Hong Kong Type

An Interview with Author Dung Kai-cheung

Over the past few years, readers, writers, and publishers in Hong Kong have become interested in the city’s history. New books about colonial figures, societal events, and relics not covered in textbooks have proliferated, dominating independent bookshops’ sales lists. Newly discovered colonial monuments and old buildings slated for demolition, such as the Ex-Sham Shui Po Service Reservoir and Wan Chai’s Fenwick Pier, which witnessed the arrival of foreign navies, also have attracted visitors interested in recording the bygone face of Hong Kong in the form of photographs, words, drawings, and paintings. Amid numerous unprecedented changes, in recent years Hongkongers have acquired a fresh curiosity about where Hong Kong came from, what it used to be like, and how its journey has unfolded.

In November 2021, a novel by the important Hong Kong author Dung Kai-cheung, Hong Kong Type: A Love Letter 150 Years Late, was published in Taiwan, immediately rocketing to the top of the bestseller lists of independent bookshops in Hong Kong. Hong Kong Type is a set of typefaces born in 19th-century Hong Kong that enabled British missionaries to produce various Chinese-language publications using movable type. The novel uses movable type as a departure point for a recounting of the history of Hong Kong.

Lai Sun-fai, a female university student living in present-day Hong Kong, struggles with mental illness. In a process akin to channeling spirits, she is visited by “word spirits” who tell about the origins of Hong Kong Type, guiding her to write the biography of her family elder, Dai Fuk. As she traces her family history and the origins of Hong Kong Type, readers watch as Hong Kong transforms from a small seaside Chinese town in the Qing dynasty to a British colony occupying a special position in East Asia. In a bibliography at the end of the book, Dung lists the dozens of historical documents and academic texts he used in his research for the novel; history and fiction, and the real and the imaginary, merge into different voices under the novelist’s pen, telling a story about Hong Kong, movable type, and love.

After the publication of his new book, Dung and I met in a restaurant in a busy alley to have brunch and discuss his use of fiction to address Hong Kong’s history. He didn’t swap his square reading glasses for his usual round glasses after ordering, so each time he answered one of my questions, his eyes squinted in the narrow frame, making him look more like a wise fox than he usually does in normal casual conversation. Even on a Saturday morning amid a pandemic, families and couples gathered in the restaurant, which strictly complied with the Hong Kong government’s pandemic prevention regulations. As he helped me move the phone I was using as a recording device closer to him, he gently asked me if I was afraid of recording the ambient noise as well. I wasn’t afraid. It too was a voice bearing witness to the times.

Wong Yi: Why does Hong Kong Type span such a long period of time?

Dung Kai-cheung: It’s actually quite natural, and it’s hard not to write this way. I wanted to write about the set of movable typefaces called “Hong Kong Type,” but there was no reason to just write about its history.

Why was there no reason? Some authors really write only historical novels.

Because I find that to be fake. I think it’s important to consider history from today’s perspective. History isn’t simply a past that’s severed from the present, but something that perpetually needs to be observed, explored, and reflected upon from today’s perspective. I think when it comes to literary creation, the perspective of the present day cannot disappear. For the historian, of course, there’s no need to highlight their “today,” although their viewpoint certainly originates from their present day. What historians write about the past actually takes shape in the present, but they generally hide the “present” part, making you think they’re just studying the past. I don’t think this is how literary creation works. Literary creation is always subjective. Of course you can hide your subjectivity and write a historical novel, but I don’t think that makes much sense. I think it’s more meaningful to put my subjectivity out there, showing that I’m speaking about this matter with my present-day subjectivity. Therefore, from the very beginning, I felt that Hong Kong Type should not only tell tales of ancient times, but also stories of today.

While reading Hong Kong Type, I noticed that the family history described in the book overlaps with the development of Hong Kong, feeling that the past and present are very close; it turns out that the Opium Wars and the founding of Hong Kong weren’t as long ago as I’d imagined—it’s merely the span of three generations of family history in the book.

It makes history more concrete. Sometimes, history seems rather ancient. Even the history of the 19th century seems irrelevant to us. But if we use fiction to construct a family and its lineage, you can feel that history is actually passed down directly and concretely.

Have you ever wondered where your perspective of history came from?

I’m not really certain. Of course, studying history in school might have something to do with it, but I didn’t study it in depth, and gave up when I went to university. But at least history isn’t something I’d resist or that I’m entirely ignorant of. What’s important isn’t the knowledge of historical materials, but a sense of history. If you have a sense of history, you’ll feel that everything in the present has undergone a process to reach its present state, and feel that this process is important. Wanting to trace this process is called having a sense of history. Many people don’t have a sense of history and feel that this process isn’t important. Why should I trace history back to its roots? What the hell does Grandpa’s life have to do with mine? Sometimes, people aren’t even interested in learning how their father grew up. The “present” is severed and only knows itself—this is not having a sense of history.

Perhaps the point isn’t how much knowledge or training I have in history, but rather that my sense of history existed early on, so that when writing fiction, I naturally seek out this kind of subject matter and trace it from this perspective. I feel the origin of things is very important. I attach great importance to how something develops into what it looks like. I simply want to trace it back to a source.

