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[794] Intersection 對倒 – Yi-Chang Liu 劉以鬯

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Intersection tells of the way in which two characters’ lives, strangers to each other, appear to intersect in ways apparently determined by the nature of the city—Hong Kong in the early 1970s, when inflation was out of the roof and crimes were rife. The two parallel stories unfold on a day, when the teenage Ah Xing and the middle-age Chun Yu-bai eventually cross path at the movie theater. Everything about them—age, sex, station in life, the direction of the walk, and financial status—is the opposite. Everything the young craves has been achieved by the mature, but the mature is not necessarily pleased with his life. Whereas the girl wants a rich, handsome husband, the mature has been divorced. The young lives in a rickety old building not too far from a stinky public toilet. The mature, a transplant from Shanghai after the Sino-Japanese War, bought a few flats with his little fortune. Chun is living on the rents he collects while Ah Xing resents working in the factory. They have encountered the same incidents and people on the streets, but in reverse order as they are coming to the theater from different directions.

Over the course of the day, the happenings and scenes of the city provoke in Chun and Ah Xing stream-of-consciousness that is completely different. Chun bathes in reminiscence of the past, in particular the bygone age of his youth in Shanghai before the war. For Chun happiness only exists in his memory. Subjected to the same vistas but evoked a different psycho is Ah Xing, a vain, narcissistic girl who dreams of becoming a movie star and of marrying a rich, handsome man. She is enthusiastically appealing to the future as Chun is assiduously reminiscing the past.

During the time of constant change, “present” is almost very short-lived. What Chun and Ah Xing see and hear on the streets quickly transport them into the realm of their thoughts and imaginations, away from the present. This impermanence is evoked by the Joyce-like progress of Ah Xing and Chun, whose peripatetic meanderings through the city invoke thoughts about Bruce Lee, war, politics, inflation, and the overpopulation of Hong Kong. They each project their desire onto music, films, street scenes—objects of their obsession that displace them from reality. The narrative is interwoven with reality, consciousness, memory, and even imagination, which alternately take over their mentality.

330 pp. Holdery Publishing. Paper, in Chinese Language [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[788] Island and Peninsula 島與半島 – Liu Yichang 劉以鬯

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First serialized in newspaper in 1975, Island and Peninsula, yet to be translated into English, portrays the reality of Hong Kong during the turbulent years between 1973 and 1975. It’s fiction with a realistic backdrop reflecting on the adverse social and economic condition of the time and on how common people cope with their difficult life. Lau insists that the book is not historical fiction, as he has no desire to chronicle the crucial events, but it rather annotates these historical events by placing fictional characters in them. They are in constant interplay with the tough demand of life in a trying milieu following the stock market crash in 1973. Many have lost their assets in entirety and even mortgaged their properties in order to pay debts. The city is hit by depression; housing is meager; commodities are scarce and their prices skyrocketing; robberies and burglaries rife; power outage mandatory; and unemployment a constant threat.

At the center of this social struggle, and thus putting it all into perspective is the Sha family, a middle class family with two teenagers. In the face of tough financial outlook, husband and wife are often engaged in heated argument over petty household matters, especially money in times of inflation and depression. Even a small expense warrants careful deliberation. They argue over stocking up toilet papers, plastic buckets (for saving water during rationing), canned food. Their bickering is often followed by a timely reconciliation, which shows how social turmoil takes a toll on individual mind and relationship. Through people’s interaction with one another, their clipped but sharp-tongued conversation, Lau really nails the nuances of people’s psyche, one that is dictated by the desire to stay afloat.

The book is not plot-driven, but the constant interplay between society and people, in particular how they respond to hostile conditions and challenges imposed on them, keeps reader engrossed. What loosely constitutes a plot is a continuous flow of contingent events imposed on these helpless people caught in a times of depression. Lau portrays a city full of ironies, which even the most rational minds have lapsed in the face of a windfall.

222 pp. Holdery Publishing. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Xi Xi: Hong Kong Writer

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Xi Xi (meaning west, west) is arguably the greatest female writer from Hong Kong. The word “xi” in ancient Chinese pictograph depicts a girl clad in a dress standing on a grid. Her real name is Zhang Yan. She was born in Shanghai, where she attended primary school, in 1938. In 1950, she immigrated to Hong Kong with her parents. Her father worked at Kowloon Motor Bus as a ticket checker. Xi Xi attended the prestigious all-girl Heep Yun College and the Teacher’s College.

My City was her first novel set in Hong Kong. Shifting discursive and abundant details reveal that urban life has not been totally reified and fixed on any single perspective. That the urban scenes unfold through multiple discursive postures implies Hong Kong itself as a continuous scroll in which Xixi expresses her sentiments and hopes for the city.

Shops is an essay that illustrates the aging buildings, squatters, and old-fashioned traditional shops in Central and Western District, particularly in Sheung Wan and Sai Ying Pun, as well as other human behavioor in this hustling district. She expressed her tinge of nostalgia of her childhood, and of the disappearing old shops due to drastic infrastructural development.

