By Tammy Lai-Ming Ho
In her nomination statement for the 2019 Newman Prize for Chinese Literature, Tammy Lai-Ming Ho reminds us how Xi Xi’s poetry speaks to the character of Hong Kong and its people, and that Xi Xi’s linguistic inventiveness can transcend linguistic and cultural barriers and breed new creativity in other languages.
Born in Shanghai in 1937, Xi Xi’s 西西 writing career has spanned six decades, and she is considered, justifiably so, a “cult Chinese writer.”
1 Xi Xi is an extremely versatile and adept word-smith who builds worlds of reality and fantasy in a number of capacities: as poet, novelist, essayist, columnist, translator, and screenwriter. Her prose books, including My City: A Hong Kong Story (Wocheng 我城, 1979), Marvels of a Floating City (Fucheng zhiyi 浮城誌異, 1986), Mourning for the Breast (Aidao rufang 哀悼乳房, 1992), Flying Carpet: A Tale of Fertillia (Feizhan 飛氈, 1996), and her short stories, notably “A Girl like Me” (“Xiang wo zheyang yige nüzi” 像我這樣的一個女子, 1984), are admired by fans and followers and continue to win and fascinate new readers.
It is Xi Xi’s poetry, written mainly between 1959 and 1999 and published in her second collection, The Selected Poems of Xi Xi: 1959–1999 (Xi Xi shiji 西西詩集, 2000), however, that captures my attention the most. I am drawn to the ostensibly quiet, unremarkable stories of Hong Kong life that her poems portray, celebrate, and at times critique; these vignettes might depict the experience of dining in a fast-food restaurant, a visit to a neighborhood supermarket, window-shopping in one of the city’s countless malls, a consultation with a doctor in a public hospital, or buying flowers in the market. Together, these works document a slice of this uniquely global and idiosyncratic city’s history. Xi Xi’s poems are also imbued with a social consciousness, and they comment on the absurdity of certain aspects of Hong Kong society—parents who give false addresses to authorities so their children can get into desirable schools in different neighborhoods, and the issue of “astronaut families,” their members scattered across different countries and even continents.
Although born in Shanghai, Xi Xi came to Hong Kong with her family at the age of twelve in 1950. She rather than forced upon the reader. “Manya Lady” (“Xuduo nüzi” 許多女子) defies the common belief that young women must be in want of a Prince Charming, and “Excerpts from a Feminist Dictionary” (“Nüxing zhuyizidian chouyang” 女性主義字典抽樣) insists on adding an “s” in front of words that begin with “he.” In “Pigeon Rock” (“Gezi yan” 鴿子岩), a man dances joyously at the end of British rule in Hong Kong. In “Modern Architecture” (“Xiandai jianzhu” 現代建築), Xi Xi compares Hong Kong’s high-rise sky-line to gravestones in a cemetery without the protection of a guardian angel, while in another poem, she associates the air in air-conditioned shopping malls with recycled“ exhaust fumes.
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1 Megan Walsh, Lit Hub, May 3, 2018.