Before leaving for South Africa last fall, I sought out several novels by local authors. The first I landed on was by Nobel Prize winning novelist Nadine Gordimer. In her haunting novel, July’s People, set in the time of black uprisings across South Africa in the 1980s, we witness the unsettled reality of South Africa captured in the story of the Smales family, wealthy Afrikaners, as they escape from the “Riots, arson (and) bombs in public buildings” and the “chronic state of uprising all over the country.”[i]Secreted into the village of their faithful servant July, the Smales hope to weather the political storms. So begins the awkward existence for the Smales family as guests in the rural huts of July and his family. Equally awkward is the adjustment for July with his boss’s invasion of the only place where he had di
gnity and power. July painfully attempts to serve his boss while realizing that he is now fully responsible for his boss’s safety and survival. Bam Smales is now powerless, but as a wealthy white man, he still maintains a status that demands attention. The question asked in this novel is how was this new reality supposed to work? Who is really in control? And who is serving whom?
This one novel provided me with tremendous insights into the confusion, tensions and many of the important issues facing the people of South Africa. It is this subtle and insightful lens into real life of the people, the culture, the issues and the history of this new place that is uniquely available through the artistic creations. There is nothing better to give you the taste and flavor of a different culture beyond actually being there. I learned this a long time ago, through my early passion in high school for all things “Europe” – it was my dream to return to Switzerland that I had visited with my family when I was in Jr. High. I discovered (through my passion for reading) that there were an abundance of European authors available that allowed me to enter and live in this part of the world that so captivated my imagination. I could live overseas vicariously through these authors, as well as learn about daily life and issues faced by the people. Even more than history books, I found fiction was able to take me deeper into the actual lives and everyday existence of the people, to better understand and empathize with their particular struggles, issues, and heartaches that are only hinted at in the headlines.
It is this insider’s take on the life and culture that we find in Hong Kong Culture: World and Image.[ii] It suggests that art (performance as well as plastic), film, and literature (both poetry and story) are windows into this unique and strangely fascinating corner of the world. The arts, these essays suggest, are uniquely situated to enlighten the outsider about this society that is experiencing radical changes in the midst of highly conflicted historical memories, while facing a uncertain future with trepidation. It is a multilingual, multiethnic, multi-religious, and multi-political location that is far from settled because of its geographical location and its place in the clash of empires. What Hong Kong Culture suggests is that neither the headlines or even historical knowledge of Hong Kong, can begin to describe what it is like to live within the tension, the contradictions and the uncertainty of this small territory.
What makes Hong Kong so uniquely fascinating? Listen how the various artists describe this place: It is a state of limbo. For others it is “city-village of the world” which wants to live in “a global collective imagination”(loc. 2203). Another uses the metaphor of an “astronaut” or someone living between two places or in no place (loc. 2125). They sense being surrounded physically by a large empire that is both “claustrophobic, but may also be sheltering”(loc. 1680). Sadly, another suggests “disbelief that Hong Kong could be thought of as home”(loc. 1639). The culture of Hong Kong is “diverse and complete” with “local practices enriched by Chinese, Asian and International influences”(loc. 304). It is a place haunted by memories of Tiananmen Square, that occurred on the doorstep of Hong Kong’s returning to Chinese rule, while being further haunted by the fifty year deadline when one nation-two systems will become one nation-one system. It is a land in flux, filled with uncertainty and insecurity, attempting to figure out the past while seeking to anticipate the future. It is a conflicted and intriguing land filled with diverse peoples trying to find their way in a totally uncertain tomorrow.
It is in this fascinating and chaotic world that requires more than journalist and historians to capture. Artist, be they poets, novelist, painters, cinematographers or actors can best give us understand about what it means to live within these tensions, because they allow us to experience the tensions and fears, the hopes and frustrations of those who live behind the headlines and history books. As I prepare to visit Hong Kong, I again will seek out novelist and story tellers, to better understand the lives and cultures of this new world I am about to experience. I believe that in their pages, I can better know the reality their lives. (In fact, I’ve obtained my first book for Hong Kong: The Piano Teacher by Janice Lee. I can’t wait to start listening and learning.)
[i] Nadine Gordimer, July’s People (New York: Penguin Books, 1981), 7, Kindle.
[ii] Kam Louie, Hong Kong Culture: Word and Image (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2010).