a sonnet about being obsessed with Cheung Yu Shing, whose heavy Cantonese accent brings multiple (mis)readings to his patriotic Mandarin songs. I handed the poem in as an exercise for Dr Jennifer Wong’s writing workshop. Paola Caronni, a fellow classmate and poet who is multilingual, said she could understand a part of the poem because of her Mandarin knowledge. Other classmates wonder if there was another way of making the poem work for monolingual English-speakers, or for people who might not have access to know who Cheung Yu Shing was. This begs the question of intelligibility—that is, whom we write for. In the end, I chose to leave the poem as it was, knowing it was intended for a rather limited audience.
Many Hong Kong poets have been negotiating the power structures, both external to or inherent in poems. At multiple readings, Dr Jason Eng-Hun Lee, who introduced W.B. Yeats to me during my undergrad years, read a poem on “the presumption of guilt” among many Hongkongers since the anti-extradition protests. I felt called out and comforted at the same time. There is so much more to living in Hong Kong despite the immediate and looming political realities. Felix, Louise Leung and Tom Chan, among many other local poets, have been unapologetically packing all the Cantonese sounds and shapes in their poems: seeing your younger self on Apple Daily News; (re)imagining Heng Tang Secondary School (the surrogate school name in Hong Kong’s public exam listening papers for the Chinese Subject; or “[r]ed vans killed by MTR / street art cleared in days”. All these images constitute the language of nostalgia, and ultimately, that of having survived all the changes.
by Felix Chow
Anchored by the trunk of the west Kowloon highway,
streets split like branches, stretching for light.
Near the old dai tong dockyards you’ll find,
Walnut, Willow, Larch and Lime.
Pine, somehow covered with Fir,
Fir street, marked down as Pine.
So many streets are named after trees.
Maybe they met up and drew straws.
More likely, some white guy got bored
and leafed through a botanist log.
But imagine the pavements fighting for good names,
Something strong, like Cedar and Oak.
Ivy soon taken, Cherry claimed fast,
the shortest one settled for Ash.
Long Maple winding, snaking its way
through Sycamore, Willow, Lai Chi Kok road
turning right, it carves through a Boundary
till it ends in a branch named Tai Po.
Tai Po Road is not in Tai Po.
Square Street circles around
Down Fa Yuen Street, no flowers are growing.
on Justice Drive, can Justice be found?
As the MTR map will gladly remind you
Districts can be mislabelled like roads.
Tai Kok Tsui now is only remembered
Autumn leaves tire and slowly expire,
family shops leave like swept grass.
from Nathan Road westwards the retail chains spread
and skin the streets clean of scabbed bark.
五金鋪s next to towers palatial,
on shorn stumps, high-rises grow.
Kowloon West rising, Tai Kok Tsui fallen,
new trees replacing the old.
When Felix read the poem “Trees” aloud, his face was pure joy. I wish I had made a screenshot of it, but I was busy making sense of the atmosphere created by the poem’s sounds. Marco Yan, a featured poet at the same event, loved the poem for the fact that there are no real trees in it. The “tree/street names” mentioned are the hollowed-out product of some “white guy’s boredom”. A great metaphor for Hong Kong, isn’t it? Not only has Felix renewed the running joke that “there is no pineapple in pineapple buns”, a stock image in local poetry, it is courageous to map Hong Kong’s neighbourhood in such meticulous accuracy encompassing historical changes without losing sight of the analogous relationship between nature and urban decay.
Prior to the reading, Felix sent me a blurry screenshot of the poem and asked if he was “just writing a secondary school-level poem” with all the end rhymes. I did not realise what the poem was doing. I thought there were too many images and asked if the Chinese characters were necessary. Once spoken, the poem stood out. I started to hear the way Felix said he was influenced by Cantonese hip-hop, some of which was made by my former students. The code-switching, the transliteration and the end rhymes created a rhythm familiar to bilingual speakers of Cantonese and English. The voice was punchy, quotidian and critical. In short, “Trees” demands re-reading to fully indulge in its richness and contemplation.
Of all the nice things about being creative, in the form of poetry, hip-hop, or something in between, there is a joy in knowing that everything could be transformed and shared among like-minded people. Felix knew of my students’ projects, in particular, Lobo and friends, because I gave him DVDs of the B-movies they created. (One of my fondest memories of Lobo is his saying “呢首幾好 (This one [by Nicholas Wong is] quite good)” in the most nonchalant way possible after my lesson on local poetry I have a particular love for.) My students keep releasing their songs, short videos and books to the extent that I do not know what I, as their English teacher, can really teach them, aside from engaging with their creativity, being constantly inspired, if not challenged, to adapt my usual practices and correct their English grammar when they seek clarity in their portfolio for an international audience. But what is international anyway? Without (fore)grounding the local, the particular, going international is just an act of ahistoricism and self-abandonment.
I came to meet all these creatives who are younger and more daring than me through a series of art events that many “forebears” have created in/about/for Hong Kong. I always tell people that witnessing post-80s activists’ attempts to defend Queen’s Pier and Choi Yuen Village through arts, protests and discussions changed forever how I looked at Hong Kong’s land justice and the dispossession of marginalised groups. I will say this again and again because in times of huge, rapid change, we may feel alone and powerless. This is why we need communities who make space for rest, friendship, mutual support and constructive reflection. Community building takes a persistence that could be easily forgotten or given up. Luckily, the arts help us re-discover what we already know, in which new things await.
The participatory aspect in Felix’s performance of Cantonese-ness at the Poetics of Home Festival made my day, as if all my cultural worlds finally came together: This is it! This is what I want to do with my friends! In my excitement several hours later, I asked Felix to send me a playlist of Cantonese hip-hop songs that accompanied his writing process for “So MK” and “Trees”. After all the 2019 protests, I found myself listening to more Cantonese songs, like many others, too, after years of throwing myself into the anglophone world. The Hip Hop songs in the track list below are laced with bilingual puns and idiosyncrasies against state-sponsored desensitisation. Some of them are wild, some of them chill, some honest, some smart. All of them are inevitably Hong Kong. I hope you will enjoy the songs as much as I did.
老神仙 – Novel Fergus, DaiShin
壞習慣 – Takeem & Fotan Laiki
煙癮 – Lobo Slashemall & P1us
For the City – TXIMIYAMA
納稅黨 – The Low Mays
告白 – YoungQueenz
天水圍 Gang Gang – Tomfatki x Billy Choi
Cheng Tim Tim (she/her) is a graduate of the Department of English and Department of Education (Class of 2016). A poet and a teacher, she is currently reading the MSc in Creative Writing at the University of Edinburgh. Her poems are in Berfrois, diode, Cicada Magazine, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Cordite Poetry Review, Ricepaper, among other places. She is working on chapbooks which explore Hong Kong’s landscapes, as well as desire and rituals, through the lens of tattooing. She writes lyrics, translates, conducts poetry workshops and joins writing residencies at leisure. IG @mymothercalls | Twitter @timtimtmi [Read all entries by Tim Tim.]