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“Evanescent Isles” Left This Reader Wanting More [Book Review]

19 Sep 2010

Xu Xi is Hong Kong’s first and most well known contemporary English writer. In 2008, she was shortlisted for the inaugural Man Asia Literary Prize.

Her latest work is Evanescent Isles: Tales of my City-Village, a collection of essays about Hong Kong. Topics range from Xu Xi’s childhood experiences of growing up in the sixties, her adult experiences working at Cathay, Hong Kong’s indifference to politics and condescension towards the arts.

It’s an interesting and pertinent idea for a book about Hong Kong, and Xu Xi’s at her best when she talks frankly about her personal experiences. Hong Kongers will smile in grim commiseration as she describes her mother, a classic Hong Kong helicopter parent who bribed staff to get her daughters into the good private schools, pushed her daughters into piano and tennis lessons and ultimately, forced Xu Xi to concentrate in the sciences rather than the arts in high school. Her description of her father’s silent acquiescence to her mother’s decision is the most powerful part of the book.

Xu Xi is less successful when she is trying to link her experiences to some broad statement about Hong Kong. “Pop Goes the Idol”, an essay that tries to draw an analogy between William Hung’s appeal and Hong Kong is too abstract, rambling and obscure. Her writing style also strays towards the overwrought. For example, in “Conversation Space”, instead of saying that chronological precision is unnecessary to storytelling, Xu Xi says that “chronological exactitude is an unnecessary hobgoblin in the telling of tales.” The overall effect is that Xu Xi sounds less like a writer and more like a fussy English teacher intent on impressing her students with archaic language.

Ultimately, much as I wanted to like Evanescent Isles, the book tries too hard to make a broad existential statement about Hong Kong. Even so, the mission to talk more about art and Hong Kong identity is an important one. But Xu Xi has only had the first word about Hong Kong – she surely won’t have the last.

Eunice Ng is a writer from Hong Kong. Follow her tumblr here.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. 蛙鏡 permalink
    10 Oct 2010 11:29 AM

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