Mobility as Method:
Distributed Literatures and Semiotic Repertoires

By Tong King Lee

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright March 2019)

Posters for Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love and 2046.

In this essay, I propose mobility as a method for thinking literature as distributed repertoires, using Hong Kong literature as an illustrative case. In speaking of literary mobility, we first need to come to terms with its nominal counterpoint: the situatedness and place-based nature of writing; in the context of Hong Kong, this is encapsulated by the notion of Sinophone Hong Kong literature (Shih 2008). My argument is that the mobile and the situated are not diametrically opposed; rather, they complement each other within a creative dynamic that enables the local and the global to reciprocally articulate each other in diverse semiotic constellations.

The mobility turn in the social sciences, exemplified by the work of John Urry (2007) and Zygmunt Bauman (2000), has led to lines of inquiry that challenge stable structures and linear patterns, privileging instead the themes of movement and fluidity. More recently, Engseng Ho (2017) proposed the idea of mobile societies, suggesting that premodern Asia be conceptualized as Inter-Asia, a transregional axis constituted by networks of connections and circulations among peoples, goods, and ideas. Here mobility as method represents a theoretical attempt to dislodge the isomorphism between state and society, where the former is a territorialized, bounded political entity and the latter a dispersed concept transcending the perimeters of the polity.

Now what if, instead of mobile societies, we conceive of mobile literatures, defined as spectra of creative semiotic resources moving dynamically between and beyond languages, cultures, and bounded territories? What connections and circulations might emerge from such a distributed view of literature? What are the implications of disaggregating literature from society and dispersing its resources to a global scale, and then reaggregating them back into society, in what Engseng Ho (2017) calls an “outside-in” analysis?

Why mobility? Taming the Sinophone, de-fetishizing the local

We begin with the idea of the Sinophone, which has gained immense traction in literary and cultural studies over the past decade. Shu-mei Shih (2010: 39) defines the Sinophone as “a place-based, everyday practice and experience,” “a historical formation that constantly undergoes transformation to reflect local needs and conditions.” Hence, Sinophone Hong Kong literature is a practice/experience/formation undergirded by the “potentiality of decolonized consciousness” (Shih 2008: 17) and inflected by its bifurcated Chinese tongues and orthographies in Standard Chinese and vernacular Cantonese (Shih 2011: 715–716).

Resonating with Shih, though not necessarily using her terminology, many Hong Kong scholars have worked to forge and foreground the cultural particularity of the local literature. Within the prevailing Sinophone narrative, China is invariably construed as the antagonist looming over and threatening the continued existence of Hong Kong culture. Culminating from these efforts to valorize Hong Kong is its being turned into a conceptual method; hence: Hong Kong as Method. This latter formulation by the cultural critic Koon-Chung Chan 陳冠中 (2005: 47) represents an endeavor “to understand ‘modern’ in relation to the exemplary fifty-year experiment of Hong Kong’s robust locality—which is also pluralistic—in the context of globalization.”[1] Extending this, Yiu-wai Chu (2018: 186) advocates for what he calls Hong Kong Studies as Method as “a new alternative Hong Kong imaginary” “to trace the disposition, propensity, and momentum (shi) of Hong Kong culture” (182), a task seen to be urgent in face of “the continuous waning of local cultural resources” (196).

Presently there is a plethora of scholarly interventions whose object is to distinguish the singularity of Hong Kong literature and culture, exuding an impassioned, almost missionary sense of duty to uphold the last bastions of the locale. These interventions are completely laudable in both substance and spirit; and I fully recognize the importance of historicizing literary and cultural phenomena to the specifics of local contingencies. However, if taken to the extreme, the Sinophone enterprise may run the risk of sinking into what Leo Ou-fan Lee (2013: 60) calls a “provincial mentality”; in other words, into a fetishization of the local. I stress at the outset that Shu-mei Shih’s programmatic theory is much more sophisticated than this, and that both Koon-chung Chan and Yiu-wai Chu make their respective cases for Hong Kong in a way that is learned and measured. Yet the concept of the Sinophone is generally susceptible to abuse: it is all too easy for Sinophone-inspired applications (or appropriations, if you will) to develop a tendency to romanticize bottom-up creative energies deemed as resistant to the center: China—an overdetermined construct discursively and semiotically shaped into a dystopian Other and the ultimate hegemon (Tong King Lee 2015a). Like “China,” the term “Hong Kong culture” has been bandied about in the relevant discourses as if it were a “thing,” a reified entity that one can precisely put a finger on and whose signified is self-explanatory.

