What does it mean to be a poet connected to Hong Kong? This is the key question of Where Else: An International Hong Kong Poetry Anthology. Editors and contributors to the new Verve Press anthology gathered at the National Poetry Library to establish, expand, and explore contemporary Hong Kong poetry.
The National Poetry Library is the most comprehensive poetry library in the UK, and it makes for a great venue: rows of chairs tucked in amongst numerous book displays, and a purple-lit stage in front of rainbow-coloured mobile shelving. On the fifth floor of the Royal Festival Hall at night, you can see the heart of London’s lights bleeding into the Thames — the perfect view for an inspiring evening.
Photo by Lara Mae Simpson
To introduce Where Else, the editors took the stage, and Jason Eng Hun Lee highlighted the anthology’s diversity. Not only do we hear from poets living in Hong Kong, he said, but from those who have any connection to it at all. In this way, all the writers ‘create’ their own Hong Kong — there is no one perspective. Thus, the anthology speaks to the ‘growing communion’ of contemporary Hong Kong writers, linked to each other despite physical distance and different experiences. This explains the title Where Else: Hong Kong remains in the heart even if one is not there.
The first reader was Kavita A. Jindal, whose novel Manual for a Decent Life won the Eastern Eye Award for Literature in 2020; she was also senior editor at Asia Literary Review. Jindal described how her life has been divided between three places: she spent the first third of her life in India, the second in Hong Kong, and has since been based in London. As such, her poems are nostalgic, focusing on her formative years in Hong Kong.
Jindal describes Hong Kong as a place that ‘has always been in flux’, always ‘rebuilding and modernising itself’. Thus, when she looks back and tries to pin down or locate a site of her memories, it is impossible — many places do not exist anymore. These thoughts birthed the poem ‘By the Old Airport’. Jindal used to live in a low-rise flat next to a Hong Kong airport, where the planes seem to have ‘very hairy’ landings, coming down far too close to the tall buildings. Now, her home is luxury flats; ‘plush’, whereas her ‘toilets couldn’t flush’. ‘Offices have sprouted’, ‘fish stalls became hairdressers’, she laments. Being unable to grasp the past is something we can all relate to, but Jindal finds it particularly heartbreaking, since Hong Kong was the site of her ‘youthful exuberance’ and ‘pivotal moments’. Funnily enough, Jindal now lives under the descending flight path at Heathrow — her poetry underlines the curious workings of life.
The next reader, Ian Humphreys — whose debut poetry collection Zebra was nominated for the Portico Prize, and who is an editor of the After Sylvia anthology — joined us online via two screens on either side of the stage. Like Jindal, he lived in Hong Kong in the 1980s-90s. His mother, however, was born and grew up there. I was particularly impressed by a poem exploring his heritage called ‘Whose Story’. His mother is both Asian and African, but this latter part of her was ignored by relatives so that she could ‘fit into’ Hong Kong. Thus, Humphreys writes that his ‘people’s history is spun on whispers’ and he has ‘dreamt most of it up’, having only been told one piece of information: that his mother’s great-grandfather was the first Black man to ride a horse in Hong Kong. ‘Whose Story’ is a prose poem that looks like a tall column on the page, which is fitting: Humphreys states that if this ancestor was white, he and his horse would be placed on a pedestal rather than swept under the rug. On a lighter note, everyone enjoyed his poem ‘Dim Sum Decorum’ about table manners in Hong Kong: you cannot ‘take the last prawn dumpling without asking…three times’.
Following this, editors Jennifer Wong and Tim Tim Cheng read some of their favourite poems from Where Else by writers who could not attend. Wong read ‘Mother’s Ink’ by Kit Fan, which was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for its creative reflection on the links between the (re)production of writing through ink, and the origin of life — our mothers. Then, editor Tim Tim Cheng read ‘Brew Sky’ by Louise Leung Fung Yee, which encapsulates the multilingual nature of the anthology. The poem boldly incorporates Cantonese and English for a humorous engagement with her mother’s mispronunciation of ‘blue’.
I was excited to hear the next speaker, Helen Bowell, whose projects I admire: she runs the Dead [Women] Poets Society and Bi+Lines, an upcoming anthology of bi+ poets exploring ideas of in-betweenness. I loved her poem about the MTR, Hong Kong’s incredible underground system (which makes the Tube look ‘upsetting’ — it is so good that there are two poems in Where Else about the MTR). Bowell’s ‘MTR Haibun’ (a haibun being a prose poem with a haiku at the end) muses on how ‘the doors sing as they close’ — how the ‘please stand clear of the doors’ message is repeated so much that ‘I could sleep my future daughter to sleep’ with it.
Tim Tim Cheng introduced the final speaker — who used to be her teacher — Tammy Lai-Ming Ho: poet, academic, and founding co-editor of Cha: An Asian Literary Journal. Her poem criticising Hong Kong’s ‘One Country, Two Systems’ rule was especially powerful — she spoke of the 2014 Umbrella Movement and people ‘fighting in their own way, which is the best way’. The poem subverted classic British literary quotes, thus utilising ‘the canon’ to condemn the legacy of British colonialism. She stated, ‘Big Brother was watching. Let him watch. Let the whole world watch’.
In the ensuing Q&A, the diversity of Where Else became even more apparent. Jason Eng Hun Lee stated how the anthology includes not only ‘the best of the best’ but also poets that the editors had not heard of before. In this way, Where Else is an act of both consolidation and growth — by putting emerging poets next to established ones on the page, there is a true sense of ‘textual collegiality’.
To end the evening, Helen Bowell spoke more on Where Else’s multilingualism. Mary Jean Chan is a featured poet, and their collection Flèche (which is, for the record, one of my favourite poetry collections) was a ‘watershed moment’ for putting Chinese characters in poems and not explaining or translating for a white audience. Bowell quoted Chan: ‘What isn’t obvious isn’t obvious because I intend to obfuscate’. Thus, you really can write your experience in poems. You can flip between languages; you can play with form; you can try and grab hold of the past or you can make things up; you can write odes to public transport; you can condemn corrupt politics. Whatever it is you want to say, you can. As Jason Eng Hun Lee told the audience: ‘if you have even the seed of a poem inside you, make sure to write it down’.
Where Else: International Hong Kong Poetry was part of the National Poetry Library's Special Edition series of events. Visit SouthbankCentre.co.uk for upcoming events. The anthology, published by Verve Press, is available to purchase here.
Edited by Barney Nuttall, Deputy Editor-in-Chief