Bookstore

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“A place isn’t a place until it has a bookstore.” This line resonates in my head long after I put down Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, which I reviewed yesterday. It makes me think that as long as there are people who care about books, bookstores will not die. Despite the staggering rent in my hometown, Hong Kong, bookstores still thrive in silence. Whether they are corporates like Eslite (from Taiwan) and Page One (from Singapore) or indies, there are people who are passionate about the business sustaining them. Reading is more than a hobby in the same way a bookstore is more than a business. It’s where readers come together to talk about books and spur one another on to more books. I know I’m sentimental when I talk about how I long for the feel of a book in my hands and prefer the pages in my hand over e-reader. Bookstores attract the right kind of people: stubborn, gentle, patient, thoughtful, and composed. Every cover in a bookstore is a door that turns on magic hinges. Bookstores are dreams built of wood and paper. They are time travel and escape and knowledge and power. They are, simply put, the best of places. Perhaps that is the best way to say it: printed books are magical, and real bookshops keep that magic alive.

A New Beginning

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My new year starts in March, because I take annual vacation from late January onwards until March. It’s down time, reading time, and nature time. In Hong Kong and Bangkok, I found my reading haven in a couple bookstores that appeal not only to book lovers. I like the way these bookstores are decked out like a museum, with a touch of scholarly. I enjoy the open layout consider how precious space is in Asia, where every inch is used to maximize profit.

Browsing is an eye-opening experience. Browsing allows one to be bombarded with books of which the subject matter and author one has never heard of. It’s both enlightening and exciting. It’s inevitable that bookstore trying to appeal to the general public is cluttered with gimmicks of any kind. But a reader’s patience is often rewarded with substanced reads.I know what I don’t like—self-help books that are done to death, ghostwritten books of celebrities, chick lit, and romances—so I steer clear of them and come to cultivate interests in subjects I rarely get to read back home. I bought a couple books, written in Chinese, on buddhism and ideas of god but not necessarily about religion. As for fiction, Asia is the heaven for bargained UK paper editions of modern classics. Iris Murdoch, Graham Greene, Christopher Isherwood, Doris Lessing, to name a few, all for USD10. I know books are not friendly items to the skimpy luggage allowance, but I can’t help bringing back a stack that will see me through at least a few months.

“A Visit by the Goon Squad”

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As I’m writing, I feel a gamut of emotions: sad, upset, heart-broken, infuriated, and concerned. On the night of October 3, 2014, Hong Kong has entered dark age. Pro-Democracy protestors were beaten and bloodied as seemingly organized thus all clad in black and wore blue ribbons ravaged the protest site. Thugs punched and kicked pro-democracy protestors, many of whom college students, on Friday night, shedding blood as they tore down demonstrators’ tents and attempted to force them out. Occupy Central leader Benny Tai blamed triads for the violence in Mong Kok, a densely populated area also popular with shoppers and tourists, but also known for its gang presence. Witnesses reported that police had turned a blind eye to the triads’ actions.

Democracy activist Martin Lee told the local Hong Kong press that clearly the anti-Occupy people deliberately caused a scene and created trouble, giving police an excuse. Rumors had it that the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, a flagship pro-Beijing party and a shadow Communist Party of China in Hong Kong, had paid paid the goons to tear down demonstrators’ camps and attacked protestors. These anti-Occupy people have taken to sporting blue ribbons, the color of the local police uniforms, as a pretext to attack the thousands of yellow ribbon-wearing protestors for democracy. These blue ribbon people’s motives are highly suspicious—they are paid for by the pro-Beijing party to provoke trouble.

Now the world knows that Hong Kong government is partnered with triads while creating lies to manipulate different sectors of the society.

Heart of the Matter

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I apologize in advance for the digression from fiction and literature. In light of the current Umbrella Revolution in which Hong Kong people occupy the streets to protest Beijing’s renunciation on its promise on universal suffrage, I seek out The Basic Law of Hong Kong.

Hong Kong Basic Law Article 45 is a controversial article in the Basic Law (constitution) of Hong Kong. It states that the Chief Executive should be chosen by universal suffrage as an eventual goal. However, the requirements for choosing the Chief Executive as per Article 45 are ambiguous:

1. The Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall be selected by election or through consultations held locally and be appointed by the Central People’s Government.
2. The method for selecting the Chief Executive shall be specified in the light of the actual situation in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and in accordance with the principle of gradual and orderly progress. The ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.

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“A broadly representative nominating committee” means not every Hong Konger gets to vote. How does that make universal suffrage? The Umbrella Revolution is a result of a decision by senior Chinese leadership to set out clear limits on who can run for the position of chief executive, Hong Kong’s top leader, in 2017. The rules make it virtually impossible for anyone not trusted by the Chinese government to stand for election.

It is Beijing’s conservative interpretation of Point #2 above that has brought tens of thousands of protesters onto the streets. According to the rules announced at the end of August by the Standing Committee of China’s parliament, candidates for chief executive must gain the support of a majority of a nominating committee, meaning, there can be only two to three candidates. The people on the streets are asking for the right to nominate. Universal suffrage, under the international covenant, means that there are express rights to elect or be elected. There is no express right to nominate.

