Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Poetic Voice That Spoke for Pluralism

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Poetic Voice That Spoke for Pluralism

Article excerpt

The writer Leung Ping-kwan was a caring, intelligent advocate of diversity in Chinese culture. In an age that saw so many attempts to reduce the many to the one, he wrote for the many.

The last time I saw Leung Ping-kwan, a poet who celebrated and defined Hong Kong, was in December at his home in the city's Causeway Bay district. He had just been released from the hospital and sat, trademark flat cap on his head, surrounded by spilling boxes of books.

Even though I knew that P.K., as his friends knew him (he also wrote under the pen name Ye Si), had been fighting lung cancer, I was taken aback by his appearance. Below the cap, his mouth and jaw were drawn tight. His hands were thin. Yet his bright chuckle, wide- ranging mind and enormous appetite for discussion were still there.

We talked about the recent changes in Beijing, where Xi Jinping had become China's new leader, and about the author Mo Yan, who had been awarded the Nobel Prize. P.K. gave me his latest book, a collection of poems titled "Dong Xi," which means "East West" in Chinese, but also "Things." It was a clever title for a writer who excelled at what he called "things" poetry, a "unique 'poetics of quotidianism,' of the everyday," as Esther M.K. Cheung wrote in her introduction to his book "City at the End of Time."

P.K., who according to his publisher died on Jan. 5, was Hong Kong's leading literary voice. In an enormous oeuvre translated into many languages, he began, before almost anyone else, to sift through Hong Kong's edgy, overlooked identity, in poems that looked at life using images of ordinary things -- a papaya, a colonial building, a car ferry, a fish. He wrote of Hong Kong's handover from British colonial to Chinese rule in 1997, an event that lay at the core of the poems in "City at the End of Time," first published in 1992, which probed the reverse nostalgia for a future about to be lost. He wrote of skepticism about colonialism, of the 1989 crackdown on democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, about food, and much more. He found his voice early, in the 1960s.

"Later, in the 1990s and after the handover, a lot of people began talking about Hong Kong's identity. But he had already started a long time ago," said Chan Koonchung, author of the novel "The Fat Years," who lives in Beijing but grew up in Hong Kong.

"He was an early one to use the Hong Kong point of view to consider Hong Kong," Mr. Chan added.

"He often felt that outsiders used very simple metaphors to judge Hong Kong. For example, they called it a 'cultural desert,' a 'prostitute.' Very early on he protested against this."

The result was at once unpretentious and vivid, highly readable poetry.

In "Images of Hong Kong," the narrator searches for a postcard of his home to send to a friend overseas. …

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