A poet in Hong Kong (2018 AsiaLink Creative Exchange)

Reflections on six weeks in residence at the Hong Kong Arts Centre.

Lìhng (Week 1)

At the first sight of the Hong Kong Arts Centre, my heart beat a little faster. I feel strangely settled after only a few days in this city, enjoying being part of the daily commute. As giddy with the privilege of my new daily writing routine as with the views from the 14th floor library where I  work.

I’m in Hong Kong for six weeks on an Asialink Arts Creative Exchange: exploring and eating, thinking, writing and working things through. In my first week, I’ve been to exhibitions, launches, and live-drawing displays, poetry readings and walking tours on the island, and a literary talk Kowloon-side.

I’ve been surprised by the street art, delighted by the food, endeared by the queues-for-every-occasion, and have fallen newly in love with the trains and double-decker ‘ding ding’ trams. I haven’t yet eaten in the same place twice.

The overall pace of the city is slow and relaxed: even the police walk their beats with their eyes on their phones. It’s going to take me a bit more time to get used to the humidity and the heat.

My Wan Chai apartment would once have sat on the thinnest strip of flat land, wedged between the base of the mountain and the edge of Victoria Harbour. Now, from the former coastline at Queens Road East to the new one where I spend my days at HKAC, there’s a whole new vertical city on top of two kilometer’s worth of reclaimed land.

It’s an irony of post-Umbrella Movement Hong Kong that a city that wants more distance from China is steadily moving towards it, the pressure of its people pushing it out as well as up.

Thinking about the weight of the city makes me nervous, sitting on top of what was so recently sea. The retaining walls that hold back the mountain make me nervous too. Walking the vertiginous slopes up the peak behind my apartment leaves me questioning both my fitness and my sanity. Knowing the mountain beneath me is riddled with nullah covered creeks and disused air raid shelters makes it only more tenuous.

This is a town built on ghosts. Every other building has a story. Those air raid shelters were once repurposed as torture chambers. Where they play soccer at Southorn was once an execution ground. The basement of the old Wan Chai Market was used to store bodies during the war. Coffin makers once lined the road to the racecourse. And graveyards all over the city have been cemented over. Who knows now who lies underneath?

Old Hong Kong can be hard to find. Fewer than thirty licensed Dai Pai Dong street food stalls remain. Most examples of Chinese-style shophouses exist only as facades. Sea Goddess temples sit further and further from the sea thanks to the ever-retreating coast.

Actually, it can be hard to find a lot of places in this city. Even arriving with the exact address can make you doubt your directions. So far, I’ve had to be buzzed into an apartment block in order to find a restaurant and climbed seven flights of sign-less stairs in the hope there would be a bookshop at the top (thankfully alongside a Chinese speaker so my gweilo (鬼佬) disorientation wasn’t entirely language-based).

But I am determined to get the most out of my time as a shi ren (詩人) in Hong Kong. With writing, yes. And with not-writing too: observing, learning, reading, walking, eating and soaking it all in.

Add oil (加油)!

Yāt (Week 2)

In my second week in Hong Kong, I am ever more aware of the privilege of this opportunity; of being a full-time poet for six consecutive weeks; of being in and inspired by this space; and of the flexibility around what I get to do while I’m here.

I feel like a fixture already. During the day, I move around the Hong Kong Arts Centre – between the basement and the 14th floor – finding new corners to write in and art works to write about. Strangely placeless in such a firmly architectural place, with no fixed desk-space and no fixed schedule.

This place/lessness fuels my writing as I play with the idea of ‘Public Open Space’: how so-called ‘open’ physical and digital spaces can be controlled, contested, restricted or surveilled. What’s public or private? What’s open or closed? What’s un/free, un/over-heard? What’s hidden/observed?

Space is at a premium on this tiny island, where real-estate is now the most expensive in the world, reports the Financial Times, “with the median apartment costing 19 years of median household income. The median size of a home in Hong Kong is just 430 sq ft. In comparison, in London, the median home price is 8.5 times median household income and the average home size is 936 sq ft, while in San Francisco, median homes of 1,330 sq ft cost 9.1 times median household income.”

On Sundays (which Hannah May would later coin as ‘Lady Day’), the city’s office foyers, walkways and freeway underpasses are transformed into temporary villages, assemblages created out of cardboard, umbrellas, sheets, towels and tents. Hong Kong’s domestic helpers freed from their weekly routine, seeking moments of community and privacy on their only day off.