It is anything but. Hong Kong culture, as it were, exists as a flux, a series of movements, a function of change. It is an emergent imaginary produced and sustained through evolving discursive and semiotic formations, including literary formations. In this regard the notion of hybridity at times becomes a euphemism to masquerade the substantive hollowing out of the signifier “Hong Kong culture.” Hybridity, while celebrating heterogeneity, simultaneously invokes “the putatively ‘pure’ or ‘originary,’ of which the hybrid is conceived as a mix or cross” (Teng 2017: 944). Therein lies its weakness as an analytical lens: to declare Hong Kong literature as a hybrid literature may awaken old dichotomies (East/West, Chinese/English, colonial/postcolonial) that point to static juxtapositions rather than dynamic transformations. Equally unproductive is the commonplace view that Hong Kong’s linguistic hybridity acts as a resistance against Chinese language hegemony, a position that, as Kwai-Cheung Lo (2005: 60) argues, “could merely be a romantic fallacy.”

Illuminating in this regard is Rogers Brubaker’s (2005: 12) warning that diaspora can revert to its flip-side if we do not exercise caution:

Diaspora can be seen as an alternative to the essentialization of belonging; but it can also represent a non-territorial form of essentialized belonging. Talk of the de-territorialization of identity is all well and good; but it still presupposes that there is “an identity” that is reconfigured, stretched in space to cross state boundaries, but on some level fundamentally the same. (original emphasis)

Applying this to the Sinophone: while emphasizing the de-territorialization of identity (from China), how can the Sinophone prevent itself from being reinscribed into “a non-territorial form of essentialized belonging”? For the Sinophone, such reinscription may take the form of a re-territorialization into particular imagined communities—in our case, Hong Kong. Shu-mei Shih’s (2015: 434) concept of relational comparison, which posits world literature as a “literary arc” that networks nodal texts into flexible trajectories, goes some way toward resolving this dilemma. Yet a more distributed account of world literature can help us develop a nuanced conception of the local–global tensions within the Sinophone and forestall the sanctification and coagulation of provincial identities, territorialized or not.

It is against this background that I propose mobility as a method—as a counterpoint to the placed-based focus of the Sinophone and a corrective to its potential to fetishize local sensibilities into “ethnodemographic or ethnocultural fact[s]” (Brubaker 2005: 13) at the expense of a more cosmopolitan perspective on culture. In other words, the Sinophone needs to be tamed. To “tame” the Sinophone is not to suppress it. On the contrary, it is to negotiate the Sinophone from without, to experiment with its theoretical rigour by looking outward with the prospect of looking inward again with different eyes. Properly conducted, such intervention would offer dynamic shaping to the at times over-forceful articulation of identitarian politics, hence offsetting any “essentialization of belonging” in discourses on Sinophone literatures, including the Hong Kong Sinophone.

Triglossic connections[2]

Using mobility as a method involves tracing connections and mapping circulations, facilitating the conception of a literature as a repertoire of semiotic resources distributed across languages, cultures, modes, and media.

With respect to Sinophone Hong Kong literature, the first connection to make is between the diverse languages of writing. Heteroglossia is symptomatic of cosmopolitanism, as Ning Wang (2017: 99) argues with respect to Shanghai; the same applies to Hong Kong with its unique constellation of languages. To speak of Hong Kong literature written in the Chinese language is to speak concurrently of the Sinophone (with a capitalized “S” vis-à-vis Chinese literature) and the sinophone (with a lower-case “s” vis-à-vis anglophone literature).[3] The inherent translingualism of Hong Kong’s literary landscape is such that we must recognize the simultaneity of, but also interpenetrations among, Mandarin Chinese, English, and Cantonese in textual practices.

