Belief in the Power of Books: The Totally Unmythological Mythology Books by Charis Hung

This essay by Hong Kong writer 洪麗芳 Charis Hung Lai-fong celebrates a wonderful and forward-thinking independent bookshop run by Stephanie Chung in Sai Kung. It is called 神話書店 in Chinese, or Mythology Books, but its official English name is Dionysus Books. You can find it at G/F, 17 Sai Kung Tai Street [西貢大街17號地下]. You can visit their Instagram site here.

This essay as first published in the fourteenth issue of Cantonese-language magazine, 《迴響》 Resonate, in August 2021. You can visit their website here, and their Facebook page here for more information about writing in Cantonese.

You can find more writing by Charis Hung on Medium.


When I’d made the long-drawn out journey (this is no joke — I live in the remote north-western New Territories and the round trip takes me more than four hours) to Mythology Books in Sai Kung, I found myself standing in front of a rather unobtrusive door-way no bigger than a large window-frame which I could have easily missed and walked on past. I was momentarily assailed by a feeling of uneasiness: don’t tell I was going to leave here with nothing but disappointment? After I’d plucked up the courage to slide open the door, the Chinese expression 別有洞天 (bit yau dung tin, meaning “a hidden but beautiful spot”) written in large characters flashed through my mind. As it turned out, it was actually really roomy inside, and the décor was very stylish. The store taught me two things: that you cannot judge a book by its cover and that you can’t appraise a bookstore from its external appearance!

A “Mythology” Suited to Hong Kong

According to Stephanie, the owner of the store, it was the English name for her shop — Dionysus Books — that she thought of first (Dionysus is the God of Wine in Greek mythology). It was only later that she decided on the Chinese name San Wa (san wa means “mythology” in Cantonese). When, out of curiosity, I asked her if she was a keen on mythology, she told me that she felt that the God of Wine was very applicable to Hong Kong in its current state. This God of Wine was of mixed parentage — half human, half divine — which made it a spirit at the same time both orthodox and sacrilegious. Sometime, he would bring happiness to humanity, while at other times, misery. Nevertheless, under the influence of the God of Wine, people could break free from reality and enter a frenzied realm in which they could finally overcome their fears. On the subject of myths, Stephanie believes that they are a timely reminder: “Owing to the advances in science and technology, we tend to forget that we can’t necessarily explain everything. But does that mean that something is non-existent, just because it lies beyond our understanding? My sense is that science and technology have reached the point where they have become overly dominant.” It is for this reason that Mythology Books has opted not to have a Facebook page. Instead, it uses MeWe in order to resist a state of affairs in which one person alone has all the say. Myths can remind us of just how insignificant we are, and so make us humbler. Stephanie also mentioned another aspect of myths: they can be exploited by governments as tools for the building of nationalisms, taking historical myths and turning them into elements to justify their rule over the people as well as the establishment of collective values. “It’s just like a certain country we know, always going on about how many thousands of years of history it has . . .” It is Stephanie’s hope that the existence of Mythology Books will serve both as encouragement and as an awakening.


From Hong Kong Girl to Bookstore Boss

Stephanie does not have a background in the cultural circles. Nor does she have any connection with the publishing industry. Before she opened her bookstore, she had never previously had anything to do with this line of work. So why did she finally decide to go down the path of the book trade? It was all because of her deep sense of the power of books. At a leisurely pace, she began telling me her own story. “Ever since I was a little girl, I have always loved to read, but when it came to choosing which subjects to study at high school, I abandoned what I was interested in and choose Business out of practical considerations. During my time at university, I devoted even less time general reading. After graduation, I worked 9 to 5 for several years at a desk job, but felt very unhappy the whole time. There was such a lot of pressure. As a result, when it came to holidays, I would go on a spending-spree as a way of getting my own back, dressing up and buying things by the truckload — your typical Hong Kong girl. One day, I suddenly had this urge to start reading again, and so began re-reading a book I had once enjoyed so much, Dream of the Red Chamber. I realized that Jia Baoyu’s not wanting to sit the exams for the sake of wealth and glory was a rebellion against the establishment, and so I really got a lot out of the story. I read one book after another, and every day when I went to work all I really wanted to do was get back to my reading. Finally, I made up my mind to quit my job and have a go at doing something I really wanted to do.” After undergoing the “baptism” of 2019, Stephanie saw with even greater clarity just how important books can be. In her view, books can help people to think, containing an unlimited number of solutions and so can provide us with outlooks as well as guidance.

“When we read a history book, we can remove ourselves a little bit, and not get so completely wrapped up in what happens to be going on at that particular moment. Our moods are no longer so grey and disheartened, and our horizons can broaden out.” Having been thus enlightened by books, Stephanie finally became the boss of a bookstore in 2021, a store which offers — based on the above-mentioned reasons — mainly books in the areas of history, literature and the social sciences.


When, out of curiosity, I asked her if she was a keen on mythology, she told me that she felt that the God of Wine was very applicable to Hong Kong in its current state. This God of Wine was of mixed parentage — half human, half divine — which made it a spirit at the same time both orthodox and sacrilegious. Sometime, he would bring happiness to humanity, while at other times, misery. Nevertheless, under the influence of the God of Wine, people could break free from reality and enter a frenzied realm in which they could finally overcome their fears.


A Bookstore Imbued to the Full with Environmental Thinking

The book-shelves and décor items found in Mythology Books are things that they have brought from home or that other people have given to them, making it quite unconventional in comparison to many other places where the furnishings are all brand-new. Stephanie told me that she once helped a Sai Kung district councillor run for election and so got to know many friends who shared her views and aspirations. In addition, when she opened the shop, quite a number of local people in the neighbourhood came and gave her a hand. The clock and the sewing machine (it now serves as a reading desk) in the corner to the right of the main entrance are over a hundred years old. And before it became a bookshop, this was a general store run by the grandmother of Stephanie’s husband on his father’s side. The store’s old sign-board still hangs on the wall — 金利源 Kam Lee Yuen (meaning “Source of Fortune and Advantage”) — giving a real sense of carrying on a family tradition. A certain amount of seating has been set aside in the shop for readers to take a rest and browse, making it extremely cosy. Stephanie comments that things don’t have to be new for them to be good, it being so very easy to find second-hand furniture in Hong Kong. Looking after the environment is actually not as hard as you might imagine it to be.



The Diversity of Independent Bookstores

Stephanie shared with me something of her experiences involving making the bookstore available to various local organizations as a venue for events every now and then. It is her hope that — given its lack of available venues — Mythology Books can provide a space in which people with similar values can come together and coalesce. Such people may also have links with other small business operating in Sai Kung, so they can give one another mutual support, possibly leading to further co-operation. Laughing, Stephanie said to me: “Actually, before 2019, we weren’t at all like this. For many Sai Kung people back then, Sai Kung was just the place where you slept, and we were not really very interested about what was going on in the district. From Monday to Friday, we would all go off to work, while on our days off we would either head out very early in the morning and return late at night, or we would spend the whole time tucked up at home just to avoid all the visitors from elsewhere. But nowadays, people have really integrated into their district and, almost without realizing it, now have another very close connection in their lives.” This is probably true for many people in Hong Kong. It is hoped that in future, bookstores will go on organizing reading groups and, if this remains possible, they could also arrange film screenings or invite writers to come and give a talk, with bookshops functioning as a collective space. As Stephanie mentioned, one advantage independent bookstores have over traditional ones is that their operations can be more diverse, not just selling books but also engaging in a range of other activities, bringing out more — and more precious — voices and creating different kinds of influences.


The Book Trade Will Not Decline

Stephanie remarked that when she first decided to open a bookstore, a lot of people weren’t too keen on the idea — only her husband supported her. She herself, however, was quite optimistic: “I wasn’t too worried. I always thought that as the situation grew worse in Hong Kong, more people would want to read. It really is the case that more young people are going to bookshops, hoping to find answers in a book.” Stephanie went on to add that, although there is plenty of information on the internet, it tends to be too fragmentary, giving books a reason to exist, a reason now even more important than ever. I asked her about whether she had any concerns regarding a political investigation (as I was writing this piece, the police had just arrested five people from the General Union of Hong Kong Speech Therapists for publishing the “Sheep Village” series of illustrated children’s books). Stephanie replied that she couldn’t think that far ahead, and that the books in her shop would remain on the shelves — they hadn’t been banned, so why would there be any problem? “I don’t want to carry out my own self-investigation,” she said, and throughout our conversation you could sense her passionate conviction, not the fiery kind but a sort of ardour that still believes that it is possible to change some things in the world. At the same time — just like many other bookstore owners I have interviewed in the past — Stephanie believes that working in the book trade is something permeated with love rather than competitiveness. “We all give publicity to one another, and we all help each other out. Quite a number of bookstore owners were willing to give me a lot of practical advice — me, a complete beginner. Even the distributors were more than willing to spend time with me, answering my questions.”

Tomas Tranströmer’s Great Leap Forward: “Utkantsområde”

Photo by Miguel u00c1. Padriu00f1u00e1n on Pexels.com












The Great Leap Forward — 大躍進 in Chinese — refers to the second Five Year Plan for the years 1958 to 1962. It was an attempt to rapidly transform the People’s Republic into an ideal communist society. In effect, it led to massive starvation due to food shortages, with millions of people dying from the simple lack of something to eat.

This kind of blind, accelerated rejection of the land in the name of “improvement” seems to lie at the heart of this poem by Tomas Tranströmer, first published in the collection Mörkerseende (1970). What he calls in the third line det stora språnget must be, I think, a Swedish translation for the Maoist term. And — without trying to limit the possibilities of the poem too neatly — the reference at the end of the text to begravningsplats = “burial place” hints at the destruction and famine associated with the ill-fated Chinese campaign.

But is Sweden (or anywhere else, for that matter) really so different? There is, for me, an echo of this insane leap-mentality in a passage from the book Författarmiljöer i Stockholm by Ulla Montan and Ludvig Rassmusson:

När Stockholm under förra seklet blev storstad, offrades naturen. Det hade inte behövt gå så, det var inte nödvändigt — i Paris, som var den stora förebilden, anlade man parker och planterade träd längs boulevarderna. Men i Stockholm var man nyförälskad i stadsaktigheten. Alla dessa inflyttade som lämnat landsbygden bakom sig, skämdes för de knotiga björkarna, de magra rönnarna, vedbodarna, utedassen, Kronblom ock leran. De ville ha modernitet och stadsaktighet. (p.52).

