Years of passionate protest for legality and citizen rights in Hong Kong by great numbers of people came to an end with what now seems to be the now seemingly definitive subjugation of the Hong Kong rights movement. Only a short time ago but history moves faster at some times than others and so 2019 can seem to be a long time ago. The legality and rights movement was a demand for legality and an assertion of local identity necessarily opposed to the Communist Party insistently (particularly in thse Secretary Xi latter days) defined national ‘patriotic Chinese’ identity that was being imposed upon them.
Hon Lai-chu Translation on the Leeds Centre for Chinese Writing Website
A translation of the novella Hon Lai-chun 韓麗珠 mentioned in the interview with Deutsche Welle, the German state broadcaster, below “Notes on an Epidemic” 《感冒志》is available in English translation on the website of the The Leeds Centre for New Chinese Writing at the University of Leeds as well as in Chinese: 《感冒志》. Students studying Chinese language or culture will find many articles in both English and Chinese about writing, literature and culture in China today.
Wikipedia has a biographical article about Hon Lai-chu.
Interview: What We Have Today Is Not the Only Reality
During the Frankfurt Book Fair 2019, Hong Kong author Han Lai-chu was invited to participate in several author discussion panels, including “Literature and Politics in the Asia-Pacific Region” and “Women and Literature in the Asia-Pacific Region”. She brought the voice of Hong Kong to the book fair. Deutsche Welle interviewed her.
(Deutsche Welle): Why are participating in this book fair event?
Hon Lai-chu: The Frankfurt Book Fair wanted to invite writers from Hong Kong to participate in a discussion on “Literature and Politics” and so they approached me. The invitation came at the beginning of July, which coincided with the “March Against Extradition to China” on June 9. The movement had already reached a fever pitch in July, so this was the right topic for me. I wanted to express what a Hong Kong writer would think and struggle with when faced with such an event, and I wanted to bring out my thoughts.
Why does this incident affect people who write so much? Because it will have a direct impact on freedom of expression. And as a cultural and artistic worker, a writer, freedom of speech is very important, freedom from fear. Although the extradition ordinance has now been completely removed, other issues, some of the more important issues, a range of abuses that give us anxiety, including the issue of police brutality, police violence and their abuse of arrest authority. The Umbrella movement of 2014 was a failed civil disobedience movement. After the Umbrella Movement, we felt helpless for many years: many people were prosecuted for their actions during the protests, many legislators were DQ’d (disqualified), and we felt ever more helpless and angry. And through this anti-extradition movement is awakening society to consider what kind of a people we want to be, and I want to bring this voice outside of Hong Kong.
Deutsche Welle: As a writer, how do you think this movement to oppose the extradition of criminal suspects to China has affected you?
Han Lizhu: First of all, literature is all about life, and politics is everywhere in life. For more than four months, my mind could not detach itself from what was going on, and I believe many Hong Kong people did too, because we all felt deeply emotional about it. The situation in Hong Kong, every day, became ever more ridiculous than before. Every day is different. Every day I wake up, I look at my phone, I look at the news, and all this news scares me because it’s not the Hong Kong we are familiar with. It’s becoming fast, and it is arguably degenerating fast.
But as someone who writes, I don’t look at the reality we see now as the only reality. Many of my friends around me say that they feel desperate about the social upheaval caused by this politics, but I don’t see it as completely desperate. Of course, there are a lot of very horrible and cruel things going on around me, but as someone who writes, I know that this reality is not the only reality. There are many aspects to reality. There is another aspect, we have created the reality we have today because it is created by the common mind of many of us in Hong Kong. What is in the mind is reflected in the world. Why has society become like this today? I think it is “karma”, the karma of karma. It is because we have done a lot before, so now we are bearing the fruit, and now we have to face the result together.
Deutsche Welle: It sounds very Buddhist and very metaphysical.
Han Lizhu: It seems that you can only find a way out for yourself from this perspective. Because if we don’t think of a way out for ourselves, then we will be buried by that hatred and anger. Every day there are very tragic things happening, such as protesters being beaten and bleeding, some forced into exile in other countries, three people lost their eyes, one of them was a journalist in Indonesia, many female protesters were sexually assaulted, sexually assaulted in police stations, many people suffered a lot, many people committed suicide, many mysterious deaths, not knowing whether it was suicide or homicide, but the police don’t go to investigate. The state of our society is horrible every day. So, I can only see this reality not as the only reality and thus I can see it more clearly.
Deutsche Welle: What was your writing status like during these months of the oppose extradition of accused people to China movement?
Han Lizhu: I wrote a lot of articles, mainly columns and poems. I have a column in the daily newspaper, which is updated three times a week; a column in the weekly magazine, which is updated once every two weeks; and a column in the literary website, which is updated once a month. Besides that, I also write about the struggle every week. Actually, my job is to write novels, but my writing is very fragmented at the moment, and I haven’t been able to finish one yet. Writing a novel requires some distance, a lot of calmness, and not letting a lot of emotions overshadow you. But there have been a lot of emotions these past few months, and the reality is very unsettling, so I can’t be in a very settled state to write a novel either.
