Edited by Leung Ping-kwan, Tam Kwok-kan, Wong King-fai, and Mary Wong
Reviewed by Au Chung-to
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright August 2014)
Liu Yichang and Hong Kong Modernism is a highly intriguing title which successfully arouses the interest of the reader and urges him/her to ask the following questions: What is Hong Kong Modernism? What are the differences and similarities between Hong Kong modernism and its Western (and for that matter Chinese or Taiwanese) counterpart? To what extent does the most prominent and veteran Hong Kong writer Liu Yichang (1918 -) contribute to the development of the literary movement? Since Liu was born in Shanghai and began his literary career in Shanghai in the 1940s, one may be curious about the relationship between the Shanghai modernist movement and that of Hong Kong. While the title generates all these questions, the objective of the book is not to answer all of them.
This edited collection of essays was inspired by the conference “Liu Yichang and Hong Kong Modernism,” which took place in 2009 in Hong Kong. The volume is divided into three sections and three essays are collected under the first section entitled “Inheritance and Development,” five essays under the second section “Transformation and Innovation,” and another five under the section “Adoption and Comparison.” In his preface, one of the editors and contributors, Leung Ping-kwan (Yasi), summarizes the major aims of the conference and thus the edited volume: (1) to examine Liu Yichang in his historical context; (2) to consider him not only as a writer but also a critic, an editor, and a translator; and (3) to adopt literary theories to interpret his works and enrich our understanding of them. Indeed, the volume was developed with these directions in mind, and the three subtitles loosely correspond to the three objectives.
In the first section, for example, we find Leung’s study on the intrinsic relationship between Liu’s early work written in Shanghai—Labyrinth (迷樓)—and his later work—The Drunkard (酒徒)—written in Hong Kong. According to Leung, when Liu depicts his characters, he tends to combine the two elements of psychology and history; he maintains that this modern technique was not fully developed until Liu fled to Hong Kong from Shanghai. Leung’s essay is an ambitious one; he obviously tries to address all three objectives laid down in the preface. In addition to examining Liu’s works in their historical context, in particular the rise of consumerism and the highly commercialized cultural habitus of Hong Kong at that time, Leung also introduces other roles Liu played, such as editor and publisher,. Leung’s study carries with it a basic assumption that Hong Kong modernism is a continuation of Shanghai modernism.
In a similar fashion, Huang Wanhua’s paper has its focus on Liu and other Shanghai writers’ (namely Xu Xu and Ye Lingfeng) contribution to Hong Kong modernism. Since these Shanghai writers are deeply involved with the development of Hong Kong modernism, Huang considers that the so-called “Shanghai influence” is in fact mingled with a “Hong Kong element.” Following the spirit of the section, Wong King-fai examines the consumer culture first established in Shanghai in the 1930s and then in Hong Kong in the 1960s. He further suggests that Liu’s obsession with things is actually a means of restoring the Chinese yong wu (咏物) tradition of poems focusing on objects. Acknowledging the lineage of influence between Shanghai and Hong Kong modernisms, both Huang and Wong remind us that Hong Kong modernism is a deviation from its Western counterpart. Nevertheless, questions such as what Hong Kong modernism or Western modernism are remain unsolved in this section.
The second subtitle, “Transformation and Innovation,” suggests that the essays collected under this particular section will further elaborate the differences among Liu’s modernist works, Shanghai modernism, and Western modernism. Each essay takes one particular perspective, thus offering a variety of ways in which to explain the differences among these modernisms. For instance, Lo Kwai-cheung’s essay compares the temporality depicted in Liu’s works and the temporality of the everyday world, or to be exact, the temporality of capitalist society. Although Xu Xujun and Lin Shaoyang agree that Liu is a modernist writer, both point out the particular ways Liu deals with reality, which helps to differentiate the writer from other modernists. While laying stress on the criticism written by Liu Yichang, Lin concentrates on examining the discrepancies between the kind of reality advocated by the “man of the third category” (第三種人) and by Liu, whereas Xu’s focus is mainly on the reality delineated in Liu’s literary works. Both essays conclude that realism plays a significant role in the development of Liu’s modernism. In a similar vein, Mary Wong and Chan Chi-tak are interested in the deep psychological level and the local elements depicted in Liu’s works. Both scholars consider Liu’s modernist works to be different from that of other modernists because of the presence of these two unique aspects in his works.
It is obvious that both the second and third sections share a similar objective—that is, to enrich our understanding of Liu’s works through the use of literary theories. Although the title of this last section is “Adoption and Comparison,” the essays collected in this section do not employ any methodology, in the strictest sense, used in comparative literary study. Sadako Ikegami’s, Yikiko Nishino’s, and Wang Jinguang’s essays serve as examples. Ikegami compares Liu’s works with Leung Ping-kwan’s and examines the extent to which the latter is influenced by the former in terms of modernist writing. Nishino mainly studies the differences and similarities between the two versions of Liu’s Tête-bêche (對倒), which were written in 1972 and 1975 respectively. Wang Jinguang is interested in the reasons why both Liu and Gao Xingjian like to depict the cockroach in their works. Tam Kwok-kan’s essay in this section is perhaps the only one that employs a comparative approach to a study of Liu’s works. Tam notices the role of the flâneur played by the male and the female protagonists in Liu’s Tête-bêche, and he makes a detailed comparison between the two. In the last essay collected in this section, Xu Zhidong creates a drunk and then tries to compare his drunk with the male protagonist—also a drunk—depicted in Liu’s novel The Drunkard.
The collection is the first of its kind and successfully offers a broad spectrum of research topics in relation to Liu Yichang’s works and, to a certain extent, the three objectives laid down by Leung Ping-kwan in the preface are achieved. However, these collected essays fall short of answering the larger questions raised by the book’s title. If we divide the title Liu Yichang and Hong Kong Modernism into three parts, namely, Liu Yichang, Hong Kong modernism, and the relationship between Liu Yichang and Hong Kong modernism, then this current collection in fact only responds to the first part “Liu Yichang” and not the others.
Although the essays collected mention Hong Kong modernism here and there, readers may be curious to learn what Hong Kong modernism is and to what extent Liu can represent it. Indeed, several essays argue that Hong Kong modernism is different from its Western counterpart and similar to Shanghai modernism. Nevertheless, the crux of the problem is that Western modernism(s) is a controversial topic in its own right, and the reader needs a framework in order to make effective comparisons. An introductory chapter could have helped to give us an overview of the development and general characteristics of modernism(s), and would have served this purpose well. A brief account of how colonialism and diaspora have given shape to the rise of Hong Kong modernism would also have been helpful. Related terms gaining currencies, such as “colonial modernity” and “refracted modernity,” all highlight the fact that the kind of modernity experienced in postwar Hong Kong was often the product of the cultural negotiations between different power regimes at that time, and we ought to take such historical complexities into consideration in order to see the full picture. Liu Yichang is undoubtedly one of the most significant Hong Kong modernist writers, but he was not the first. Although, from the collected essays, we learn about the relationship between Liu and his successor, Leung Ping-kwan, we have limited knowledge of the relationship between Liu and his contemporaries, such as Ma Lang (馬郎) and Kun Nan (崑南).
All in all, this collection is not only an informative book about Liu Yichang and his literary works but also an inspiring, if not a provocative book, that encourages the reader to pursue the topics further.
The Hong Kong Institute of Education