HK in his eyes
2014-07-18, Chritralehka Basu

Novelist Dung Kai-cheung tries to bring to his writing the ‘inaccuracies’ about Hong Kong’s history. Chritralehka Basu talks to the ‘Author of the Year’ who’s credited with putting the city at the center of his works.

Dung Kai-cheung looks older in photographs several of which were put up lately, pasted on the walls of MTR coaches bound for the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK).

He stared back at the passengers from the photos with an incisive, if not somewhat unsettling, gaze.

When we met him at Café 330 on the CUHK campus, Dung comes across as a mild, personable man with extraordinary tolerance for a journalist’s largely unschooled queries about his work that is often seen as Hong Kong’s answer to the finest in postmodernist literary achievement.  

He is the “Author of the Year” at the Hong Kong Book Fair (HKBF), which began on July 16. An exhibition running at the HKBF is intended as a tribute to a writer whose deep and life-long commitment to engaging with Hong Kong is, increasingly, also about looking for “something that the world has in common with Hong Kong and why Hong Kong might stir the world’s interest”.

His novels — often seen as too avant-garde or too rooted in Hong Kong’s history to make sense to the uninitiated reader — may not be as forbidding as they sometimes appear. Take The Atlas, for instance, his only work available in English in a very competent translation by Bonnie S McDougall. On the face of it, the book reads like a compilation of tracts on the theory of mapping. It comes with a new vocabulary, studded with wildly imaginative cartographic jargons.


Unique perspective 

The fine distinction between “counter place” (locations with similarities in different spaces) and “common place” (spaces which appear to be in the same geographical location but do not necessarily conform to each other), transtopia (a place with transit itself as its destination) and supertopia (a place in which the map takes the place of the physical terrain it is supposed to represent) may seem too abstract or even a bit of gobbledygook. Or too esoteric, for that matter.

The Atlas has inspired much scholarly deliberations on Dung’s unique perspective on the natural and social history of Hong Kong (called V-city in the book) — its rather-recent colonial past and the distinctly local flavors that survived the impulse to assimilate these. Set in a distant future in which archaeologists are trying to reconstruct a lost city based on documents and maps unearthed from the past, the book is a study in the elements of control and power, about rewriting history and conspiracy theories.

It’s a tribute to postmodernist literary criticism — primarily the works of French linguists such as Roland Barthes who had put the reader before the author, ascribing greater value to his impressions of the text, freeing it from authorial control — as well as to the 20th-century modernist masters of experimental fiction, such as Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges.   

“It’s a very playful book,” as Dung puts it. “Although it is often seen as a serious work, that’s not how I intended it.”

It opens up a world of imaginary vistas that, sometimes, could baffle even the most seasoned Hong Kong native who start doubting if these might not be for real. Places mutate. Maps remain a constant. Drawn by different hands and informed, therefore, by different sensibilities, political and personal, at different junctures in history, each of these represents a valid reality, even if they are at odds with each other.

“After 1841, when Hong Kong became a British colony, maps drawn by British cartographers began to get very precise. But it was the earlier ‘inaccurate’ maps drawn by Chinese artists — representations of physical realities — that I found particularly fascinating.”  

It is this now-lost tradition of “inaccuracy” that Dung tried to bring to his writing. The idea being that if Tuen Mun appears in different locations in the hands of successive cartographers, there’s space in this world for these alternate realities to exist simultaneously. Echoing the Barthesian premise that there is nothing outside the text, Dung’s fictional cartographers deny the existence of a corresponding objective reality existing outside the map.

Dung’s personal view on the theme has mutated somewhat though. “In The Atlas, I kept reiterating that Hong Kong was a work of fiction but now I find that a bit too simplistic. Now I’d say Hong Kong is about the interaction between fiction and reality.”

For instance, in one of his later novels in the V-City series, which begins with The Atlas, there is a longish catalogue of what tourists visiting the city from a distant future collected.  It’s an inventory of objects that were once found fashionable but now appear quirky and camp — “replicas of heritage objects from the city’s past -- broken plastic and metal toys, moldy faded martial arts novels with missing pages and pornographic magazines, non-functioning transistor radios, electric fans and typewriters, corroded copper kettles, tarnished silver ornaments, make-up cases made of rotten wood, calendars, pocket watches that had stopped and tattered and torn maps”.

“I wrote this in 1998-99, so these were, in fact, familiar objects from the present in which I was writing, but I was defamiliarizing the familiar, trying to imagine what they might look like from the viewpoint of the future,” Dung says.

Dung’s writing has a distinct European sensibility. He doesn’t seem to suffer from the anxiety of influence, having borrowed his book titles, Rose of the Name (1997) and Visible Cities (1998) – thereby doffing the cap to Umberto Eco and Italo Calvino. “In fact, some of my readers say my Chinese is somewhat Europeanized, that it’s not the real thing.”  


European influence

He hastens to point out, however, that besides the obvious influence of the European masters of modernism, including Marcel Proust on whom he wrote his PhD dissertation, one of his major inspirations came from Dongjing Meng Hua Lu (The Eastern Capital: A Dream of Splendor) by Meng Yuanlao (1090 - 1150), who wrote with “an intellectual’s nostalgia” and longing about the good life he had known in ancient capital of Kaifeng, before being thrown out by invaders.

Another all-time favorite Chinese classic text, which inspired the first novel of his Natural History Trilogy, Works and Creations, was Tiangong Kaiwu (The Exploitation of the Works of Nature). “It’s a technical book written in the Ming dynasty — a handbook for production, covering everything from agriculture to ceramics and paper which I find very fascinating,” says Dung. “Also, Tiangong suggests work from heaven. So this was about the interaction between the work done by the divine/nature and that by human beings.”

He is sometimes credited with putting Hong Kong, generally seen as having a peripheral status politically and culturally, at the center of his literary enterprise. It seems the city where Dung was born in 1967 and never really left it, serves up an inexhaustible smorgasbord of stories. Even when it is not the central character in his book, it is never merely a backdrop. “The city influences and defines the plot and characters. Every individual in these stories constitutes a part of the city,” Dung says.

He is somewhat wary of imagining Hong Kong as the essence, as he had sometimes done in the past. For his writing is about negating the notion of the center. “So, I’m conscious about not replacing that which is at the center with Hong Kong — it’s a position I have always challenged. If I did that, my role as an author would be put to question.”

The Atlas, a document which looks like Japan strategizing on its military program in East Asia during the Second World War, is later interpreted by a Japanese historian as a model for a board game for children. Dung’s narratives are, almost always, similarly open-ended, in which the given is challenged and displaced continuously, often to bizarrely comic effects.

Like the bubonic plague epidemic in 1894 in Hong Kong’s Blake Garden area, it was a real-life historical event. But, in a subsequent retelling, the talking parrots kept by an English couple who died, breed and prosper. A century later investigators return to look for their progeny, thinking they might make an unlikely archive of the traces of human speech from a distant time.

Dung calls his novels “a polyphony of voices, where opposing views are equally weighted”. “You can be very brave without necessarily being honest. You might take a line of protest and defy the establishment,” he says in what looks like an unstated but likely reference to the recent fuss over the “referendum” issue.

“I never have a very clear-cut, definite point of view. So, for someone like me, it’s very hard to take action, launch into a protest. Instead, I try to put my conflicted self into my writing.”

Contact the writer at Jenny Wang contributed to the story.


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