I read some of their stories at the Goethe Institute’s Apples for Sale exhibition at HKAC. A domestic shadow economy. Required by law to live with their employers, many of whom pay  nearly half the minimum wage, often with a kitchen-floor or laundry bed in lieu of a  room of their own. One of the world’s most expensive cities propped up by the work of these women. Their lives are lived in these few Sunday hours, these borrowed public places – the ones the rest of us walk past but don’t really want to go. Their relationships take place here, creating a queer scene much larger than the broader community.

Walking through Hong Kong Park on Sunday afternoon – the only day the sun has made it through the haze since I arrived – I wondered if the maids get moved on from the prettier places, or if they self-select so as to be mostly left alone.

Hong Kong Park is fake-ture at its finest: a imaginary green-scape in the middle of the city, its waterways swimming with terrapin and fish. Fake too was Frank Tang Kai-yiu’s live-performed soundscape in Dominion Gardens, part of his Pocket Park series on display at HKAC. With whistles, whirlygigs and a graphical score, performers mimicked bird sounds usually drowned out by the city. Above them, pigeons flitted from tree to tree, flying and alighting their way around the square: perhaps excited by all the activity or confused by the unexpected dialect. Even on a Sunday, the performers outnumbered the crowd. Heads turned  and turned as people passed by.

HK style is flat-shoed casual. In Hong Kong Park, I watched as a bride climb the slope to the registry office in hiked-up white frock and running shoes. Elsewhere, affirmation-adorned tshirts are worn proudly and without irony: You And I Are Good Together; Respect The Nature; even The Lord’s Prayer gets a regular outing.

This is a city that mixes the future with the past. I love the shin-height shrines set into every building and the smoke from the street vendor’s incense sticks downstairs that starts my day. I love avant-garde architecture that goes to such lengths for favourable feng shui. I love paying for my lunch with my travel card and my washing by the pound, buying beer from the 711, and drinking Tsing Tao out of long neck bottles. I love the colour-coded MTR stations and the skyscrapers covered in a cage of bamboo, so familiar from my time in Singapore. And I am continually surprised by the silence of Wan Chai at night: the absence of city sounds belying the 7 million lives sleeping beside mine.

Very happy. Ho hoi sum.

Yih (Week 3)

After a few weeks of pretending to be a Heong Gong jan (香港人), it was fun to spend a few days pretending to be a tourist with Brien Keys: getting a crash course on Hong Kong via a big red bus tour around the city. So focused on his visit breaking up six weeks apart, that we’d somehow failed to notice we both needed and were having a holiday until it began.

Oh, the eating, the drinking, the markets, the beach. Boarding a sampan, a ferry and a cruise around the harbour. Seeing the sunset from 100 floors up in the sky. And no less important,  the smallest of shared routines: trips to the supermarket and laundromat, the daily commute to the office, squeezing past one another in my tiny Wan Chai home.

Hong Kong is a city of mixed heritage. This week’s Halloween celebrations were larger and more visible than the Chung Yueng Festival before it, complete with costume-filled market stalls and cobweb-bedecked bars. Great pink confections of paddle steamers cross Victoria Harbour alongside traditional Chinese junk boats. And the city’s fake-ture parks sit beside a surprising amount of native green space, mostly too steep for easy construction (though the building goes up and goes on). With space at such a premium, subway signs encourage locals to consider green burial option on their deathbeds: a scattered-ashes mass-grave equivalent  within a range of parkland settings.

Live fish flap in their trays in wet markets and shrink-wrapped supermarkets alike. Wan Chai Road is both high-rise homes and ‘Meat Street’: where chickens go straight from cages to chopping block, and where  pig parts hang around waiting to be purchased in the sun.

My own street is double- or triple-parked all day – the traffic slowed to a single trickling stream (like the covered ‘nullah’ drain that gives it its name). The cars themselves are incongruous – gigantic and unwieldy (though surprisingly un-dinged) for such narrow winding streets, where the cost of a city carpark can exceed HK$1,000,000 (AU$175,000). Each plaza’s ground floor is filled with the dealers of such luxury, and their mechanical behemoths just waiting to get out.