When Stockholm became a big city over the course of the previous century, nature was sacrificed. It did not have to be that way; it was not at all necessary. In Paris — which served as the major prototype — parks were laid out and trees planted along the boulevards. But in Stockholm people had become infatuated with the big city lifestyle. All those who moved to the city left the countryside behind, ashamed of scraggy birch trees, skinny rowans, woodsheds, earth-closets, low-brow comic-strips and all that mud. They wanted modernity and a life in the metropolis.

Two kinds of vocabulary dominate this short poem: a construction lexicon intertwined with agricultural terms. The organic growth of the soil is mimicked by a constructive pseudo-flourishing: earth-coloured men pop up out of the ground like seedlings. Farm-animals seem to haunt the poem. We are reminded of them by the cranes that wish to spring like gambolling lambs; by the sound of bells; by the concrete pipes, thirsty in their own way, “lapping” at the light; and by the repurposed lagårdar or “cow-sheds”. But ultimately, the landscape is a space-age, lunar one, devoid of organic growth, a deathly site populated everywhere by föremål [objects] rather than subjects. The search for profit at the expense of the magical fertility of the soil has betrayed us.


Utkantsområde

Män i överdragskläder med samma färg som marken kommer upp ur ett dike.
Det är ett övergångsområde, dödläge, varken stad eller land.
Byggnadskranarna vid horisonten vill ta det stora språnget men klockorna vill inte.
Kringkastade cementrör lapar ljuset med torra tungor.
Bilplåtverkstäder inrymda i före detta lagårdar.
Stenarna kastar skuggorna skarpt som föremål på månytan.
Och de platserna bara växer.
Som det man köpte för Judas’ pengar: ”Krukmakaråkern till begravninsplats för främlingar.”

…………………………………………………..

Men in overalls the same colour as the ground sprout up out of a trench.

This is an in-between zone, dead-heat, neither city nor country.

Construction cranes along the horizon want to make the Great Leap Forward, but bells hang back.

Dotted across the landscape, concrete pipes lick light with parched tongues.

Crash-repair garages housed in what used to be cow-sheds.

The stones cast their shadows sharply like objects on the surface of the moon.

And such places are growing.

Reminiscent of “the Potter’s Field” they bought with Judas’ silver “as a burial place for strangers”.

Liisa Immonen’s Faithless Loyalty

劉仁傑:《喘息系列》


It has been a night of passionate love-making. Next morning, the speaker in this short poem thinks teasingly: Sinä olet minulle hiukan uskoton = You are a little unfaithful to me. She/he lies there awake, reading in the lover’s look a hint of doubt about the depths of their feelings for one another. A need for reassurance — in words — appears to be necessary . . .

This is the unspoken question runs through the heart of this poem: Do you really love me? Of course, a simple yes or no is not enough — it’s not just what answer you give but the degree of conviction you are capable of conveying. In this sense, Immonen’s poem is not just about love. It’s also about poetry. In poetry, too, it’s not just a matter of making sense but of indicating heartfeltness. Once again, Immonen demonstrates that she is equal to the task.

Within the poem itself, the speaker provides no satisfactory answer. The body has spoken, and that should be enough. But the lover’s doubts within the situation will be answered “outside” when he/she comes cross a copy of the poem, left casually in a place where it is sure to be noticed, a candid declaration in the guise of a feigned reproach.

The language of the poem is beautifully simple, the only difficulty being the word levänneenä, a part participle derived from the verb levätä, meaning “to rest, to have a rest, to repose”. Finnish past participles have both singular and plural forms (levännyt/levänneet); interestingly, the stem form is based on the plural levännee-, which can then take case endings like any other noun or adjective. Fred Karlsson gives an unforgettable example of the part participle used with case-endings in his Finsk grammatik:

Pommin löytäneelle koiralle anettiin mitali = A medal was given to the dog which found the bomb. (198)

The case in this instance is the essive, expressed by the ending –. The wonderous Arthur H. Whitney outlines three uses of the essive, the most relevant for this instance being “the state or temporary character of something or someone” (Finnish).

A little oddly to non-Finnish speakers, the word ruumis, meaning “body”, can also mean “corpse”, but fortunately not in this particular jewel of a poem.

…………………………………………………..

Sinä olet minulle
hiukan uskoton.
Kun herään unesta, levänneenä,
sinun katseesi kysyy minua,
etkä saa parempaa vastausta
kuin ruumiini sinulle antaa,
ja sinä epäilet,
vaikka minun ruumiini tietää
enemmän kuin luuletkaan
.

You are being unfaithful to me
just that tiny little bit.
As I lie here awake
and reposed, you question me with your gaze,
wondering whether you could get a better answer
than my body gives you.
Indeed, you believe you might —
even though my body knows
much more than you think.

Beyond the Dream by Chiang Hiu-mei (Part 1 Ah Lok: 1-6)


Beyond the Dream is a beautiful love-story with a psychological twist. How refreshing to read about a romantic male “hero” who is modest, kind, and forever concerned about the welfare of others — one can only wish that there were more like him out there in the “real world” . . .

The writer 蔣曉薇 Chiang Hiu-mei lives in Tuen Mun, in the western New Territories of Hong Kong. She has written three novels to date, the most recent of which is The Beaching of Autumn Whales 《秋鯨擱淺》published in 2020.

The following is a translation of the opening section (parts 1-6) of her second novel, a literary rendition of the film 《幻愛》. In it, we meet the character Ah Lok, a likeable young primary school teacher who is trying to get his like back on track after the death of his mother.

Chiang Hiu-mei herself once commented in a video:

最初開始創作嘅時候 | 其實我覺得係,係一個傷口裏面滲透住一啲東西出嚟嘅 | 噉我傷口係由於自己經歷啦 | 亦都有一部分源自於社會嘅變化啦 | 你面對住變化嘅時候 | 其實係好多焦慮呀、無助呀、無力感呀 | 噉但寫作想讓自己可以重新去正視 | 究竟自己嘅恐懼係嚟自啲乜嘢呀?| 點解對於一啲變化咁焦慮呀?

When I first began to create, it actually felt to me like a wound out of which things came seeping. The wound was due to what I had been through; it also partly originated from changes in society. When you confront the changes, then there are in fact many misgivings, helplessness, powerlessness. However, writing can give you the ability to face up to such things anew. What exactly what is the source of one’s terror? Why does one feel so anxious about certain changes?

This sensitivity to suffering is a hallmark of Chiang’s portrayal of Ah Lok, and one that helps the reader to see the world through her character’s eyes, at the same time hopeful and vulnerable to despair.

Other posts on 蔣曉薇 Chiang Hiu-mei and Beyond the Dream:

Learning Cantonese: A Tuen Mun Love Story . . .

Learning Cantonese: 蔣曉薇 Chiang Hiu-mei on Hongkongers — Leaving, Staying or Stranded?

Learning Cantonese: 周冠威 Kiwi Chow “How much are you willing to sacrifice for your home, Hong Kong?”

Learning Cantonese: 你究竟接唔接受你自己?or Can You Learn to Accept Yourself?

…………………………………………………………………………………..

Ah Lok / 1.

Night fell virtually unnoticed, putting the streets to a music quite different from the one heard during daylight hours. The main thoroughfares blazed with light, people moved in jumbled crowds, vehicles shuttled back and forth, and not far off in the distance came the clackety-clack made by the wheels of the light-rail train as its trundled along the tracks. It sounded very much like a musical instrument that had gone out of tune and, if you listened carefully, you might have realized that there was actually some kind of warning in its tone, but the people scurrying this way and that had no time to wonder about what it might be hinting at.

Through this crowd, a middle-aged woman walked with staccato steps, turning over something in her mind, abruptly stopping, then setting off again, only to stop once more not long after. She gazed up into the night sky — a mysterious-looking moonlight shining through a break in the clouds — as if she had glimpsed something ghastly up above, invisible to others. She too no notice of the traffic lights, crossing roads heedless of cars, and would come to a standstill on the footpath as people passed her by. Just as they always did every single day, the shops selling audio-visual equipment blared ear-splitting Mandarin pop songs into the bustling streets. And, as usual, in front of the sparkling neon signs of the foot-massage parlours, there was a prostitute hanging around waiting for a customer. The middle-aged woman passed by the frozen meat stalls, the cha chan teng restaurants, the stores selling mobile phones, looking around this way and that, disoriented, hugging herself tightly with her arms as she went.

She was in great anguish. There were tears on her face and her body twitched uncontrollably. Her dishevelled hair hung down around her shoulders and her lips trembled, as if she were telling herself about some terrible thing that was going to happen to her. All of a sudden, in a great burst of energy, she began to strip off her clothes, but then, just as quickly, she seemed to come to her senses and scrambled to dress herself again. Two opposing forces in her seemed to engaged in a kind of tug of war. After a few moments of further struggle, she could no longer withstand that demon’s promptings — yielding, surrendering, she took off her clothes, one item at a time, then huddled down on the ground in her panties and bra.

When they happened to notice the extraordinary things this middle-aged woman was doing, passers-by cast sidelong glances in her direction. Some of the men stood there boorishly gawping, while mothers shielded their children’s eyes with their hands and hurried them away. When Ah Lok, who was on his way home, saw the large gathering of on-lookers, his curiosity got the better of him. There were just too many people, however, which meant that all he could see was a dense mass of heads — he had no idea what was going on.

Suddenly, he heard a woman’s voice call out in agitation: “What the hell do you think you’re taking pictures of?”

As it turned out, a man in the crowd dressed in a Western-style suit was filming the incident on his mobile phone. Outraged by his behaviour and alert to the injustice it involved, a young woman with long hair ordered him to stop. It was only then that Ah Lok managed to catch a glimpse of the woman in the middle of the crowd squatting on the ground in her underwear. Her eyes had a glazed look in them, as if she had fallen into a trance, and seemed deeply disturbed by something as she stared up at the sky, muttering. When Ah Lok realized it was Ah Ling, he forced a way through the mass of bodies and draped his windcheater over her shoulders.

“Ah Ling, there’s no need to be frightened,” he said.

“Listen! He says he’s going to kill my mother!”

“You’re hearing things. It’s not real!” Ah Lok repeated several times.

When the woman with the long hair noticed that Ah Ling was shivering all over, she took off her shawl and wrapped it around her.

“Is she someone you know?” the long-haired woman asked.

Ah Lok nodded.

Right at that moment, he became aware of a beam of light shining at them — another male passer-by was holding up his phone and filming them. At once, Ah Lok stood up, blocking the lens on the phone with one hand, and said loudly, “Get out of here!”

Ah Ling still looked panic-stricken as if she felt she were under attack from an evil spirit and held on tightly to the hands of the long-haired woman, her body shuddering all the while. She kept her teeth tightly clenched, as if she could see countless malevolent creatures all wanting to hurt her mother, and she could find no way to break through this ring of hostile people. After an interval of pandemonium, an ambulance arrived on the scene. Ah Ling was escorted into the vehicle by a paramedic, with Ah Lok climbing in after them.

