‘Private Rebellion’: English-speaking Hong Kong poets gain recognition abroad

By Holmes Chan

As a teenager stuck in Hong Kong’s pressure cooker school system, Eric Yip found his escape writing poetry – never dreaming that one day his work would win a top prize halfway around the world.

In March, at the age of 19, he became the youngest winner of the UK National Poetry Competition.

Eric Yip, winner of the UK’s National Poetry Competition, posing for a portrait in central London. Photo: Justin Tallis/AFP.

He beat more than 7,000 applicants from 100 countries and placed himself squarely among a cohort of Hong Kong poets writing in English that have found increasing recognition over the past decade.

Now an undergraduate economics student at Cambridge, Yip recalled the “liberating” feeling of reading material that had nothing to do with high school English lessons taught to a strict curriculum.

“Writing poems was a private rebellion against this regimented approach,” Yip told AFP.

His award-winning ‘Fricatives’ begin with the narrator taking English lessons as a ‘bespectacled boy with a Hong Kong accent’ and open up to explore issues of language, race, gender and migration.

A former British colony, Hong Kong has developed its own literary tradition in Chinese and English, although English-speaking poets remain a minority and receive little support from the establishment.

“There’s always a certain estrangement you feel when writing in a second language,” Yip says, but English has now become his “private language” in which words flow more naturally.

“What matters to me is the emotional truth of the writing. If English is what will bring me closer to that, then I will continue to use it.

Honoring queer poetry

English-speaking poets who spoke to AFP agreed their output was hardly mainstream, but said writing from the margins allowed them to challenge Hong Kong norms.

Yip’s victory caused a stir in the Hong Kong media, although most newspapers remained silent on the poem’s description of a gay encounter – reflecting mixed reactions from some local readers.

“The sexual element and the weirdness of the poem is absolutely essential,” Yip said.

“I was thinking about the parallels with orality and colonialism, how it all relates to submission.”

Other Hong Kong poets who have successfully tackled LGBTQ themes include Nicholas Wong, whose collection “Crevasse” won one of the best-known awards for queer literature in the world in 2016.

His latest collection was a finalist for the same Gay Poetry Prize at the Lambda Literary Awards this year.

Wong said his writing tapped into themes of “everyday longing” in a way he found to be immediate and spontaneous.

In a recent poem, the speaker imagines inviting his father to his wedding in Taiwan, the only jurisdiction in Asia where same-sex marriage is legal.

Wong, 43, who teaches at a local university, said he has seen Hong Kong’s poetic community become something “more substantial, less fragile”.

Having been a published poet for more than a decade, Wong said he felt encouraged to experiment with language in ways that might seem obscure to Western readers.

“Maybe because it’s my second language, I don’t suppose he’ll like me back.” So I can do what I want with and for that,” he told AFP.

Poetic dissent

According to scholar and poet Jennifer Wong, scholars have shown a “growing interest” in Hong Kong poetry to understand what locals think about the city’s social and political transformation.

Massive, citywide pro-democracy protests three years ago — and Beijing’s subsequent crackdown — marked a turning point.

The movement included violence that some experts say has left many traumatized, while solidarity among protesters has resulted in outbursts of creativity.

Last year, anonymous poets behind the US-based Bauhinia Project published “Hong Kong Without Us”, which they described as a crowdsourced “found poetry” book.

During the protests, they translated snippets of Hong Kong people’s voices — from social media, graffiti, news articles and public submissions — and distributed them on postcards in the United States.

Photo: May James.

“We were particularly interested in … how the urgency of politics offers the potential for a vulnerable and emotional voice,” one of the poets told AFP.

“We were just trying to articulate the voice that we imagined to be the best in Hong Kong.”

The project turned into a book and became an access point for American readers to “emotionally engage” with Hong Kongers beyond the headlines, the poet said.

“Hong Kong Without Us” ends with a postscript saying the book is contraband.

In 2020, Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law on Hong Kong that criminalized most dissent, and many protest-themed literary works were pulled from bookstore shelves.

The poet said he fears the repressive political climate is sealing the “tight crack” allowing Hong Kongers to express their emotional vulnerability.

“I don’t know… what will happen in the future when this already thin crack might disappear.”

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