Brien was still waiting to leave the airport before I was back at the Hong Kong Arts Centre filling pages and pages with words, quickly returning to my quiet Hong Kong routine of walking and writing, thinking and reading. My reading rate has been slower here: with my e-book aversion, my general over-stimulation/saturation, an excess of internet research, and the near-impossibility of maintaining my walk-reading habit (which proves to be much better suited to Adelaide’s quieter streets).

At a talk about young, female Chinese artists at Asia Centre Hong Kong, I found and fell in love with the work of Miao Ying, who identifies as “a net artist”, not one defined by her physical location (as I do too, to a degree). “I reside on the Internet and the Chinternet and my smart phone,” she says.

Discovering her ‘Chinternet Plus’ was perfectly timed for thinking about my own Creative Exchange. “When people think of the Chinternet they think of censorship,” she says of the ‘innernet’ (a Reci-Chinese hot-word reflecting China’s inward-looking internet controls), “but a part of my work is showing how creative people can actually go around it and create new things. (…) If you know something will be censored, you can go around it. (…) You will be shocked by how creative netizens are. The limit of the Chinese internet is what sets it free.”

I brought so many assumptions  with me to Hong Kong: conscious and subconscious, significant and small. Some were quick to fall away: like how I wouldn’t find good coffee (wrong); or Vegemite in the stores (wrong too); or that I could pack my own Vegemite to be able to make toast at home (where I assumed – wrongly – where a toaster would be).

Other assumptions are taking more time to unpack: like how much you can ‘get buy’ without the language here (and how contested that language space can be); how censorship could actually encourage creativity (and free speech suppress it); and what impact Hong Kong and Chinese politics has on the city’s literature and art.

Being proved wrong makes me grateful. Not least for good coffee (as long as I don’t do the conversion rate), though it’s mildly depressing how many Starbucks and other coffee chains I pass from home to work. With real estate this expensive, I guess its hard to compete.

But grateful too for the chance to poke and prod and play with the assumptions that remain, to have the space and luxury to think and think and think. Already, these precious days and weeks are passing too fast: my Asialink Arts Creative Exchange already halfway through. No number of words in each day seem enough.

Sàam (Week 4)

After two weeks of clear sunshine, the Hong Kong haze has returned. From the Goethe Institut library on the Hong Kong Arts Centre’s 14th floor, I watch the kites ride the air currents in front of my window, drawing focus from an all-but-disappeared Kowloon.

The haze makes it feel as if my eyesight is failing. Like the tram-lines in Melbourne, HK’s haze keeps the city low and close, as if it’s holding its breath. Umbrellas here are used as walking sticks, ready to go up at the merest sign of rain.

Thankfully, the days have also begun to cool. As a woman with touching thighs, chafing has been an issue. I may wear the ‘guǐlǎo’ label here in Hong Kong, but I more closely resemble the ‘anh moh’ I once was in Singapore: always big, red and sweating like the ‘big red devil’ the Malay’s originally described.

Living and working as I do in Wan Chai, it’s not often that I have to join Hong Kong’s peak-hour public-transport throng. When I do, it’s surprising. Crowded, yes: people mountain people sea (人山人海). But orderly. A slow but always moving shuffle-and-queue, shuffle-and queue. I try to remember to walk on the right, but the system (if there is one) seems to vary, and I always seem to be in somebody’s way.

It took me less than half an hour to cross Hong Kong Island north to south, from Admiralty where the #UmbrellaMovement camp rose up to #OccupyHongKong in 2014 to the offices of the Hong Kong Free Press in Aberdeen, where I went to watch the latest documentary about that movement, ‘Last Exit to Kai Tak’ (fan-girling over the extraordinary young politician and activist Joshua Wong, who I recommend checking out on Netflix).

Aberdeen, coincidentally, is also the setting of ‘Tai-pan’, an ‘Asian saga’ first published by British-American novelist James Clavell in 1966, and the first book I can  recall reading about Hong Kong. These days, of course, I am much more interested in literature actually written by Hong Kongers. “The label of ‘Hong Kong’ writer or poet isn’t just a geographical indication,” says local poet Nicholas Wong. “I think it’s that on some level, this location has to have given you the nutrients for writing.”

Wong’s poetry is wonderful, but he also epitomises the city-wide creative slump that seems to have set in since the Umbrella Movement – a phenomenon that reverberates across Hong Kong’s entire artistic community. Wong himself talks of becoming a ‘poet resigned’ after 2014, when “the energy of the whole city changed, and so did my own. I lost my sense of balance and well-being, and I can’t write creatively anymore. The subject has overridden the entire city—it’s shattered it.”