As he watched out through the window of the stationary ambulance, Ah Lok saw a police officer questioning the long-haired woman there in the street about what had taken place. Lit up by the street-lights, he finally became aware of the quiet-coloured clothing she had on — an azure-blue denim jacket and a trailing, fine-gauze fabric skirt which accentuated her slender figure. She had an attractive face with very white skin and, beneath a pair of delicate, prettily curved eyebrows, her eyes shone. Ah Lok thought she was extremely beautiful and couldn’t help staring at her in awe.

It was only when the ambulance doors slammed shut that Ah Lok came to his senses. By this time, Ah Ling seemed to have calmed down and had fallen asleep on the stretcher. He suddenly realized that he was still holding the shawl in his hands, left behind by the woman with the long hair, but by this time the ambulance was in motion. He looked out the window but could no longer see any sign of her.

2.

After the ordeals of the evening, it was very late by the time Ah Lok got back home. He carefully pulled open the screen-door before gently closing it behind him, doing his utmost to make sure there was no noise. Yes, that was his nature, conscientious and cautious, concerned that his late return might wake up his neighbours. Even inside his flat, he continued to tread quietly. As he put his backpack down, he still held on to the shawl. He took out a coat-hangar from his wardrobe and hung the shawl up against a window so that it wouldn’t crumple. He looked at the long light-blue garment and thought once again of that woman’s angelic face. That night, things lingered in his mind that were impossible to put into words.

All of a sudden, his phone began to vibrate without ringing. His aunt’s number showed on the screen.

“Auntie?”

“I’ve been ringing all night! Why haven’t you answered the phone?”

“I turned it off ring mode.”

It occurred to Ah Lok that whenever he watched a match between Manchester United and Chelsea he also kept the sound turned down.

“Your mother’s will has been settled. The people at the public housing association have already transferred the flat so that it’s listed under your name. Don’t forget to go to the Housing Authority to fill out the paperwork.”

“Right. You know, about the banquet my cousin is giving, I think I’d rather give it a miss.”

“Now look, I promised your mother I’d keep an eye on you! That girl in Canton works as a nurse. She knows all about looking after people.”

“I’m quite capable of looking after myself! My mother wouldn’t hold it against you.”

“You listen to me. You need someone to take good care of you for the rest of your life. It’s too good a chance . . .”

His aunt kept on at him with her well-intentioned advice. Ah Lok grunted half-heartedly, more out of politeness than agreement, walking as he did so over to where he kept a photograph of his mother together with the urn that held her ashes. He looked at them both blankly. Beside him was the door to her bedroom — although it was left ajar, he had never once gone inside since her death. He was afraid it would stir up the terror still lurking deep down in his heart and if his mood were triggered it might affect his day-to-day life, something he just couldn’t afford to have happen.

“Ah Lok, are you listening to me?”

“Hmm.”

“Then that’s settled. I’ll send you over some information I have about her later. She really is a good girl! You mustn’t disappoint your mother’s wishes for you — nor mine for that matter. And don’t forget the paperwork for the flat! It’s getting on, so try and get an early night. You have to go to work tomorrow!”

After his aunt had poured out everything she wanted to say, she hung up. Ah Lok could feel peace and quiet returning to the world.

Ah Lok lived in a two-bedroom flat provided by public housing and had only ever lived there with his mother. The décor was old-fashioned, and completely out of keeping with someone of Ah Lok’s age. In the living room there was a two-seater sofa in front of which was arranged a wooden shelving unit with the television set on it. Next to the unit was the dining table, also made of wood, and if his mother were still alive today there probably would have been a plate of steamed fish laid out on it. His mother had often said that fish was rich in protein and so good for the brain. The flat was very simple and, apart from the wall-calendar and some photographs, there was virtually no decoration of any kind. Not that Ah Lok minded: he was quite happy being on his own and though he would go on living there alone for the rest of his life.

That night, after he’d washed and brushed his teeth, he got into bed. He couldn’t sleep, though — he just lay there looking at the shawl as it rippled in the breeze while his thoughts whirled round and round till he began to feel uneasy. In the end, he got out of bed, removed the shawl, folded it up with great care, and put it back in his backpack. It occurred to him that if a strong wind blew up during the night, it might blow the shawl down into the street; he also thought that if he happened to run into the woman again, he could return it to her. At this point, his phone began to vibrate again. Ah Lok thought it must be his aunt sending through that information about the nurse in Canton, but when he picked it up he saw that it was a video of Ah Ling taking of her clothes sent through by his WhatApp community [群組], with comments on it constantly coming through like stray bullets.

“This is going viral out there!”

“God knows what will happen if Ah Ling sees this!”

“This is just too much!”

“Whatever you do, don’t show this to Ah Ling!”

Ah Lok clicked on the video and saw her stripped of her clothes, shivering there with her bare arms wrapped around her. The more he watched the more his outrage grew, until he jumped out of bed, turned on his laptop and, on a Facebook page with the title “Mental Health Alliance”, typed in the headline “Stop Inflicting a Second Level Pain — Mental Illness is Only an Illness!”. He then proceeded to key in the contents of his post: “Those who suffer from mental illness are just like you and me. It’s just that sometimes something goes wrong with them, and is no different from when ordinary people like you and me catch a cold, become diabetics or contract some form of heart disease. Their sickness is not something they have any control over. The key thing is, as with most other forms of disease, people can recover from mental illness given the right treatment. Perhaps to most of us, the things people do when they have an episode of mental illness can seem pretty weird, but in actual fact only a very small number of sufferers behave in such ways. And even if they do sometimes act a bit differently from the rest of us, such behaviour is only a symptom of their sickness and is totally beyond their control . . .”

His eyes glued to the screen, and with his fingers flying across the keyboard, in no time Ah Lok had written a long post in which he took netizens to task for rubbing salt into the wounds of people suffering from mental illness. The more he wrote, the angrier Ah Lok grew — if there was one thing he couldn’t stand it was criticism of people with a mental illness by outsiders with no experience of the issues, criticism which only added to their pain. In conclusion, he appealed to readers to adopt a positive attitude with regard to people with mental illness to help them make the transition back into social life. If no extra pressures were put on them, their chances of recovery would only be enhanced.

When he was finished, he looked up at the garage-kit figurine of the Incredible Hulk he kept on the windowsill, a film character he was very fond of. He then added his sign-off at the end of the post — Angry Hulk — and then slammed his computer shut in disgust.

That night, he seemed doomed to sleeplessness, a ball of fire blazing angrily in his chest which scorched, it seemed, both his body and his mind.

3.

When he heard the alarm ring on his phone, Ah Lok scrambled upright and switched it off. He rubbed his chest — that searing anger he had felt the previous evening was still smouldering away in his heart, it seemed. He got up and went into the living room, where he poured himself a cup of boiled water from the thermos. After gulping it down, he began to feel a bit better.

Ah Lok was not the kind of person who like lazing around in bed. He set himself high standards and disliked imposing on other people in any way. Although you couldn’t say he was particularly quick off the mark, he was never late for work and always arrived a quarter of an hour before the appointed time. After taking a shower, he looked at his watch and thought that he could probably make the light-rail service that left at forty-eight minutes past. Before heading out, he unzipped his backpack just to make sure the shawl was safely packed inside, then, closing the screen-door quietly, he set off for the station.

Ah Lok worked as a Phys. Ed. teacher in a primary school. He liked his job and, even though most of the children disliked going to class, they were always happy doing P.E. Some ran around, others jumped all over the place, fooling around and having a good time, and from every part of playground you could hear the sound of their laughter, as if that vague wish for “eternal happiness” could actually come true. Of course, if Ah Lok happened to be walking past, he would become a target for their attacks and things would get completely chaotic, with no semblance of order whatsoever.

Ah Lok made a start on his lesson. The subject of today’s class was soccer and he began by demonstrating the skills required to shoot for goal. After the demonstration, he asked the students to copy his movements and to practice kicking the ball at the goal. Unfortunately, a soccer ball was to these kids a lethal weapon and, as soon as they got one between their feet, they would start kicking it left and right as hard as they could, instant warfare breaking out on the playground. Ah Lok stood in front of goal as keeper, while the children tried to score, kicking the ball in all sorts of different ways. Countless soccer balls went flying around the playground and Ah Lok would deftly throw himself on his side saving any number of certain goals. The children, however, were undeterred, and several of them would shoot at goal in unison, kicking as if their feet were fitted with springs. The more they kicked, the more excited they became, and the more frenetic their shots on goal became until Ah Lok could withstand them no more and lay down on the ground, gasping for breath. He gestured to them, indicating that he wanted a ceasefire and pretending to plead for mercy, something that made the children roar with laughter. No one at that moment noticed the pair of eyes watching them intently from above.

When the class came to an end, he dismissed his pupils and, having a short break before his next class, went off and gathered up all the soccer balls, then returned them to the store room. On his way back to the staff room, he passed a male teacher showing another colleague something on his phone, but paid no attention to them. He wanted to give his give his face a wash in preparation for the next session.

As he moved past the pair, however, the man with the phone handed it to Ah Lok and said: “Have you seen this, Mr Lee?”

At once Ah Lok saw that it was clip of Ah Ling taking off her clothes. Then, by chance, a secretary from the school’s admin. office happened to come by and joined their group.

“The number of crazy people in Hong Kong is growing by the day!”

“A mad woman like that shouldn’t be allowed to run around at will!”

“She’s a mature, grown-up woman! That’s a bit rich, isn’t it!”

“She’s not mad. It’s probably a psychosis that gives her hallucinations and makes her hear voices that aren’t really there. She can’t help it.” Ah Lok explained earnestly.

At this moment, a female secretary went by holding a newspaper in her hand. Seeing them talking there together, she walked over and began leafing through the pages. In it there was a story on Ah Ling taking off her clothes. Next to the report was a photograph of her.

“That’s you in the photo. I thought the face looked familiar!” said the female secretary.

“Oh, so you were there, on the spot!”

“Is she a friend of yours?”

“No, she’s not. I just happened to be passing by,” said Ah Lok, denying any connection.

“You’re a saint. If I’d been in your shoes, I would have cleared out as fast as I could.”

“Of course, you would have! Who knows what dreadful things she might have done! It’s all very well to say that a mental illness is only an illness, but it perfectly natural to feel alarmed if you happened to be passing by.”

After completing a circuit of the school, the principal descended from the fourth floor. When he reached the door of the administrative office, he caught sight of the group in animated discussion, and a look of disapproval appeared on his face. He pretended to cough a couple of times, just like the typical stern boss in some television soap opera. When the members of the group caught sight of him, they all went back to work, not daring to continue their discussion.

