Hong Kong’s Bard of the Everyday
A Remembrance: Leung Ping-kwan (1949-2013)
I have your words, that you put down on paper
but nothing at hand to return, so I write down
papaya. I cut one open: so many dark points, so many undefined things
On Sunday, January 6, when Leung Ping-kwan, author of these lines, passed away, Hong Kong lost one of its best voices. A film and literary critic, a university professor, a writer, a photographer, most of all a poet of course, and a wonderful human being, PK, as he was affectionately called, or Ye Si, as he signed his verses, was also a very cosmopolitan man.
He was 63, and had been suffering from lung cancer for the past three years. Spending time with him was a treat: every word, every sentence, every flavor, and every image could draw a smile, which he would follow by saying, “this could make for a great poem …!”—leaving flashes of possibility in the air.
Inspiration, to him, was all around, in the black seeds of a papaya, or in the demolition of Hong Kong’s Cat Street—in a cup of tea, or in “so many shiny suits of armor and swords” at the Krakow History Museum. He could find Hong Kong in a flame tree’s crimson flowers, or the furrowed surface of a bitter melon—a vegetable he returned to, time and again, in speech and writing. It evoked so much for him that he called one of his poetry collections Traveling the World With a Bitter Melon. In the 1998 poem that gives the title to the collection, he writes:
I cooked it at noon
sliced it, then stir-fried it
it was delicious, a little bitter, a little sweet
carrying the good wishes you brought with you from another place
But already ten years earlier, in “A poem to give to a bitter melon," this vegetable was making him muse:
Wait until this moody weather is over
that’s all that matters
some can’t stand your lined face
but I do not look for an empty landscape there
All the past gathers in your furrows
nothing ever really goes away
He wrote poems in Berlin and London, in New York and Beijing, under rainy clouds in Kunming: through his travels and his readings, he always had the lingering glance of the poet, and the quick laughter of a Cantonese speaker—a language that seems to have been created in order to be witty and full of puns, and the one in which he wrote his poems.
He had a strong visual sense, as many writers have, which he also developed in dreamy, grainy photographs often slightly off-center and out of focus, like thoughts that cannot be defined too precisely. But his verses are also tactile and gustatory: everyday objects fascinated him—as they did earlier masters of the Chinese genre known as yongwushi, or poetry about tangible things—and he would explore their texture with his words, with the stubborn precision of an artisan.
It got to be magic, old clogs in Ladder Street
my shadow and I scraping along, down, clacking back into the years
noting solely ankle speaking to ankle
Clothes poles pointed to the years, days hung out to dry
(“Clothes poles! Get your clothes poles here!”) Memory is like scissors (“Any scissors to grind? Knives to sharpen?”)
Memory cut lots of things into silhouettes.
He read Hong Kong through the tools its laborers use—a rusty cooker, an irregular wok, a cog wheel, an axle—the more common an object, the more endearingly capable of telling the local story, it seemed to him.
Some of his most profound reflections on identity were sparked by food—for which, as a self-respecting Hong Kong person, he had an enormous curiosity and appetite. Sharing a meal with him meant being treated to an endless chain of associations, that would pack you off, in the days that followed, to try this or that specialty in the old cha chaan tengs dotting Hong Kong, and to look for the books and movies he had mentioned. He loved talking about tea-coffee, Hong Kong’s famous “yuan-yang,” prepared in “roadside foodstalls/streetwise and worldly from their daily stoves/mixed with a dash of gossip and good sense/hardworking, a little sloppy … an indescribable taste,” as he wrote in the eponymous poem. Or “Swiss chicken wings”—a Hong Kong dish that has nothing to do with Switzerland, as he explained to me, where chicken is baked in sugar and soy sauce, but was so named when a local chef misunderstood the British pronunciation of “soy chicken wings”—or did the Brit actually say “sauce chicken wings,” or “too sweet”? Nobody knows, which was precisely the kind of story that delighted PK.
Fish balls, beef balls, squid balls? Comfort food that has only a little bit of the ingredient that gives it its name, and even then, only the scraps left over from choicer cuts kneaded with flour and chives, for days when the real thing could not be afforded. Novels by Ba Jin and Timothy Mo and Louis Cha and the essays of Ackbar Abbas would all be mentioned in the same breath, together with the modernist writers of the 60s, since PK took local popular culture as seriously as the best literary criticism. The animation McDull featured in the same sentence as Wong Kar Wai’s most sophisticated achievements, together with Black Rose, a Hong Kong movie from 1965, or King Hu’s works, or Stanley Kwan’s Center Stage.
Throughout his forty-plus years as a writer, he was always faithful to his main themes: objects, food, landscape and atmosphere, and how they all conjure up to define our elusive selves.
Once, he took me to a Chinese New Year celebration in an ancestral temple in Yuen Long, in the New Territories, to introduce me to poon choy, a peculiar Hong Kong dish made up of many layers served in a big ceramic bowl from which diners pick with long chopsticks. Carrots and radishes and shrimps sit atop braised pork belly and chicken and beef and the mushrooms available, together with various types of tofu, generously flavored with ginger and spices. It is a winter dish in unheated Hong Kong, so everyone sits around it, wrapped in their coats, fishing for morsels of food excitedly, welcoming what others score out of the bowl with appreciative nods, since every piece is a surprise. Poon choy with PK meant that each bite he picked out for me came with a story: of how white onions after 1997 (when Hong Kong was handed over to China) suddenly made Beijing loyalists fret, since in Chinese they are called “Western onions.” Or how this messy poon choy, which emanates a strong aniseed scent, is probably Hong Kong’s first “original” dish, made with whatever was available to refugees from the Chinese mainland who had settled in Hong Kong’s New Territories, possibly as far back as the Song dynasty (960-1279).
He was fascinated by the unforeseen ways in which colonial and post-handover politics could sneak into local menus, making people favor egg tarts—a Hong Kong take on the Portuguese legacy in nearby Macao—like Chris Patten (Hong Kong’s last governor) did, or decide to be seen dipping their chopsticks into poon choy, like Tung Chee Hwa, Hong Kong’s first Chief Executive under Chinese rule, chose to.
As all great artists, PK would show you the whole through the smallest detail, the entire world refracted in a papaya seed. And as one of the best intellectuals Hong Kong had, he would strive for the uniqueness of this place—its language, its rhythm, its culture, its hybridity—to be given voice and respect. He did. And he left us his poems for us to do the same: we have his words, that he put down on paper.
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