Even for an outsider, there is a real sense that things are changing here, and changing right now. Just down the road, the last Hong Kong bookshop selling titles banned in China has just closed down. And last month, the city rescinded the work visa of an  international journalist for the first time. While not be unexpected on the mainland, “Hong Kong had always been different, a critical listening post where journalists could write freely about events in China.” This action, according to HK’s Foreign Correspondence Club, now “places journalists working in Hong Kong in an opaque environment in which fear and self-censorship may replace the freedom and confidence essential to a free society.”

Two events have been affected in my own schedule, with last week’s cancellation of dissident artist Badiucao’s Free Expression Week exhibition and this week’s announcement that the new (government-run) Tai Kwun Centre has reneged on hosting exiled Chinese writer Ma Jian during Hong Kong International Literary Festival (though they later reneged on that reneging). “Sad that Tai Kwun has destroyed its reputation in a shocking own-goal so soon after opening,” long-time ex-pat writer Antony Dapiran wrote on Twitter. “We had such high hopes…”

Dapiran’s own book positions Hong Kong as a ‘City of Protest’, an anomalous space enjoying a level of freedom of speech and assembly that most countries without democratic elections don’t allow. “Hong Kong, however,’ he writes, “finds itself in a state of disequilibrium: the city’s precarious balancing of high level of freedom against a low level of representative democracy is not a natural state.”

20 years into the 50-year British-to-Chinese transition period, things are changing indeed. And I’m here in the middle of it, listening, learning, trying to read everything I can: as fascinated by this city’s contested histories as what happens in its congested streets.

But also trying not to get too sucked up into the research vortex and run out of time for the actual writing work to get done.  With that in mind, I am attempting my third  Nanowrimo challenge, aiming to write 50,000 words in the month of November.  Just over one week in and on target so far, though both inspiration and distraction have now arrived in the form of this year’s Hong Kong International Literary Festival. The Aus and HK literary scenes are both so similar and so different that I feel like I’ve already got whiplash just from thinking about the comparisons of scale.

Hong Kong is a city of more than 7 million people, yet its launches and exhibition openings seem to be incredibly poorly attended (perhaps mostly because so many people work late into the evenings). This year’s literary festival is hoping to reach record audiences of 10,000 people, but the 2018 Adelaide Writers Week attracted more than 130,000 in a city of not quite 1.5 million. The launch of the HK version was also the whitest room I’ve been in since I arrived, with the expat bubble perhaps going some way to explaining the much smaller audience pool. I was grateful to have SA-pals Jen and Hannah May here for a few days to share some of the strangness.

Back on my own again and working hard, I am shocked to find my Creative Exchange is more than halfway through.  But every step leaves a footprint (一步一个脚印儿), and the privilege of being here keeps me clocking up the words.

Nǵh (Week 5)

Lei sik jor faan mei ah (你食咗飯未呀)? Have you eaten yet?

I love that Hong Kong greetings are made with an exchange about food. It seems only fitting for such a food-centric city, but the phrase has a darker tradition too – coming into use during the wide-scale starvation of the Cultural Revolution.

These days, while the food is both plentiful and delicious, there are still many local people that don’t get to experience it that way, with one in five Hong Kongers living in poverty (a record high). Due to rate and regulations of the city’s constant construction (which often grants developers a monopoly on food outlets), many can’t even afford to eat in their own neighbourhoods. Yet they can no longer access cheaper dai pai dong and hawker stalls, which are being systematically moved on or shut down, or simply close when they are no longer able to compete for space in the most expensive real estate in the world.

From my perspective, I find the food to be a little cheaper than in Australia in the main, though prices do increase with the amount of English on the menu. Personally, I have found it easier to be vegetarian than pescetarian here, as prawn and pork are apparently and irrevocably inseparable. But I have been pleased to prove wrong the guidebook that recommended vegetarians in Hong Kong should either “go Western or give up”, uncovering at least four vegetarian or vegan restaurants within a five-minute radius of my apartment alone. Pleased too that my lack of interest in land animals has allowed me to steer clear of HK’s infamous ‘Soy Sauce Western’ (si yau sai chaan) cuisine, another hangover from the British, in which spam has an equally enduring and surprising starring role.