Umbrella Revolution

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I have never read so little in my entire adult life, until Occupy Central Campaign unveiled in my hometown Hong Kong last Sunday. Since then I’ve been glued to the internet radio live from Hong Kong and have been reading up on the latest development. I want to to bring awareness to what really happens.

Tens of thousands have taken to the streets of Hong Kong in defiance of tear gas and government warnings. The police, under pressure of a pro-Communist, pro-Beijing government, had deployed 87 tear gas bombs but failed to disperse the crowds, which have occupied intersections in business and financial districts—a civil disobedience campaign similar to Bangkok Shutdown in January 2013.

Hong Kong has not seen a protest on this scale for years. Those out on the streets have been angered by the Chinese government’s ruling limiting who could stand as a candidate in elections for Hong Kong’s leader, due in 2017.

The movement is launched by democracy activists Occupy Central. Students began a separate class boycott and walkout in late September and when they broke into the main government compound on Friday, September 26, Occupy Central kicked off its campaign early. Adam Cotton from New York City dubbed the movement “Umbrella Revolution” since protestors, unarmed and peaceful, used umbrellas of different colors to defend themselves from the pepper gas. What really lit the fuse and brought the sentiment to a boil was police’s hasty use of excessive force and deploying of tear gas when the rallies were peaceful and organized.

Media around the world have praised how polite these protestors have been, showing courtesy and respect. I urge you to read the article Things That Can Only Happen in a Protest in Hong Kong and be informed of the political tension in Hong Kong.

Some Observations

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Observations of Hong Kong bookstores

* Female browsers always outnumber male.
* Bookstores are well-lit and have fancy decor. Eslite in Causeway Bay resembles a museum. (Picture above)
* Much more than selling books. Think organic soaps. Incenses. Tea leaves.
* Given the high rents bookstores have to sell more than just books to break even.
* Books are saran-wrapped to discourage prolonged browsing.
* Weight-loss books always top the bestseller list.
* Big on movie tie-in fiction.
* Banned books in China mostly likely in stock.
* UK editions are very popular.
* Scanty seats.
* Fiction usually divided into literature, classics, and general. Sometimes confusing with overlap.
* The latest sub-category is Women’s Fiction. All the shades of greys can be found in this section.
* Bookstores can be as noisy as subway stations.

[611] The World of Suzie Wong – Richard Mason

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” And she went on to celebrate this explanation with a lucidity that took my breath away. She had known exactly what she was doing. What was she in reality? A social outcast engaged in a dirty job; a bad girl who could never get married . . . And playing the fantasy role with a stranger, and making him believe in it, she could believe in it herself— ” (Book I, 4.2.53)

The world of Suzie Wong is one of the past—colonial Kong Kong in 1950s, just after World War Two and Mao’s Liberation, when millions of mainland refugees flood into the city looking for opportunities. Suzie Wong is an orphan originally from Shanghai, cheated into being a bar girl by her cousin in Hong Kong. Like many of the girls at the bar, she does not consider herself a prostitute, but a bar mate, a dance partner, who is prepared to extend her favor to bed with a gift of money. But secretly Suzie is ashamed of herself, being conscious of people’s contempt. For a stable, permanent arrangement is only an ideal girls like her can dream.

And even the girls had turned sour on me: I saw the qualities that I had admired in them as being only skin deep, or else mere pretences cynically adopted as usual tools for their trade. The good manners were only a deceptive oriental façade; the kindness, the tenderness, the generosity, were but a veneer that thinly covered insentivity and greed. (Book II, 7.184)

Arriving in Hong Kong from Malaya, Robert Lomax becomes frustrated with an expatriate community that constantly alienates itself from the locals. Deeming conducive to his arts, which expresses ‘local interests and psyche, he moves into Nam Kok, a hotel in Wanchai where the colony’s poor jostles with the prostitutes plying their trade in the bars. There he meets and falls in love with Suzie, a bar-girl who can neither read nor write. But Suzie’s innocent mentality and matter-of-fact attitude charm Lomax all the more. He is as mesmerized by her beauty as intrigued by her checked fate. Seen through Lomax’s eyes, Suzie is much more than just a cipher of his fantasy. Lomax’s perspectives are those of a Caucasian male fascinated by the female embodiment of his desires. But in their interactions, Suzie wants to be an ordinary woman who has a family.

We had created a unity that answered the yearning of loneliness. We had been two imperfect halves that had come together and made a perfect whole; and this merging of selves had no parallel except in the act of making love. (Book II, 5.3.155)

Typical of romance, the two survives various misunderstandings(some of which are not without a touch of humor, thanks to Suzie’s unique blunt, brusque manner) and problems in their relationship, and end up getting married. But the highlight of The World of Suzie Wong is Suzie herself—how she confronts the racist prejudice of Lomax’s male compatriots, some of whom are her former clients and exploiters, including the father of her baby. Pit against the vignettes of poverty and destitution is the story of a woman who wants to make life better for her baby. The book evokes period details of Hong Kong at that period in all senses, and reveals the sexual underground and colonialism’s insidious, exploitative effects under the civilized Western veneer.

318 pp. Pegasus Books. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]