HKFP recently spoke to four authors from a series of soon-to-be-published English titles reflecting on the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s transfer of sovereignty to China. Among the writers featured in the Penguin series is journalist Christopher DeWolf, who explores the tensions between the public and the government in shaping Hong Kong’s urban spaces for the past two decades, and novelist Xu Xi, who pens an elegy for the city that she – like many others – is leaving.
Christopher DeWolf, author of Borrowed Spaces: Life Between the Cracks of Modern Hong Kong
As a journalist, what topics do you cover, and how did this research lead to Borrowed Spaces?
Cities! I began writing about cities and urban life when I was a teenager. I’m fascinated by the intersections between architecture, design, culture, politics and history.
Over the years, I became especially interested in how cities seem to organise themselves – or more precisely how citizens shape their own environments. You can see this in everything from street art to street food, not to mention the community gardens and pop-up street events that are quite trendy these days.
These are part of what scholars call informal urbanism – things happening outside an official framework. In Hong Kong, a lot of it takes on an important political and cultural dimension, which is what I explore in my book.
So how is Hong Kong’s urbanism significant, or different to that of other metropolises?
Hong Kong isn’t like any other city. For complicated political and historical reasons, most of us live in extremely high-density environments without much private space, which means public space is especially important. We’d go crazy without our public space.
Unfortunately, a lot of the public space in Hong Kong is very poorly designed, or burdened by restrictions on what you can do. In Taipei, the government allows hawkers to sell delicious street food in certain areas. In New York, the city provides loose café-style furniture for free public use in many parks and squares.
We don’t have that here in Hong Kong. Instead, we have lots of concrete surrounded by lots of fences. It’s up to citizens to make their own space, which is what they do.
In the 1950s, when the government built public housing estates, they had only rough concrete courtyards without any real public amenities. So people strung up awnings and opened market stalls and dai pai dongs. That kind of logic exists today. Walk around Kowloon and you’ll see shops spilling out into the street, or little clusters of household furniture where neighbourhood people gather to play games or have a chat.
That kind of thing happens in other cities too, but what makes Hong Kong unique is that it’s like a normal city taken to extremes, because of the very high density.
You say there is a tension between how Hongkongers want their city to be built and governed, and what the government wants.
The government is obsessed with control, and as a result it lacks transparency and fears change. In the colonial era, Hong Kong wasn’t very democratic and the government was quite opaque, but you had some leaders like Sir Murray MacLehose who were genuinely interested in making this a better place.
What’s happened since 1997 is that the colonial system of government has been frozen in place but there is no longer any strong leadership. Instead, you have an executive who is out of touch and more concerned with pleasing Beijing than serving Hong Kong’s own people. And you have risk-averse civil servants who keep their heads down.
Hong Kong really needs more local governance. District councils should have the power to implement policies in their districts, like London’s boroughs. But that will never happen because the government is terrified that district councils will be used as a stepping stone for anti-establishment candidates to get into politics.
They’d rather have a dysfunctional city controlled by pro-establishment cronies than a functional one run by pro-democracy people.
Despite the odds, there are civil servants with great ideas and a desire to change things for the better, and there are outside activists who are pushing things along. But change happens very slowly… Other cities have realised that cities thrive with a light touch, but Hong Kong is actually becoming more bureaucratic with every passing year. Just look at the food truck debacle.
Not only did the government neglect our existing street food tradition, it didn’t even allow food trucks to operate properly. Instead, their menus are vetted by a committee, they are only allowed to operate in a few places, and they are charged such high fees their food is expensive and undesirable.
So who are the people you’ve been talking to? Whose stories will we read in Borrowed Spaces?
I wanted the book to have a mix of sources, from street hawkers to civil servants to architects. A lot of it is based on work I have been doing for nearly ten years.
For instance, in 2009 I wrote about the way people in Hong Kong put their household furniture into public spaces, like in the alley outside Club 71 in Central, and this is still happening today.
In many cases, a single source led to many surprising connections, like the people at Kai Fong Pai Dong, a collective market stall in Yau Ma Tei that is run by a very diverse mix of designers, artists, community organisers and neighbours.