Often eating on my own, I have been spending a lot of time listening in lieu of making conversation – sometimes pretending to read in order to obscure my observation. This is a different kind of eavesdropping, of course, one that is more about sound than information – in the same way that looking at Chinese-language poetry is more about seeing than reading. Accustomed to the quiet of my usual freelance life, I have found this sort of not-understood noise soothing rather than distracting. I absorb without absorbing, my brain registering small, rare moments of pride when I pick up a word that I know.

I do the same on tram rides. On my way to and from my second week of the Hong Kong International Literary Festival, I rode, wrote and eavesdropped from the seats and stairwells of HK’s double-decker trams. At peak hour, it’s standing room only, with six or seven people squeezing into spaces made for for four (smallish) bodies abreast. At other times, prime positions can be found the four inward-facing seats at either the front or rear of the older models. But I somehow find most endearing the single row of narrow seats that line one side of the trams’ upper decks. Downstairs, the seats are arranged like a military transport, with two thin benches hugging the walls and an indeterminate mass squeezed in between.

Free speech is still making headlines, though last week’s Ma Jian vs Tai Kwun venue u-turn was an anticlimax (other than getting through the crush of press and politicians outside), with the discussion staying firmly in the realm of (gasp) literature (as Ma always said it would). But the repercussions of the venue’s decisions are still being felt, and the conversations about the changes in Hong Kong go on. “There must be something bigger than politics,” said Ma Jian at his HKILF event on Saturday, “What is that bigger thing It can be art. It can be literature.”

Free speech was joined by feminism as the other prevailing theme of my literary weekend (and, indeed, of my whole time in Hong Kong so far), with two HKILF sessions on the feminist awakening in China and the #MeToo movement. It was thrilling and timely for me to hear examples of social media being used as an instrument for change, even in places where access to it is limited. I left inspired for a beer at Club 71 just off Hollywood Road (known for its support of HK’s activists and social movements), an appropriate end to my festival experience.

Hong Kong’s commercial culture is strangely clumpy, with each particular industry seeming to lay claim to their own patch. Hollywood Road, for example, is known for antique stores. My apartment is just off Meat Street (my shorthand for the local clump of butcher’s stalls) and firmly positioned in Mechanic Land (with every second shop off Stone Nullah Lane housing some motor repair business or another). Just down the road is Lighting Street, with shopfront after shopfront filled with specialty lighting stores. A good strategy for consumers comparison-shopping, but surely a difficult business model for the business themselves.

Nearby Lee Tung Avenue (where I regularly eat) used to be known as ‘wedding card street’ – a laneway of traditional printers that specialised in wedding invitations, which the government clumped together so they could keep an eye out for potential counterfeiting operations. But the same government later sold the land to developers, who first reduced it to rubble and later reinvented it as a Disneyland-style artists’ impression how a ‘typical’ Chinese street should appear: but glossy, sterile and expensive. The (mostly elderly) population were forced to move out of the city, the wedding businesses (who couldn’t afford to buy back into the new development) closed up or moved on. More victims of HK’s relentless build/rebuild cycle.

“Hong Kong is a city in extremis, caught between mountains and water, with complicated land policies that have created one of the most densely populated urban centres on earth,” says Christopher Dewolf  in his book ‘Borrowed Spaces’, which I’m working my way through at the moment. “There are many competing demands for a very limited amount of space, the government’s response is to exert increasingly tight control over how that space is used, so there is constant tension between public behaviour and the restrictions to which it is subjected.”

I have become fascinated by the private/public spaces scattered throughout the city, which are so often created in reluctant compliance with heritage or new development conditions. Lee Tung Avenue’s version is a rooftop garden with a princess carriage and fountain-sprouting-swans. The public rooftop of The Pawn is barely signposted, basically barren, deliberately uncomfortable. Nearly all of the spaces I’ve come across are under-utilised, monitored and controlled. Build it and they will come? More like: build it, don’t tell anyone about it, and then grumble if they come across it anyway.

Luhk (Week 6)

This has been my last week in this city. This city of vertical villages and dragon holes. Of wooden ferries and double-decker trams. Of fish balls, soup noodles and breakfast spam. Of Kongish, the fast-paced and funny local fusion of English and Cantonese. Of green space, no space and ‘public open’ space that isn’t really public or open at all.

