Editor’s note: This interview took place in 2021.
Amba Tyrie (Amba): Is your book entitled The Unwalled City related to Kowloon Walled City?
Xu Xi: Yes, I borrowed the title from the idea of the Walled City, as I grew up when the Walled City was still around—so the idea of ‘unwalling’ was the way I thought the city of Hong Kong was, as there was no Walled City by the time I was writing this. I was also thinking of the Great Wall of China. The Wall was to keep people out—to keep the Mongols out. The idea of the Walled City is very problematic in Chinese culture; it can be considered racist, as the Han culture was considered the superior culture to others.
Amba: Your characters seem very nomadic, is that a representation of Hong Kong?
Xu Xi: Yeah, I was thinking about that, the idea that we are a little bit unmoored. In ancient times a lot of cities if they wanted to garrison a place, they’d just put a wall up—think about the Trojan Horse. Hong Kong doesn’t have physical barriers but there are all these invisible barriers that set us apart. We are both an island and the peninsula as well—it’s a very peculiar territory and right at the tip of China.
Amba: There is the concept of travel in your novel—the characters aren’t fixed, there is a move between the characters’ thoughts of the future while thinking nostalgically about their past.
Xu Xi: The past makes it difficult for them to decide who they are. All of the characters are displaced in some way with no sense of belonging.
Amba: It’s interesting your inclusion of characters such as Vince—an expatriate—and his interactions with native Hongkongers.
Xu Xi: By the 90s young Hong Kong women and young Hong Kong men were themselves much more free… they had travelled, they were well educated and they were able to move. When I was living and working in Hong Kong in the 70s, unless you were a flight attendant or worked for the airlines, you didn’t really travel outside of Hong Kong, but all the expatriates could. By the 90s that had completely changed.
Amba: It became the hub for travel?
Xu Xi: Yes it did. I worked for Cathay Pacific in the 70s, they didn’t even fly to England when I was working for them. So, you can imagine how different colonial Hong Kong was compared to the Hong Kong of just the pre-postcolonial era in the 90s. The 90s was an amazing time in Hong Kong. The economics and markets were really good. A lot of the British, American, Canadians and Australians were coming over—plus China had opened up so there was a lot of trade; meanwhile, in the West the economy was down, quite a contrast. So, the characters are a part of this.
Amba: You live in New York now. Do you see yourself as a visitor or host when you go back to Hong Kong?
Xu Xi: It was only in 2018 that I left Hong Kong and I don’t have a home there anymore. I still have family there—some cousins and my sister still live there. Hong Kong still feels very familiar, it still feels like home. Although now that I don’t have a home there, I feel a detachment. When I was writing, I was going back and forth to New York and Hong Kong so I saw both as home.
Amba: There are language modes and exclusivity within certain communities in Hong Kong. Why did you move in between languages?
Xu Xi: The Glossary was a suggestion by a linguistics professor, Kingsley Bolton. I became aware of this concept of code switching but it’s what happens in Hong Kong. Colleen, Gail and Andanna can move between languages. Colleen is linguistically inclined—I’ve known people like that who are polylingual. I wanted to move between the languages because that is the experience of the characters but also because Cantonese was always a language that excluded foreigners. Most foreigners who came to Hong Kong did not learn Cantonese, the only exceptions when I was growing up during the colonial era would be some government civil servants like the police or missionaries and a handful of scholars maybe, but the majority of English people in Hong Kong never learned Cantonese. I have met a lot of these people these are all composites of people I know in Hong Kong, because Hong Kong has a very mixed world. The literature I’ve read such as Martin Booth influenced me… he was wonderful.
Amba: The British expatriate—I’ve read his work, Gweilo.
Xu Xi: Oh yes. His experience is interesting as he spoke Cantonese. My experience of Hong Kong and the way I think about Hong Kong is that in-between space as liminal because I was always liminal. Hongkongers code-switch all the time so it’s second nature and they even make some English words Chinese… that’s the culture. So, I put in the glossary—well Kingsley got another linguistics scholar at Chinese University of Hong Kong to help me with that, and it was very interesting doing that. These days I just put Chinese characters in my work. These days you meet so many people that can speak Mandarin and have studied it and they come from all over the world and that’s changed with China becoming such a big power. Putonghua is this other language that is out there almost as big as English. In the 90s we saw a change in Hong Kong. Prior to the 90s you had hardly anyone speaking Putonghua—well it wasn’t called Putonghua, it was called Mandarin.
Amba Tyrie is from London in the UK. She was an exchange student studying English at HKBU in 2019. It was her first time in Hong Kong and has influenced her further studies in the UK profoundly, especially in areas of research. She is currently finishing a Master’s degree in Wales at Swansea University and working on a thesis project—an extension of her undergraduate project based solely on Hong Kong, which examined the concept of identity and “residency” in the city during the Handover in 1997. Her MA focuses on Hong Kong and protest writing and will look into voices that have emerged from political turmoil.