There are Walls of China all over Australia. There’s one at Lake Mungo in western New South Wales. There’s another near Borroloola on the edge of Arnhem Land. The names suggest wind-swept, depopulated sites, the ruins of time past as well as a future prospect of the world without us: imaginary fortifications that have failed. Hong Kong is nothing like that. It is a populous city on a ‘fragrant harbour’ (xianggang) that has straddled contending empires and thrived as a crossing point in and out of China and between East and West – a gateway rather than a wall.

Since the Umbrella Revolution of 2014 the stunning images of thousands of Hong Kong people protesting against Beijing’s moves to take control have shown the world how much the residents of the place care. They have gathered in the name of grand ideals such as rule of law, freedom of expression and association, autonomy, democracy and human rights, and at the same time in support of a way of life – how they live those abstractions on the ground. They care about the culture that has been created in this city by those who came there, those born and raised there and those moving through, including the many Australians who have lived in Hong Kong and all those from Hong Kong who have remained connected after moving to Australia. Most would agree that Hong Kong’s Cantonese cuisine – popularised in Australia as yumcha – is an unsurpassed contribution to the art of living. But yumcha is just one ingredient in a civilisational fusion that, in the words of writer and scholar Leo Ou-fan Lee, has made Hong Kong ‘one of the high places of the multi-culture world’. That is what the locals care about and make visible in the resilient inventiveness of their protests, combining passion and defiance with intimate ownership of their habitat.

A new Hong Kong Literature Series in English translation is a timely celebration of a culture that has too often been unrecognised, unsung or disparaged. This body of writing makes the case for the remarkable flowering of literature in Hong Kong in the last half-century or more. With the Communist victory in China’s civil war and the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China in Beijing in 1949, a generation of educated Chinese fled the mainland, uncertain what the future would bring. For many Hong Kong was the first port of call and a safe harbour. Those refugees knew their Chinese literature, both ancient and current, and were committed to maintaining a tradition that was also open to modernisation. Some became influential professors of Chinese literature, in Hong Kong and often at leading universities in North America and elsewhere, where they worked bilingually as scholars, translators and writers. Liu Ts’un-yan (1917-2009), for example, moved from Hong Kong to ANU in Canberra in 1962, where he became Professor of Chinese Studies. Minford calls him ‘one of the last and most significant native exponents of his country’s grand cultural tradition … a great master … a pre-eminent figure in the worldwide diaspora of Chinese scholars who looked to Hong Kong as their home’.

Others arrived in Hong Kong as children with their parents. They would grow up in the dynamic new environment as their home and give it creative expression: ‘that mixed-up, beautiful-ugly place’ in the words of one. Porous, bounded, hybrid, Hong Kong is a paradoxical miracle among the cities of the world, a city that went up because it could not go out, except into the water: a place where the borders are always shifting, ‘a fictitious city’, as Dung Kai-cheung writes in Atlas, ‘continually drawn up with dotted lines on maps, a city forever combining the present, future and past tenses.’

For China, Hong Kong has always been a source of the new, whether welcome or unwelcome, and an agent of foreign contact and intervention. In a speech Sun Yat-sen gave in Hong Kong in 1923, the ‘Father of the Nation’ asks ‘Where and how did I get my revolutionary and modern ideas?’ Answer: ‘I got those ideas in Hong Kong.’ He refers to the orderliness of the British colony, its good governance, its lack of corruption. Perhaps Sun was being strategic. ‘We are still fighting for good government and as soon as we have good government the Chinese people will be contented and peaceful. That much can be proved by Hong Kong….’

The new ideas coming up from the south have been cultural too, in cinema, martial arts, popular music, fashion and the visual arts. Vanguard practitioners and curator/collectors in Hong Kong, for example, were among the first to appreciate the artistic experimentation on the mainland from the late 1970s and in Taiwan as martial law ended in the 1980s. Those currents are intended to come together in M+, Hong Kong’s major new museum of visual culture that opened this month. It will be interesting to see how it all goes in the nervous political climate that currently prevails. ‘Yes, we are exhibiting the work of Ai Weiwei’, the Australian director Suhanya Raffel is quoted as saying.

