When the world first came to an abrupt stop over two years ago, books offered a much-needed respite from the constant news and social media updates. With travel options heavily restricted, fictional stories offered a pseudo-getaway. And now, as the world starts to dream of a post-pandemic life, books will continue to hold a safe space to tap out from the quick-paced life of instant deliveries, flashy entertainment, and seemingly 24-hour workdays.
Conversations about the art scene of Hong Kong often centre around the cinematic world or Canto-pop, with names like Wong Kar-wai and Jacky Cheung as household names. But lesser-known—most likely due to language constraints—is the budding Hong Kong literary scene. Every year, the Hong Kong Book Fair draws thousands of eager readers of all ages to add to their reading collections, and to spotlight the work of local artists.
Here, we have narrowed that spotlight to showcase the work and background of five Hong Kong women writers, each with distinctive focuses and writing styles but all who seek not to be the voice of Hong Kong, but simply a voice from Hong Kong.
Once referred to as “the prodigal daughter“ of Hong Kong, Eunice Lam Yin-nei launched her writing career in 1974 after capturing the attention of Hongkongers as one of the first television weather girls. In the same year of her debut, she published her first collection of essays titled Lazy Afternoon, delivering a slate of literature for hungry readers to digest.
She took home the Best Writer Award of the Hong Kong Artists’ Guild in 1989, solidifying her position as one of Hong Kong’s most prolific authors. Over the course of her career, she published over eighty books, including Crazy and The Burial of Youth, and developed a reputation for spritzing her manuscripts with perfume before submission. Naturally, she was also known as one of the most prominent romance novel writers of her generation!
Unfortunately, she was also well-known for—and often times overshadowed by—her infamous love life, still being referred to as the ex-sister-in-law of Bruce Lee due to her marriage to Peter Lee. Much like her passion-infused romance novels, rumour has it that her relationship with Wong Jim overlapped with his previous marriage. The pair parted on amicable terms, but not before starting an advertising agency together.
Having spent her life wearing different hats—novelist, weather girl, divorcee, socialite, businesswoman—the role she seemed most comfortable in was a writer. She was a regular columnist for local newspaper Ming Pao and the Hong Kong Daily News, and, according to well-known martial arts novelist Jin Yong, “the best modern woman essayist.”
Lam wrote up until the end of her life in 2018, with Ming Pao publishing her final column post-mortem. She sought a poetic understanding of life, death, and nature. She once wrote, “It's gratitude to life by living well and dreaming well,” and looking at the full life she led, refusing to abide by social constraints or career paths, she truly lived and dreamed to the fullest.
In the city that rushes us to carve out careers and identities in our early twenties, Hon Lai-chu’s Kafka-esque books explore the flip side of the city of neon lights and jay-walking. To get lost in the hustle and bustle of the city and to face an internal struggle for freedom—rather than with your surroundings—seems to be a recurring theme of Hon’s pieces.
Her characters take on the Sisyphean task of seeking meaning and purpose in their daily lives, with her books climaxing with the transformation of established identities. Perhaps her own interest in purpose and meaning stems from a childhood with a façade of a nuclear family—working parents who pursued careers and financial stability whilst expecting unconditional love, and observing her own students in tutoring centres chasing after grades for the sake of approval and promised salaries, rather than a higher goal like learning and exploration.
While not the easiest reads, it seems her books are relatable and reflect a similar yearning in readers, with the accolades to show for it. Having authored eight books in Chinese, she took home the 2004 Hong Kong Biennial Award for Chinese Literature for Fiction for her collection of short stories, Silent Creature, and the 2013 Hong Kong Book Prize for A Dictionary of Two Cities, which she co-authored with Dorothy Tse.
Hon’s work demonstrates the difficulty of translating from one language to another, having received a translation grant from the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts for her 2006 novella, The Kite Family. To be a writer born, raised, and situated in Hong Kong is to carry the culture and history of the locals. Therefore, to translate the work of a Hong Kong author is not a simple matter of directly translating words, but to capture the richness and meaning of tone and meaning, from one author into the mouthpiece of another.
Andrea Lingenfelter, a seasoned translator, writes in her foreword that her process with Hon began with many meals to get to know her intimately so as to understand how Hon typically expresses herself. And it would seem that, regardless of language and background, there is a universality of seeking a purpose and escape in our dizzy lives and a never-ending struggle up the metaphorical hill with our metaphorical boulder.
Dorthy Tse Hiu-hung is a Hong Kong author and assistant professor of creative writing at Hong Kong Baptist University. She has produced works in both English and Chinese, publishing four short story collections in Chinese, including So Black in 2005, which granted her the Hong Kong Biennial Award for Chinese Literature, and Snow & Shadow, which was translated and long-listed for the 2015 Best Translated Book Award.
