Liu Yichang, Hong Kong author whose works inspired Wong Kar-wai films, dies at 99

Shanghai-born novelist was a giant of modern literature in Hong Kong, where he settled with his wife in 1957

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 June, 2018, 11:39am
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 June, 2018, 11:08pm

Celebrated Hong Kong novelist Liu Yichang, considered the founding father of modern literature in the city and whose works inspired films such as Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love and 2046, died on Friday at the age of 99.

“It is with great sadness that we announce our beloved Hong Kong writer Mr Liu Yichang’s passing on the 8th of June, 2018,” Mary Wong Shuk-han, an associate professor of literature at Lingnan University, wrote in an online post.

Wong told the Post that Liu died peacefully in the company of his family at 2.25pm in Pamela Youde Nethersole Eastern Hospital in Chai Wan. Funeral arrangements would be announced later, she said.

The author’s death was the second loss in a week for the city, following news on Tuesday of the death of celebrity romance novelist Eunice Lam Yin-nei.

Secretary for Home Affairs Lau Kong-wah expressed deep sorrow and called Liu’s death “a great loss to the cultural sector”.

Lau said: “Professor Liu, a master of Chinese literature, had a lifelong devotion to promoting Hong Kong literature. Generations of local writers have benefited from his contributions.”

Lingnan University and the Open University, both of which conferred honorary doctoral degrees in literature on Liu in 2011, issued statements on Saturday, mourning the great loss to the literature world and the university community.

Generations of local writers have benefited from his contributions
Lau Kong-wah, home affairs chief

Continuing their studies on Liu and his works, Wong and her colleague, associate professor Grace Lau Yin-ping, will in July publish a collection of four serial stories written by the novelist. Entitled Old Tales Retold, the 230,000-character book will be one in a series on Hong Kong’s literature and culture in the 1960s.

Scriptwriter and director Ben Wong King-fai, who co-produced a biographical documentary on Liu with Mary Wong, said the novelist’s works had become part of the city’s cultural identity, and many of the unpublished ones would be a great treasure awaiting Hongkongers.

“Liu Yichang was to Hong Kong literature what Franz Kafka was to Austrian literature,” he said.

Born in Shanghai on December 7, 1918, and originally named Liu Tongyi, Liu Yichang first came to Hong Kong in 1948 and settled down in the city with his wife Lo Pai-wun in 1957.

In a writing career spanning more than six decades, Liu published over 30 books including novels, literary reviews, essays, poems and translated works.

He is credited with establishing modern literature in Hong Kong, with many of his works carrying the city’s unique metropolitan flavour. Liu was also known for discovering and nurturing a number of outstanding Hong Kong-based writers, including late poet Leung Ping-kwan, who went by the pen name Yesi, and author Zhang Yan, also known as Xi Xi.

Two of Liu’s well-known novels, Intersection and The Drunkard, inspired the award-winning films In the Mood for Love and 2046, by director Wong Kar-wai.

The auteur, in remarks sent to local media, said he “deeply mourned” Liu’s death. Wong added: “Liu’s passing marks the end of an era when mainland writers flourished in Hong Kong after the wars. The city provided a shelter for this generation of cultural workers.”

Liu’s passing marks the end of an era
Wong Kar-wai, director

The Drunkard, written in the 1960s, is considered China’s first long fiction written in the stream-of-consciousness style, which breaks with conventional narratives, using soliloquy and a continuous flow of descriptive thoughts to tell a story.

In the 1970s, Liu’s artistry evolved to new heights, inspired by tête-bêche – an arrangement of two joined stamps in which one is upside down in relation to the other – in philately. The novel Intersection comprises two independent and intertwining stories of an old man and a young girl.

It was also a highly productive period in Liu’s career – he was a columnist for 13 newspapers and wrote an average of some 13,000 characters a day.

In a citation for Lingnan University’s conferment of an honorary doctoral degree of literature to Liu in 2011, Professor Chan Ying-wai wrote: “Professor Liu depicted various phenomena in life with a cinematic touch, presenting to readers vivid scenes such as the 1967 riots, family disputes and frequent robberies.”

He depicted various phenomena in life with a cinematic touch
Professor Chan Ying-wai, Lingnan University

The strong sense of the times in Liu’s works was closely related to his media background since graduating from St John’s University in Shanghai in 1941, according to Chan.

Before Liu came to Hong Kong at the end of China’s civil war, he worked as a supplement editor for two major anti-war newspapers. In Hong Kong, he continued his editing job for newspapers and periodicals such as Hong Kong Times, Sing Tao Weekly and Xidian. From 1952 to 1957, Liu worked as an editor in Singapore and Malaysia, where he met his wife, former dancer Lo Pai-wun.

After returning to Hong Kong and marrying Lo in 1957, Liu became chief editor for supplements at the Hong Kong Times and Sing Tao Daily. In 1985, he founded Hong Kong Literature, a monthly journal, and worked as its editor till 2000, aged 82.

He was a man of character. He never simply drifted with the current
Mary Wong, friend

For his contribution to the literary arts, the Hong Kong government awarded Liu the Medal of Honour in 2001 and the Bronze Bauhinia Star in 2011. The Hong Kong Arts Development Council bestowed on him the Award for Outstanding Contribution in Arts in 2012 and the Life Achievement Award in 2014.

Mary Wong, a former student of Yesi and a friend of Liu for more than two decades, said the literary master should be remembered as both a writer and an editor.

She said in the mid-1960s, as mainland writers in Hong Kong fled the troubled city amid social unrest and political upheavals across the border, Liu remained and blossomed into a local writer whose works “began to explore a greater depth in society, reflecting how young people were tempted by materialist lure”.

As an editor, Liu further connected with the Hong Kong public when he generously nurtured local writers and constantly brought in Western thought and literature that would shape generations of literati.

“He was a man of character. He never simply drifted with the current. He dared to speak his mind, which has become a rather rare quality these days,” Wong recalled.