To illustrate the point with two examples: in terms of script, Cantopop lyrics are read in a register that cuts across the standard and the vernacular; however, they are enunciated in vernacular Cantonese (reciting them in Mandarin can disturb the rhyming scheme) and can display lexical cadences that differentiate them from similar lyrics written by a Taiwanese or mainland Chinese composer. The works of Hong Kong writers such as Leung Ping-kwan 梁秉鈞 (Ye Si 也斯), Wong Man 黃雯, and Tammy Ho 何麗明, published in either Chinese or English, have often been translated into the other language and sometimes presented in parallel text-format with their originals. This creates, as Elaine Ho (2010: 65) observes, “a simulacrum of parity and simultaneity,” where the sinophone/anglophone parallel texts “cannot be situated in a unilinear movement from one semiotic system—either one—to the other but need [to] be moving with each reading and rereading toward and apart from each other in simultaneity” (68). There is therefore a triglossic quality to Sinophone Hong Kong literature, in the sense that it triangulates the sensibility, if not also the corporeality, of three languages. Here a text is a linguistic palimpsest that brings forth the trialectics of what has often been called a Hong Kong identity, which really is a disposition, a mood, rather than a “thing.”

Cover of Children of Darkness.

Hence, to read a Chinese-language poem written by a Hong Kong author is an act of duplicity that at once splits two tongues into separate registers of articulation (verbal/scriptal [Mandarin] and oral/aural [Cantonese]) and conflates them in a single textual experience. There is, further, a kind of hybrid register unique to Hong Kong writing called saam kap dai 三及第 style; the register fuses elements from Classical Chinese, Cantonese, and Standard (Mandarin) Chinese,[4] attesting to the high heteroglossia the remnant vestiges of which can be found in the linguistic constitution of Hong Kong written Chinese.[5] Wong Bik-wan’s 黃碧雲 Children of Darkness (烈老傳, 2012), combining a stylized narrative discourse with Cantonese-inflected dialogues, is an example of this heteroglossic style.

To add English to the mix: consider reading an English translation of a Chinese short story—the Hong Kong-based indie publishers Muse and MCCM Creations, for example, have in recent years been publishing English translations of Chinese-language works by local authors.[6] These English translations are arguably part of the repertoire of Sinophone Hong Kong literature, in spite of the language medium; they provide mobile sites for parallel or even counter-reading practices that layer and enrich the Hong Kong Sinophone. And there is the occasional work that injects generous doses of English into the Chinese discourse: also by Wong Bik-wan, The Death of Lo Kei (盧麒之死, 2018) features a degree of heterolingualism rarely witnessed in Hong Kong writing, where snatches of English reportage are often reiterated in Chinese, enacting a bifurcated subjectivity calling upon the colonial specter.

The Hong Kong Sinophone should thus be understood not as an exclusively Chinese-language or Sinitic-language practice; rather, it should be seen as distributed within the conference of the tongues in Hong Kong (to borrow a term from Theo Hermans). It emerges and moves through the biliterate and trilingual connections embedded within its texts. In so doing it exploits the “proximity and distantiation” among diverse registers to self-reflexively problematize the language ideological environment in which it operates, thereby functioning as a “metalinguistic critique of the discourses of origin and power as they operate in culture” (Ho 2010: 73). 

Transcending genres and media

The second connection I want to make is to cut across genre as well as media boundaries to democratize the scope of what is perceived as Sinophone Hong Kong literature. I propose an expansive view of the latter term that flattens conventional hierarchies and relaxes the rubric of literature. This would enable us to treat popular cultural productions, or what is sometimes derogatively called low-brow literature, as integral to the Hong Kong Sinophone. The martial arts oeuvre of Louis Cha (Jin Yong 金庸), the romance fiction of Yik Shu 亦舒, and the sci-fi works of Ni Kwang 倪匡, for example, enjoy broad local and regional (in the case of Louis Cha, global) appeal, with disseminative networks extending into various sinophone regions of Asia (especially Malaysia and Singapore) and beyond. The song lyrics of Lin Xi 林夕, be they Cantonese or Mandarin, are at times aesthetically more sophisticated than what is normatively understood as poetry. To exclude these and other similar works from the category of literature would be nothing less than an ideological move that arbitrarily allocates differential symbolic capital to certain genres of writing; such exclusion also represents a missed opportunity to track the mobile transregional trajectories of local discursive practices.

Poster of Fruit Chan’s adaptation of Dumplings.

