BOOK REVIEW: 'Dear Hong Kong: An Elegy to a City'

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'Dear Hong Kong: An Elegy for a City' spans five decades, two husbands, a dozen other lovers, a handover to the Motherland, the dementia of the author's mother and the death of her father.

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How do you write a break-up letter? I suppose these days it could just as easily be a break-up email or Facebook message. But Indonesian-Chinese author Xu Xi writes her break-up letter to her on-again, off-again lover of sorts, Hong Kong, in the form of a book. “Dear Hong Kong: An Elegy for a City” spans five decades, two husbands, a dozen other lovers, a handover to the Motherland (or should that be Fatherland?), the dementia of her mother and the death of her father.

But it’s much more than a break-up book. At moments it reads like a diary when she drifts back to her past; at others like a letter to the editor when she rattles out rebukes for the city’s obsession with profits and face, for its corrupt Chief Executives and the “never-ending trials of language, politics and social unrest.”

We start off in the future 2046, the year before China may properly swallow Hong Kong into its bulging red belly: when two systems become one. The uncertainty and the pessimism are too much to handle, perhaps, and her Dear John to Hong Kong swiftly about-turns and dives into her past. Because, after all, memories, she writes, are a “palliative to time, allowing me to ignore the sight of my Hong Kong disappearing before my very eyes.”

As a memoir, her snapshots of the past are evocative, almost Wong Kar-wai-esque – from the greenish-brown paper with which she used to wrap her high school text books to the man in white gloves who operated the ancient lift that took her every day to her office at a small printing company in Central. We get marvelous detail, in some cases intimate detail – “I actually liked sex (it would later astonish me how many women did not)” – but only ever glimpses here and there; Xu Xi may kiss a lot but she does not tell a lot.

But what really opens this book to a wider audience is that it’s as much about the history of Hong Kong as it is about her. And a Hong Kong that is long gone. We learn about the city’s infamous home factories of the 1960s when she visits a school friend, her childhood fingers made busy with the task of assembling plastic flowers. She also recounts portents of its future when she steals secret glimpses of the Mong Kok Workers’ Children School from a flyover with its Chairman Mao portrait, fluttering PRC flag and students pumping their little red books in the air.

For a female reader the book is a joy, told as it is by a woman who comes across as a truly free spirit, growing up at a time and in a culture that expected women to be virginal and then marry and be supported by their husbands.

This woman does what she wants – takes lovers, runs risks, and follows her dream to become a celebrated creative writer. There is also magic in the serendipity -- a mysterious Hemingway character she bumps into in Greece who changes her life – maybe without him she wouldn’t have become a novelist, I wouldn’t be reading her book, and you wouldn’t be reading this review today.

So what of her spurned lover, Hong Kong? The tryst may be six decades strong, but it’s ending. This is an elegy after all. He’s “lost his lustre”, he snores because of the pollution, and yet again he has failed her. The final straw came in 2015 when the academic program she helped set up at City University of Hong Kong was shuttered, allegedly as a Chinese squeeze on free expression. After all, if her true love is writing, how could she stay now?

“Dear Hong Kong,” just like a Yum Cha (or Dim Sum) session is a well-proportioned book that can be enjoyed at a single sitting in a couple of hours. In particular, it will resonate with anyone who has spent time in Hong Kong and been an occasional lover of that city herself.

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Editor: Edward White

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