Today Korean American author Stephanie Han lives in Mui Wo, but she tells us she “came to Hong Kong by accident,” during the handover in 1997 when she routed a flight through the city out of curiosity. Strolling through the crowds, Han met the British man who would become her husband: “Nobody had talked to me because I was a native English speaker with an Asian face. And he was the first person to talk to me that didn’t sound like a colonial freak.”
She ended up returning to Hong Kong, becoming City University of Hong Kong’s first English literature PhD. Earlier this year she released her award-winning short story collection Swimming in Hong Kong, which is situated in Hong Kong, the United States, and spaces in between.
Still / Loud’s Holmes Chan and Wilfred Chan sat down with her for a conversation about race, Hong Kong, and what it means to write about this place in English. The interview has been edited for length and flow.
Still / Loud: How does your background affect your role as a witness in Hong Kong?
Stephanie Han: My existence here has always been very much on the periphery. I don’t really have command of the language. I’m not a returning Chinese American so I don’t have homeland feelings. I’ve been back and forth here, on and off for 19 years.
It allows me a certain level of—what might be construed as quite negative—being an invisible person, and the power to move invisibly. When you’re viewed as something so invisible that people don’t count you, you can be very observant and allowed to be observant, because people think you’re irrelevant.
[Hong Kong] was always a place of hope, where people felt they can reinvent. You could swim across the water and you’re home free.
Because I’m not necessarily sentimental about what I see here, it allows me to be a little more critical—within limits though. I’m not making any presumptions, because I don’t have an in with heritage or culture. This is just me as an outsider.
How do you understand the role Hong Kong plays in your story? Do you see it as a character in itself?
I do see Hong Kong as a character. The majority of the stories are not written about Hong Kong, but there is a metaphor, an idea that people have. It’s about swimming in Hong Kong and what that means. It has an international reputation as a port and a trading place, that’s chaotic and where money is exchanged. And people are here for a reason and purpose.
So Hong Kong as a state of mind?
Metaphorically, that’s how I played with that idea. And that is also shifting. Because what I’ve seen about Hong Kong is a shift over the past 20 years; that has to do with the encroachment, power shifting in Beijing.
[Hong Kong] was always a place of hope, where people felt they can reinvent. You could swim across the water and you’re home free. But this is being slowly eroded and shifted. Hong Kong is a place of urgency and people are vocalizing their fear now. It’s almost being smothered, but there is a desperation where before it was solidly something else.
Has that change in Hong Kong over the last 20 years affected your role as an outsider? Does it compel you to move from the sidelines?
Some of my best memories of Hong Kong people are when they marched. My first date with my husband was a march, I thought it was a scenic march but he told me it was a protest march. I could heard the urgency in people’s voices.
This is not my conversation in the full sense: I’m not a citizen, I cannot claim Chinese descent, and what therefore is my position?
The Umbrella Revolution really made me take note: I saw the magic of what Hong Kong yearns to be, of what young people want. They want a place that’s environmentally friendly, that’s tolerant ethnically and racially. Some of their parents, some of these people are good people, and they want these things. It’s very moving.
At the same time I can only bear witness. This is not my conversation in the full sense: I’m not a citizen, I cannot claim Chinese descent, and what therefore is my position? My position is one where I am a teacher, and teach people writing skills so they can voice their ideas, or write about it from the margins. But this is a conversation that Hong Kong people must have, and it’s their conversation and their fight.
I’m interested in how you equip your students.
There are two things. Some of the students here are interested in going overseas to study, and if they’re interested in going to the United States, one of the foundational things is a brief rundown of 400 years of African American history. To function successfully in the United States, you have to have an understanding of the sacrifices of the people of colour. It is totally irresponsible for [students] to walk into the situation and not know about the historical precedents, and it causes a lot of problems for the Asian American community.
