Excerpted from Hong Kong Without Us
The Bauhinia Project, eds.
Georgia Review Books, 2021
No reason to lump you here, Roberto Bolaño, seventeen years gone, in a poetry book about Hong Kong. You would not have liked the city’s meager paean to Latin America, the one or two taquerias in the sloped alleys of the expat quarters. The ghost-men rave there between bites, adrift in spirits, flirting in English while across the harbor smoke fills the streets and children run for their lives in Cantonese. Meanwhile, in the Chile you left, in the Santiago where neoliberalism laid its first golden egg: a mutilation of eyes, young masses blinded by shots of rubber and tear gas, cries of a people spiraling back to Pinochet. And more, across your Costa Brava, your wife and son’s Catalonia, the Mediterranean with your ashes: secession, suppression, police and their weapons. But, everywhere llibertat too. In Catalonia they chanted slogans from Hong Kong. In Hong Kong they flew Catalan flags. On a radio in America: “no police brutality” in Spanish, then in Cantonese, behind the interviews back to back.
In America, one lost Hongkonger found you, molding in a warehouse of salvaged goods, two dollars for a yellowed lifetime of words. She traced you from desert to desert, beach to beach, as though ludic worldliness could cleanse the palette of having left your first coast, as though you were still on the chase, as hesitant to say “home” as she would be, reluctant of the word’s privilege. Later, she went to a solidarity night for Chile, sat comfortably in the front where she thought no one could see her face. And you were not there. You were not the poet who kicked off the night by reading Pablo de Rokha, nor the artist flying in to report from Santiago. You were not the interpreter sitting beside her struggling to keep up, not the singer tap-dancing on stage. You were not anyone in the audience applauding in a lonely fever, not anyone chanting in Spanish. You were not the old woman who shook her hand and thanked her at the end, so surprised to see an Asian face supporting a people abroad in a language she could not speak. There was no place for you there, dead foreigner poet with no homeland left but language. You could only have been there with her, alive in her as she wondered if James Joyce—who left Ireland forever after being punched unconscious on a street in Dublin over a dumb misunderstanding—would have returned if born into the Troubles? Would you? Would she?
She was just a drunk once, back in Hong Kong, with no one to pick her up from the pier, just a fool writing on the cigarette cartons in her pockets, on napkins greased from takeout on the ferry home after work. Each time she flew back for the protests last year, gathering the streets’ unbearable lines, she stayed in an hourly hostel near home. On Father’s Day, her father did not know she had returned. She was a precursor to this young generation, whose great fear is not police torture but the cell of home, the parents who will not understand and will beat them for wanting to know beauty, then beat them again for wanting to know justice. For to know one is to know the other.
When Chinese peasants arrived at the station on Angel Island and their desperation trailed into the fitful fume of years, they started carving poems. Their lines are still on the walls, radiating with lead poison in the exposed wood, layered by the putty and paint that the maintenance staff thought could unmake a chink graffiti. But when Chinese peasants arrived in Hong Kong, which was invented for no other reason than to blast open a market between empires, the people started carving vulnerability out of themselves, carved their bodies into numbers. How bereft, living to serve a machine that cannot see you. Becoming smooth and cold, mimicking that machine, adopting its accent, loathing your own people. Even to be assigned readings like The Woman Warrior in school, as though your colonizers had mistaken you for immigrants desperate to invent an ancestral home, as though it were not already the factory bleeding across the border. How could poetry ever be homegrown in Hong Kong, when literature is just another costume of colonization, when poems sit rotting in the most secret cells of people’s hearts?
It is not the people’s fault to lack words, even with journalists. It is not their fault when, short of statistics and the emoji of a face with tears, they can only articulate a life in Hong Kong by jumping out of a window. In subsidized housing, children are told not to linger downstairs too long in case someone jumps from above. Even right now a child is dreaming of an iron umbrella strong enough to deflect bodies, beneath which to go on playing. It’s said that the only time a tree knows freedom is when it leaves its parent as a winged seed, flying off to plant roots not far from home. In Hong Kong, some people are free only when they fly from the rooftops. Then the street is cleaned, the road unblocked, and the body becomes a number again on the news. The hamster is replaced. The wheel spins again. A grief that leaves no mark, no trail anywhere. No root even for a word of sorrow.
Yet poetry is absent elsewhere, too. The Boom you hated is alive and well. The fool’s paradise of the MFA has made an industry of smokestacks: AWP, international workshops and conferences, awards invented for the sake of advertisement, tenure-track positions of nervous masturbation. You would be unsurprised by the latest social media erotica: poets taking selfies with their books. Somewhere tonight, Bolaño, a poet sucks complimentary boba through a straw at the end of a long day of washing dishes and sees you writing on the floor after a night of collecting garbage, while outside the wars continue numbly, the poles melt, wildfires turn the sky to nuclear haze, and a spreading virus turns the human face into a weapon of terror. New technology postpones death while more people than ever are forced into the streets, hungry beside locked dumpsters stuffed with food. The human herds are shoved into narrow commutes, inventing noise-canceling headphones to create walls of sound. The herd has become so clever that it has only itself left in a world of neo-nihilism, a world crumbling on screen.
This is a time of sirens. The ancients knew when they had plundered too much from nature, and they believed they could reset the balance by sacrificing innocents. Today the innocents commit suicide; they throw themselves headlong into the asphalt of unstoppable progress. They learn of five million animals dying in Australia’s five-month fire while listening to the neighbors fuck upstairs and throw condoms out the window. There is a song to hear here, inviting the most heroic to jump ship or be tied down to mast. This is a time for real combat, a time for poets. A time to live. Bolaño, you thought that inside each person is the abyss. But no: look at the children today, at their convulsive dance. They are the tree falling to announce the forest. Inside each person is a forest.
In Hong Kong, there’s an old story about a toddler at Exchange Square. While other children played around the fountain, this child squatted between the bronze water buffaloes. A stream of white clouds passed overhead at maniacal speed. The child thought the planet was spinning too fast. That once Hong Kong reached the bottom, she would fall from the earth and into space. She then realized that her stuffed animals, her chicks and bunny, her mother and sister, everyone in Hong Kong would also fall from the earth. She sank into that deep eye of transition, that dark space from which she alone worried for the human race. Sucked into the void, chest pained, eyes pooling, she fumbled to clutch the marble surfaces around her, as though they could be leaves of grass, as though they could speak and hold her. She strained to stop the world from its uncontrollable spinning. She stared at the clouds so ardently that they began to break her mind, break her language.
The story stops there. For at that moment her mother arrived, looking just fine, no idea what was happening to the celestial maps. The mother dragged her away to finish the next errand. And it broke the girl’s heart. And the world went on spinning.
Bolaño, that girl was me. That girl was Hong Kong.