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Hong Kong poet Tammy Ho: Art in politics or politics in art?

In defence of poetry, which is often disparaged in contemporary culture, one might also consider another low-selling genre, jazz, whose pervasive influence goes unnoticed by the neophyte.

Just as jazz has seeped into other (or even most) better-selling genres by way of technique and/or sampling, so poetry also finds its way into contemporary prose, let alone into the succinctness of something like a “tweet” or more obviously, into the ever-present lyric of popular music.

But the low-selling cultural artefact need not always be on the defensive. In today’s over-abundant consumer culture poetry can proudly assert its status as an encapsulated yet dense missive that deliberately displaces society’s everyday rush.

The difficulty the contemporary reader might have with poetry is exactly its succinctness that yet demands deep concentration: a slowing down of the restless mind. For the purposes of this article, one might also consider poetry’s wide range of content and, specifically, its place in political discourse.

book shop

Photo: Colin Whittaker via Flickr.

This is all to introduce Cha: An Asian Literary Journal and its co-founder, Tammy Ho Lai-Ming, poet, editor and academic. Cha, launched in 2007, concentrates on writing that “has a strong focus on Asian-themed creative work and work done by Asian writers and artists” while retaining (or promoting) English as its linguistic conveyance.

It was the first Hong Kong-based online literary journal of its kind and has garnered many accolades, including notices in India’s Sunday Guardian and the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Tammy Ho herself is a born and bred Hongkonger, but has also studied and lived in Britain. She maintains a creative life (as opposed to earning a living) as a poet. Her most recent collection “Hula Hooping” was published by Chameleon Press in 2015.

tammy-ho

Tammy Ho. Photo: Tammy Ho.

Some of the poems in “Hula Hooping”, apropos of the subject at hand – embedding political content into a work of art – directly address the current political climate of China, such as the poem, “Official causes of death in a Chinese prison”.

Like many of Ho’s other poems in “Hula Hooping”, this selection conveys a kind of melancholic resignation (which shouldn’t be equated with “giving up”) while simultaneously explicating the bald-faced absurdity of the state’s apparatus. Ho, through poetic allusion, also puts herself directly into those dire circumstances.

Official causes of death in a Chinese prison

A exhausted himself arranging sunflowers.
B drank too much hot water.
C suffered a heart attack passing a toilet roll to his comrade.
D lost his breath while playing hide-and-seek.
E was poisoned from the ink in the newspapers.
F stared too long in the air.
G used high-lead-content hand cream (supplied by his family).
H edited a literary journal named after a beverage.
I said I too often.
Singing in bed, J’s throat burst.
K drowned in a mud puddle.
L was allergic to the fabric of the uniform.
M died in a fight with another inmate.
N lost balance and fell off the bench.
O laughed.
P died after squeezing pimples on his arms.
Q simply refused to wake up.
R’s tongue was tied.
Toothpaste squirted into S’s right eye.
T tripped on his own slippers.
U said You too often.
V died in a fight with another inmate.
W thought he was the Party Secretary.
X missed a letter from his wife; she was waiting for his with dust.
Y collapsed after walking miles in his cell.
Z also edited the journal the H edited.

It’s not as if history is bereft of “political poets”, with outstanding poets sometimes taking a central role in armed struggle, like Ernesto Cardenal, or simply being a non-violent conduit for the political fervour of the times, like William Blake.

But the balancing of artistic craft and political expediency has also seen poets wedged between a rock and a hard place (for example Garcia-Lorca, to say the least), free thinkers who became suspect to both the right and/or the left, to Communists and/or Fascists, simply through their mandate to continue with the task of artistic creation.

As Ho’s subject matter is varied and for the most part personal, she can’t be properly tagged as a “political poet” in the way that certain Hong Kong artists are clearly “political”. On the other hand some of the work in “Hula Hooping” can act as an effective introduction or poetic addendum to the social life and culture of Hong Kong (albeit from a certain angle).

Tiny scissors

Her tiny scissors, sharpened in the morning,
were dull again by the time
she acted hostess and set two mahjong tables
side by side, in her cramped living room.