Of course, this absolute source doesn’t exist, but it is a goal that allows you to seek out which chains of events make things unfold in this manner. I think I am particularly conscious of this, so when I don’t write about Hong Kong history directly, I use scientific themes: with The History of the Adventures of Vivi and Vera, I began turning to the relationship between history, technology, and science, and then in Histories of Time, I touched upon evolution and cosmic physics—why did human beings, organisms, and cells appear, and later on, how did cells evolve into such complex forms? These are all things I want to investigate while reading related books. Isn’t this what physics is about: What are particles? Tracing from particles to the very end, is there any truly ultimate thing? How do particles form energy, objects, and so on? In a broad sense, these are all traces of history. The structure of how I consider things is like this.

I suppose fiction writers don’t write with the goal of writing an official, authoritative, single narrative of history. What sort of approach do you think readers should use to understand the history of Hong Kong described in Hong Kong Type?

I can’t predict how others will see it. You can see it however you please [laughs]—this is the freedom of the reader. For me, history is not something purely related to objective events, but a face that emerges from a certain angle, mood, consciousness, or state of mind. The face of Hong Kong Type is largely determined by the state of mind of its main character, Lai Sun-fai: If I had made her a different person with a different state of mind—for example, a researcher like me—the face of the story would have been different. Despite the inclusion of objective, carefully researched data, this is ultimately a subjective story. There’s no need to think “This is Hong Kong history!” because there is no such thing as “Hong Kong history”—everyone has their own Hong Kong history. I think it’s more important for everyone to have their own history of Hong Kong than one official, unified history of Hong Kong.

Dung Kai-cheung has previously responded to the history of Hong Kong and his own family in various works of fiction. Around 1997, in the face of the historic moment when Hong Kong’s sovereignty was transferred from Great Britain to China, he began writing the V City series about the face of Hong Kong’s city and culture, inspired by ancient books, old atlases of Hong Kong, popular magazines, and other texts from different eras, using fiction to record Hong Kong’s colonial history, as well as its popular culture and life shortly after the handover. The four books in the series were reprinted more than 10 years after the handover, and have been published in English, Japanese, and other foreign-language translations in various forms. Among these, A Catalog of Such Stuff as Dreams are Made On was recently translated into English in full by Bonnie McDougall and Anders Hansson and published by Columbia University Press. It was written between 1998 and 1999, and features 99 stories of fewer than one thousand words each on the theme of one of the most popular consumer goods at the time. Today, more than 20 years later, I’ve reread these extremely short stories with a sense of humor. I found myself enthralled with watching once grand and prosperous scenes decay over time, along with the liveliness of the characters in the stories that never fades away.

Wong Yi: Why did you want to write stories based on objects from popular magazines?

Dung Kai-cheung: Before writing A Catalog of Such Stuff as Dreams are Made On, I’d already experimented with writing short vignettes about the city. For example, Visible Cities uses extremely short stories to write about various city dwellers. While I was writing Visible Cities, it occurred to me that next time I could write fiction based on objects from ordinary people’s daily lives. Numerous trendy items had emerged, such as mobile phones and other electronic devices, which embodied the spirit of that period. And so, I read about the products, celebrities, and icons in popular magazines during that time; as long as I could find the focus and convey the feeling of that moment, I wrote fiction. In fact, the selection of objects was quite random; if I found it interesting or often saw it in magazines, that was enough to write about it.

It reminds me of the concept of a time capsule. Not every item is necessarily the most exquisite or representative, but when 99 objects are put together, the face of an era tends to emerge.

Yes, there are a lot of components to this face. It’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle—each piece individually is nothing special, but when put together, it’s impressive. There was nothing in particular I wanted to document, as the objects I chose for the stories were quite random. If I had wanted to document something, it probably would have required an analysis to see which objects were the most representative of each year, whether there were too many objects of a certain category, whether there were any missing categories. From the perspective of reflecting on history, it might’ve been necessary to do this kind of comprehensive organization, then fill in the gaps afterwards. However, I didn’t think it was necessary to do that in A Catalog of Such Stuff as Dreams are Made On because it’s not a historical study done with a clear research objective. If another person were to write about the same era, they’d represent the life of that year with an entirely different selection of items.

This is an interesting framework, like a personal observation: someone at the time who decided to write fiction based on his personal taste, selecting objects from popular magazines as his subjects. Rereading the book now, I see it as a possible way to get to know that era.

One possible way. When you’re writing a work of fiction, you don’t feel that you’re the most representative or the most capable of representing all of the viewpoints of that era; you’re only one viewpoint. Literature is different from collating history. For a fiction writer, I think the most important thing is to start from a personal orientation, which is different from the perspective of a historian. Historians should try to put aside their own subjectivity in their research; things that you think are garbage, things that you don’t like, as long as they’re representative, as a historian, you have to collect them and sort them so that people can see that they were there. But as a writer, I don’t need to do that. If I don’t like it, then I don’t talk about it.

This seems to be the power of fiction. Historians must eliminate personal prejudices and interests, but fiction writers or artists can lay out their perspectives, including all preferences or limitations, and declare: This is my personal perspective and doesn’t represent everything.

In fact, history and literature accomplish two different things. First and foremost, literature must be based on imagination, the author’s imagination. Secondly, the author uses history or other subjects to further develop their imagination. I don’t think fiction in any way is meant to replace history or show a truer history.

History is both a record and an interpretation of past events. Literature, even when it is based on historical accounts, is a representation of possibilities. These imagined possibilities may shed light on how we look at history but cannot replace history itself. Though history is always open to interpretation, it is already closed off in terms of fact. There is no going back and changing the course of events. On the contrary, literature is open and without limit. In some ways it can compensate for the loss and regrets in past time.

Fiction is subjective and spiritual, not factual.

Arts, Society