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The City and the Writer: In Hong Kong with Nicholas Wong

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of Hong Kong as you feel/see it?

The mood of Hong Kong is low and is getting lower, strangely. Sometimes for no reason at all. Sometimes it’s depressed. At other times, it suffers from adjustment disorder, unable to adapt itself to the unjust, gradual hollowing out of China in almost all aspects—the legal, financial, and education systems; the public policies; and, fatally, the attempt to replace the Cantonese with Mandarin.


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Right now (yes, consider how rapid the pace of Hong Kong is), the most heartbreaking memory is waking up, getting angry at oneself, at the city, at the government, at everybody else, and failing to stay away from that anger.


Can you tell us an extraordinary and overlooked detail about Hong Kong?

That deep down the people all need some sort of help to maintain their mental well-being, though everyone (myself included) seems tough and cold on the surface.


What writer(s) from here should we read?

Xi Xi (who recently won the sixth Newman Prize for Chinese Literature) and Dung Kai-cheung.


Is there a place here you return to often?

Home and the airport. People always talk about whether the place one returns to is the same as or different than the place one left. To be able to return to a place implies an inevitable second or third departure. Gradually, one is also invited to reflect on departure and the nature of it.

Does leaving (over and over again) the place that remains the same cause more pain than returning to it and finding it the same? I have recently found myself paralyzed in a sort of typical HK-way—my income and profession support my basic needs and provide me with the pleasure of living a certain lifestyle here. Yet it is not a happy place. And space is expensive (not to mention how the lack of private space may lead to unhealthy romantic relationships). So the easiest way to get away is to travel.

When traveling, one can claim all the autonomy and personal space one needs. This may explain why my poetry contains elements of global transactions (as evidenced by the functional nature of the city in a global sense) but the narrator seldom moves and is often stuck within clustered syntax and images.


Is there an iconic literary place that we should know?

The bookshops (the big commercial ones) that place Lang Leav and Rupi Kaur next to Carol Ann Duffy and Toni Morrison. The ironic is the iconic (and vice versa) for Hong Kong today.


Where does passion live here?

Good question—I’ve never thought about this. Maybe I should from now on. But I can definitely say where passion does NOT live here: the public transport.  


What is the title of one of your works about Hong Kong and what inspired it?

I recently published a series of odd(ly contextualized) poems in One Hand Clapping, a catalogue published by the Guggenheim Museum to accompany an exhibition. The series is called “Dark Adaptation” and it imagines that four decades from now, there will be Cultural Revolution 2.0 and Cantonese language will be eliminated. The poems rely on false AI translation of politically sensitive Cantopop songs as a source of inspiration.


Inspired by Levi, “Outside Hong Kong does an outside exist?”

Hong Kong people have never been more border-conscious. Yes, outside the city, there is an outside, one that moves inward to become its very, very center.


Nicholas Wong is the author of Crevasse (Kaya Press, 2015), the winner of a Lambda Literary Award in Gay Poetry. He is also the recipient of the Hong Kong Young Artist Award in Literary Arts, the Australian Book Review’s Peter Porter Poetry Prize, and the Renaissance Foundation Prize in literary arts. Wong has contributed writing to the radio composition project, “One of the Two Stories, Or Both” at the Manchester International Festival 2017, and the catalogue of the exhibition, “One Hand Clapping” at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. The Chinese translation of Crevasse was published by Spicy Fish in 2018. He was the poet in residence for the 2018 Taipei Poetry Festival. He teaches at the Education University of Hong Kong. 

Published Nov 9, 2018   Copyright 2018 Nathalie Handal

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