So it’s mostly experience. A person who writes is not actually writing twenty-four hours a day. Part of the time, one needs to experience life. So sometimes I go to the street, to the scene of action. I know I can’t do much because it’s hard for me to take a place on the front lines; but because I am a writer, I need to see and witness how events happen. After seeing it, I may not be able to write about it right away, but I need to feel the emotions of all people, the energy of all people, how the event develops; I need to put myself in it.
Deutsche Welle: At the event of the Book Fair, you mentioned that language stimulates your imagination, can you elaborate on that?
Han Lizhu: In Hong Kong there are three languages: two written languages and three spoken languages. The spoken languages are Mandarin, Cantonese and English, and we communicate in Cantonese in our lives. We don’t use English or Mandarin unless we are with outsiders. The written language is the written language, but the language used is not Cantonese. And when I think about things, I don’t always think in Cantonese. Probably also because of the influence of the colonial period, when we write emails we usually use English, and we live with a lot of English intermingled with the language.
A language that carries with it a full set of cultural values, values and emotions behind it, and the relationships between people are implied in the language. So I think that totally affects what Hong Kong people write about.
Language directly affects my writing. When I write, I don’t write from my heart. But because of this, every time I put pen to paper, I have to create a new language for the world of fiction, so the world of fiction and the world of reality are not the same world.
Because language is so far away from my daily life, the world of fiction is like a hole in which I can hide. In the world of fiction, anything can happen. Of course, it is not completely detached from the real world, but it enters reality from another portal. Fiction is not a true story of course, but fiction is meant also to be a kind of truth that cuts through the many of the lies in real life. In real life, people get along with each other based on politeness, based on social norms. In fact we keep telling many lies and hide our true feelings. Otherwise our interpersonal relationships would be simply horrible. And what that world of fiction is all about is bringing back the truth, through fiction and imagination.
Deutsche Welle: It was also mentioned at the Book Fair event that your imagination also comes from the role of women in the family, can you explain that?
Han Lizhu: I would like to talk about the book “The Kite Family”, which contains six short stories that are interconnected.
One of the short stories of the same name, called “The Kite Family,” is about three women: a mother, an aunt and a daughter. This family has a disease in which the women in the family become more and more obese as they grow older, their bodies even grow to the size of a house, and nothing can be done to stop it. And when the body grows to a certain level, they will be obese to death. The protagonist of the story, the daughter of the family, but her body is surprisingly thin, so thin that she can fly away. Auntie was very good-looking when she was young, so she got a lot of career benefits and was with a lot of men. However, in middle age, she became fatter and fatter until she got to the point where she lost all that she had gained in the first half of her life. The whole story is told around the change in women’s bodies.
There is also a short story called “Notes on an Epidemic” 《感冒志》 . The story takes place in a fictional city in which people have a bad cold. When they wake up in the hospital, the government lets them out, but instead of being allowed to return to their old families, they are assigned new family members: fake brothers, fake parents, fake husbands, all strangers. In the new family, they had to readjust. Why were the new family members assigned? The government’s explanation was that this severe cold started precisely because people refused to enter family life. Solitude tends to cause disease, so you are not allowed to be alone anymore. Solitude is germ-bearing, so everyone must enter the family.
When writing this novel, the question I pondered was, why do we all have to enter the system of family? Why don’t we have the freedom to be alone? The reason is that society controls the individual, and one of the means is through the structure of the family. When everyone has an identity, such as father, son, mother, when you need to use a lot of energy to build your family, you no longer have the energy to think about who you really are, you don’t think about your own identity anymore. When you don’t have the space to think about your own identity, you don’t fight it either. It’s good for society and it’s safe. This is a novel I wrote ten years ago.
My latest full-length novel is called “Empty Faces”. In the story everyone in a city is forced to undergo plastic surgery to get a face that conforms to social norms in order to get an ID card and continue living. This story is also about changes in the human body and how those in power demand that your body be changed to conform.
Deutsche Welle: The latter two seem quite political.
Han Lizhu: Yes, but I wouldn’t actually say it’s political. Because literature and fiction are very much about life, and our lives are full of politics of all kinds, for example, that we can be manipulated, or that we can manipulate others without realizing it. I think my novel is more about the relationship between people, and human relationships involve a lot of wrestling. In a family, as long as there are three or more people in that family, then there is also political wrestling within that family.
Deutsche Welle: No wonder you are called the “Kafka of Hong Kong”.
Han Lizhu: I don’t really like this name because I am me and not someone else. Being imaginative is not being Kafka. I think everyone who writes is different. We sometimes need to categorize an author because we are not familiar with him, so we feel that we can understand him more easily after categorizing him. But actually this categorization can cut down on his imagination or his ability to understand other people, because in fact everyone is very unique. Also, there is something very important in literature, and that is some very subtle distinctions, which is the most important thing.
Interviewer: Guang Yang
2019年法兰克福书展期间，香港作家韩丽珠受邀参加了“亚太地区文学与政治” 及 “亚太地区女性与文学”等几场作家讨论活动，将香港的声音带到了书展现场。德国之声对她进行了专访。
采访记者： Guang Yang