In relation to the development of its literature, Hong Kong’s role as a site of translation and exchange is fundamental. That’s the ground on which scholars and creatives meet, even as readers are far-flung throughout diasporic networks. Renditions: A Chinese-English Translation Magazine, published by the Chinese University of Hong Kong since 1973, has been a forum where much significant Chinese writing first appeared in English. One memorable special issue of Renditions was dedicated to Eileen Chang (Zhang Ailing, 1920-95) in 1996, a year after her death. Stephen Soong, a founding editor of the magazine, was a friend and became her literary executor. Writing on the centenary of her birth last year, critic James Jiang confirms that ‘Chang’s legacy as the zushi nainai (‘Grandma/ster’) … of modern Chinese letters … can’t be ignored’. ‘Eileen Chang’s ghost was here!’ is how Leo Lee puts it. His first novel, set in Hong Kong at the time of its handover from Britain to China in 1997, is a continuation of Chang’s famous story, ‘Love in a Fallen City’. Lee’s protagonist says, ‘It has finally dawned on me, on the eve of this historic event, whilst over there they are frenetically celebrating their victory, that our civilisation has been destroyed’. Lee writes as a Hong Konger, having found ‘a place in the world where people were bound together not by nationality or ethnicity but by a shared love of Chinese culture’ – a place now under threat.

‘Love in a Fallen City’, first published in Shanghai in 1943, is based on Eileen Chang’s experience of Hong Kong under Japanese occupation. She had come to Hong Kong to study English literature. Lee is an insightful reader of Chang’s work. In his 1999 study Shanghai Modern he takes her expression cence duizhao (‘uneven juxtaposition’) to identify ‘a narrative technique of contrasting two things not in a mutually oppositional way but in an uneven, mismatched fashion’. The traces of this aesthetic effect run through Hong Kong writing. Lee’s book Ordinary Days: A Memoir in Six Chapters, co-authored with his wife Esther Yuk-ying Lee, is an enchanting example. The couple’s dual voiced account of their unanticipated late-life romance, compiled from diaries, letters, exercise routines, recipes, therapy sessions and assorted cultural reflections as they travel the world, is candid to the point of naivety, a folie à deux that is deeply affecting at the same time.

Ordinary Days echoes Shen Fu’s late eighteenth-century classic intimate memoir, Six Chapters of a Floating Life, and even contains a chapter subtitled ‘Love in a Fallen City’ in homage to Eileen Chang. It is translated and annotated by Carol Ong and Annie Ren who do a superb job. That’s how culture lives and is transmitted, even in extremity, into the twenty-first century. As Lee writes: ‘My on-going ideological contradictions finally came to a head during the 1997 handover. To put it another way, the conflicting ideas within me reached saturation point….’ Then new love takes him by surprise.

James Jiang translates Eileen Chang’s cence duizhao as ‘equivocal contrast’, finding there the basis of a translocal ‘realist aesthetic … whose signature mood is one of “desolation” (cangliang)’. That mood is felt often in the volumes that make up the Hong Kong Literature Series. With its clock always ticking, Hong Kong experiences ‘time and timeliness’ on its own scale – one of Chang’s concerns – and ordinary people, ‘caught up in the ineluctable violence of their age’, find themselves at ‘a threshold moment in human history, simultaneously poised at the end of things and at the beginning’, as Jiang writes. That’s what the images from Hong Kong’s continuing protests reveal and it resonates in our threshold predicament now.

When my own homage to Six Chapters of a Floating Life in the form of a novel called The Red Thread was published in 2000, sinologist Pierre Ryckmans wrote that ‘the inner mechanics of a complex performance must remain hidden if the emotion is to flow freely …’, observing how the ‘fiction grows out of the gaps of the original Chinese narrative and glosses its silences.’ Marginalia and glosses, gaps where discord can disappear, fragments, notes, incongruous pairings, variations on a theme: these are forms of Chinese writing with a long history that are renewed in Hong Kong. Timothy Mo’s essay ‘Fighting Their Writing: The Unholy Lingo of RLS and Kung Fu Tse’, for instance, written in English and reprinted here, is a masterclass in the mode. It’s about the grammar of fighting as a metaphor for writing: how, through all the layers of predecessors and possible moves, the writer hits home.

