Collier Nogues: “The News from Poems: A Dispatch from Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution”

In the first few days of Hong Kong’s protests, the need for context fueled an explosion of journalism in Western media. The BBC’s live feed of the protests was accompanied by timelines, short recaps of recent history, and explications of Hong Kong’s political system. Those were followed widely by longer pieces about Hong Kong’s economic inequality, China’s historic encounters with youth protests (especially, predictions about how much Hong Kong would look like Tiananmen), and human-interest articles chronicling Hong Kongers’ remarkably polite version of civil disobedience and profiling the movement’s youngest leaders. There was a ton to read. As a recent transplant to Hong Kong, I learned more about the city’s politics in the last three days of September than I had gleaned from a year of living here.

But a lot of what I learned came not from the insta-journalism produced by a sudden worldwide appetite for Hong Kong history. It came from poems.

Though it’s probably less evident outside of Hong Kong looking in, poetry has been a part of the Hong Kong protests since they began. During the week of student boycotts which preceded the city-wide movement, the Hong Kong literary journal Fleurs de Lettres sponsored a mixed Cantonese/English poetry reading just outside the Legislative Council building. Poets read both their own works and the works of other poets, and were accompanied by the experimental music group 迷你噪音 (Mini-Noise), especially fitting company since the event’s name was “The Noise of Poetry” and its theme “poetry as disruption.” Fleurs printed up a special insert with the poems’ texts, which made for an unofficial poetic guide to the context of the boycotts; many of the poems referenced recent Hong Kong politics. As far as I know, though, none had been written for the occasion.

That changed the following week, after the boycott transformed into a sit-in, and then into a city-wide occupation catalyzed by police use of tear gas. The first of the English-language poems written on the occasion of the protests themselves was Nicholas Wong’s “Before Enduring It We Will Not Endure It: Notes from the Hong Kong Protests,” which appeared on the website Hippo Reads Tuesday morning, September 30. Shares of the poem lit up my Facebook feed alongside photos of the growing protests at Causeway Bay and Mong Kok, and three days later the poem was reprinted at New America Media.

“Before Enduring It” is a series of first-hand impressions of the tear-gas evening, spliced in with borrowed language. The poem incorporates lines from Adam Zagajewski, Olena Kalytiak Davis, and Brenda Hillman, and its title revises Carolyn Forché. But it’s important to note that Wong borrows language also from Hong Kong’s own government; he redacts the Monday morning post-tear-gas press release on the government website’s “Law and Order” page. The altered version reads “The government has to stay calm / vacate to allow / people / anti-it,” salvaging only twelve words of the press release’s eight-five.

Overall, the poem presents as a sketch of the evening’s events, a collection of gathered threads: long, isolated lines separated by section breaks, describing factual details (“87 teargas bombs were dropped”) and reflecting on them in his own and other poets’ language. The exception is the weighty, defaced block of government text; the voice of spin, marked out. And at that point, the poem becomes not only an account of what happened. It becomes also a warning against accounts which attempt to dismiss what happened. The spareness of the redaction, juxtaposed with measured lines like “Of all forms of being, I like a vote, an arrival” (Olena Kalytiak Davis) forges the poem’s tone: watchful, matter-of-fact, and steady.

As it turns out the protesters, now entering their third week, are exactly those things. Their resolution was captured early on by Wong. So was the geographical breadth of the protests’ resonance; many protesters here, as well as supporters overseas, see these events as not only part of a historical lineage of civil disobedience in China, but also part of an international constellation of pro-democracy movements. Wong presciently adapts a line from Brenda Hillman’s “When the Occupations Have Just Begun”: “Our body has been very very reasonable so far. Our body is the archive of the world.”

In Hong Kong, that collective body is made up of the individuals occupying the streets, echoing and repeating the shapes previous bodies have taken in resistance, in China and elsewhere. But “the world” is here more concretely, too, in the form of ever-proliferating expressions of solidarity. Everywhere you look in Admiralty or Mong Kok or Causeway Bay, there are signs of support in multiple languages. Most visibly, there are thousands of fluorescent sticky notes flourishing up the curved wall of the LegCo complex ampitheater at Connaught Road Central, over which presides a projected slideshow of well-wishes from all over the world synced in from the Facebook page “Stand By You: ‘Add Oil’ Machine for HK Occupiers.” Hong Kong bodies are not alone in their occupation of “the street long as patience” (Wong again, revising Zagajewski).