Another thing is to give people confidence in their own voice. I taught different kinds of people: older people, a lot of expatriates, what you would call tai tais. But everybody needs to feel they have a voice, and their narrative is important, because otherwise you accept the narrative that everyone gives you. What I try to do is to tell people, “Yes, you have permission to write your own narrative in life.”
Do you think you need to give people an additional layer of permission to write in English?
It’s a mistake now to say there’s one English, it’s world Englishes. Linguistics people are all on this. You can contribute to the world Englishes, and you should feel empowered by this. You can master certain ideas of grammar etc., [but] there are ways of making the language interesting, and that is also important. To change how we’re viewing, and who controls the power of English, because it’s not associated with one culture or country. And it’s important for all these other people to feel they have control.
I have some Hong Kong friends who feel sometimes American race issues just don’t apply to our situation here.
It does and it doesn’t.
White privilege does exist here. It’s like you can step off a plane from a European country and jump seven social classes, because you’re white
So what would you say to a Hong Kong reader who picked up your book and…
American race politics is very specific, and doesn’t completely apply here. There’s an orthodoxy, linguistic terminology, and a whole structure that you are negotiating with in the United States. At the same time, there are things that are relevant here regarding race and that people might learn from.
Just like there is an idea: you can’t be Chinese if you’re Indian. Well, if you’re third generation Indian in HK, why couldn’t you be Chinese? You speak Cantonese and this is very unfair, and that’s just racist. And why not call it like it is? Instead of saying, “oh this is just Chinese.” So in that sense, you can apply it to open up the structure of how people think about each other.
And I do see younger Hong Kong people more open to that. What I liked seeing in the Umbrella Revolution was the sense that you can be a different kind of person and still be a part of Hong Kong. Whereas a lot of older people didn’t necessarily say that.
White privilege does exist here. It’s like you can step off a plane from a European country and jump seven social classes, because you’re white. And I can see how that needs to be examined. At the same time, I’ve met somebody whose partner’s family is British but five generations Cantonese-speaking. This is their life. They’re white, they’re very privileged, but they’re invested—this is also their home.
So there are a lot of different ways to apply it to improve Hong Kong society, and our way of constructing race. And [some aspects] you have to look at differently, because of language and history. The US is an immigrant culture, Hong Kong was a Chinese immigrant culture, but maybe it needs to consider being a wider immigrant place, and how that might benefits society.
You’ve said the short story “Swimming in Hong Kong” — about a Cantonese man and an African American woman’s encounter at a pool — initially had difficulties getting published outside of Hong Kong. Would you say you are writing for a Hong Kong reader?
I think the people who can understand that story are people who navigate in a global sense. It doesn’t mean you have to be a big traveller, but you’re okay with meeting different kinds of people. What I want to present in the story is, unusual friendships happen, and it’s not necessarily a close friendship but you can have meaningful exchanges. It’s a moment of kindness and humanity: it can be like a Filipino grocer and a Persian taxi driver.
Hong Kong was a Chinese immigrant culture, but maybe it needs to consider being a wider immigrant place, and how that might benefits society.
It’s the site of exchange, and so the audience would be people who are interested in this exchange. I’m talking about polyculturalism, not multiculturalism: multiculturalism is where everyone is hellbent on their point of origin within the structure of the state. But polyculturalism draws from the idea of polyphony, which is a musical term. We need to look at the symphony as a whole, and understand that all are important to the symphony; we need to value not just our origin, but how we exchange.
What are you bringing to the table, how greedy or how generous are you going to be at the exchange? And that is the question of the 21st century, not multiculturalism, because a lot of nation-states are not working. A lot of people don’t want to be considered under the rubric of the state. Polyculturalism allows them to be viewed at in a more fluid manner. Honoring the different ways we’re all contributing and exchanging—that’s the main thrust of my book.
Stephanie Han will be hosting a talk at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival tonight, July 24, 2017 at 7p in the Hong Kong Visual Arts Centre, 4/F Lecture Hall.