Rhymes full of flavour

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 January, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 January, 1999, 12:00am

The oldest Turkish restaurant , Istanbul, is in the bohemian quarter of Berlin with a part-French name - Savignyplatz. It is a fitting place to meet Hong Kong poet Leung Ping-kwan to reflect on how cultures influence each other.

Leung refers to a newspaper report that the kebab has become Berlin's most popular fast food in less than a decade. Not typical Turkish lamb kebab - Germans traditionally don't like the smell of lamb - but veal or chicken.

Similarly, in London supposedly, tandoori chicken has become the favourite 'British' flavour - not the dish I know from India, but a more tangy hybrid.

Leung says the blending, borrowing and assimilation of food is a metaphor for Hong Kong culture, where the original ingredients of Chinese and Western culture are recognisable but something new and more modern is produced.

In his poem 'Eggplants', Leung writes: With what mixed feelings, I wonder, your parents had followed the flux of emigrants and crossed the wide seas Their vocabulary becoming infiltrated with hybrid fruit, new vegetables Their tongues slowly getting used to foreign seasonings Like many of their generation, everyone began to drift away From a centre their appearance changed. But now and then From shreds of something here and bits of Something else there we discover a vaguely familiar taste Like meat and skin cooked to a mush, gone apart Back together again: that taste of ourselves, extinct, distinct Last month at a major gathering of international writers at Berlin's House of World Culture, Leung's poetry reading entitled 'The Politics of Vegetables' attracted more than just the Sinologists, students and poets who usually attend such events.

Food, Leung believes, is a language that everyone can understand. And food, like society and politics, is always changing.

Many of Leung's food poems will be published in Hong Kong this month by Asia 2000 in his new book, Travelling With A Bitter Melon. It is his second collection of poems to appear in bilingual English-Chinese form since his much-praised City At The End Of Time appeared in 1992.

Some of his best-known food poems which appear in the new book - Breakfast In Soho, Beer In Berlin, Mussels In Brussels and Sushi For Two - were also part of an acclaimed exhibition called 'Foodscape' which was shown in the Canadian city of Vancouver in 1997 and then at Hong Kong's Goethe-Institut last May, accompanied by digital artworks by Hong Kong artist Lee Ka-Sing. But there is much more in Travelling With A Bitter Melon: it is a veritable banquet of the senses with something for Eastern, Western, and, of course, hybrid tastes.

Leung has taken a break from teaching contemporary literature and creative writing at Lingnan University to travel across Germany and Switzerland. In the past six months he has visited the universities of Munich, Heidelberg, Mainz, Bonn, Erfurt and Zurich, reading his poetry with his German translator and talking on 'writing between cultures'.

The event is organised by the German Academic Exchange Service's Berlin Arts Programme which has in the past sponsored such writers as Mexico's Carlos Fuentes and Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa. He is the first Chinese not from the mainland to be sponsored in this way.

The visual, conversational quality of Leung's writing has made Chinese poetry more accessible to Western audiences. Translations of his works have appeared in major newspapers including the august Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. This is all the more remarkable, considering his own emphasis on his Hong Kongness.

'Hong Kong writers, and particularly poets, have always been on the margin of mainland Chinese culture. People dismiss us. There is prejudice from the mainland and Taiwan.

'Sinologists don't take us seriously. But you can't talk about contemporary Chinese literature and exclude Hong Kong,' Leung says.

Many dispute whether a true Hong Kong culture has emerged since the handover. But there is a Hong Kong voice, distinct from that of the rest of China, and it is getting louder.

'Our family experiences, ethics and human relations are quite different from the mainland. And we have a different attitude to urban culture. On the mainland the city is regarded as sinful and corrupting. We regard it as a place of opportunities,' says Leung.

Leung has turned not to colonial or Chinese culture for inspiration, nor Hong Kong ('There were no Hong Kong role models for me,' he says), but further afield to Latin America.

In the 1980s Leung translated Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez's short stories into Chinese before they appeared in English. 'I was very impressed. For me it was a third way out. Marquez was a writer who helped me see that cultural difference is a good thing,' Leung says. 'I realised one had to try to develop within one's own cultural context.'