Suddenly, the headmaster spoke, his tone icy: “Mr Lee, please come and see me after work! I would like you to do a bit of critical reflection on your class-management practices.”

Before he had time to make a response, the principal had already disappeared into the administrative office, the door closing behind him. He had no idea what it was that the principal wanted him to reflect on, but he seemed to remember the man’s brow having the colour and texture of a charred walnut.

4.

Whether coming or going, Ah Lok’s daily travel was all done on the light rail, the largest transport network connecting up all of Tuen Mun, and he couldn’t help thinking that the place must be a rather forsaken corner — otherwise why would they have built a transport system here that the rest of the world regards as a dismal failure? At a time when everyone was talking about creating a “one hour living circle” for the whole Greater Bay Area, it still took a bone-rattling one-hour journey all up to get from Tuen Mun Pier to Fu Tin MTR station — and if you didn’t get on at the terminus, you wouldn’t even dream of finding a vacant seat. At peak hour — going to, or coming from, work — people jammed the carriages like sardines in a tin, and with every breath you breathed in the hot sweat of others. Life being difficult enough already, Ah Lok wanted to spare himself any additional annoyance, and so always chose to avoid the crowds, waiting until the evening rush-hour was over before catching the light rail home. In any case, there was nowhere else he had to be. And in any case, he was on his own.

As he walked at a leisurely pace to the light-rail platform, Ah Lok thought over what the headmaster had said to him, how he wasn’t to join in too freely with the children’s games; how, after long observation, he had noted that the children didn’t stick to the proper discipline during their Phys. Ed. classes; and how this could be dangerous. Ah Lok explained to the headmaster that he joined in with the children to make the classes more enjoyable for them and, as a result, could help them deal with the pressures of study better. The principal, however, did not accept Ah Lok’s explanations, and insisted that a clear boundary be maintained between teachers and students — any transgression of this boundary benefited neither party. Naturally, Ah Lok was reluctant to accept such instructions. To take his mind off the issue took one of Haruki Murakami’s books down from the book-desk in the staff room and started to read — only Murakami seemed to understand the world of the lonely.

With a ding ding of the bell, the light rail pulled in very slowly to the platform. There were two carriages on this service and, when the doors opened, he entered the rear one. There weren’t many passengers on board, and he found a place to stand near the window where he immersed himself in his book. As the light rail slowly pulled out from the station, gliding slowly along the rails, it put all that hubbub and confusion behind it, leaving only the clickety-clack it made to reverberate around the housing estates. After a while, the light rail had to make a turn — happening to look out the window, Ah Lok caught sight of a familiar face in the carriage up in front. Putting his book away, he immediately made his way to the head of the carriage in the hope of getting a clearer view. It was her, the woman with the long hair he had met the previous night, sitting in the front carriage! He felt a rush of excitement and all the smouldering resentment he felt about his interview with the headmaster before leaving work evaporated instantly. He watched her intently, not letting her out of his sight for a moment.

The woman had no idea that Ah Lok was watching her. She leant against the window intently watching the streetscape, her look gentle, refined. It seemed as if, to her, these perfectly ordinary streets and housing estates were a rare sight. Her attire this evening was slightly different to that of the previous night — she wore her hair pulled back in a pony-tail and was dressed in sporting gear, relaxed and yet animated, giving her a certain freshness. Sometimes the two carriages seemed close together, sometimes far apart, stopping and starting in the course of the short journey. When the carriages were in a straight line, the view of where the long-haired woman was sitting would be blocked by other passengers standing in the way and at those moments when he couldn’t see her, Ah Lok’s heart seemed to hang in mid-air, as he moved this way and then in the effort to catch a glimpse. But when the carriages had to make a turn and he caught sight of her through the window, his heart would grow vivid again. To him, the distance between the two carriages was tantalising, somehow both near and yet remote, keeping him at arm’s length. Turbulent waves rose up in his thoughts and, although there were sometimes lulls, those thoughts could never be calmed.

Finally, after the light-rail train had pulled up at the platform, and after a rush of passengers got on and off, the doors slowly closed again, he discovered that the young woman with the long hair was no longer on board. This second encounter, then, concluded abruptly to the clang of the warning bell as the train set off. Any hope — the hope that was so near that you could reach out and touch it — vanished silently in an instant, leaving him anxious and dejected, and at a complete loss as to what to do next.

5.

In the dim lamp-light, the long streets stilled, Ah Lok felt that he had lost out by missing the chance to get to know the girl with the long hair. He trudged on holding a copy of Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, and made his way home in a daze.

Ah Lok lived in a public housing estate built in the well pattern, its four identical sides enclosing an open space in the centre. All you had to do was look up and you could see the sky. The corridors on each floor were like public thoroughfares — lean against the railings and you could see inhabitants of all the various storeys. Back in the old days, neighbours would play mahjong in those corridors, dry cotton-wadded quilts and fruit-peel in the sun, while children would boil wax in the stair-wells or play blind man’s buff. Ever since the introduction of the Marking Scheme for Estate Management Enforcement, however, such features of the human landscape could no longer be seen.

Ah Lok entered the estate and walked across the open sky-well, but when he looked up, all he could see was a thick covering of cloud — neither moonlight not starlight was visible. He thought to himself that in many ways he resembled Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki, not only not having any friends but also shunned by the stars! He plodded over to the elevator were lobby and before long a lift arrived. He pressed the button for the eighteenth floor, then the doors began to close slowly. Just then, Ah Lok heard someone asking him to open the lift doors again and, of course, he did so at once. Once fully opened he came face to face the young woman he had met the previous evening.

He was so stunned he did not know how to react. He just stared as she pressed the button for the nineteenth floor, after which she smiled politely in his direction.

Ah Lok felt tense all over, and his heart thumped in his chest. From time to time, he looked furtively at the girl, but she kept her eyes fixed on the floor display screen, lips pursed with a hint of a smile.

The two of them stood there side by side, neither daring to move, let alone speak. An atmosphere of embarrassment — together with something indefinable — filled the air.

After a protracted silence, the lift arrived at the eighteenth floor and the doors slid apart. Ah Lok finally plucked up the courage to ask: “Do you remember me?”

“I wasn’t sure you’d remember me,” the long-haired young woman said with a smile on her face.

They look at one another, smiling. Ah Lok felt his face flush red and was unable to say another word, so he took a step back out through the elevator doors, waving his goodbyes to her. However, his gaze never left her smiling face until the lift doors closed up again.

Ah Lok stood there dumbfounded, unable to believe what had just happened — it was if the world had regained all the colour it was supposed to have had. He grinned, pleased with himself and walked to the door of his flat humming a song. It was only when he got there that he realized he had forgotten something very important. He ran back to the sky-well corridor and looked up at the next level. There he saw the long-haired young woman walking along.

He called to her in a loud voice: “Hey, there!” At once he realized he was making too much noise and looked around, concerned that he had disturbed the other residents.

The woman looked down and, when she saw that it was Ah Lok calling to her from the sky-well, she looked astonished. Ah Lok then opened his backpack and took out the shawl, giving it a light shake with his hands. When the woman saw what it was, she laughed with delight at the surprise. Without giving the matter a second thought, Ah Lok turned and ran up to the nineteenth floor.

Ah Lok needed no more than a moment to cover the distance to her but, perhaps because of his excitement, this man who could run a long-distance race of three thousand metres without any obvious effort found himself panting a little for breath. He did everything he could, however, to maintain his smiling appearance and handed the shawl over to her. The young woman with the long hair took it from him and thanked him, a sweet expression on her face.

The two of them stood there without saying anything more for a long while, each of them smiling at the smile on the other’s face, as the atmosphere of embarrassment made its presence felt once more.

“You, ah, live in No. 26 on the nineteenth floor while I’m in No. 26 on the eighteenth,” Ah Lok said, pointing at the door plate with his right hand while trying to figure out what to do with his left.

“Really?” she said, laughing again, a faint red tinge suddenly appearing on her pale face.

“Uh-huh,” replied Ah Lok, staring at her blankly. How beautiful she was, he thought, oblivious of the fact that he too was blushing.

“Well, next time we meet, don’t go calling me ‘hey, there’ at the top of your voice. My name is Yan Yan.” As she spoke, she carefully unlocked her metal screen door.

“My name is Lee Chi-lok, the chi character is the one used in chi-hei (meaning “ambition”), while the lok is like the one in chi-lok.”

What Ah Lok meant to say was that the lok was like the one in faai-lok (“happy”), but he was so flustered it came out all wrong.

Yan Yan laughed and blushed out of shyness, then went inside, lightly closing the screen-door behind her. Ah Lok stayed there at the front door watching her go, a sweet smile on his face. Until he fell asleep that night, the sweetness of this smile did not leave the corners of his mouth. In his heart he felt sure he would see Yan Yan again.

6.

Ah Lok sat on the light-rail platform, constantly scanning the entrances and exits, consumed by a whirl of agitated emotions. This time, he did not bring his book with him, having only one aim in mind: to meet with Yan Yan again, and walk with her over the pedestrian overpass and then back along the road to where they both lived.

them intently, muscles taut with anticipation. There were people in the crowd chatting in putonghua laced with snatches of Cantonese; men dressed in perfectly ironed Western-style suits; a woman carrying the children’s school bags on her back and speaking in her own language with an Indonesian husband about some video; there were individuals so tired they appeared to be on the verge of collapse; some scolded their children as they got off the train, their eyes glued to the screen of their mobile phones the whole time; and not a few had shopping trolleys, tottering unsteadily with every step they took. As it happened, there was a sizeable population of old people living alone in the estate, and most of them would rather take the light rail to do their shopping at the San Hui Market than visit the more expensive Link Reit market in the place they lived, feeling it necessary to go to that extra bit of trouble if it meant saving a few cents here or there. When Ah Lok saw the trouble these elderly residents were having with their trolleys, he couldn’t bear it, and would go to their aid, lifting the trolley onto the pedestrian footbridge for them. But as soon as another light-rail train came along, he would dash back to the platform.

As night began to fall, it gradually grew darker and the platform gradually became deserted without Ah Lok have seen any trace of Yan Yan. He sat there thinking to himself that it was no easy thing meeting up with someone — timeliness, location and compatibility all had to be right. It was no wonder some people claimed that you couldn’t go out and find love; you had to bide your time until fate was good and ready. Ah Lok was well aware of this wise adage, but still he was unable to reconcile himself to it. As he made his way over the pedestrian footbridge, he kept turning around to look behind him, in the hope of catching a glimpse of Yan Yan somewhere in the vicinity.

