…we are looking for a different angle,
that neither adds nor subtracts,
forever on the margin, forever in transition.
We write with pens of different colours,
but these things, too, easily become superficial.
Is this how history is constructed?
He is a good writer of spy stories with an Oriental flavour.
Entangled with what others have said
Why is it so hard to tell our own stories?
I’d like to go back to the poem ‘Images of Hong Kong’, by Leung Ping Kwan. To my mind, this is a poem whose subject is history; the way history is written, and who gets to tell it.
The line, ‘Entangled with what others have said’ suggests the problematic nature of memory, and the fact that there is not one hand in the writing of the history of a place, but many. It also identifies a problem, which follows neatly after the Oriental comment, which is that even if a place’s history is written by foreigners, their version is, to some extent, absorbed by the population that it describes, until it is difficult to extract exterior observation from interior thought. Edward Said makes a similar point about Orientalism as a process in which the Orient accepts the image that the Occident creates of it, and to some extent begins to reproduce that image.
History writing – and particularly colonial history writing – is a process of response, reaction, and reframing – not so different to the identity-negotiation process of the Hong Kongers themselves, which in many ways is a response to and rejection of the colonised position. Indeed, both histories and identities have a complex relationship with place, events, narrative and belief, and we might even go so far as to say that we create identity from the history to which we have access (or that we are able, in turn, to create) – whilst at other times particular identities, just as histories written by foreigners, are imposed upon people. This is relevant in the case of the people of HK, who officially passed from one relational identity in 1997 (connected to the British, under colonisation) to another (connected to the Chinese, becoming a Special Administrative Region).
This poem actually calls to be unpacked in order, since the layers of meaning build upon one another and its lines interact subtly. The first line in this extract is repeated multiple times within the larger context of the poem (though it is first phrased in the first person singular, and later in the first person plural) and represents the most important message therein: a quest to tell one’s own story, and from a fresh and somehow whole, truthful perspective – an angle ‘that neither adds nor subtracts’. This is an impossible feat – the ‘pens of different colours’ are needed, because a history must necessarily be polyphonic: it must tell multiple stories from multiple angles.
Note the sandwiching of the line “He is a good writer of spy stories with an Oriental flavour” between the question concerning history’s construction and the line denoting the problematic nature of memory and competing histories. This positioning proposes a certain identity for the ‘good writer’ – not just a novelist but a historian – and by describing his work as fiction full of intrigue and Orientalist allure, Leung underscores the subjective nature of History, and how damaging and biased it may in fact be. When I read this line Frank Welsh, a historian of British colonial history, sprang to mind. In one section of his history of Hong Kong (published a few years before the handover, and revised after the fact) he literally writes the colonial past (as well as economic imperialism) out of the city’s architecture, as if to whitewash the actions of the British and to absolve them of any responsibility for events post-1997. Welsh provides one ‘Image(s) of Hong Kong’ therefore with which to compete.