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Reviewed by:
  • To Pierce the Material Screen: An Anthology of 20th-Century Hong Kong Literature ed. by Eva Hung
  • Kwok Kou Leonard Chan (bio)
Eva Hung, editor, with the assistance of Chi-yin Ip. To Pierce the Material Screen: An Anthology of 20th-Century Hong Kong Literature. 2 vols. Hong Kong: Research Centre for Translation, Chinese University of Hong Kong, 2008. 276pp. (vol. 1); 252pp. (vol. 2). Hardcover $50.00 (vol. 1), isbn 978-9-627-25534-5; $50.00 (vol. 2), isbn 978-9-627-25535-2.

A major aim of literary anthologies that cover national or regional literature is to provide a comprehensive overview, so that readers can grasp the literature’s characteristic features: its basic style and visage, most prominent achievements, and so forth. It is an overwhelming task, and even more so when it comes to anthologizing translated works. Language and cultural barriers need to be addressed to make it possible for readers who are not familiar with the country’s or area’s culture to comprehend and appreciate the works adequately. To Pierce the Material Screen offers a selection of Hong Kong literary writings translated into English. A two-volume anthology devoted to works of fiction (vol. 1) and essays and poetry (vol. 2), it is an exemplary effort at presenting the vitality and fecundity of Hong Kong literature to English readers.

The time span is wide, ranging from essays and short stories written in the 1930s to poems published in the early 2000s. The works collected are not ordered chronologically, but clustered around several (rather metaphorical) topics. For example, short stories collected in the first volume are grouped under such headings as “Familiar Marvels,” “Folks Next Door,” “Shadowlands,” and “Seasons of the [End Page 447] Heart.” Brief biographies of writers and translators are provided at the end of both volumes, which is a helpful reference to readers.

The main content is diverse, covering works of a broad range of writers and poets. However, some literary genres and forms—such as popular works, classical Chinese literature, and works written in languages other than Chinese—are not represented. It is explained in the preface that for translation rights and other reasons they are intentionally left out (vol. 1, p. 2). This is a plausible arrangement. Given its limited length (slightly more than five hundred pages combined), the work’s scope has to be brought down to a manageable size. There is some truth in the compiler-editor’s comment on the inevitable arbitrariness in anthology compilation: “One of the perennial problems for a literature collection is the limitation of time and space. Ultimately, one has to admit that whatever selection criteria are adopted are arbitrary and should be understood as such.”1

A brief introduction of the sociopolitical changes Hong Kong had gone through in the past century is given in the preface (vol. 1, pp. 3–5). It is also stated in the same preface that the anthology project centers on the question of “how one defines the ‘Hong Kong’ in Hong Kong literature” (vol. 1, p. 2)—a vexing issue for researchers in the field. The answer given by the compiler is straightforward: “What seems much more pertinent is the writer’s relationship with Hong Kong” (vol. 1, pp. 5–6), and “ultimately my criterion was a simple one: every piece included here must be grounded in the realities of [twentieth]-century Hong Kong” (vol. 1, p. 6). This broad definition highlights the interrelationship between sociohistorical changes and literary production.

Pertinent to the issue of literary production and the external context, a great merit of the anthology is the concise information provided, where knowledge of the city’s cultural or historical background is essential or relevant. To cite some examples, David Pollard has added a footnote in his translation of Liu Yichang’s 劉以鬯 (Chain) 鏈 (vol. 1, p. 11), a short story using the 1967 riots as its backdrop, to introduce Hong Kong’s turbulent social conditions in the 1960s; Duncan Hewitt briefly outlines Hong Kong’s public housing history in his translation of Virginia Suk Yin Ng’s 伍淑賢 short story (Father) 父親 (vol. 1, p. 74); Eva Hung explains about the use of Cantonese vocabulary...