After a walk of over ten minutes, he arrived back at the housing estate. When he reached the open sky-well, he stopped and gazed upwards at flat no. 26 on the nineteenth floor, the place where Yan Yan dwelled and lived out her life. There were still lights on in the flat, he noticed, which meant that Yan Yan had already made it home again — there was little chance of him seeing her tonight, it would seem.

Ah Lok had originally planned to phone his aunt once he got back in to say he wasn’t coming to his cousin’s banquet but suddenly a door above slammed with a tremendous bang, which made Ah Lok hurry back outside into the corridor to see what was going on. When he looked up, he saw that Yan Yan had been driven out of her flat and was leaning against the railing holding an iron bar in both hands. She looked scared out of her wits and at times her face turned a ghastly shade of white.

At that moment, she happened to look down, and when she caught sight of Ah Lok looking up at her, she was overcome with embarrassment since she wasn’t wearing anything on her feet. Ah Lok gestured to her, inviting her to come down to the eighteenth floor. When she came face to face with him on the stairs between floors, she seemed uncomfortable. It was getting late, Ah Lok thought, and it wouldn’t do for a young woman to be seen hanging around in the corridor — she was sure to get a few looks from the other residents. He suggested she come over to his place for a moment, just to calm her nerves.

Ah Lok’s flat was still in darkness, but there was a faint light coming in from outside over the window ledges, and Yan Yan walked around, appraising everything. Suddenly, they heard the loud crash of hard objects being throw around in the flat above.

“My dad gets into a drunken rage every time he drinks,” Yan Yan quietly explained.

Ah Lok was listening carefully to what was going on overhead. He was caught off guard when Yan Yan suddenly turned and fired a question at him: “You don’t drink, do you?”

“No, no way,” Ah Lok replied.

At once she replied, “Whatever you do, don’t drink!”

She walked slowly over to the shelving unit and swept a hand over the pitch-black television screen, murmuring as she did so: “You don’t put the sound up too loud, do you?”

“I can’t stand loud noise.”

“Loud television noise makes people irritable.

Ah Lok nodded in agreement.

Yan Yan squatted down, finding an EP in the shelving unit — a CD with just the one song on it, Faye Wang’s “Eyes on Me”. She picked it up and looked at it carefully, discovering on the back an image taken from the video game Final Fantasy VIII.

“I didn’t know Faye Wong sang in English as well.”

“Oh yes. I really love that song.”

Yan Yan looked at the CD again, then smiled at Ah Lok before putting it back on the shelf. Ah Lok had no idea what that smile meant, although he sensed it had something to do with the words “eyes on me”, a thought that made him feel slightly uncomfortable.

Yan Yan turned her gaze to the white walls. Hanging on them, there were many photographs of Ah Lok together with his mother, taken when he was small. There was one of them drinking Vitasoy together, and one in which he sat on his mother’s lap on a swing, beside himself with glee.

“So you live here with your mother?”

“She died last month,” replied Ah Lok, his voice quavering with a hint of emotion.

Sensing she had said the wrong thing, Yan Yan couldn’t think of anything else to keep the conversation going. She looked at him apologetically and then with a surprising simplicity sat herself down on the floor right next to his bed, patting the ground as an invitation to Ah Lok to come and join her. Out of shyness, he was reluctant at first, but he did as he was told. It was dark in the room, and the street light coming in from outside only sufficient to show the young woman in silhouette — she was bare-footed and sat with her knees bent up. Lost for words, Ah Lok kept his eyes glued to the wall-clock, not daring to look directly at Yan Yan.

“Was your mother very fond of you?”

“She used to say that no one in this world could love me as much as she did.”

When he glimpsed the look of pity in her face, Ah Lok felt a burst of warmth. Sitting there in silence, they again heard a series of loud banging noises coming from the flat above which made Yan Yan cringe involuntarily like a white rabbit cowering in its burrow, terrified that it would be seized. Picking up on her terror, Ah Lok inched a little closer to her but there never any physical contact between them. These two fellow-sufferers huddled up against night’s onslaught, wordlessly keeping one another company. Ah Lok thought to himself that no matter how bad things got, there would be some moments of sweetness, and two people who were originally completely unconnected could bear the burden of each other’s pain through the course of a long night.

Driving with Tomas Tranströmer: “Nocturne”

Photo by Yunus Tuu011f on Pexels.com

For the past six weeks, I’ve been driving around the Swedish landscape with Tomas Tranströmer in search of a mystery. Human beings are like fällda bommar = “lowered boom-gates”, he decides. Whenever mystery show itself, the human response is to drop into sleep, completely oblivious of any enigma. There are glimpses of something uncanny at night, and in the shared arboreal silence of the forest and, of course, in dream, or more specifically in that intermediary state between waking and dream. But the final word of the poem is both its key-note and its conclusion: förgäves “in vain”.

We cannot understand, but we must try to deepen our questions. This at least is one of the uses of poetry, our open-ended unanswer to everything . . .

…………………………………………………..

Jag kör genom en by om natten, husen stiger fram
i strålkastarskenet – de är vakna, de vill dricka.
Hus, lador, skyltar, herrelösa fordon – det är nu
de ikläder sig livet. Människorna sover:


I drive through a village at night. Houses loom out
at me in the glare of headlights, awake and thirsty.
Buildings, barns, road-signs, vehicles without drivers — now it’s their turn
to dress themselves in Life. The human beings sleep.


en del kan sova fridfullt, andra har spända anletsdrag
som om de låg i hård träning för evigheten.
De vågar inte släppa allt fast deras sömn är tung.
De vilar som fällda bommar när mysteriet drar förbi.


Some manage to rest in peace; others grimace
as they lie there, tense, as if training hard for eternity.
They don’t dare let go of anything, although slumber is so heavy for them.
They are like boom-gates, lowered when the mystery sweeps on past.


Utanför byn går vägen länge mellan skogens träd.
Och träden träden tigande i endräkt med varann.
De har en teatralisk färg som finns i eldsken.
Vad deras löv är tydliga! De följer mig ända hem.


Beyond the village, the road continues on a long way
through forest trees, all standing there in silent mutual accord.
Their colours are theatrical, the kind you see in open firelight.
How clearly the leaves stand out, following me all the way home.


Jag ligger och ska somna, jag ser okända bilder
och tecken klottrande sig själva bakom ögonlocken
på mörkrets vägg. I springan mellan vakenhet och dröm
försöker ett stort brev tränga sig in förgäves.


I lie down and will sleep. Unfamiliar pictures
and designs graffiti themselves behind my eyelids
on darkness’s wall. In vain, an enormous letter
tries to force its way through the slot between waking and dream.

Liisa Immonen’s Black Butterfly

Photo by Don Owsley on Pexels.com


To me, poetry at its best, always gets the reader thinking about her own response to things. Resonant in itself, it can also create resonance in others and — by intimating rather than lecturing — allow discoveries to be made of their own accord, as if by magic.

This poem — literally “memory poem” [muistoruno] — is very understated in its presentation. What I take from it is a kind of double death, by which I mean that Immonen commemorates in her poem the death of certain kind of Dark Death, the grim imagery of the “black butterfly” and the “scythe” [viikate]. As she matter-of-factly points out, mutta jatkuvasti kuolee ihmisiä = “people still die all the time”, but perhaps now without that mediaeval terror. The closing lines suggest a more natural-accepting attitude to death: from the butterfly and the cicada, we finish with cornflowers and sedge grass, things that meet the end of their living without fuss and as a matter of course. I think that is why the poem has yhtä | ruiskukan ja saraheinän kanssa or “the equal of the cornflower and the sedge-grass”, a thought that can take one back to Walt Whitman, leaning and loafing as he observes “a spear of Summer grass”.

An innocuous piece of structural language is crucial, I think, to an understanding of the sense of the whole poem. The phrase tälta osin is used with the meanings of “in this connection; to this end”, perhaps also “in this regard”. The opening lines thus read “The time of the black butterfly | is tälta osin over”, leaving us to ponder the question of what exactly in death is over, especially given the contradiction of the line that comes immediately after it, mutta jatkuvasti kuolee ihmisiä = “but people are continually dying”.

I struggled with the what is to me the most striking image in “Muistoruno” presented in lines 4-5: “who have never taken the trouble | to raise their voices above the song of the cicadas”. According to my little Finnish-English dictionary compiled by Aino Wuolle, the verb viitsia = “to care to”, but the only example given for it is en viitsinyt = “I couldn’t be bothered”, which suggests an element of laziness or unwillingness. However, I have chosen (perhaps wrongly) to interpret the phrase as meaning something positive, along the lines of “who have never wasted their time complaining or lamenting about the terrors of death”. Also, from the little research I have done, I get the impression that kaskas is a kind of insect like a leaf-hopper, but a laulukaskas or “song leaf-hopper” is the usual term for a cicada. However, in the case of cicadas, the word “song” seems a bit misleading: “cry” or “screech” is probably closer to the mark.

There is another little piece of vocabulary used in the poem to great effect: yhtä = “equal”. From the short-lived cicadas calling from the tree-tops, we are plunged down to ground level, where the mown flowers lie. This down-to-earth-ness reinforces the kind of attitude Immonen wants to share with us about dying. As Mr Emerson, in conversation with his son, says about Heaven in the novel Room with a View:

“You will never go up […]. You and I, dear boy, will lie at peace in the earth that bore us, and our names will disappear as surely as our work survives.”

This means, death as an equalization with the Earth, and not an annihilation.

“Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting”, said Robert Frost, and then followed this up with “Its most precious quality will remain its having run itself and carried away the poet with it”. I think Immonen melts wonderfully well, and even across the language barrier is capable of carrying any patient reader along with her.

…………………………………………………..

“Muistoruno”

Mustan perhosen aika
on tälta osin ohi,
mutta jatkuvasti kuolee ihmisiä
jotka koskaan eivät viitsineet
korottaa ääntään kaskaiden laulun yläpuolelle
ja lopulta olivat yhtä
ruiskukan ja saraheinän kanssa
viikatetta vailla.


“In Memoriam”

The time of the black butterfly
is over — in one respect,
but people go on dying nevertheless,
people who never once cared
to raise their voice above the cry of the cicadas
and who — in the end —
were the equals of cornflower and sedge-grass,
sans scythe.

Liisa Immonen’s Speed of Life

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I recently watched the Finnish film Mestari Cheng, about a chef from Shanghai who goes looking for an old friend in the north of Finland. It’s special when two of one’s interest come together in such an unexpected yet satisfying way, and there is much to enjoy in this trilingual film (English is used as the bridging language) — linguistically, culturally and spiritually. The whole of the film resonates with a translator’s sensibility . . .

