By Tammy Lai-Ming Ho and Jason Eng Hun Lee
Author of two poetry collections, Kit Fan (范進傑) was born in 1979 in Hong Kong and currently resides in the UK. His first volume Paper Scissors Stone (Hong Kong University Press, 2011) won the inaugural Hong Kong University (HKU) Poetry Prize, and his second collection As Slow As Possible (Arc, 2018) was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation for Autumn 2018 and listed in The Guardian’s 50 biggest books of Autumn 2018 and in The Irish Times Best Poetry Books of the Year. Other accolades include being shortlisted for the 2017 TLS Mick Imlah Poetry Prize and The Guardian 4th Estate BAME Short Story Prize consecutively in 2017 and 2018. His novel-in-progress Diamond Hill, about the last shanty town in Hong Kong, received a Northern Writers Award 2018. A regular reviewer for the Poetry Review, Kit’s work traverses between Hong Kong and European cultures and histories, as well as between poetry and fiction.
As part of an ongoing collaborative project entitled ‘Anglophone City Poetics and the Asian Experience’, Kit talks to Tammy Lai-Ming Ho and Jason Eng Hun Lee about his first poetic influences, his migration to the UK as a young writer, his musings on Hong Kong from afar, and his perspectives on the evolving Asian cityscape.
Tammy Ho & Jason Lee: How long have you been writing poetry? Can you list some important moments in your early experiences as a poet?
Kit: I’ve been writing for roughly 18 years. One of my first inspirations came from a commission by Hugh Haughton who challenged me to write a poem about me being brought up by and in a library. Other important moments include: reading Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘Crusoe in England’; meeting Christopher Reid who asked me to send my poems out to editors; having my poem ‘Reading Thom Gunn’s Notebooks at Bancroft Library’ published in the Poetry Review (UK).
Tammy & Jason: Who would you say are your main literary influences?
Kit: Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop, Paul Cezanne, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, Plato, Robert Frost, Tu Fu, Simone Weil, Krzyztof Kieslowski, W. G. Sebald, Louise Gluck, Confucius, Jorie Graham, Johannes Vermeer, Fanny Howe, Samuel Beckett, Pu Songling, George Hebert, W.B. Yeats, R. S. Thomas, Robert Hass, Kafka, Henry James, Basho, Rilke, Mandelstam.
Tammy & Jason: How useful is poetry as a medium for expressing your personal experiences? What aesthetic or poetic style would you say best characterises your work?
I never think aesthetically or about aesthetics when I write. Style, for me, is a Wildean dress code and sometimes too restrictive for poems. When a poem arrives, I try my best to reach out with the form which it wants to be received, and hopefully on my invitation, it will stay and inhabit.
Tammy & Jason: What about your educational background and current occupation? What influence, if any, do they have on your writing as a poet?
Kit: I accidentally completed a doctoral thesis on Thom Gunn, and subsequently worked in race-equality, agribusiness-marketing, a quango, and now in a medical school, all of which are of some interest to a writing life. The brain is a sponge (see Joshua Mehigan’s wonderful poem ‘The Sponge’). It absorbs everything until it fails as an organ. Like most writers, I have a double life. Work rations my writing life, but scarcity elevates it to a pragmatic profession which suits me.
Tammy & Jason: Do you think or write in any other language besides English? How comfortably and frequently do you use it in your writing and personal life?
Kit: I think in the language I write in — either English or Chinese. I don’t think one can forget one’s mother tongue but I’m no linguist. However, one can restrict one’s linguistic capacity through a lack of curiosity or for a political reason. Languages enrich life and writing is one of the facets of my life.
My history of the English language is the history of a British colonial education. My relationship with the English language is a long-term love affair which will never end in a marriage. I live and work in England and sadly not many people there are fluent in Chinese.
Tammy & Jason: You grew up in Hong Kong but now live in the UK. How often do you write about Hong Kong? Does living outside of your home city affect how you represent it in your writing?
Kit: Yes, I lived twenty-one years in Hong Kong. I have spent nineteen years outside it. The question of frequency is difficult because it is not a question I have in mind when I write. Living outside Hong Kong means that I am experiencing the city through other sources apart from my first-hand experience, and my writing therefore is mediated through those sources.