Tse’s writing style is described as surrealist, as stated by her translator Nicky Harman. Her first English story, Woman Fish, was published in 2013 in The Guardian. It was followed by the publication of Snow & Shadow, a translated compendium of short stories from her Chinese books, along with a handful of previously unpublished works.
Having worked with Tse closely over the years, Harman has an intimate grasp and insight into her writing style. Whilst surrealist in style and nature, Harman attributes Tse’s ability to root her narratives in reality, where “dreamscapes interlock with a narrative,” as the reason for her success and draw as an author.
Globally, Hong Kong is known as a popular destination for tourism and business, but rarely for any form of the arts. No one understands the lack of support for artistic endeavours more than the creatives of the city. And so, Tse set up Fleurs des Lettres with some of Hong Kong’s most prominent writers, with the singular mission of “rotting local, exploring the world,” and created an incubation to reimagine local literature from the perspective of youth and diversity. Rather than being told how literature and imagery should appear in print, readers are able to collaborate and watch creation unfold across the pages.
In addition, Fleurs des Lettres partnered with the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation to create and run the “Get It Write!“ educational programme, aiming to encourage youth enthusiasm for Chinese literary writing, creating a series of workshops that incorporate aspects of photography, drama, and community-focused research.
Who doesn’t like to curl up with a good romance novel? Amy Cheung is well known within the Chinese-speaking literary circle for her books on love and relationships. And whilst her books are often categorized as “romance” or “chick lit,” they split from the stereotypical image of over-saturated language and cheesy over-the-top scenes.
A departure from the other surrealist authors of this list, Cheung’s books tackle the intersection of social conventions and gendered expectations with relationships, particularly marriage and dating expectations in Chinese culture.
The bittersweet and melancholic endings to her book may not be the happy ending typically expected from books but the accurate portrayal of real life has solidified her place in the hearts of readers across Asia. Having written over 40 widely acclaimed books, she has been one of the top 10 best-selling authors over the years and had her work translated into Japanese, Korean, English, Thai, and Vietnamese. Some of her books have been adapted into film productions as well—check out I Have You This Life, For Love or Money, or My Spicy Girl.
Cheung stays in touch with her fans as a blogger on Weibo, with over 64 million followers clicking into her updates full of thoughtful and almost surrealist thoughts and musings. Her regular contact with her audience seems to reflect in her writing. With the effects of strengthened education systems and the increase of women entering the workforce, the phenomenon of “leftover women” (剩女; shèngnǚ) has become increasingly common.
Her widely acclaimed book Hummingbirds Fly Backwards portrays the social pressure faced by women juggling both the desire to pursue careers and the conservative pressure to enter a male-dominated marriage. Given that a majority of her readers are women, her books aiming for accurate relationship and cultural depictions, rather than one of dreamy hunks and damsels-in-distress, are almost like a love letter to her readers.
Shanghai-born and Hong Kong-raised Yi Shu (also known as Isabel Nee Yeh-su) emerged from an average middle-class life to become one of the most prolific and well-respected writers of her generation. Along with her brother Ni Kuang—who is an author of science fiction books—and Jin Yong’s wuxia novels, her writing has been dubbed as part of the “Three Miracles” in literary circles. From her debut at age 16 until now, she has accumulated a hefty portfolio of over 300 published pieces, during which Yi explored a variety of styles and genres of writing, covering themes like romance, morals and life lessons, and supernatural tales.
Rather than crafting imaginary worlds in her books to play queen in, Yi seems more intent on reflecting the experience of the average, and the interactions between love, hate, growth, the human psyche, and the business of living under the indifferent gaze of the metropolis. In her books, the role of love veers away from traditional representations, and under her pen, love can be tainted and easily thrust aside as a secondary motive.
For example, in her full-length book Xibao, the main character places her desire for social climbing and financial stability over the search for romance and love. In A Complicated Story—which was also re-written into the screenplay for the Jacky Cheung movie under the same name—a university student agrees to become a surrogate mother out of love for her sickly brother. When the contract is suddenly nulled, the girl opts to remain in the grey zone of becoming a mother to the child out of a mix of compassion, love, and morality. Love, in other words, is merely a pawn in daily life and regardless of its pure intentions, can easily be corrupted and complicated once it interacts with worldly affairs.
But rather than viewing her and her writing as sceptics and nihilistic, her books should be seen as an attempt to understand Hong Kong and its constant changes and demands. As described by her brother, Yi’s characters and stories are a reflection of the pacing, energy, and character of the city. Rather than writing characters that bask under the glow of neon lights and a sense of holiness, Yi crafts subjects who are neither heroes nor villains. At best (or worst), they are pitiful, conscious of their own descent into the sludge of humanity yet unable (or unwilling) to change.