One thing that struck me powerfully was the landscape with its vast stretches of rock and water, and the special light at twilight in Summer. I have never been to Finland, but I have been to Finnish, and I sensed, very vaguely, that I was seeing in the natural environment something that I had very faintly once perceived in the rhythms, sounds and grammatical twinings of that language. Eager for more, I took out a small book of poems by Liisa Immonen entitled Synnyin maailmaan (I was born into the world, 1982) and found in it a very short poem that has something of that same quality in it, reminiscent of that hymn Cat Stevens used to sing (“Morning has broken / Like the first morning”), but tougher, more prehistoric, elemental.

I am no expert in the language, but I was helped and guided by the absence of verbs and the strong contrasts in the poem. Firstly, there is the very palpable contrast between the “hot springs” and the “chill zones”, the idea of “zone” expressed by the noun vyöhyke. Then comes a second contrast, boosted by a strong parallelism, between muinainen = “ancient” and äsken luotu, which I think means “just now created” but am not entirely sure about (please feel free to correct me!). Finally, there is an imagistic contrast, in which the smoothness and quick movement of the sisiliskot (“lizards”) is the diametric opposite of the rough and immobile rantakivikko or “the stony soil of the shore”. With simple means, Immonen evokes that double quality of time as both vast temporal continuum and a reptile-fleet instant. And to me it’s wonderful the way the rhythms instantly quicken at the end when — amongst all that inert matter — darting Life suddenly appears on the scene.

…………………………………………………..

Aamut nousevat, kummat lähteet
kylmillä vyöhykkeillä.


Ja kaikki on muinaista,
Ja kaikki on äsken luotua,
sisiliskot rantakivikossa.


Dawn after dawn. Hot springs
in frigid zones.

And everything so ancient
and so now freshly created:
lizards darting in amongst the pebbles of the shore.

蔣勳 Chiang Hsün on Covid-19 (Learning How to Be Alone in Togetherness with Oneself)

For Taiwanese writer 蔣勳 Chiang Hsün, covid-19 may just be a warning to get back in touch, not with each other as we are constantly doing, but with our neglected selves — 活得很豐富 | 跟自己對話, to live much more richly in dialogue with ourselves . . .

This video from 天下雜誌 in Taiwan is in Mandarin, so I can’t guarantee the accuracy of the transcription, but Chiang’s ideas, expressed eloquently and incisively, seemed very worthy of translation into English in the hope  of reaching a still wider audience.

Please scroll down for the transcription, English translation and notes. You can see the video here. And if you wish to check anything in the transcription or find the Cantonese pronunciation, please make use of the Sheik Cantonese on-line dictionary.

You can find many videos featuring Chiang Hsün on the internet, and quite a few of them have English subtitles. I recommend this one entitled, 最簡單的生活,就是富足 Chiang Hsun: Being Rich is Having the Simplest Life.

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

真的人類文明有時好難講 | 就是一個大災難的來臨 | 也許是救贖 | 新冠肺炎發生的時候 | 我反而覺得 | 是不是這個東西在逼我們 | 重新回到一個很純粹的個人 | 就是你不得不保持距離了 | 不能群聚之後 | 你有沒有機會 | 還是活得很豐富 | 跟自己對話

● 群聚 = living in groups; gregarious; social

True human civilization is sometimes difficult to talk about. The arrival of a disaster on a huge scale may be a kind of redemption. When covid-19 [first] happened, I felt that perhaps this thing was trying to force us to return once more to a very pure individual self [個人]. Now you have no choice but to maintain a certain distance. After it is no longer possible to gather socially, might you not then have the opportunity to live much more richly in dialogue with yourself?

Caption: 蔣勳:學會孤獨和自己在一起 | Chiang Hsün: Learning How to Be Alone in Togetherness with Oneself

如果我們從小 | 在比較華人的社會長大 | 然後受到儒家比較強的影響 | 非常非常不容易有孤獨感 | 那麽在漢字當中 | 「獨」跟「獨」 | 都是非常負面的意義 | 可是孤獨這兩個字 | 如果我們從西方的文字的根源來看 | 它是 solitude | 它的字根是 s-o-l | 就「太陽」| 【1:00】我就感覺到 | 兩個文化的差異很大 | 那我覺得當然 | 各有利弊 | 所以我後來對這個孤獨的定義是說 | 跟自己在一起 | 那其實張愛玲也講過 | 因爲我想她也受到西方的教育 | 隱私是不存在的 | 在華人世界 | 她說如果早上起來 | 你不把門打開 | 好像就表示你在家裏做壞事 | 我們不太容易有 | 把自己躲起來 | 跟自己對話的那個部分 | 君君、臣臣、父父、子子 | 你在這個社會裏 | 都是相對的 | 可是有時候真的好希望自己一個人 | 然後覺得一個人的那種豐富 | 對向内探索 | 自己存在的意義 | 或者價值的東西 | 儒家從來沒有探討這個 | 就是我個人要去面對 | 所有生命裏的磨難 | 我怎麽去挑戰這些東西 | 孤獨地去面對它 | 而不是群體面對 | 這個病毒【2:00】是不是一個 | 非常神奇的預告?| 對於人類過度地接觸的頻繁 | 對於人類過度地物質消耗 | 對於人類過度地 | 所有的這種社交 | 或者應酬的一個 | 最大最大的一個警告

● 儒家 = the Confucianists; the Confucian school| ● 根源 = a source; an origin; a root | ● 字根 = literally “word root”, roughly “the root of the word; etymology”| ● 各有利弊 = each one has its advantages and disadvantages (or “its pros & cons””) | ● 隱私 = one’s secrets; private matters one wants to hide | ● 相對 = relative | ● 探討 = to inquire into; to probe into | ● 磨難 = a tribulation; a hardship; suffering | ● 群體 = colony (a biological term); a group | ● 預告 = advance notice; a herald | ● 頻繁 = frequently; often | ● 物質消耗 = roughly, “material consumption” | ● 社交 = social contact | ● 應酬 = to have social intercourse with | ● 警告 = to warn; to caution; to admonish

If, from an early age, you grow up in a fairly Chinese kind of society, and are then subject to a fairly strong influence from Confucian culture, then it is extremely difficult to have a feeling of aloneness [孤獨感]. The two characters 獨 and 獨 that make up the word for “alone” in Chinese both carry an extremely negative meaning. But the word for 孤獨, if we look at it in terms of the etymology of Western writing, is “solitude”, the root of which is “sol”, the Latin word for “sun” [1:00]. In my view, the differences between the two cultures are considerable [很大], and I think that, of course, each one has its own strengths and weaknesses, so later my definition of this [word] “solitude” was “a being together with oneself”. In actual fact, [the writer] Eileen Chang has also spoken about this. The reason being, I think, that she received a Western-style education. Secrets do not exist in the Chinese world. She said that if you get up in the morning and do not open your door, people would get the idea [好像就表示] that you are doing something you shouldn’t be doing inside. To hide ourselves away and to hold a dialogue with ourselves — that part is not so easy for us [as Chinese people]. Rulers, ministers, fathers, sons — in this society your [position] is relative [to those of others]. Sometimes, however, we long to be on your own, and then to feel that richness in being alone. Exploring your inner world, the meaning of your own existence or things like values — these are things that Confucianism has never inquired into. That is, I have to face all these tribulations of human existence on my own. How do I challenge [挑戰] such things, face to face with them on my own and not as part of a group? Is this virus [2:00] an extremely mysterious [kind of] advance notice about the excessive frequency of contact between human beings [接觸的頻繁]? About the excessive material consumption of human beings? Or the greatest possible warning [最大最大的一個警告] about the excessiveness of all types of social contact or social interaction between human beings

Caption: 從倫敦囘台隔離中找到安靜 | The Tranquillity I Found in Quarantine after Coming back to Taiwan from London?

三月十號 | 大概從倫敦逃回來的 | 因爲其實一大堆的計劃 | 倫敦這樣一個城市 | 我住在那個 London Bridge 倫敦橋旁邊 | 門口全部每天聽到 | 意大利遊客講話 | 西班牙遊客講話 | 那個時候那兩個國家 | 已經非常嚴重 | 可是我所有的英國朋友 | 都覺得沒有問題 | 然後我偶然戴口罩 | 就會被他們笑 | 我説三月十號 | 我覺得不對了 | 有點像逃回來一樣 | 那些英國朋友 | 最後跟我吃飯都在笑我說 | 大驚小怪 | 現在他們有時候寫信給你就說 |你真是先知 | 可是我就想說【3:00】| 這個病毒是不是來 | 警告所有人的自大

● 逃 = to run away; to escape; to flee | ● 大驚小怪 = be surprised or alarmed at sth. perfectly normal; make a fuss | ● 先知 = ① a person of foresight ② a prophet | ● 自大 = self-important; arrogant

On the tenth of March, [I] practically [大概] fled back [逃回來] [here] from London. Because actually I had a whole heap of plans. London is such a city. I lived near London Bridge, and everyday all [the voices that I] heard were of tourists speaking Italian or Spanish. At that time, [the covid-19 situation] in those two countries was already extremely serious. However, none of my English friends felt that there was any problem. Afterwards, I would occasionally wear a face-mask and they would laugh at me. As I said [我説] on the tenth of March I thought that things weren’t right — it was a bit like I was escaping. Towards the end [最後], when eating with those English friends of mine, they’d laugh at me and saying I was making an unnecessary fuss. Now, sometimes they write to me and say: Wow! You really are a person of foresight. But the thing I want to say is [3:00]: Has this virus come along to warn all human beings against being [too] self-important?

我反而是三月十號以後 | 回到台灣 | 忽然沉靜下來 | 那,過,過了幾天 | 區公所就打電話來說 | 因為要追溯隔離 | 那,所以那兩個禮拜當中 | 我也覺得很棒就是 | 你被强迫 | 你就是在家裏 | 然後你會發現 | 好久沒有翻的書又翻出來 | 好久沒有聽的音樂又拿出來聽 | 然後好久沒有自己 | 好好去把黃瓜切成細細的絲 | 欸,我就覺得,欸,好有趣 | 好久沒有做這些事了 | 可是 | 為什麽不可以回來 | 回來跟自己在一起 | 我也很想問很多朋友說 | 你有多久沒有跟自己在一起 | 甚至到最後 | 會不會害怕跟自己在一起

● 區公所 = district office | ● 追溯 = to trace back; to date from | ● 隔離 = to keep apart; to isolate; to segregate | ● 强迫 = to force; to compel; to coerce | ● 翻 = ? cf. 翻閲 = to leaf through | ● 絲 = a threadlike thing; a sliver

However, after 10 March, I returned to Taiwan and suddenly clamed right down. Then, after a few days, the district office rang, because they needed to track me down about staying in quarantine [要追溯隔離]. Now during those two weeks, what I thought was really wonderful was that you were forced to stay at home. Suddenly, you discovered books you hadn’t looked at for ages you read through again, and music you hadn’t listened to for a long time, you got out and listened to. Then [然後], you went and cut up a cucumber yourself into very fine slices, something you hadn’t done for a long time. Hey, I thought, this is interesting. It’s been ages since I have done any of these things. But why is it that we can’t go back, go back to being with ourselves? I would really like to go and ask a lot of my friends the question: How long have you been away from yourself? And even perhaps: Could it be that you are afraid to be with yourself?