This city that epitomises the ‘city of contrasts’ cliche. Putting luxury brands and street butchers side by side. Revering its elderly yet watching them gather cardboard in the streets. Welcoming people of all nations except for its (mostly-Filipino) domestic helpers. This city that values art but doesn’t always turn up for it.

This city that feels like one of the safest and friendliest places I’ve ever visited, yet which dropped to 76th place in the World Happiness Ranking this year. This city with the most sought-after real estate in the world whose Global Liveability Index is also in slow decline.

This city that isn’t a city at all, but a Special Administrative Region of The People’s Republic of China, its relationship to which has been compared to “a cocktail reception with an anaconda in the chandelier. The snake doesn’t have to do much, it’s enough that everyone knows it’s there.” This city that is steadily reclaiming land that moves it closer to the mainland, while trying to keep its distance at the same time, to retain its ‘Hongtext’: the values and freedoms that make this place so uniquely and quintessentially Hong Kong.

I’m grateful for the friends, colleagues and visitors who have helped me explore and understand so many sides of this city. From my Hong Kong Arts Centre colleagues and contacts, to the world of writers (in HK, China and online) whose work I have devoured. From comparing residency notes with Chris, to local insights with Dilan and Abbie, Brayden, Suyin, Channo and Casey J. From delighting in domestic routines with Brien, to street-drinking and sticking our feet in the South China Sea. From literary fests and dumpling feasts with Jen and Hannah May, to this last week with Jacquie filled with social and gastronomic degustations.

In all of these adventures over the past several weeks, I have found myself wondering how many times my face now appears in the background of other people’s snapshots and selfies. How many times I can be spotted at the edges, in the side of someone’s gaze – not part of the usual picture, but more than a one-weekend anomaly. Observing. Looking in. Interesting to think about in relation to the work I’ve been doing here. About how to write from a place without purporting to write of it. About which stories I am empowered to tell, about which to witness. About which stories are universal enough to make my own.

For my 40th birthday last November, my gift to myself was a Year of Working Differently. Coinciding with my relocation to Adelaide, 2018 was to be ‘My Year of Being Forty (and) Freelance (and) Writing Lots Of Stuff’ (I never did come up with a snappier title).

That year began with a four-month reading and writing sabbatical, in the final days of which I got a call from Asialink Arts to say I’d been selected for a 2018 Creative Exchange. “Would you like to spend six weeks in Hong Kong?” they asked. I was very fast to reply. How fast this year and these weeks in Hong Kong have flown by. And now, somehow, I have to get ready to say my goodbyes. Today, on my 41st birthday.

In spite of all the words that I’ve found and laid down here, I’m struggling to find ones that are up to the task of describing this experience. Maybe I’ve used up my quota. Or maybe I’m still overwhelmed by the privilege of this opportunity, the headiness of writing full time, how grateful I feel for the support I have received.

‘Grateful’ doesn’t cut it, and yet…

More than ever, I am in awe of this industry that supports artists in this way, that believes in the power of possibility, in investing in imagination without knowing where it may lead. And in continuing to do so in spite of that sort of support being consistently devalued and constrained. Cognisant and humbled by being one of the latest and possibly last South Australian artists to receive this opportunity (at least for the time being), now that our State’s new government has expressed its disdain for arts and culture in finite and financial terms. Astonished by the sheer luck of my timing. Grateful to Asialink Arts, to Arts South Australia, to the Hong Kong Arts Centre. Grateful to Brien Keys.

Grateful to have been here long enough to feel part of the rhythm of this city – if only temporarily. Grateful for how familiar it now feels to walk these streets, to connect up its districts in my mind. Grateful for all the new learning I’m returning with that I didn’t have when I arrived.

Grateful for how much I’ve done, both within and outside of the Hong Kong Arts Centre walls. Grateful for all the words I’ve found in being here. For this space and time to invest in myself – to think, to try, to push, to write and delete, to fail and erase, to listen, to learn, to read. Looking forward now to what those words will become. Determined to put in the rest of the work needed to make that happen, whatever that may be.

I don’t want it to be over. But I seem to have shaken off the panic of this extraordinary interlude coming to an end. Still shocked at how fast it has gone, of course, but ready to go home, ready to see what the next stage of my Adelaide adventure looks like too.

Need sheep have sheep (要咩咩有): may you get whatever you want.

88 (拜拜), Hong Kong. Bye bye, bye bye.

