BOOKS –Chinese Stories
He’s been in the country a year, quietly living and writing among us. SH Lim pays writer David Wong a visit
‘I’m in Malaysia because I don’t know anyone here,’ says Hong Kong native David T K Wong. A put-you-on-your-heels kind of answer. But when he elaborates – with measured words and some formality- it makes sense.
After all he’s a writer. Though by way of being a reporter, an administrator in the Hong Kong Government, and a managing director of an international trading firm among other hats he’s worn. In this country, he’s found a room of his own without distracting phone calls, dinner invitations or whatever. ‘I don’t have a lot of time left,’ says the youthful octogenarian, dressed in a Chinese New Year red Burberry polo shirt and freshly ironed khaki pants. ‘And I still have a lot of stories to tell.’ He has a second novel to complete before Christmas. (The first, The Evergreen Tea House’ -published in 2003 by Muse Publishing Limited, United Kingdom – is available only from Silverfish Books.) He is a man on a mission.
Earlier this year, Marshall Cavendish published David’s ‘Chinese Stories in Times of Change.’ There are 11 short stories in this collection about mainland and Hong Kong Chinese spanning from before the war through to the Tiananmen Square debacle and the handover of the former British colony. ‘I write about the Chinese because a writer writes about what he/she knows,’ he says and adds that, ‘Chinese culture is from antiquity and exists still intact to the present with its values and traditions.’ You can tell that he’s proud that Han blood courses through his veins and its mores fold deep into his sinews and chambers of his heart.
The focus on education, he asserts for an example, is one Chinese value. David points out that Chinese families everywhere try their best to provide for the education of their offspring, sometimes making personal sacrifices so that this one goal is attained. In ‘Consequences,’ a parent contemplates migrating to Canada because the schools in Hong Kong ‘are pure pressure cookers’. The importance of education is underscored again in ‘Getting Married’. There a father tells his son, ‘Some things are difficult to explain. Concentrate on your studies, my son, and obscurities will gradually clarify. Education is like doing embroidery. You start with one stitch and then another, with no idea where you’re heading. But with every stitch a pattern becomes a little bit clearer. Education does the same with life.’
And the life of this highly educated writer (he was a Fellow in Economics at Queen Elizabeth House at Oxford) and his art intersect. The arc of his career reveals a man with a clear idea of his responsibility and a desire for a just and equitable world. (He’s the benefactor of an annual creative writing fellowship at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom.)
There’s outrage in him too at how the marginalised are treated. In ‘Red, Amber, Green’ set in Hong Kong just after the war, Old Mak a rickshaw puller is perplexed by the new colonial laws. Like the one against smoking opium. He is arrested for the ‘possession of an opium pipe fit for smoking’ and is eventually called before the colonial judicial system. Old Mak is confused and ‘could not understand why no one wanted to hear the truth. If no one heard the truth, how could justice be done? He merely wanted to tell them about the the terrible pain in his chest which led him to seek a smoke … What the sergeant said was true but it was not the whole truth.’ But he couldn’t do a thing about it. The poor and the illiterate are powerless. They are marginalised, silenced and swept away so as not to scar our landscape.
‘In modern cities,’ David says, ‘we sort of live a quasi-bourgeois kind of existence. Unless we’re compelled to by circumstances, we try to stay away from people who are our fellow human beings. I live here. lt’s a guarded community. You’ve people checking on you before they let you in.’
He smiles, aware of the irony of his comment. ‘You go to other cities in the world and you see this happening. You go to Mumbai, Rio, Calcutta, a lot of the Gulf States. You’ve pockets of outrageous affluence in the midst of seasoned misery. And how long can this be sustained?’
His fingers fall together like the petals of a closing flower, and as they suddenly spread out, he proclaims, ‘An explosion must come sooner or later. When l don’t know. l think the pressure is building.’ He laments that nothing much is done to address the situation, including within China. ‘This is one of the sad things about China. You’ve got an authoritarian government who is not using its authoritarian powers in the right way.’
David hints that his upcoming novel deals with ‘the failing, unrestrained free market capitalistic model’. He says, ‘What I write are things that I have gone through, experienced first-hand, and I am trying to reflect that. If we forget what we lived through and we haven’t learned our lessons, then we are destined to relive them, to repeat those mistakes.’ There is an instructive element in David’s poignant words. No wonder some literary critics compare him to O Henry.
www.timeoutkl.com September 2010