Caption: 爲什麽要這麽快 | 能不能慢下來反省 How Do Things Have To be So Fast? | Can [We] Slow Down and Reflect?

你就可以有彈性地去思考說 | 我們的文明其實好脆弱 【4:00】| 一切東西 | 是不是應該要 | 踩一下刹車 | 就是什麽要這麽快 | 可不可以更慢一點 | 為什麽是一定跟人的接觸 | 而不能夠自己孤獨地去| 處理自己的這個空間 | 所以那十四天對我好重要 | 好久沒有整理的東西 | 我去整理了 | 然後忽然發現抽屜裏便 | 其實有那種 | 堆了好久的老照片 | 好珍貴 | 我父親二十五歲的一張照片 | 我發現它後面好工整地小字 | 講哪一年他在做什麽做什麽 | 而我在想 | 欸,我都沒有對照片做這樣的注記 | 可是因爲他們東西很少 | 可是你知道 | 現在手機裏的照片 | 簡直不知道怎麽辦 | 我的學生跟我說 | 嘩,簡直濫 | 因為你隨時都在拍 | 本來以爲是記更多的東西 | 記錄更多東西 | 最後很可能是 | 反而變成零 | 我覺得人類 | 在這一次的事件當中 | 其實可以做好多好多的反省 | 好有趣喔 【5:00】| 你如果從料理來講 | 好多東西的消失 | 大概是我們不自覺 | 比如説我們去小火慢慢 | 燉一個菜的燉 | 還有我曾經交了學費 | 去跟天香樓的保師傅學的叫做 | 蔥開煟麵的煟 | 最小最小的火 | 去把所有的湯底煮四十八個小時 | 用這個湯底 | 來下麵的麵叫做煟麵 | 將來當然不會存在 | 因爲誰要去花怎麽多的時間 | 而且你能夠吃得出 | 煟麵跟泡麵不同嗎?| 如果吃不出來 | 它當然就不存在 | 大家都不愿意做 | 比較長久的耐煩的事 |  可是很有趣 | 新冠肺炎 | 我好多朋友跟我 mail | 跟我隔離的時候 | 然後跟我 What’s App | 我才發現 | 欸,他們就開始做菜了 | 而且開始做時間很長的菜 | 我忽然覺得好有趣喔 | 因爲他多久都在外食 | 他根本已經很久沒有在厨房裏【6:00】| 他又開始做 | 自己又重新做這個東西

● 刹車 = to brake | ● 工整 = carefully & neatly done | ● 注記 = (?) to annotate; to add a note| ● 泛濫 = literally “to spread unchecked”; perhaps sth. like “to be out of control” | ● 料理 = ① to cook ② cuisine| ● 不自覺 = unconscious; unaware | ● 燉 = to stew | ● 蔥開煟麵 = (?) slow-stewed noodles with scallions and dried shrimps | ● 煟 = to cook over a slow fire; to stew; to simmer| ● 泡麵 = (?) instant noodles | ● 湯底 = (?) soup base| ● 耐煩 = patient

You can reflect on things flexibly and say that our civilization is actually very fragile [4:00]. Shouldn’t we perhaps put on the brakes as far as everything is concerned. I mean, why does everything have to be so fast? Could things be a little bit slower? Why is it that our contact has to be with other people, and that we can’t go and deal with this space called the self on our own? And so, those fourteen days [I spent in quarantine] were very important to me. Things that I hadn’t put in order for ages I went and put in order. Later, out of the blue [忽然], I discovered all these old photographs stacked away in a draw, very precious [photographs]. There was one of my father at the age of twenty-five and, on the back — in very neat, small handwriting — he had written [講] the year [in which it was taken] and the things he was doing then. I have never made any notes [注記] on the photographs [I have taken]. Perhaps it was because they had so few material possessions [東西很少], but you know, [we] have so many images on our mobile phones that [we] simply wouldn’t know where to start. [One of] my students said: “It’s completely out of control” [簡直泛濫], because you’re always taking snaps”. [We] tend think of it as making a record of more things, of recording more things, but in the end maybe all we wind up with is zero, however. My sense is that, [faced with] the event [of covid-19], [we] human beings can do a whole lot of soul-searching. It’s very interesting [5:00].  Take cooking, for instance [你如果從料理來講]. Many things are disappearing that we aren’t even aware of. For example, to cook food slowly, to dun it, the dun used in “to dun a meal”. I once paid to learn how to wei food, the wei used in the dish called “slow-stewed noodles with scallions and dried shrimps”, with Master Bao, a chef at the Tien Hsiang Lo Restaurant [in Taipei]. Using the lowest possible heat, you cook all [the ingredients] in the soup base [湯底] for forty-eight hours. When you cook the noodles [下麵] in this soup base, this is called wei mian or “slow-stewed noodles”. This [way of cooking] will no longer exist in the future, because who is going to spend that much time? What’s more, could you taste the difference [能夠吃得出] between slow-stewed noodles and instant noodles? If you can’t taste the difference, then naturally it will not survive. No one is willing to do things that a rather time-consuming [比較長久的] and [require] patience. But what is interesting is that [with] covid-19, when friends emailed me or, during quarantine, or later when they got in touch through What’s App, I discovered that they have begun to cook again, making things that require a lot of time. All of sudden I realized how very interesting this was. Because for ages they had eaten takeaways; they hadn’t gone near their own kitchens for a very long time [6:00]. They had begun to do this, they had started over again.

Caption: 做孤獨的自己與自己對話 | A Lone Self in Dialogue with Itself

這一次的流行病 | 也許是一個方法吧 | 就是逼迫你靜下來 | 而且沒完沒了 | 你現在根本不知道什麽時候結束 | 它也許是 | 重新去救人類回來 | 重新去開始發現說 | 我幹嘛要真麽急 | 我在想説 | 每個人回來做孤獨的自己 | 也許是一個起點 | 重新再去建立 | 自己跟這個地球的對話 | 或者跟自己的對話 | 跟時間的對話 | 或者跟 . . . 歷史的對話

● 流行病 = epidemic disease | ● 逼迫 = to force; to compel; to coerce

Perhaps this epidemic is a means: it is forcing you to calm down. What’s more, it goes on and on, now we have no way of knowing of when it will end. Perhaps it will save humanity once again, helping us to start to realize just why we are in such a hurry. What I’d like to say is: let us go back [每個人回來] to being alone with ourselves. This may be a starting point to go an re-establish a dialogue between ourselves and the Planet, or with ourselves, or with time, or history.

“Extinction” by Woo Sai Nga, translated by Audrey Heijns

Dreams have dissolved and
dew has frozen into ice
A quiet collapse takes place
when the traffic light turns red
one steps out
but then retreats to the side of the road

Hold on to your wine glass, the world is plummeting
white bubbles suddenly well up
then vanish into thin air, you have to get closer to hear
the majestic fireworks there, and the sea waves recede
a quiet collapse takes place
when the foam explodes

hot steam, rising up
everything is over
water flows along the inner wall of the bath tub
to the bottom
to the black plughole
without stopping, and also without a sound

time practiced asceticism to become a cross-harbour tunnel
that devours trains, and every type of giant vehicle
inside there are countless black bubbles
a quiet collapse takes place
inside a railway carriage:
you, standing in black time are
watching your reversed reflection, with your own
dark eyes

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

〈滅〉/ 胡世雅

夢境已溶解
露水成冰
一場安寧的崩塌
發生在紅燈亮起時
一隻腳踏出去
又收回來

拿穩酒杯,世界高高墜落
白沫猛然湧起
然後幻滅,你要湊近聽
那裏有盛大煙火,及海浪回退
一場安寧的崩塌,就發生在
泡沫爆破時

霧氣,騰騰湧升
甚麼也過去了
水沿著浴缸内壁
流向底部
流向黑色排水口
不息,而無聲

時間修煉成海底隧道
吞食列車,與所有龐型車輛
內裏有無數顆黑色氣泡
一場安寧的崩塌
就發生在車廂內部:
你,站在黑色的時間
看見倒影,自己
黑色的眼睛

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

● Woo Sai Nga, born in Hong Kong, is a member of Fannou Poetry Society. She graduated from the Chinese Department, Baptist University of Hong Kong in 2017 and is now teaching at a secondary school. She publishes poems in literary magazines in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and has won the Youth Literary Award (青年文學獎) and the Award for Creative Writing in Chinese (中文文學創作獎) in Hong Kong. She was the leader of the workshop “Literary Convergence ⸺ May Fourth Hong Kong”, Theatre-in-Education Project (Reading and Writing), held at the Hong Kong Literature Research Centre, The Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2019/20.

● Audrey Heijns, based in Hong Kong, is working at Shenzhen University. Her translations of Chinese literature have been published in literary magazines, including Het Trage Vuur, Twee Ronde, KortVerhaal, Terras, Renditions, Exchanges and Poetry International.

“Mother Cat” by 張婉雯 Cheung Yuen Man, translated by Audrey Heijns

Pregnant cats always remind me of Aunt Ng.

When we were still getting to know each other, I found it hard to know how to talk to her. Her voice is very loud, and if she shouts from one end of the street, you can hear what she says at the other end. When the people she hangs round with start discussing political issues, she is liable to suddenly go off on a tangent and start talking about a cat on Yau Ma Tei Street or dog kennels in the northern New Territories, about cats and dogs that were fortunate and those who were unlucky, about volunteers who were poor and others who were very wealthy, long and short stories, one after another. But issues such as policies, rights, pressure groups, social activities… these she knows next to nothing about.

Yet once in a while she calls me to have a chat—no not a chat: in her case she would talk “official business” when she spoke of her days looking after cats and dogs out on the street day after day, about feeding them and taking them to the vet. Sometimes in a single night she would catch seven or eight cats from the neighbourhood and call a van the driver of which she knew and she would pay for transport herself. She would take them to the SPCA to be neutered and then return them to where they came from. That was Aunt Ng’s main job for many years, but besides that she had another profession—she was a casual cleaner.