Xu Xi, author of Dear Hong Kong: An Elegy For A City
As an Indonesian-Chinese writer educated in the US before moving to Hong Kong, what are your experiences of the city’s political developments?
I’m primarily a fiction writer (five novels, four collections of short stories, two non-fiction titles). I think about the world I live in through the fiction I write. It’s the only way I know of to live a life as fully examined as I can.
I was a college student in the US when Nixon went to China. That historical incident looms large in my personal history because it profoundly changed the world as I knew it. When I returned to Hong Kong to live and work after graduating with my BA in 1974, I saw the beginnings of a new Hong Kong.
I became very interested in 1997 at that time but alas, the rest of the world, and Hong Kong especially, was too caught up in itself to care about the proximity of the handover – it was considered too far in the future. For me, this resulted in my never-published novel Proximity, which is now a manuscript in the library at the City University of Hong Kong.
You mention you are frustrated with how Hong Kong has developed. What is the Dear Hong Kong memoir about?
Dear Hong Kong is narrated as a letter to Hong Kong. I present Hong Kong as a long-time problem lover to whom I’m finally saying goodbye. It only recounts parts of my life, the times I’ve lived in Hong Kong. Since the early 1970s, I’ve mostly lived between Hong Kong and the US.
There isn’t a single central frustration I can point to, but I suppose I first articulated my feelings about Hong Kong in my book, Evanescent Isles – as you can see from the title, my city feels evanescent to me.
Now I’ve written, as the subhead of the new book indicates, an elegy to my city. The most difficult thing about being from Hong Kong is that I have always felt like an insider-outsider, but that fundamentally, the majority culture did not really have a space for me.
This was especially true for me as a writer. Part of this is simply circumstance. I am a former Indonesian national of Chinese descent who is an English language author who did all my tertiary education in the US and is now a US citizen. So I am a kind of “alien” here.
This city is where I grew up and considered my home for many many years, but those years have shown me that who I am and what I most want to be as an English language contemporary novelist and writer, could not really ever be completely “at home” here.
So now is a time when I begin to see myself leaving this city and it’s time to begin to say goodbye. Which is what this memoir tries to do.
So how difficult has it been to be a creative writer – or teach creative writing, as you have done – in Hong Kong?
How difficult is it to be a creative writer? As difficult as becoming any other professional if you want to do it well and understand it’s a real life and “job.”
As for teaching, I generally prefer teaching older working professionals who want to write, or retirees, or just generally more mature people. In Hong Kong, I have found local students the least well-equipped to study creative writing compared with students from Singapore, the Philippines, India, Malaysia, and even China. The reason for this is the lack of literature studied in local schools and also the lack of creative writing taught at the undergraduate level.
There is so little emphasis placed on arts and cultural education in local schools, and especially none of our own local literary arts. There is a lot of propaganda about how important “creativity” is, but there appears to be very little appreciation of the source of real creativity in the arts and humanities – in literature, art, dance, music – except as something to appear on a CV to get into elite schools.
The international schools provide a very different curriculum, but of course this is an aspect of the divide between the haves and have-nots in this city.
Hong Kong could learn a lot about this from the Philippines and Singapore where their own literature is read and taught in schools. In the Philippines, there’s a real history – over 50 years – of seriously teaching creative writing at the postgraduate level in the universities; Singapore is starting now but it’s really only just begun. Hong Kong has only one MFA programme and it’s only in English.
I mention postgraduate level because to me, undergraduate creative writing is now so commonplace around the world that it should just be taught as part of the study of literature.
To nurture a serious literary culture, you need postgraduate-level teaching for those who are serious, in addition to publishers of literary presses and journals as well as literary prizes, fellowships, festivals and the like.
You say you are leaving – where are you going?
Back home to New York which has been my home since 1986, off and on, just like Hong Kong.
I already split my time, and as long as my mother is alive I will continue to live in Hong Kong. However, she does have Alzheimer’s so her memory is gone and in a way, I guess I’m also trying to “forget” my Hong Kong in my memoir.