Further: Sinophone Hong Kong literature should be seen not only as an assemblage of writing practices transgressing generic boundaries as well as the traditional high-/low-brow divide, but also as transmedially constituted. Herein lies the potentiality of this literature, which, under the economy of global cultural productions, partakes in a dynamic network of  intersemiotic mediations. This is best illustrated by novel-to-film adaptations in Hong Kong, a common feature of the cultural industry that disperses literary texts across modes and media. Lee Pik-wah’s 李碧華 novels have been made into many critically acclaimed films, such as Rouge (胭脂扣; dir. Stanley Kwan 関錦鵬, 1987), The Reincarnation of Golden Lotus (潘金蓮的前世今生; dir. Clara Law 羅卓瑤, 1989), A Terracotta Warrior (秦俑; dir. Ching Siu-tung 程小東, 1990), Farewell My Concubine (霸王別姬; dir. Chen Kaige 陳凱歌, 1993), Green Snake (青蛇; dir. Tsui Hark 徐克, 1993), Temptation of a Monk (誘僧; dir. Clara Law, 1993), and Dumplings (餃子; dir. Fruit Chan 陳果, 2004). Liu Yichang’s 劉以鬯 Tête Bêche (對倒) and Drunkard (酒徒) were the literary bases for Wong Kar-wai’s 王家衛 In the Mood for Love (花樣年華 [2000]) and 2046 (2004) respectively. Eileen Chang’s novellas were taken to the silver screen by Ann Hui 許鞍華 (Love in the Fallen City  [傾城之戀], 1984) and Stanley Kwan (Red Rose, White Rose [紅玫瑰白玫瑰], 1994). Not to mention Tsui Hark’s blockbuster renditions of Louis Cha’s martial arts world, notably his Swordsman trilogy (The Swordsman [笑傲江湖, 1990]; The Swordsman II [笑傲江湖II東方不敗, 1992]; The East is Red [東方不敗之風雲再起, 1993]), based loosely on Louis Cha’s The Smiling, Proud Wanderer (笑傲江湖). It is not so much that the films per se are literary works; rather, the film can be seen as entering into a symbiotic relationship with the underlying novel, where both film and novel co-create a text-complex through which a sense of the literary is multimodally distributed.

Theatre Ronin’s adaptation of Hon Lai-chu’s Feng Shen. Courtesy of Theatre Ronin

Apart from the novel-film dyad, there have been experimentations with other modes of remediation. For example, Theatre Ronin has produced stage adaptations of several local works, including Dung Kai-chung’s董啓章 P.E. Period (體育時期, 2012) and Androgyny (雙身, 2016), Chan Koon-chung’s陳冠中 Hong Kong’s Trilogy (香港三部曲2015), Hon Lai-chu’s韓麗珠 Sew and Soul (縫身, 2014), and Xi Xi’s西西 A Girl Like Me (像我這樣的一個女子, 2015) and fragments from her Mourn Over the Breasts (哀悼乳房, 2017). Verbal-visual transformations were played out in Text Garden (2009–2010), where the imagery of Chinese-language poems by Hong Kong writers were intersemiotically translated into visual installations in Hong Kong’s Kowloon Park (Tong King Lee 2015b: 130–138). More recently, the multimedia artist Kingsley Ng transformed Liu Yi-chang’s Tête Bêche in his immersive installation piece Twenty Five Minutes Older (2017), where two trams (an iconic mode of transport in Hong Kong) were turned into camera obscuras to re-enact the novel’s chiasmatic structure, stream of consciousness, and temporal projectile.

Hong Kong literature meets digital technology in an interactive app-version of an excerpt of Hon Lai-chu’s The Kite Family (風箏家族) in English translation; the app invites the reader to tap and hold on the English translation to surface the Chinese original, engendering an embodied-bilingual reading experience with a very different language-body interface than that offered by a codex.[7] And to this, dare we add the adaptation of Louis Cha’s Condor Heroes series into mobile app games in Chinese and other languages?

Twenty-Five Minutes Older, an ambient installation based on Liu Yichang’s Dui Dao ( Courtesy of Kingsley Ng and Hong Kong Development Art Council. A short video clip on the art piece as performed during Hong Kong’s Art Basel in 2017 can be viewed at

These various manifestations of the Hong Kong Sinophone provide data points that enable us to see how different guises of literature connect across genres and media. Such interpolation prompts us to think literature beyond the verbal text and to embed it within a broader web of  intertextual and intersemiotic relations. It affords a layeredness to the notion of literature and creates the possibility of multiple experiential readings of a text in different modal and media formations. In virtualizing the literary text, we also render it mobile, releasing it from the confines of the codex, and ranging it over a networked complex of texts and modalities that together constitute the repertoire of Sinophone Hong Kong literature.

Circulations beyond translation

Cover of the English translation of Atlas–The Archaeology of an Imaginary City.

