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Books Hong Kong writers resort to poetry amid protests to express the inexpressible

An anti-extradition bill protester reads a poetry book wearing a helmet and gas mask outside government headquarters during a march to demand democracy and political reforms, in Hong Kong, China on Aug. 18, 2019.

TYRONE SIU/Reuters

After a weekend of violent clashes between protestors and police in Hong Kong, a group of young people gathered in a plush hotel with a view of the city’s harbour to engage with the city’s tensions in an entirely different way: through poetry.

Aaron Chan read from his poem, “Extradite me to the past,” describing a time “When teachers could speak freely/ Without fear, though not without worry.” A teacher himself, Chan told the room he was concerned about the safety of his students as the new school year began.

Hong Kong’s protests began three months ago in response to a bill that would allow extraditions into mainland China. The movement has since expanded to include calls for greater democracy and an investigation into police brutality. While people continue to march in the streets, some of Hong Kong’s writers and poets are trying to express the inexpressible – their concerns for the future of the city and the freedoms they hold dear. And in this tense political climate, there’s something about the ambiguous and metaphoric potential of poetry that makes it the perfect genre for the task.

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“Some writers, they are emboldened to express their views through poetry at a time when we are collectively experiencing something,” says Tammy Lai-Ming Ho, an associate professor at Hong Kong Baptist University and president of PEN Hong Kong.

Ho, a force of nature in Hong Kong’s literary scene, was involved in organizing eight poetry readings and a writer’s walk in August alone. She also recently co-edited an issue of Cha: An Asian Literary Journal dedicated to the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre as well as a Voice & Verse Poetry Magazine special feature on extradition.

Although Ho has been writing poems that could be considered political for some time, she says the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement of 2014 was a turning point for her. She now sees herself as a documentarian of sorts, recording events in the city not through journalistic reports, but through poetry. Her recent poems reference the Cathay Pacific pilot who assured his passengers the airport protesters would be peaceful and the man who fell to his death after hanging a protest poster that read: “no extradition to China” and “make love, no shoot.”

Hong Kong enjoys freedom of speech unheard of in the rest of China, but that doesn’t mean writers and poets are oblivious to Beijing’s watchful eye. In 2015, five Hong Kong-based booksellers disappeared only to reappear in custody on the mainland, where they were investigated and held for selling banned books. These events have had a chilling effect on the city’s book scene.

“There is an atmosphere of being aware or being more alert to what can be published or what can’t be published,” Ho says. But she says writers who want to fight for freedom of expression continue to push the boundaries. Poetry offers extra space in which to do this.

“The writer can use figurative language and can also zoom into a particular image and focus on that,” Ho says. “There’s a lot of creative space to use poetry to respond to what happened.”

Even Hong Kong’s richest man, Li Ka-shing, sees this potential. In mid-August, the business tycoon ran advertisements in some of the city’s newspapers, pleading for an end to anger and violence in the city. One of his ads bore nothing but the phrase “The melon of Huangtai cannot bear the picking again,” a line from a Tang dynasty poem typically read as a warning of the limits of suffering. Some commentators hailed the cryptic ad as a savvy way to appeal to all sides of the conflict.

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Others eschew ambiguity. “I’m writing protest poetry these days,” says Canadian poet Kate Rogers, who has lived in Hong Kong for 20 years and regularly hosts the reading series Poetry OutLoud. “The heartache, not knowing if what we’re doing is going to make any difference, is very hard.”

Rogers says self-censorship is common in Hong Kong and believes many writers deliberately avoid politics for personal or professional reasons. “A lot of people are afraid,” she says. Still, she feels the subjects broached by English-language writers have gradually shifted in the years following the 1997 handover, as people have grown concerned about their freedoms. Some write openly about politics, as she did in a recent poem, describing her reluctance to visit mainland China today despite having lived there in the past.

Hong Kong poetry has often explored the city’s complicated cultural identity, which seems itself in flux. Graduate student and poet Chan Kwan Ee Tom says that in the past he’s struggled to find his voice as a writer, in part because he’s bilingual but writes mostly in English. He says he has seen a similar identity struggle in Hong Kong writ large, where people don’t normally talk to each other on the streets. But now a collective identity is emerging.

“There’s a sense of togetherness when the city is in peril,” Chan says. “With recent events, it’s like returning to my roots of what it means to be [from] Hong Kong.”

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