Written by students of FC1750.06
at Founders College, York University
Vol.2, no. 3, June-August, 1997
Replete with humor and ironic remarks, My City makes me smile as I follow Xi Xi's characters roaming through Hong Kong in the 1970s. The author has chosen quaint phrases that remind her readers of the "good old days" when the colony started to build a complicated network of Mass Transit railway underground, the MTR for short, and there were many tiny "police temples" in both the urban and rural areas. A person who lost his or her wallet would report to such a temple rather than a big police station.
What I know about the enclave at that time has come largely from my parents. Its transformation into a world-class financial center, global stagflation, the embargo on crude oil from the Middle East, and the influx of refugees from mainland China were some of the momentous events. They are published in the newspaper that Xi Xi's protagonist reads or discussed by her characters. The reader often eavesdrops on gossip among neighbors.
The story of My City is told from Ah Ko's perspective, with flashbacks and forwards to reflect his mindscape. It is his diary, which describes what he sees and how he feels about the people around him and whatever happens in his life. For example, the protagonist's friend, Mr. Happy, goes fishing with his friends on an island, and shows them some of the photographs he took the last time he was there. The author conjures up a campsite crowded with people, some of them around a portable barbecue, but suddenly an empty island fades in, with a young man trying to stay there alone for three days in order to pass the training program for youth leaders. Then the scene switches back to the present when we see open-air food courts, selling fish balls, egg-custard, chicken wings and pastries. At dinner time, Ah Ko is busy, cooking rice while Mr. Happy tries to catch fish in the river. The friends spend their holiday singing, rowing a boat, swimming and picking wild fruit and berries.
Xi Xi has a tendency to personalify inanimate objects. She compares a desk in the middle of a room to a sentry, guarding its master from his foes, and the old trees to some spectators watching Mrs. Flower dance. "They witness the changing of seasons, experience the birth, departure, and death of almost all living things," Xi Xi writes. She is also fascinated by the smile of the wind, the cries of the birds in the sky, and the battle among the chairs which stand and fight. "The Mass Transit Railway ticket does not want to get into the machine that is about to swallow her," the author says. "The clock is not willing to tell me the exact time."
Similar humorous scenes abound in My City. The British Government is the "smiling sun," which makes profit at the expense of the Hong Kong people. The "fish from upstream" are the refugees from mainland China after the famine in the early 1970s. Xi Xi does not shun the socio-political realities of her time.
I feel as if I were watching a motion picture. When the protagonist goes upstairs, I listen to the sound from the old- fashioned staircase. When he comes across a closed "black" door, I see its size and feel the texture of the "aged" wood. When he passes by a bathtub, I notice the rust.
The contrast between Hong Kong today and its past is obvious. Two decades ago, the people were more honest, more conservative, and more willing to lend a helping hand to those in trouble. Now they are more open-minded, but also more selfish, forever vigilant of every opportunity to make money. After all, they have been living in a borrowed place in borrowed time. The city was cleaner and the air was less polluted, with trees and parks everywhere. Now it is a concrete jungle, filled with lofty commercial buildings and enveloped in exhaust gas from vehicles and smoke from factories. Those who are nostalgic for the past should remember that if Hong Kong had remained unchanged since the 1970s, it would not have become a famous international city that it is today. As its sovereignty is reverting back to China shortly, I hope it will continue to change for the better.
Illustration by Billy Lo