The recent Umbrella Revolution has drawn the world’s attention to Hong Kong’s neo-colonial situation, where it is sandwiched in a number of interregna, such as between the postcolonial and the neo-colonial, or between ex-coloniser Britain and current coloniser China. This unique postcoloniality of Hong Kong—that it has money but no independence—is seldom addressed in postcolonial (literary) studies. The situation is further complicated when one considers the state of English writing, given the invisibility and neglect it receives worldwide and among the Hong Kong population, who only recognises the pragmatic value of English. Nevertheless, the Umbrella Revolution has also provided a crucial opportunity to reconsider how Hong Kong culture can contemplate the past and articulate the future of the city, a project undertaken in this dissertation.
Believing that it is high time Hong Kong English writing emerged as a distinct literary voice, this dissertation asks how English writing should be positioned amidst, and help to move forward, Hong Kong’s various interregna. It evaluates the opportunities and the challenges facing the formation of an English writing community in Hong Kong, drawing inspirations from Pascale Casanova’s vision of a world literary space that is fraught with struggles and competition, and Pierre Bourdieu’s concepts of cultural, symbolic and other forms of capital. The recommendations made in this dissertation to develop English writing further share the common idea that Hong Kong English writing should “turn and look inwards” as much as it should present itself as international and cosmopolitan. The main recommendations are: the need to develop committed and dedicated publication avenues for emerging English-language writers and students from Hong Kong, and the need to develop new analytical paradigms that represent the rich layers of social reality and lived experiences across fault lines of class and geographical segregation in Hong Kong.
List of chapters:
Introduction - At the Peripheries of Postcolonial, Neo-colonial and World
- The introduction contextualises Hong Kong English writing in the ongoing debate between postcolonial studies and world-literature. It points out the invisibility of Hong Kong in these debates, thereby justifying the purpose of this thesis. It also introduces the thesis structure and defines the key terms used.
Chapter 1 - Critiquing Hong Kong Identity: Essentialisation and Resistance
- Chapter 1 lays the cornerstone of the whole thesis, and demonstrates the formation of a distinctly neocolonial Hong Kong identity. The first section of this chapter charts how Hong Kong goes from a northbound coloniser in pre-handover times to a colonised after 1997. China’s various neo-colonial strategies on Hong Kong has tangible impact to the daily lives of Hong Kong citizens, most notably in the struggle for material resources, certain commodities and services as a result of policies that privilege mainland Chinese citizens over local Hongkongers. The second section records the emergence of civic awareness and the manifestation of such awareness in a new wave of social movements and political actions since the latter half of the 2000s, which in turn catalyses the formation of a new Hong Kong identity. The final section explains why and how this identity is different from existing theories and earlier accounts of the 80s-inspired Hong Kong identity – particularly in the ability to inspire mobilisation and activism that respond to crises of daily livelihood and materiality existing theories of Hong Kong identity; in the meantime, the section will also pay careful attention to how this new identity encompasses many internal divisions and streams which sometimes are hostile to each other.
Chapter 2 - Unknotting Language Politics in Neo-colonial Hong Kong
- Chapter 2 moves from sociopolitical issues, in other words the phenomenal, to language politics, i.e. the discursive. It aims to untangle the complex linguistic situation in neocolonial Hong Kong, in which Cantonese, Mandarin and English compete for different definitions of prestige and privilege. The increasing ties between Hong Kong and China mean that the languages of the new coloniser, namely Mandarin and simplified Chinese characters, gradually gain importance over local Hong Kong languages, namely Cantonese and traditional characters. This has led to resistance from those who seek to defend the right of self-expression in the city’s linguistic heritage. On the other side of the neo-colonial spectrum, English, the language of the ex-coloniser and now of global commerce, becomes a sought-after skill by those who believe in the career prospects and linguistic capital offered by the language. While the pragmatism of English is widely recognized across social classes, educational inequality and uneven access to English-speaking opportunities have helped promote a kind of covert prestige of Cantonese, making it the default language of a Hong Kong identity and expunging English from being owned or internalised in the identity formation of the Hong Kong people.