A literature’s circulation determines its geographical scope, or the extent to which it plugs into other languages and cultures within the uneven topography of world literature. Of course, translation is critical to this enterprise (Damrosch 2003; Apter 2013; Casanova 2004; Lovell 2006). The Chinese-language works of Hong Kong writers have had limited exposure within the global anglophone via translation. There are exceptions though,[8] for example, Dung Kai-cheung’s Atlas—The Archaeology of an Imaginary City, translated from his 地圖集 by Anders Hansson and Bonnie McDougall and published by Columbia University Press in 2012; and also his Cantonese Love Stories by the same translators, published in 2017 under Penguin’s Hong Kong series. Chan Koon-chung’s The Fat Years (translated from his 盛世:中國2013, published by Oxford University Press [HK] in 2009), now available in thirteen languages worldwide, is probably the most widely circulated literary work by a Hong Kong writer to date. While this testifies to the global potential of Sinophone writing from Hong Kong, this potential may be premised on the Sinophobic and anti-establishment disposition of the work in question (Tong King Lee 2015a: 260). Leung Ping-kwan has had a certain visibility in international literary and cultural studies thanks to Rey Chow, among other scholars, whose publications on Leung can be seen as an oblique form of translation—of the person, if not of his works as well.

Yet circulation can take other forms that lie beyond the purview of translation. Rather than the movement of texts through languages, we can also speak of the movement of memes. In speaking of memes, we abstract away from concrete texts to examine how concepts, themes, or structures float across textual, generic, territorial, and cultural borders, continually transmutating themselves in new geographical locales and discursive representations. Like genes, memes disseminate and propagate; they are much more mobile than texts as they are not reliant on translation, hence offering us an angle into the circulatory dynamic of literature without the material burden of texts. (That is why in positing a broadened view of Sinophone Hong Kong literature, “the Hong Kong Sinophone” may be a preferred term because it circumvents the very idea of literature itself.) A prime example of a meme with international currency is postmodernism, which originated in the West, yet, as Ning Wang (1997) tells us, has developed different incarnations in the non-West.

The development of Cantonese opera in the first half of the twentieth century offers an illuminating story of the spatial networking of texts and its interaction with media technologies. Cantonese opera, with its roots in traditional Chinese theatre, must be considered a form of Sinophone Hong Kong literature. In alignment with a repertoire account of literature, Cantonese opera should further be seen not solely in its conventional form of stylized stage performance, but as distributed across diverse media, including film, vinyl records, and musical manuscripts.

1957 film version of The Love Parade.

Together these various representations underwent a spatial trajectory across the Cantonese diaspora in the first half of the twentieth century, tracing a migratory circuit spanning Shanghai–Guangzhou–Macao–Hong Kong–San Francisco–Vancouver–Singapore–Kuala Lumpur (Yung 2012: 62). From a mobility perspective, this would be understood as the dissemination of Cantonese operatic resources across the broader repertoire of world literature, where disparate Chinatowns in the world served (and still serve) as nodal points of a regional and transnational literary network.[9] A related case in point is the transmedia phenomenon of Hong Kong Cantonese operatic films and music records, which came about through the interaction between traditional opera and contemporary media. The travels and travails of the famous play Love Parade (璇宮艷史), in filmic and recorded forms, relied on Hong Kong as nexus, extending into Shanghai, Guangzhou, Southeast Asia and even Hollywood (Yung 2012: 91–100); it exemplifies mobility as a method, spawning Yiman Wang’s (2008) similar formulation of “the transnational as methodology.”

A translation perspective on circulation assumes that literature moves with entire texts, entering into a trajectory beyond their site of production. In other words, texts are seen to embody literariness. Yet the literary character of a work also exceeds the boundaries of that work, because any creative practice is necessarily embedded within a web of intertextual relations, both intracultural and transcultural. This view calls for a revision of our ontology of literature; that is: to view literature not as encapsulated in self-contained entities called texts, as conceived within culture-specific locales, but rather as a gamut of semiotic resources that are distributive and mobile, and which, in each specific instance, converge on a text via a creative nexus—typically an author.

