Book review: Dung Kai-cheung’s Cantonese Love Stories lifts Hong Kong’s linguistic veil across 25 snappy pieces
Dung’s short fictional sketches should resonate with anyone who has experienced the city, but may serve as a better introduction to Hong Kong literature than it does to the place itself
Cantonese Love Stories: Twenty-five Vignettes of a City
by Dung Kai-cheung (translated by Bonnie S. McDougall and Anders Hansson)
In terms of literature, most places are defined by works in the local language. For English readers in non-English-speaking places, this literature is accessed via translations. But the situation in Hong Kong is reversed: because Hong Kong Chinese works are so rarely translated, and because there is a considerable body of Hong Kong writing in English, Hong Kong comes to most non-Chinese readers via straight-up English publications rather than translated Chinese ones.
Translated Hong Kong Chinese literature remains all too uncommon, so the small (but numerous) morsels in Cantonese Love Stories, a collection of 25 short pieces by Dung Kai-cheung, are very welcome.
Of the few other extant examples of Hong Kong Chinese literature in English – for example, Snow and Shadow by Dorothy Tse, The Kite Family by Hon Lai-chu and Dung’s own Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City – most bear little, if any, relation in style or substance to English-language fiction about the city. Foreigners, for example, rarely appear; more fundamentally, the style is often experimental, with surrealism, illusion and magical realism predominating. (The Borrowed by Chan Ho-kei, a noir crime novel, is one of the exceptions.)
Dung’s short stories clock in at about 1,000 words each, fitting squarely within a broader Chinese tradition of very short fiction. While longer, perhaps, than many “short-shorts”, these nevertheless have the characteristics of flash fiction.
Dung, in his introductory essay, prefers to call these “sketches” rather than “stories”; each, however, has a plot and while many are left unresolved, almost all have – in spite of their brevity – character development, a narrative arc and a conclusion. There is a love element, or at least a relationship, behind each one, and the stories are snappy, almost without exception.
Each is intimately tied to Hong Kong, with pop culture as well as geographical references. A good many of these references, whether to Hello Kitty merchandise, television and film, or egg tarts, will be recognisable to those who have spent any time in the city, especially those who can remember the 1990s. For those who haven’t, the translators have helpfully placed brief explanatory notes in front of those selections that need them.
While verisimilitude and transparency are not necessarily Dung’s intentions, these stories – perhaps as a result of curation – are considerably less avant-garde, surreal or opaque than Atlas or the collections of Tse or Hon. That being said, almost all the stories have an element of strangeness or obsession about them. As a result, this small book perhaps serves as a better introduction to Hong Kong literature than it does to Hong Kong itself.
Cantonese Love Stories has been ably translated by Bonnie S. McDougall and Anders Hansson, who also undertook the English version of Atlas. In the translators’ note, they patiently explain such terms as “office lady” and VCD (video compact disc).
The stories are preceded by an essay by a Virginia Anderson, whom the publishers have curiously left unidentified. Although Anderson apparently interviewed Dung, the essay is as much about the Hong Kong-born, Eurasian Anderson herself as it is about the author of the collection. She does take a stab at addressing the question of what it means for a text to be in “Cantonese” given that, nominally, all written Chinese is independent of the vagaries of any given spoken form.
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But Hong Kong writers have found ways to differentiate. Dung, Anderson says, does it with “text that highlights the shades, texture, tone and rhythm peculiar to the linguistic community” without defining what these might be. Cantonese is described as “a language of love and loss, a language of laughter and slang, a language rich in sentiment yet defying characterisation”.
While undoubtedly true, this might apply just as well to any number of other languages: Italian might make a similar claim, to say nothing of Sicilian. The question of literary “Cantonese-ness” remains elusive.
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It is hard to say whether these vignettes will make those who have not experienced Hong Kong any the wiser. For those who have, these very short fictional stories should resonate and, more importantly, provide a rare opportunity to pull back the linguistic veil that can hide so much of this city – even to long-term foreign residents.
Asian Review of Books