Author Xu Xi’s farewell to Hong Kong is a mixed bag of emotions and human foibles, some comic and others more serious
Insignificance: Hong Kong Stories is a witty, emotionally complex set of short stories where Hong Kong plays a lead role and death and loss are never far away. All are told with Xu Xi’s characteristic lucidity and directness
Insignificance: Hong Kong Stories
by Xu Xi
The first thing to say about the new short story collection form acclaimed Hong Kong author Xu Xi is that it’s very Xu Xi.
The main themes of Insignificance: Hong Kong Stories will be familiar to her regular readers: family, identity, sex, casual verbal cruelty and of course Hong Kong itself, with which the various narrators enjoy a deeply conflicted relationship.
A keen, observant chronicler of human foibles, Xu Xi’s prose as is eminently readable as ever, mostly prioritising lucidity and directness but with occasional rhetorical flourishes, and her articulation of human emotional complexity instinctively feels true to life.
A collection of 11 stories, Insignificance is not terribly cheerful, although in places it is very witty. Alongside the many casual betrayals, lost souls and broken dreams there are regular excursions into the bizarre and phantasmagorical. The story “Here I Am” is narrated by a recently deceased man apparently in limbo after being hit by a car in Wan Chai, who discovers a series of unpleasant secrets about his unexceptional life. It starts off broadly comic in tone, but quickly evolves into a meditation on disappointment in both life and death.
It is followed by the witty “Kaspar’s Warp”, which starts with a teenager trying to memorialise his dead friend – Gu Kwun, the son of Gail Szeto, a serial Xu Xi character who is the protagonist of Habit of a Foreign Sky (2010) – with a story about a dead person stuck in limbo, which the writer himself criticises as hackneyed. The story then turns into another meditation on yearning, loss and letting go of dreams, the teenager narrator exuding a similar world-weariness to the several older narrators in the collection.
Even more experimental is “All About Skin”, the book’s closing story, which takes place in a world where characters can change their skin at will, using the conceit to lampoon everything from consumerism to international relations to notions of race to the superficiality of commonly held ideas of beauty.
A kind of farewell to Hong Kong before the author moves back to the US, Insignificance deals prominently with questions of identity and place, specifically the many different ways people regard Hong Kong as their home. As befits her valedictory Hong Kong collection, the city itself is its principal character, a place where characters struggle to establish a sense of self amid prevailing values that often seem to be at odds with those of the author.
Xu Xi is excoriating when it comes to Hong Kong’s perceived ills, racism and inequality chief among them. In “Coincidence”, a woman of mixed Chinese-Western heritage is treated with casual cruelty by everyone from schoolmates to work colleagues, while in “The 15th Anniversary”, a mixed heritage counts against the narrator’s mother.
“The Transubstantiation of the Ants” is an extended comic analogy in the form of a fable that compares Hongkongers to insects. And the semi-autobiographical “Canine News” contains a Swiftian proposal for locking up all racist Hongkongers in a giant structure called The Doghouse and treating them like dogs, characterising racism as an infectious disease like bird flu.
“Canine News” contains some of the book’s most sardonic swipes at the city it depicts. At one point the unnamed narrator muses: “Doesn’t everyone here love Snoopy since he passes that critical test of an adorable lack of meaning? In Hong Kong, China, the evolution from solidity to liquidity of creative images, brands, trademarks et al happens with remarkable ease.”
In the same story, the narrator tries to work out why a Tsim Sha Tsui bar lacks atmosphere. “Perhaps it’s because Hong Kong only recently raised its minimum wage from a pittance to a pittance-plus in this city of one the highest income disparities in the world.”
In “The 15th Anniversary”, meanwhile, protagonist Christopher Woo’s former schoolmates at a La Salle College school reunion “told you about their lives and complained about the Gini coefficient of Hong Kong where the rich pretended to be middle class in order not to suffer guilt at being so very, very privileged”.
Xu Xi remains both evocative and efficient as a delineator of character, and Woo is one of the collection’s most memorable creations, a middle-aged man of limited means lost among his far more successful former schoolmates. The story is a beautifully nuanced, richly associative, haunting portrait of a defeated man.
Similarly, the characters in “Mariner” are fully illuminated in the briefest of sketches: Dirk, a Hongkonger waiting for his girlfriend in a hotel bar; and Bobby, an outgoing, conservative American pilot whose conversation makes Dirk feeling trapped, but for whose company he finds himself yearning afterwards.
Sex looms as large as ever in Xu Xi’s work, often heightened by contrast with a character’s usual abstinence – the celibate Stella Yuen, narrator of opening story “Longevity’s Eyebrow”, is seduced by her freeloading friend Jonathan Bracken, an instantly recognisable Xu Xi Lothario, oozing white-man entitlement. And the narrator of “Off the Record”, a writer who’s no longer interested in sex, suddenly finds he is again because of a prospective client.
Death is also a constant theme: the stories are filled with the ghosts of family members and lovers no longer alive. An extended goodbye echoes through its pages, the sound of someone letting go of something they simultaneously love and hate.