From a mobility point-of-view it is important to disaggregate a literary work from its imputed cultural-territorial regime and from its discursive materiality. In so doing, we de-fetishize a work from its place or culture of origin and dislodge its semiotic resources from its textuality in order to reaggregate those resources again. This enables us to appreciate the global circulation of memes-as-resources as well as their scaling and transfixation in particular works through particular authors, thus weaving the global into the local, as the local insinuates itself into the global. The kongfu 功夫 meme, for example, may be considered one of the most salient resources of the Hong Kong Sinophone, as embodied in the numerous examples of locally-produced but internationally-disseminated fiction and film of the martial arts genre. Other memes may be less provincial in character, captured intermittently by individual authors in specific time-spaces. For example, Leung Ping-kwan’s ecocritical poems are said to “fuse a self-reflexively cautious cosmopolitan outlook with environmental images and perspectives, thus participating in a world literary discourse on postcolonial ecologies” (Riemenschnitter 2018). Here the ecocritical meme provides a glocal nexus connecting Leung’s poetry to relevant literary trends that are active on the global scene; such literary trends themselves are interdiscursively related to ecocritical concerns and climate change activism on a political level. Another example: Leung’s short story “Amélie in Tuen Mun” (愛美麗在屯門) is an adaptation of the French film Amélie (dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001), scaled to the grassroots setting of Hong Kong’s New Territories, thus showcasing a crosscultural and transmedia mobility where the figure of Amélie becomes an ambulant resource. 

World literature as a vibrant semiotic assemblage

With this discussion I advocate for the idea of a distributed literature to conceptualize the relation between Sinophone (Hong Kong) literature and world literature. This idea was inspired by recent developments in applied linguistics and sociolinguistics, where the notion of distributed language has emerged in response to the traditional conception of languages as “internalised systems or individual competence” (Pennycook 2018: 51).

On a distributed view, the use of language, particularly in superdiverse, multicultural environments, is not a wholly subjective, “internally motivated” process involving language users and their linguistic resources; it is instead a dynamic process whereby the language user is placed within an interactive web of languages, spaces, artifacts, bodies, and senses (Pennycook 2018: 53). Rather than encapsulated within the language user’s cognition, language practices are conceived as dispersed across repertoires—a spatial continuum that contains communicative resources including but not limited to linguistic resources. Put simply, speakers do not merely utter words; they constantly negotiate with material objects, human agents, and concrete activities in the world using their bodies and senses in real-time and space.

Thus conceived, communication is no longer a projection of individual capacity, but a function of the emergent affordances of the semiotic space within which communication occurs. In a multilingual kitchen, for example, “[a] range of semiotic resources is distributed within and outside this busy workplace, criss-crossed by trajectories of people (cooks, floor staff, phone calls), artefacts (knives, sieves, plates, ingredients) and practices (washing, chopping, cooking, serving)” (Pennycook 2018: 49), and it is in this sense that we say language is distributed within the spatial repertoire of the kitchen. Such a conception of language departs from user-centric, cognition-based models, arguing instead “for an understanding of language as embodied, embedded and distributed across people, places and time” (51).

In an analogous way, literatures can be thought of in terms of spatially distributed repertoires comprising heterogeneous resources, as opposed to monolithic slates of discourse locked within territorialized identities. World literature is a vibrant assemblage of semiotic resources (a term I borrow from Pennycook [2018: 52]), a repertoire of repertoires drawn upon by a plenitude of situated, place-based literatures, including the plethora of Sinophone literatures in the world. Each literature is, in this sense, an instantiation of the global with local inflections; or, alternatively, an articulation of the local with global extrapolations, thus enacting a kind of recursive loop between different scalarities. As the preceding discussion has attempted to show, a mobility perspective enables us to connect the dots within a literature across languages, genres, and media. It also traces the spatial trajectories of a literature beyond its origin of production, not only through the movement of texts-in-translation, but also through the proliferation of memes. In so doing, it provides an angle from which we can look back into a literature from without to gain a relativist view of the different scales on which literature operates.

A corollary of this is the understanding that no literature exists in a vacuum: all literatures are relational. And it is here that we cross paths with Shu-mei Shih’s (2015: 434) relational comparison, which proffers the view that “world literary cartographies can be about the ways in which literary texts from different parts of the world relate to each other as seen through the lens of a specific problematic or set of problematics.” Our mobility theme goes a step further than the relational theme: not only can literatures be relationally compared, they proactively tap into a pool of mobile semiotic resources within the global literary repertoire, while embedding them in peculiar creative constellations to fulfill locale-specific goals—aesthetic, social, political. World literature is, on this account, constituted by a flux of semiotic energies circulating through various situated, place-based literatures, each of which is a unique configuration while at the same time shot through with traces of shared resources.