 

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The Stand By You projection, above a bright white stripe of sticky notes curving up the stairs.

 

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The notes are several layers deep, and cover every reachable surface.

 

 

Wong’s poem was followed by others. During the first week of protests the Asia Review of Books posted “A Poetic Backgrounder,” a collection of previously published poems by Hong Kong writers Jennifer Wong, Tammy Ho, and David McKirdy. As the Review explained, its editors hoped the collection might give context to the unfolding events. The poems take on Hong Kong’s rocky relationship with its tourists; the political shifts before and since the handover; and HK’s kinship to and distance from both China and the English language. The overall effect builds to forecast what’s happening now—the direct pursuit of what Jennifer Wong calls “what we, with all the new wealth /of the country, can’t buy. / It’s an expensive word.”

Another of the featured poets, Tammy Ho, followed up the “Backgrounder” with a new poem about the protests. Her “How the Narratives of Hong Kong Are Written with China in Sight” appeared at Radius on October 6. The poem is a numbered list of revised first lines of famous literary works. Ho tweaks Melville (“Call me One Country, Two Systems”); Woolf (“The Hong Kong people said they would fight for the city’s future themselves”); Nabokov (“China, non-light of my life, non-fire of my loins”); and the Bible (“In the beginning there was the Party and the Party was with the Country and the Party was the Country”). It is an acidly funny, devastating poem. And in its revisions of canonical English texts, it points back to how the narratives of Hong Kong are written with not only China, but also the entire English-speaking world in sight.

Because my Cantonese is barely conversational, I don’t know how much of a role poetry has played in recent weeks for Cantonese speakers. I do know that Hong Kong writer Dorothy Tse gave a talk at Admiralty about Lu Xun’s poetry, as part of a series of literary lectures at the protests. Afterwards, she told me that students listening to the lecture had asked sincere and pressing questions, chief among them: “What steps should we take now?” For some students, it seems, poetry is a source for answers.

Lu Xun already featured prominently at the Admiralty protest site; since the beginning of the protests, his words have watched over the key intersection of Connaught Road Central and Tim Mei Avenue. As of Wednesday, October 15, the intersection is filled with the small tents of protesters who responded to the government’s cancellation of talks by moving in more permanently last weekend. There is a “Study Center,” much like a one-room roofless schoolhouse, and a “Social Worker Station,” and there are even makeshift tent showers. The intersection has become a neighborhood. Above it, amid political slogans and pop song lyrics, billows this line from Lu Xun, on the white banner at center:

 

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Connaught Road Central, looking east from the intersection with Tim Mei Avenue.

 

 

The line is usually translated as “The earth had no roads to begin with, but when many men pass one way, a road is made.” Lu Xun’s words are particularly apt because of where ‘many men’ are now passing. This public space is not pedestrian space; it used to belong to automobile traffic. As of this writing, it has been a little over two weeks since supporting that traffic was the entirety of Connaught Road Central’s function.

But in those two weeks, tens of thousands of people have walked that ground, sat on the asphalt, hopped the concrete divider with the help of a stranger waiting there to extend her hand warmly and help people over. That street has become known in a way traffic arteries never allow themselves to become known. And always, anyone walking there is surrounded by other people taking equal pleasure in experiencing the street this way; it’s a social, shared, generous kind of knowing. The protest sites have become a singular kind of communal space since the first hours Nicholas Wong and other Hong Kongers first stood up and then sat down on the street Wong calls “long as patience.

That street has since been renamed. The Cantonese could be translated as “Protest Road,” or, more roughly, “Make-a-Stand-Against Way,” but here’s what the sign-makers chose:

 

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Just outside the AIA Center building.

 

 

Long Drive. And just how long is it? From 9/28 until 成功, until success. You could say that news was first reported by Nicholas Wong’s poem.

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