Just like all affairs of the world, along the way there are bound to be obstacles. Aunt Ng said to me:

“Last night when I caught a street cat, a couple of Nepalese asked: ‘Why are you catching those cats? Are you doing something against the law?’ I told them I was taking them to the vet to get neutered. They said ‘Oh,’ and walked away. But there were some local people instead who made some sarcastic comments. For crying out loud!”

That is why I say that she and I live in two different worlds. While I sit at home sipping hot tea in front of my computer writing essays criticizing the policies of the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, Aunt Ng is outside on the cold street, hoping to bump into a cat. One winter in the middle of the night, some of the night stores on main street were still open. There was one that had a steaming hotpot on the table where guests were playing the drinking game Chai Mui, they were shouting numbers and drinking. In the dim kerosene lamplight at dawn Aunt Ng transformed into a dark figure at the entrance of the lane. With a cigarette in the corner of her mouth, arms crossed, eyes narrowed, line of vision sneaking off far into the deep lightless alley. The dark figure flew past with a swish, then the cage snapped shut with a click. A sad and shrill cry of a cat was heard. The spark in the dark night that flew mid-air was Aunt Ng’s cigarette stub tossed accurately in the bin nearby. Unhurriedly she walked over, crouched down, tapped the top of the cage with her fingers and laughed saying:

“Dear cat, be good now. You’ll be back in two days.”

That scene is based on my imagination after watching too many martial art movies. In the way I imagined it, there is none of the actual fatigue and frustration. That night, between 12 midnight and four, Aunt Ng caught six cats. Whereas I as the writer, who is good at making things up but hopeless when it comes to taking any real action, was already sleeping like a log.

But Aunt Ng isn’t bothered by that. She only wants to have someone to listen to her. Many of her stories she told me either over the phone or in text messages—she has no idea about the internet. As a result she also doesn’t have any web-friends. She only has real life friends, volunteers, people who listen to her troubles, and in turn she listens to theirs. Everyone feels a bit better after that and returns to the street to continue being busy feeding cats, trapping cats, neutering cats and returning them again … after the torment, cats and humans live on and occasionally bump into some luck and kindness after the fatigue and disappointment. There was a man who would walk his dog every night and he would help Aunt Ng throw dry cat food on top of a high eaves, so that the cats could eat their fill straight away. “He is tall and I am short so when he turns up I don’t need to go looking around for help.”

The other day Aunt Ng received another call for help. “There’s an old lady who keeps a dozen cats. Five of them had feline ringworm (a common type of skin disease) and she didn’t have money to cure them. She said she wanted to commit suicide with the cats in her arms. I said, ‘Don’t even think about it. Ringworm is easy to fix,’ so I went to the pharmacy to buy some ointment, I showed her how to apply it and later all the cats got better. I even had to call her every day just so that she could get a few things off her chest.” I said: “So, Aunt Ng, you care for human beings as well as animals.” It seems that she expected that remark for she chuckled, “Sometimes when you care for cats, you also have to care for their owners.”

Later I finally understood why Aunt Ng would make such a statement: one afternoon many years ago, when she was on her way home, she saw a pregnant mother cat on the side of the road. Only her belly was big—the rest was a bag of bones. Her eyes were closed up because of infection. She was curled up in a ball and shivering in the flowers. When Aunt Ng saw her, it reminded her of something that happened to her many years ago: pregnant, single, no one to take care of her, no money. So then she went out and started to feed stray cats.

That day I arranged to see Aunt Ng, having bought some extra cat medicine and food for her. When I saw her cross the street, she was limping with her left foot, so I asked about her health, and she said that she suffered from joint strain, as a result of all those years lugging the vacuum cleaner back and forth. And staying up late to roam the streets at night to catch cats. I handed over the goods, and she thanked me. Then she told me that she had got three fines from the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department—each of them for $1,000. I know it’s not the first time and it won’t be the last. Nor is she the only volunteer who gets them. Later I saw her limping into a vet clinic. I know the clinic is kind. It gives 30% discount on the treatment of stray cats. I saw Aunt Ng pull out of her pocket a wad of $500 bills held together with a rubber band.

Officials once proclaimed: “The Trap-Neuter-Return Plan is not ideal.” I wonder what their interpretation of “ideal” is. But I think the view of those honourable senior officials must be very different from that of Aunt Ng’s. Sometimes I run across a mother cat in the street. While next to her a few kids get carried away playing a game, the mother cat looks around carefully and makes sure she protects her kittens. Her demands are voiceless. Yet her dignity is innate. Yes, I see Aunt Ng in every mother cat.

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母貓 / 張婉雯

大肚貓總是讓我想起吳姑娘。

初相識的時候,我不太懂得與吳姑娘相處。她說話嗓門很大,街頭喊一句,街尾也聽見;大伙兒在談論政策問題,她會忽然岔開,由油麻地街貓說到新界北狗場,一頭又一頭幸或不幸的貓狗,一個又一個貧或富裕的義工,一個又一個短或長篇的故事。政策、權益、壓力團體、社會運動……這些玩意兒她不懂。

然而,吳姑娘間中還是會打電話來跟我閒聊——我也說錯了,對吳姑娘來說,她都是在談「正事」,也就是指她日復一日地照顧街上的貓們狗們,餵食,看病,一個晚上捉七、八隻貓街坊,然後召相熟的客貨車,自付車資,送到愛護動物協會做絕育手術,然後又把送回原居地。這是吳姑娘多年來的日常工作,她在正職以外的專業——吳姑娘的正職是鐘點女傭。

如同所有世事一樣,過程總有阻礙。這一天,吳姑娘對我說:

「昨天晚上捉街貓,有幾個尼泊爾人過來問我:『你捉貓作什麼?是不是作非法用途?』我跟他們說是捉貓去絕育,他們『哦』了一聲,就走開了。反而是幾個本地人,對我冷言冷語,哼。」

所以我說,我和吳姑娘是兩個世界的人。當我坐在家中,喝著熱茶,對著電腦寫文章批評漁護署政策時,吳姑娘正在寒冷的街上守株待貓。冬天半夜,大街上尚有幾檔夜店,桌面上冒著火鍋的煙,交織著猜枚聲與么喝聲。昏黃的大光燈後,吳姑娘,化身成巷口的一個黑影中,嘴角叼著一支煙,雙手交叉胸前,眯著眼睛,視線遠遠地溜向無光的深巷。一個黑影『啾』聲飛過,『卡嚓』一聲,籠門關上,傳來貓的淒厲叫聲。一點火星在黑夜的半空中拋出半圓的弧度,是吳姑娘把煙頭準確地丟進不遠處垃圾桶中。她慢條斯理地走過去,蹲下來,手指叩一叩籠頂,笑著說:

「貓呀貓,乖一點哦,過兩天便可以回來了。」

以上只是出於看武俠片太多的想像。想像中沒有現實的疲累與挫折。那個晚上,半夜十二時到凌晨四時,吳姑娘捉到六隻貓們。而我,一個善於想像而拙於行動的寫作人,早已沉睡夢中去了。

可是吳姑娘不計較這些。她只想找一個能聽她說話的人。許許多多的故事,都是吳姑娘在電話中,或是用短訊告訴我的——她不懂上網。吳姑娘自然也沒有「網友」,她只有現實世界中的朋友、義工,聽她吐苦水的,吐苦水給她聽,然後大家吸一口氣,又繼續往街上跑,餵貓、捉貓、放貓……苦惱過後,貓和人都得繼續活下去的,在疲乏與失望之後偶爾碰上幸運和善意。有一個男人,每晚遛狗的時候,會替吳姑娘把貓餅拋上某處高高的簷篷,讓那兒的貓早點得溫飽。「他長得高,我長得矮,他來了,我就不用四處求人。」

這天,吳姑娘又接到個案:「有一個婆婆,養了十多隻貓,其中有五隻患了金錢癬(一種很普遍的皮膚病),沒錢醫,說想抱著貓兒一同尋死,我說千萬不要呀,金錢癬容易辦呢,於是便往藥房買藥膏,教婆婆如何照料貓,後來貓就痊癒了。我還得天天打電話去,聽婆婆哭訴呢。」我說:「吳姑娘,原來你待動物好,對人也不差。」吳姑娘像是料到我會有此一說,「嘿嘿」地笑了兩聲:「有時關心動物,也得關心牠們的主人呀。」

後來,我終於知道吳姑娘何出此言:很多年前的一個下午,她在回家的路上,看見街邊一頭懷孕的母貓。除了肚子大,母貓整個身體都是一副骨頭,眼睛因為染病而瞇著,瑟縮在花團中。吳姑娘看見牠,就想起多年前的往事:大著肚子,單親,沒人照應,沒錢。於是,吳姑娘開始跑到街上餵貓。

這天,我約了吳姑娘碰面,幫補她一點貓用藥物與食物。我看著她從對面馬路過來,左腳一拐一拐,便問候她的近況,她說是關節勞損——長年累月拖著吸塵機走來走去,晚上還得捱夜捉貓。我把東西交給她,她謝過了,又告訴我最近收到漁護署的傳票——三張,每張一千元。我知道那不是第一次也不會是最後一次,而她也不是唯一有此遭遇的義工。之後,我看著她蹣跚地走進一間獸醫診所。我知道那間診所很好,七折服務流浪動物。而我看見吳姑娘從口袋裏拿出來的,是用橡筋圈捆成一疊的五百元紙幣。

官員曾說過:「流浪動物絕育放回計劃未如理想。」我不太清楚他們口中的「理想」是甚麼。但我想,尊貴的高官,和吳姑娘心目中的「理想」,應該大不同了。有時,我在街上碰見母貓。三兩個孩子在她身旁忘形地嬉戲,母貓卻環視四方,留意周圍的一切,盡她的所有能力去保護幼兒。她的要求是無聲的。她的尊嚴是天賦的。是的,在母貓身上,我看見一個又一個的吳姑娘。

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● Cheung Yuen Man likes writing and is concerned with animals. She won the 25th United Daily News Award for fiction debut (short story) in 2011. Her publications include You Are Here 《你在》 (2020), Those were the Cats 《那些貓們》 (2019), Daily of Dust《微塵記》 (2017), Sweeties 《甜蜜蜜》 (2004), and The Pole《極點》 (with Mok Wing Hung). In 2019, Cheung won the Recommendation Award in the Hong Kong Biennial Awards for Chinese Literature, the Hong Kong Bookprize and the Hong Kong Publishing Biennial Award for Daily of Dust.

● Audrey Heijns
, based in Hong Kong, is working at Shenzhen University. Her translations of Chinese literature have been published in literary magazines, including Het Trage Vuur, Twee Ronde, KortVerhaal, Terras, Renditions, Exchanges and Poetry International.