Insignificance: Hong Kong Stories is the latest collection by Xu Xi, an Indonesian-Chinese writer raised in Hong Kong who writes primarily in English.
The stories are readably crafted, the majority of them essentially snapshots of life in early 21st century Hong Kong. These slice-of-life pieces are rewarding in their subtlety, and contain significant kernels of creative potential, but are on the whole underdeveloped. Dialogue is simple, narrative tends to be formulaic and the characters themselves one-dimensional. The pieces are mostly set among elites and the upper-middle class, who work in investment banks and other globalized corporate firms, wine and dine at upscale bars and lust after each other.
Unremarkable though all this is, the stories are thoughtfully framed, and this is where their creative potential lies. “Longevity’s Eyebrow” is told from the perspective of an artist, and touches on the question of creative authenticity in the corporate art world, illustrating how an artist’s worth, even in the eyes of their so-called friends, is often reduced to their capital value. Several stories —”The Loan” and “Off the Record”, for example — deal with the yearning for love amid the alienation of modern corporate life. The latter illustrates a common characteristic of these stories: they’re most sincere when it comes to the author’s subtle asides. The uninteresting main narrative in that tale is interrupted by a pointed bit of character background about a journalist turned travel hack:
Easy, churning out travel writing for younger editors who were always frenzied, undisciplined, and seldom rigorous. Once upon a time he had been a real news journalist for hawk-eyed editors, but that life was over now, as perhaps was real journalism. At least for Asian media. You couldn’t report the news when everything was sanitized along the sightlines of a region in awe of China.
This is the sort of insight that makes a story interesting, not characters devouring each other with their eyes, a recycled cliché that’s astonishing to read in a story written in this day and age.
The Umbrella Revolution—Hong Kong’s Occupy-style movement that took place in 2014 — is a backdrop to several of these tales, but no more than a backdrop. By and large the characters go about their lives and pursue their lust in a corporate elite world far removed from the protests, which are a mere curiosity or irritant for the most part. If there is intended to be some metaphor or statement here, it’s so obscure as to be essentially invisible.
That said, the stories offer rewarding, if very brief illustrations of the merging of tradition and modernity. The expectations and demands of large extended families and elderly great-aunts and grandmothers are navigated amid the breakneck pace of international corporate finance. In “Coincidence”, a young mixed-race woman struggles with the double-edged identity this has imposed on her since birth. She was made fun of and bullied in school, but also realizes she never felt the need to pursue surgery, unlike her countrywomen who sought unconsciously to pursue beauty standards to make them more like her, the woman they bullied for being different. The story is cleverly told, but the cleverness is almost an aside; the main action, concerning an unrequited lust, is rather unremarkable.
“The 15th Annual Anniversary” brings Hong Kong’s national identity into clearest relief, depicting the protagonist’s 35th high school reunion, which just so happens to coincide with the 15th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China. The anniversary party offers our protagonist the opportunity to reflect on his own mediocrity and lack of achievement compared to his classmates, all of whom attended an elite school from whose graduates greatness was expected. As with the other stories, political parallels and metaphors are hinted at, but too undeveloped to achieve any especial literary resonance. It’s as though the author recognized a number of ingredients that had potential to produce a superb dish, but either didn’t know how to combine them or lacked the enthusiasm and spirit to bring the stories to life. There’s tremendous potential in these tales, but more often than not it falls flat.
It’s puzzling that the Umbrella Revolution plays centre-stage in the book’s promotion when in fact the stories have very little to do with it; they’re mostly short snapshots of love and lust among the corporate elite. Xu worked for many years with multinationals in international marketing, so she writes from experience, but it doesn’t come across as a very interesting experience. The stories offer a certain perspective on a certain narrow niche of contemporary Hong Kong lifestyle, certainly, but there’s no real effort to craft narrative, plot, or even characters in these stories. If there’s a larger message here—and there’s probably not—it’s perhaps summed up in the view of the key protagonist of “Off the Record”: “Governments came and went, but people carried on, surviving as best they could, smiling when the heavens smiled upon them, weeping when tragedy befell.” Well, maybe. But it doesn’t make for very compelling reading.
Arguably, the stories illustrate individuals who are yearning not to achieve greatness, but just to achieve something that will reduce, in some small way, their own sense of insignificance in the face of the two forces that appear to define their lives: the global economy on the one hand, local cultural tradition on the other. These are simple aspirations—a boyfriend, job success, a bit of public or even just private acknowledgement of their worth—and the stories’ fairly formulaic in their telling. They depict privileged characters pursuing ambitions rooted in their own mediocrity. Where tension exists, it’s often resolved by characters sexually harassing each other and then having sex (the sex isn’t even described, resulting in a sort of hollow sexiness, which isn’t even sexy given that it’s more often harassment than sex). Xu has been credited with challenging tradition by crafting fiction featuring Asian women with sexual agency, but the repeat sequence of corporate seduction and characters casually sleeping together comes across as more Hollywood than literary.
Where Xu excels is in the final set of three stories in this collection: fantastical, allegorical pieces that verge on sci-fi. “Here I Am” is a sort of ghost story, told from the perspective of a newly deceased who finds himself in a strange liminal space between the material and spectral worlds. “Kaspar’s Warp” is a short piece about a group of friends growing up over the years, which would fall under the unremarkable batch of other contemporary stories but for the narrator, half living in the world of fiction that he’s struggling to produce. “All About Skin” is the collection’s crowning glory, an absurdist sci-fi story about a future whose citizens are able to purchase and exchange skin colours and identities at will. It’s a brilliant, clever, allegorical tale that succeeds on many levels — commenting on identity politics, colonialism and post-colonialism, national rivalries, neoliberal capitalist globalization, fashion, and popular culture. If Xu’s other stories hint at potential yet fall far short, this one succeeds brilliantly.
There are a couple of stories that serve as bridging pieces between the more contemporary realism and the fantasy. “Canine News” and “The Transubstantiation of the Ants” are light-hearted and absurdist stories and while they have potential, the political metaphors they convey (the former depicting racism as an infectious disease, the latter an insect-world metaphor for Hong Kong’s handover to China) are a bit too forced and disjointed to work.
Nevertheless, Xu’s writing is clearly at its strongest when she gives her imagination free rein; there’s a great deal more potential in the fantastical stories than in the realist contemporary ones.
It’s difficult to be critical of a work such as this: Xu has received praise for her novels, and the West certainly needs exposure to more Asian women writers depicting life in a part of the world that remains all too often orientalised and misrepresented in English-language literature, even today. Unfortunately, the stories in this collection mostly fall flat. Still, there are some creative sparks here and they’re decently crafted, and while the realist corporate tales fail to challenge they’re not unpleasant to read. Her fantasy stories, on the other hand, are first-rate and make the collection just about worthwhile.