Chapter 3 - A Sociocultural History of Hong Kong English Writing
- The first part of Chapter 3 distinguishes between English language education and English literary education in Hong Kong: If English language enjoys high pragmatic importance, English literature has gone largely unnoticed by the majority of the population, reflected by the small-circle state and canonical syllabi of English literary education in Hong Kong. Hong Kong lacks a coherent education policy to promote and popularise the study of literature and creative writing in the English language. Recent curriculum changes in the English-language and English-literature syllabi for public examinations are welcoming, but may not bring much effect. In fact, the niche, almost elitist nature of English literary activity in Hong Kong is best dispelled by the growth of the English writing community, intriguingly after 1997, with the emergence of young writers and publishing opportunities. The current development of the field of Hong Kong English writing will be sketched in the latter half of the chapter.
Chapter 4 - Critiquing the Strategic Positioning of Hong Kong English Writing
- This chapter studies how Hong Kong English Writing positions itself in response to three major fault lines discussed at the opening of the chapter: its classification as Southeast Asian writing or East Asian writing, its rivalry with Hong Kong Chinese Writing, and its convoluted relationship with the prevailing capitalist sentiment of Hong Kong. The key argument for this chapter is that because of these fault lines, Hong Kong English Writing has a tendency to appeal to the symbolic capital of recognition from a globalised, international and cosmopolitan readership. My main method here is a metacritical reading of writers-cum-critics in the English Writing field, and aims to show how a desire to brand itself as “broadening” from or going beyond Hong Kong sometimes has detrimental effects on the availability of publishing opportunities for new, emerging Hong Kong English-language writers. I propose that the field need to find a foothold for itself in Hong Kong society by “looking inwards”, showing greater commitment to scrutinising the complexities of the lives of the local people, and creating encouraging and dedicated spaces for young writers.
Chapter 5 - New Paradigms for New Writing
- This chapter starts off with a critique of the works of two most prominent English literary heavyweights of Hong Kong, fiction writer Xu Xi and poet Louise Ho. As two of the most famous first-generation Hong Kong writers of the English language (see Chapter 3), my critique is on whether their works, while painting a constellation of Hong Kong identities, are sensitive to the class, material and geographical segregation that plagues contemporary Hong Kong. I argue that new perspectives or paradigms must be developed to enrich the critical appreciation of Hong Kong English Writing, and careful attention to fault lines between class and geographical districts is one of them. I will also discuss samples of new writing by young writers or creative writing students, published in new platforms and outlets. Often with a more locally-flavoured education and upbringing than previous writers, and particularly because of their less refined but more impulsive writing, they can be more sensitive to the “implosions” or internal splits in the Hong Kong society, and document implicit and lurking changes in post-handover Hong Kong identity from more autochthonous viewpoints.
Chapter 6 - English Writing as Neocolonial Resistance
- Chapter 6, the last content chapter, returns to Hong Kong’s neocolonialism. In revisiting the arguments I make in Chapter 1, I will address the tension between China and Hong Kong through a poetry exchange between a mainland Chinese student and some Hong Kong netizens. Issues explored in previous chapters, especially the lack of popular recognition of English literature/writing, will reappear in my analysis.
Coda - Whither Hong Kong English Writing?
- The conclusion reiterates the arguments in all chapters, reflects on the limitations and things that I have not been able to discuss in this thesis, and ends by stressing that with the latest Umbrella Revolution, Hong Kong is at an neo-colonial interregnum, standing up for themselves firmly, to which Hong Kong English Writing must be encouraged to respond, record and reflect.
Associate Professor, Department of English, University of Warwick
Professor, Department of English, University of Warwick
Associate Professor, Department of the Languages and Cultures of South East Asia, School of Oriental and African Studies