I have lived in York for nineteen years and although it is called the City of York, it is not a global, metropolitan city like Hong Kong or Singapore. Therefore, this question challenges the definition of city in an interesting way. When I left Hong Kong for Britain, I consciously chose universities in the North of England and away from a major city like Manchester or Leeds. I wanted something different as an experiment. Cities are as often mythologised as the country. That said, cities — their architecture, geography, narrative, and human connectedness — energise poems in a different way than the country, though I am more likely wrong than right, as after all, aren’t we all just creatures of geography, one thing that we still have not yet found a new technology to completely escape from?
Tammy & Jason: How do you think a city is best narrated? Is there any particular aesthetic or poetic style that you use to represent the city?
Kit: No. I can’t really generalise as each city has their distinctive soul. That said, cities do have their convergences — traffic, people, buildings, crimes. I don’t tend to stereotype my home city and particularising a creative process bears the risk of stereotyping. Our imagination can at least run as high as Tai Mo Shan, as deep as the Victoria Harbour, as wide as the city itself, and as numerous as its millions of residents.
Tammy & Jason: Would you say that Hong Kong is an inclusive or alienating place? How might this sentiment be represented in its public/private spaces?
Kit: Any city is an inclusive and alienating place. I have heard from friends in the UK saying that Hong Kong values collective activities and is less of an individualistic place like ‘the West’. I think this is a total fantasy. That said, I have to admit that from my own experience the boundary of public and private spaces are blurred, or hard to find, in small, confined places, where most Hong Kong people live in. However, I don’t think this is a unique Hong Kong sentiment as the same can be said to residents in Tokyo, New York, or Mumbai.
Tammy & Jason: Over the years, what changes have you noticed in Hong Kong? Do you feel compelled to write about them?
Kit: As I no longer live in Hong Kong, the sources of changes I gather are mainly from the media outlet and anecdotal conversations with friends and family. The starkest change I noticed is political, specifically the pro-democratic ‘Umbrella Movement’ and the involvement of politics from the younger generation forming new political parties. The influx of mainland Chinese population has resulted in the (fear of) erosion of Hong Kong values and cultures. The widespread mistrust of politicians from the wider population is exasperated by corruption charges in senior government and business figures. This however echoes the wider populist movements across the developed world and is not Hong Kong-specific.
There seems to be an inter-generational difference about their attitudes towards Hong Kong’s colonial past. Generally, the older generation who experienced the colonial rule may have mixed feelings about the past and a more receptive views towards Hong Kong being part of China, whereas the young generation (‘the millennials’) may be more aspirational in envisioning Hong Kong as an independent state. I often imagine the Basic Law* as a time capsule: Hong Kong has been put into a sealed container and buried underground for 50 years. Is it possible to place a city and its living souls into a form of suspended animation in one of the fastest changing times in human history?
Tammy & Jason: What impact has globalization had on Hong Kong? How do you think the city is perceived around the world?
Kit: Positive impact: more diverse population, mixing of cultures. Negative impact: obsession with neo-liberalism, erosion of local cultures. The literary scene of Hong Kong is not very well known. Socially and economically, Hong Kong is developed but there is a big gap between the rich and the poor, and there is a high cost of living.
Tammy & Jason: Are there any other political, social or economic critiques about Hong Kong represented in your poetry?
Kit: I have never sought to create poems that are political, social or economic critiques, though of course the readers can read them in whatever way they wish.
Tammy & Jason: How do you think Hong Kong will change in the future?
Kit: A fortune teller might do a better job than a poet in answering this question. My inkling is that Hong Kong may have to undergo a series of reinventions politically, economically, and environmentally. Like many global cities wrapped up in neo-liberalism, Hong Kong may be confronted by a populist movement that challenges its identity as a tax-free haven. Regardless of any personal preference, China will play a strong role in the future of Hong Kong (as well as the planet Earth), as the Basic Law* ceases in 2047.
The geo-politics in Asia may become more unstable as neo-liberalism takes deeper root in China, Thailand, Vietnam, Burma, and Cambodia. North Korea will remain a global risk of a nuclear catastrophe if diplomatic solutions cannot be reached. Likewise, climate-change may emerge not only as a political issue as it is, but a real humanitarian concern that could challenge our ideas of freedom, human rights, and the rule of law.
One must not forget that a large majority of the Hong Kong population resides along the coastline and the city has 456km of coastline for just 1,104km2. The city may have to reinvent itself in sea-defence and human migration in anticipation of the rise in sea-level. I am a pessimist and have little faith in human posterity, especially in current political climate where international cooperation and the role of the United Nation are weakening due to the rise of populism, which makes us question the effectiveness of democracy to take immediate actions on our climate emergency.
