‘In Hong Kong, it seemed that no matter where you stood, there were people around, above, and below you. Space was the city’s hottest commodity: an inch of gold for a foot of soil, my dad would say’.
‘The Seventh Year’ by Jenn Chan Lyman in The Queen of Statue Square: New Short Fiction from Hong Kong, Pg.30
I found this collection of stories hidden away in the very commercial Dymocks Bookshop, situated in the ifc mall, Central, and thought it would be only appropriate to try and explore more contemporary ‘Hong Kong’ writers whilst living here. Although I bought a few ‘Hong Kong’ books before I arrived here, last August, I am ashamed to say I haven’t looked at any of them! Anyway, maybe after reading The Queen of Statue Square, I will be more inclined to pick up books written by Hong Kong writers.
What was most interesting about this collection was the ‘Introduction’ written by Marshall Moore and Xu Xi, who wrote The Unwalled City – a book I have yet to read on my to-be-read list. It is always exciting to learn about the reasons behind a specific anthology or collection, particularly when it comes to defining what it means to be from a particular culture or nationality. This definitely comes into acute focus and awareness when talking about what it means to be a ‘Hong-Konger’.
‘So who is a Hong Kong person, then? An important distinction is often lost: even though there is significant overlap between Hong Kong identity and Chinese ethnicity, they are different for reasons of history, culture, and law’.
‘Introduction’ by Marshall Moore in The Queen of Statue Square: New Short Fiction from Hong Kong, Pg.8
Although there are many Chinese influences and traditions upheld in this very international city, Hong Kong has a unique history. With the territory’s previous British colonial rule, Western influences sit side-by-side Chinese tradition. Hong Kong is a melting-pot of cultures and identities, inhabited by Chinese people, Western expats, residents from other Asian countries and domestic workers who are never granted permanent residence. Therefore, issues of identity are not so clear-cut. Additionally, Moore points out that many children, from a young age, are sent overseas for schooling, which adds to the difficulty of defining a ‘Hong Kong person’. Yet despite these difficulties, the theme of ‘identity’ weaves through each short story, even though this was not a criteria of the submissions.
‘Fiction happens when the facts alone fail fully to give voice to the human condition as the writer experiences it’.
‘Introduction’ by Xu Xi in The Queen of Statue Square: New Short Fiction from Hong Kong, Pg.15
Comprised of eight stories, only a few really captured my interest. From Jenn Chan Lyman’s ‘The Seventh Year’, which describes the uncovering of a husband’s shameful secret when his previous deceased wife has to be dug up and cremated to make room for other ‘bodies’, to Nury Vittachi’s ‘The Queen of Statue Square’, which was an intriguing, suspense-ridden story about the fight for domestic workers’ rights in the imagined future hand-over to China, the stories in this collection were varied as well as remaining particularly ‘Hong Kong’. The city itself was prominent in each story and there were aspects I could recognise or relate to, which really enhanced my reading.
‘In a city that worshipped money, the poor were not just forgotten, but no longer had any place in the debate’.
‘The Queen of Statue Square’ by Nury Vittachi in The Queen of Statue Square: New Short Fiction from Hong Kong, Pg.141
One of the stories I really enjoyed was Ysabelle Cheung’s ‘Field, Burning’. The opening was beautiful and pulled me in, immediately, to the ongoing monotony of the narrator’s life:
‘I start at the bottom, as I do on most days: a servant to the slow and steady sweep. In the morning there are no crowds, only the yolk of the sun and a few whistling rock thrushes, disappearing into the gaping maw of the mountain. It’s a Wednesday, early enough to catch the light salty breeze lifting from the harbour. I take lunging mouthfuls of air punctured with rain and foamy sea. Up here, way up here, I can see the flat tongue of land where the city lies at the base of the mountain. Every so often the distracted sound of drilling perforates the air: then, silence. In Hong Kong, buildings are being torn down, built up again in glass and steel, spilling onto cramped streets’.
‘Field, Burning’ by Ysabelle Cheung in The Queen of Statue Square: New Short Fiction from Hong Kong, Pg.103
Hong Kong is depicted as an overgrown concrete jungle, constantly changing and constantly expanding. Cheung’s story, however, spans centuries and recounts the tale of this curious old, grave-sweeper who has been reincarnated numerous times for a terrible secret she finally reveals in a letter to a man who comes inquiring about a plot of land. I don’t want to give away too much of the story but, although this sounds very disjointed, Cheung weaves together these two connected lives seamlessly. It’s always a pleasure to read a short story that manages to do so much in just a few pages.
But there were also stories that appeared flat and lifeless to me. One in particular, ‘Saving Grace’ by Ploy Pirapokin, about a group of spoilt, rich ‘third-culture kids’, who, despite being given an allowance they couldn’t possibly exceed, get caught up in the seedy underworld of dealing ketamine, really grated on me. I think the main problem I had was that these kids were depicted as normal and ‘ordinary kids who drugged themselves into nothingness to avoid the shame of doing nothing’ (pg.102). Although this was a thought-provoking sentence, perhaps it would have been more so if the characters depicted in the story weren’t Western and privileged.
Overall, I found The Queen of Statue Square: New Short Fiction from Hong Kong a really interesting read. It is a great introduction to what it means to be a ‘Hong Kong person’ and it offers an insight into the many different lives that are lived in such a densely populated area of the world. There were moments or pure brilliance alongside stories that didn’t quite live up to my expectations, but I guess that has to be expected from collections. You are always going to find pieces that you like more than others.