This mobile conception has implications for the identity of situated, placed-based literatures, such as Sinophone Hong Kong literature. Rogers Brubaker (2005: 12) has warned us against the dangers of ossifying diasporic identities, proposing instead to think of diaspora “not in substantialist terms as a bounded entity,” but as “an idiom, a stance, a claim”; “a category of practice” deployed “to make claims, to articulate projects, to formulate expectations, to mobilize energies, to appeal to loyalties.” This parallels David Der-wei Wang’s (2015: 132) conception of Sinophone literature in terms of its shi 勢 (a term from classical Chinese literary criticism)—“power, positionality, stance, mobility.”

What does it mean to envision Sinophone Hong Kong literature as a stance or critical practice? It means not only to look toward the discursive and semiotic manifestations of “HongKongness,” but to concurrently look outward to elucidate the mobile dynamic—the multilingual, intersemiotic, and transmedia connections and circulations—underlying literary and cultural productions from Hong Kong. A mobile perspective prevents us from settling too deeply into the cushion of Hong Kong identity and from fetishizing such identity to the extent of losing sight of its translocal inflections. “[T]he facade of specific, territorialized expressions of identity might merely provide a trompe-l’oeil that detracts from the visibility of common global patterns,” Andrea Bachner (2018: 175) reminds us. Conceptualizing Sinophone Hong Kong literature—and for that matter, all other Sinophone literatures—as a distributed repertoire of mobile resources allows literature to be “pulled free from the sticky organicism” (to pluck an expression from Roland Barthes [1978: 175]) of a reified (Hong Kong) identity.

Insofar as literary resources float across various scales—provincial, regional, national, global—it makes sense to think of literature as a shifting force among these scales, as an effect of the tensions among them. By unveiling the circuit of critical interconnections among literatures, mobility as method gives rise to productive interplay between empathetic identification and critical distance; heaviness (of the territorial) and lightness (of the mobile/de-territorialized); discontinuity and continuity (with the world literary repertoire); rootedness and routedness.[10] In this specific sense, it is not contradictory but complementary to “placed-based methods” such as Sinophone as method and Hong Kong as method.

Tong King Lee is Associate Professor in the School of Chinese, University of Hong Kong. He is the author of Experimental Chinese Literature: Translation, Technology, Poetics (Brill, 2015).


[1] English translation in Yiu-Wai Chu (2018: 184).

[2] Some of the key concepts used in this paper (connection, circulation, disaggregation /reaggregation, transregional axis, outside-in analysis) are credited to Engseng Ho’s (2017) article.

[3] One issue under debate in Sinophone studies is whether the term should include works produced by mainland Chinese authors in the dominant Chinese language. Hsiao-yen Peng (2008) proposes using “sinophone” (non-capitalized) to encompass all cultural productions in the Chinese language, on par with anglophone and francophone, etc.; and the “Sinophone” (capitalized) to indicate rupture with “Chinese” and therefore the exclusion of mainland Chinese cultural productions. Shu-mei Shih (2004) herself seems to have switched from “sinophone” in 2004 to “Sinophone” in subsequent and present usage.

[4] On the saam kap dai style, see Snow 2004: ch. 6.

[5] Hong Kong written Chinese is based on the standard Chinese script, not the Cantonese script. Though generally intelligible to readers of standard written Chinese, Hong Kong written Chinese exhibits lexical, syntactic, and pragmatic features that differ from the former; for a relevant study, see Dingxu Shi 2006.

[6] Some of these translated works include: Dung Kai-cheung’s 董啓章 The History of the Adventures of Vivi and Vera (trans. Yau Wai-Ping), Hon Lai-chu’s 韓麗珠 The Kite Family (trans. Andrea Lingenfelter), Dorothy Tse’s 謝曉虹 Snow and Shadow (trans. Nicky Harman); Lok Fung’s 洛風 Days When I Hide My Corpse in a Cardboard Box (trans. Eleanor Goodman); Xi Xi’s 西西 Not Written Words (trans. Jennifer Feeley); and Leung Ping-kwan’s Fly Heads and Bird Claws (trans. Brian Holton, John Minford and others).

[7] See (accessed Jan 3, 2019).

[8] This is notwithstanding the English translations published by indie Hong Kong publishers, which generally have less global clout; see note 6 above.

[9] For a case study of Cantonese theatre in Vancouver, see Wing-chung Ng 2005-06.

[10] These terms are partially adapted from Jonathan Culler (2002: 41).


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