A Poet in [no place, no-one knows]

Wadjella yorga / Pinti miyu: non-Indigenous Australian, whitefella (Noongar / Kaurna).
Ang moh gui: white foreigner (Malay).
Guǐ lǎo (鬼佬): white foreign woman (Cantonese).

In the week since I said goodbye to Hong Kong, I’ve been thinking a lot about positionally, about the words I use to describe myself.

The words I inherited: Kate from my English grandmother, Larsen from my Norwegian grandfather. The words I co-opted: Keys from my partner, borrowed for my poetry, but also from the keyboards from which that poetry comes.

The words I choose to relate to, the words I choose to compare myself against, the words that I discard.

The words of place and history. Born on Noongar land in Western Australia. That place – Albany – the home of my heart. Living now on Karna land in South Australia. This place – Adelaide – the home of my current situation, my electoral registration, my partner, my books and my bills. Here, I am a whitefella, wadjella yorga, pinti miyu. Sitting lightly, respectfully. Trying to barely leave a print on this never ceded soil. Acknowledging the marks I can’t help make.

I have an Australian passport. I have a British passport too. But I don’t think think of myself as either. Not quintessentially Australian (South, Western or in general), nor British (pre- or post-Brexit). Nor inextricably tied to any of the other places I’ve used to define myself at times. Perth. Fremantle. A Volkswagon Kombi. Singapore, where I became ‘ang moh’, from the Malay for ‘big red devil’. London. Melbourne. And for six weeks at the end of 2018, Hong Kong, a resident of Wan Chai.

In that place, I became guǐ lǎo: white foreign woman. In that place, I was ‘ghost woman’, from the Cantonese for ‘ghost’ and ‘man’. In that place, I became Jì Lìchén (紀麗晨), a Chinese name gifted from colleagues that translates to the ‘era of the beautiful morning’.

Shī rén (詩人): poet (Chinese)
Wǎngluò shīrén (網絡詩人): Internet or network poet (Cantonese)

I try to pin the words down in my mind.

I am a poet. I am a poet who works primarily in the digital space, the third space (remote, networked, online). I am a digital poet, an internet poet, a social media poet.

Like Chinese artist Ying Miao, I identify as a resident of the internet. My work lives there. I live there. The internet has become my means and my muse, my home.

Méiyǒu dìfāng (沒有地方): no place (Cantonese)
Wúrén zhīxiǎo (無人知曉): no-one knows (Cantonese)

Less and less, I define myself by places. My nationality-ness is not the primary characteristic of my poetry.  But my ness-less-ness may be.

More and more, I define myself by this placelessness – ironic, perhaps, as I approach my ten-year anniversary of social media poetry and start to contemplate its end.

Like the term coined by US critic Barbara Pollack, perhaps I am “post-passport”. Perhaps I am no place. No-one knows.

These are the thoughts that have filled my fuzzy, jet-lagged mind in the week since the end of my Asialink Arts Creative Exchange. The differences between place and placelessness. The differences between places (physical and digital) that are public and private, open and closed.

I return to Australia with 25,000 new words: social media memes inspired by the Hong Kong Arts Centre and its programs, as well as longer-form poems and the draft of an essay written under the umbrella of ‘Public. Open. Space.’ I return to Australia thrilled that essay has been accepted for publication in a new journal focused on Creative Writing Online in Asia, due to be printed next year. I return to Australia 15,000 words closer to the first full draft of my choose-your-own-erotic-romance novel, and with half a dozen other projects expanded or begun.

I return to Australia full of new information and inspiration, still processing the experience of being immersed in such a different cultural and literary scene. One in which the reading and writing sector is smaller and less prioritised, with only 10% of Hong Kongers reading for 3 or more hours each week. One in which a bilingual city divides its literary activity into either Chinese or English, rarely both. One in which free speech is both valued and contested, with literary events often beginning with a request not to be filmed or recorded, such is the nervousness about being heard. One in which social media is used so differently – be it for conversational, educational or creative purposes.

I return to Australia aware of the importance of the things that I saw in Hong Kong, of this moment in time, of the people there writing it down. Everything not saved will be lost.

I return to Australia as giddy and as grateful as I left, excited for the work that’s still to come.

Author: katelarsenkeys

Arts, Cultural & Non-Profit Consultant. Reader. Writer (Our Hybrid Future, The Relationship is the Project). Researching the art of arts governance. larsenkeys.com.au

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