Like her mother before her, she used
the scissors to cut food into small pieces.
Toothless, gums eroded like seaside rocks,
eating was not enjoyed, only endured.

She never learnt Cantonese, despite
living in Hong Kong most of her life.
She held the firm belief that Hakka, if uttered slowly,
would be universally understood.

Her eldest granddaughter, I was the one
from whom nothing was misunderstood.
In the last week, she gave me her scissors,
and reminded me that I’d too one day be toothless.

But clearly Tammy Ho has been deeply affected by Hong Kong politics and most especially by the events of September 2014. The citizen occupations (of Causeway Bay, Admiralty and Mong Kok in advance of universal suffrage) were in and of themselves pent-up creative outbursts. They had implicitly stated political goals, but also displayed the possibility of another way of living, one that bypassed commerce in favour of the intellect.

Tear gas Umbrella Movement

Tear gas during the Umbrella Movement. Photo: Flickr/Pasu Au Yeung.

In this regard we can clearly discern Ms Ho’s political sympathies through her work as editor in specific sections of Cha. Most recently Cha included a section in commemoration of the second anniversary of the occupations titled “Umbrella Movement” (September 2016 – Issue 33) which included poetry, essays and photography about that subject.

What I found most helpful in that section is Tammy’s essay “Characters Under the Cantonese Umbrella” which speaks of the movement’s aesthetic smarts and the creative dynamic inherent in written Cantonese, where subtle variations of its characters (which already bear a relation to visual art, being a kind of pictogram) yield new and unintended meanings.

One also sees this in the use of Chinese homonyms, both in Cantonese and Putonghua, which at times cleverly bypass censorship while sticking a playful finger into the bureaucratic eye. Both of those examples clearly indicate poetic inclinations, a circumstance that, once again, should induce the contemporary disparager of poetry into a critical reassessment of that genre and its overall relation to language.

Tammy was nice enough to answer a few questions for this article:

Q: Do you feel obliged, as a poet, to put your work at the service of politics (or “political thinking”)?

T.H.: ‘Feeling obliged’ suggests that I am motivated by a need to conform to certain societal codes and expectations. As a poet, I do not feel ‘obliged’ to be politically engaged. In fact, some people have suggested to me that it is better not to touch politics in any way.

However, living in Hong Kong and seeing what is happening to the city, it is impossible for me not to think about politics. My own writing, both academic and creative, increasingly reflects that. That said, I have not written that many political pieces and I think there are writers who express political ideas and thoughts in their work far more effectively than I do.

Still, I’ll keep writing while I can, knowing I am not alone and that I belong to a supportive community.

Q: Speaking as an artist/poet what inspired you about the occupations in Hong Kong of September 2014?

T.H.: The unity of the people. The collective belief that all is not yet lost. The energy found in the protesters’ creative expression. The central role Cantonese played. The temporary but significant deconstruction of the dichotomies of inside/outside, home/street, you/me. The strengthened Hong Kong identity. It was remarkable that the Umbrella Movement took place, and involved so many people in the city, for so many days. I will remember it for the rest of my life.

Q: As an academic in Hong Kong do you feel any pressures as far as engaging or commenting on politics?

T.H.: So far, I have not encountered any clear pressures directed at me personally, although some people who care for me have pointed out the possible risks I might be incurring career-wise due to my editorial work at Cha and my writing, which sometimes express my political thoughts. I tend to regard these comments as overly paranoid.

However, I do sense a shift in the general academic atmosphere in the city—which is witnessing the increasing influence of mainland China—and the resultant emergence of a certain level of resignation and acceptance regarding such a shift by some academics. Whether something is ‘too political’ may now be factored by some into the decision-making process while previously this might not have been a concern.

At the moment, however, I am happy to say that I do not feel any pressing pressures, although I do occasionally have to convince others not to worry too much on my behalf.

All poems used with the kind permission of Tammy Ho, taken from ““Hula Hooping” Chameleon Press 2015.  Tammy Ho is also a founding member of the newly revised PEN HONG KONG which will be launched on Sunday 13 November 2016 at the HK International Literary Festival.

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Hong Kong poet Tammy Ho: Art in politics or politics in art?