As I was reading Xu Xi’s latest book, Dear Hong Kong, I recalled an episode from my youth. When I was in primary two, about eight years old, I was introduced to a group of children two years my senior. They were by a large margin the best kids in my school, and my mother had hoped I would tag along and learn something. The best among that circle was John, obviously, since he was perfect. When he graduated primary school, his mother sent him to Dulwich.
By the time it was my turn to graduate, John had been gone for a while. I met with him in the summer, when he brought a friend to visit Hong Kong. He gave me a red bus keychain and told me his adventures, and in return, I gave him the latest on his favourite teachers. He then told me, he used to think our school’s teachers were good, but now that he’s been to England, he knows they were only mediocre.
Instantly I despised him, and still do to this day.
Dear Hong Kong, billed as a writer’s grand farewell to her home city, left me with a similar sour taste. The book is divided into sections that alternate between memoir and break-up letter. Addressing the city as “HK”, Xu Xi bemoans a capitalistic, jealous, and immature lover she has now outgrown. One recurring description is “petulant”, not unlike a mother’s admonition of a child. “Inarticulate and inchoate, reassured only by business, science, technology, dining and shopping … HK thinks a tunnel-vision path is the only way to stay afloat and safe until 2047 and beyond,” she writes.
Like many English-language writers in Hong Kong, Xu Xi — often praised as one of our best — spectates from the city’s threshold. In the same breath, she describes herself as both “local foreigner” and “native daughter”. This duality grants her an insider status, letting her pass judgment on Hong Kong’s character, while still keeping it at arm’s length. For example, she is adamant that we don’t want democracy:
Oh dear John, you should be forgiven because politics was never your thing. You should stick to what you know and do best. Things like shopping, dining, sipping wine and dancing the night away in a dolce vita of sweet forgetting. …
There’s always a bad guy for HK to fight, and the problem, always, is about the desire for political self-determination that simply is not in the make-up of the city’s character.
Clearly, the addressee is a fictional conceit, the literary equivalent of a punching bag. In giving her diagnosis, Xu Xi files many things — young protesters, governmental incompetence, legislative filibustering, Chinese encroachment, capitalist greed — all under the same list of ills. It is an impressionistic take, which reduces much of the socio-political complexities of today’s Hong Kong to a set of human neuroses, like desperation and pettiness. The book succeeds as polemic, but rarely makes space for nuanced commentary.
To be fair, as a local reader, it is easy to agree with Xu Xi’s criticisms in the main. It’s not news that Hong Kong is in deep trouble, one way or another. The problem is that her observations are framed within a break-up letter, which signals bitterness, not sympathy or wisdom. Local readers are therefore put on the defensive: I for one identify with Hong Kong more than I do with Xu Xi, and so, with “HK” in absentia, I feel almost compelled to take it personally. It is one thing to tell a story about your home, but it adds subtext if that same story is told on the brink of departure. For instance, Dear Hong Kong’s opening question is about Hong Kong’s fate after 2047, but it quickly becomes moot — Xu Xi has already decided it isn’t her fight.
While it appears Xu Xi has fully convinced herself to leave Hong Kong, I wonder how she intends for that decision to be read. In an early section, she recounts a privileged childhood cut short: part of Hong Kong’s nouveau riche in the 1960s, her family lost its fortune due to her father’s excesses, and neither parent took it well. She has previously written about this in Evanescent Isles: From My City-Village (2008), but it is only here we find a direct accusation:
There is something fundamentally wrong about a culture where money is almighty, where face matters entirely too much, and where shame is inevitable if you cannot claim your standing in society. Which is why bidding HK goodbye is simply a necessary escape.
When she left for university, she chose America, a place with “the fewest reminders as possible of my birth city.” She left twice more, for an MFA in 1981, and after she quit her corporate career in 1998; by now she has spent more of her adult life outside Hong Kong than in it. At 63, the author’s final decision to leave is, in many ways, remarkably similar to her first:
In the end, that is the reason to leave, because this writer cannot fit inside her skin in the HK of pragmatism and profit, the two Ps that trump all else, including common sense, until the restless and beleaguered hearts shout, Enough!
As a local reader, one has to admire the irony. If Xu Xi cannot afford to stay, more of us cannot afford to leave. For most citizens Hong Kong is not a phase, a stepping stone to some globalised adulthood; there is no escape and they will live, toil, and die here. I don’t begrudge Xu Xi her good fortune, but I am reminded of “Hong Kong writers” like Timothy Mo and his ilk. Yes, they weighed us and found us wanting; but what then? What does it say about our English-language literature that its best practitioners feel at liberty to disown their city?
Everyone agrees the mantle of Hong Kong writer does not simply come from residing in Hong Kong. The alternative, some say, is that such writers should concern themselves with the city’s affairs, and to reflect that in their work. But I believe a Hong Kong writer’s true test is to write for the city, which is to say for its people. The central embarrassment of our literature in English is that much of it isn’t written for readers like me. They are meant for an unseen diaspora, or some international connoisseur, peering at Hong Kong with anthropological detachment.
“People here don’t read English,” goes the old refrain. That may be, but if our writers are content to package Hong Kong for export, with no intention of advancing dialogue or creating value on a local level, how is that not exploitation? The original sin of the English language in Hong Kong is colonialism, and so, deliberately or not, people who write it must find an ongoing justification to exist; this is the tariff we pay for a seat at the table, to enter relevance. If instead English-language writers choose to break ranks and flaunt their insularity, their divestment, they prove they have no stake in Hong Kong’s people or their future. Readers are then correct in paying them no mind.
A Hong Kong writer’s true test is to write for the city, which is to say for its people.
Is it wrong for me, a Hong Kong reader, to expect loyalty from people fleeing a sinking ship? Am I allowed to judge them as cowards? Of course, it is stupid to romanticise sadness, poverty, or political oppression. But solidarity is always a little unreasonable — it only counts if your own priorities are in some way subsumed. Perhaps my mistake was to treat these writers as heroic, as my heroes. When I was younger I looked up to local English-language writers, including Xu Xi, and entrusted them to tell my side of the story. Now, there is an animal part of me that wants to shake them by their shoulders and scream: stand your ground, motherfucker! Go down with the ship, I dare you. Our world crumbles. Witness it. Bear it. Only then are you worthy to write it.
This essay was originally published on Holmes Chan’s personal blog.