Tammy & Jason: Do you have any plans to return to Hong Kong, say, in five, ten, twenty years’ time?
Kit: It is hard to imagine myself living in Hong Kong in five, ten or twenty years’ time mainly because I am settled in the UK. But it was equally hard nineteen years ago to imagine myself living in the UK for so long. I must remember that imagination can be deceptive.
Tammy & Jason: What is your reaction towards the expression ‘the Asian experience’? Have you explored notions of an Asian identity in your poetry?
Kit: I am sceptical of the idea and expression of ‘the Asian experience’ in relation to poetry. It sounds like marketing to me. I have qualms about the article ‘the’, its ambiguous but potentially purist exclusivity; the adjective ‘Asian’, its vague geographical and ethic undertone which suggests a dubious, indiscriminate inclusivity; and the noun ‘experience’, its over-ambitious envelope that risks the indulgence of generalisation. I don’t believe in a collective identity in most things, let alone poetry.
I have not consciously sought to explore notions of an Asian identity in my poetry, though I have unconsciously explored my life and memory in poems, in a place I was born which happened to be a British colony, in a geographical construct called Asia possibly first used by Pliny.
Tammy & Jason: If the city could answer your questions, what would you ask it? What would your city ask you?
Kit: I would ask: who are you, where do you come from, how are you doing, what matters to you most, and finally, can you tell me all your stories if you have time? I don’t want to presumptuous but I hope it would ask me: when will you be back and why haven’t you been back more often?
Tammy & Jason: Can you identify certain poems that you think best represent your writing about Hong Kong? Do the poems still ring true today?
Kit: I don’t know, but some readers have said these poems sometimes do: ‘Among School Teachers’, ‘Paper Scissors Stone’, ‘BN(O)’, ‘Roots’, ‘To the Shadow Millions’, and most recently ‘Hong Kong and the Echo’. I didn’t set out to write these poems to represent certain aspects of city life but I am glad that some readers think they do. True to what? Not sure if they ring of anything. But if they are asked if they ring true, I hope they will say true to themselves.
Tammy & Jason: Is there a particular place, area or scene in the city that you write about more often than others?
Kit: Perhaps I might have written about my primary and secondary schools more often than of other places. I don’t know why — perhaps they conjure up a one-off world I felt intimately close to.
Tammy & Jason: Is there a poetry community that you actively participate in? Or, to put it another way, would you say that Hong Kong literature has made much of an impact on the cultural imagination of the city?
Kit: I am sceptical of any ‘poetic community’ because it sounds like there is a community of poets that one automatically is part of wherever one lives. In my experience, writing poems is largely a solo-act. Poems or poets may become public to the reader but they are not in a community. I think Dickinson is right in saying that ‘Publication — is the Auction / Of the Mind of Man –’.
Impact is too grand a word, I think. Any creativity energises the city and adds texture to it in their own way. It stimulates the imagination and invents conversations that might not have existed. It speaks to a past that asks to be heard, listens to a present that flows like a river, and eavesdrops at a future that confounds the eavesdropper.
Tammy Ho Lai-Ming is the founding co-editor of Cha: An Asian Literary Journal and the academic journal Hong Kong Studies (Chinese University Press), English Editor of Voice & Verse Poetry Magazine (聲韻詩刊), and President of PEN Hong Kong. She is the author of Neo-Victorian Cannibalism (Palgrave Pivot, 2019), two poetry collections, Hula Hooping (Chameleon Press, 2015), Too Too Too Too (Math Paper Press, 2018), one short story collection, Her Name Upon the Strand (Delere Press, 2018) and co-editor of numerous poetry anthologies. She is an Associate Professor at Hong Kong Baptist University.
Jason Eng Hun Lee is a poet and lecturer at Hong Kong Baptist University. His poetry and reviews have been published in Textual Practice, Envoi, Acumen, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Asia Literary Review, Oxford Review, Hong Kong Review of Books, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal and The Best New British and Irish Poets 2016. He is the author of Beds in the East (Eyewear Press, 2019).
*Basic Law (1997- 2047) is a “one country, two systems” blueprint that spans half a century, where Hong Kong and Macau continue capitalist despite the takeover by communist China.
Dear Reader, Please Support Kitaab!
Help promote Asian writing and writers. Become a Donor today!