Writing is certainly a fight for Liu Yichang (1918-2018), whose 1963 novel The Drunkard tells ‘a sordid tale of alcohol-fuelled self-destruction’ in a no-holds-barred tour de force. The Drunkard defines a Hong Kong style that inspired auteur director Wong Kar-wai in films such as Days of Being Wild (1990), which is set in a similar period with the same sense of cool, philosophising doom and 2046 (2004). ‘In his plight,’ writes Nick Hordern, introducing The Drunkard, ‘[the unnamed Narrator] represents a whole intelligentsia, a whole culture, shoved aside by the brutal forces of history: the Second Sino-Japanese War and the rampant capitalism of postwar Hong Kong’. It was 1962, the year of the Cuban missile crisis, of Marilyn Monroe’s suicide and Kubrick’s Lolita –  another threshold moment at the height of the Cold War. The Narrator is reading Ulysses and Camus. When he’s not wasted from his nocturnal prowling he’s planning a new literary magazine for Hong Kong called Avant-Garde Literature, equally doomed. The novel is all texture and tone, moving kaleidoscopically from interior monologue to the surreal. The translator, Charlotte Chun-lam Yiu, rises to the challenge of this whirlwind, describing how the work ‘beckons constantly to the reader’ while seeming to ‘forbid entry’.

Here’s the Narrator in a reflective moment:

I’ve regained some self-esteem – and yet at the same time I feel so pathetic. From the age of fourteen I’ve devoted myself to literature. I’ve edited literary supplements for newspapers, I’ve compiled literary anthologies. I’ve run a reasonably large publishing firm, which printed some of the finest works of the May Fourth period. But now, having migrated to Hong Kong, I’m obliged to turn my back on all that, on twenty or thirty years of hard work, and write porn to earn a living and retain some vestige of pride.

Let that be a warning. With dark irony The Drunkard shows the cost of survival, including for literature, in a broken world, richly enhanced here with sixty pages of commentary and notes by Hordern in a love song of another kind to 1960s Hong Kong.

Two volumes of the six books that comprise the Hong Kong Literature Series are devoted to the work of Leung Ping-kwan (1949-2013), also known as P K Leung or by his penname ‘Yesi’ (也斯). Dragons contains two novellas, ‘See Mun and the Dragon’, first published in 1975 (translated by Wendy Chan), and ‘Drowned Souls’ (translated by Jasmine Tong Man and David Morgan), written in France in 2007 and inspired by the deaths of illegal migrants from China including the cockle-pickers who drowned off the coast of Britain in 2004. ‘Drowned Souls’ conjures up a mysterious text called The Scripture of Darkness and Light which could be a description of the light and dark magical realism of these contrasting tales. In the first one a dragon experiences freedom, ‘a whole new realm of possibilities … with no walls to pen her in’. In the second a desolate underwater world presses in on the lonely narrator:

These demons were all the souls of people who had recently died. None of them had died a natural death. Some had drowned when a ship sunk; some had drowned while attempting to enter a country illegally; some were thieves who’d slipped and fallen into rivers while being chased by the police; some had been cheated of large sums of money and, unable to pay their debts, had thrown themselves into a river. All these spirits of the newly dead, wandering between the Yin and the Yang, between life and death, had been led astray … transformed into seafood for sale.

These supernatural stories, like Leung’s poems, present what he understatedly calls ‘a certain world’. It begins with Hong Kong but goes far beyond, in a continuum of speculation that catches the volatility and emotion of the moment. Lotus Leaves gives us a selection of Leung’s poetry from across his lifetime, arranged in thematic groupings and translated by John Minford with pitch-perfect clarity and a fine balance of relaxed and quietly elevated language. (Let me note in passing how many of the translators and commentators in this enterprise, starting from New Zealand-based Minford as the series editor, have antipodean connections.)

In Lotus Leaves one glorious poem follows another, with many lines to mark in the margin and remember. The parameters of Leung Ping-kwan’s creativity are set out: only in Hong Kong could ‘a Chinese national identity and a Western identity both be questioned and rendered absurd’. What matters is how this becomes poetry. The sense of being at or on or in the margin, for example, is recurrent and generative. ‘Forever on the margin, forever in transition’, writes the poet in ‘Images of Hong Kong’ (1990), voicing frustration that things are never settled: ‘Is this how history is constructed?’ ‘Leaf Margin’ (1986) is more literal – ‘Leaves and flowers at the margin have their own charm’ – and more personal, with Leong’s signature mix of modesty and melancholy:

I am but an obscure point somewhere on the circumference,
A smoke-signal of trouble scattered in the wind and dust,
A rumour from the borderland, vague outline of an unauthorised history.

Sometimes the margin is a taste or a residue, as in ‘Bitter-Melon’: ‘You keep the bitter taste for yourself’. Other times it is an infusion, a crossing, a distance of separation, as in ‘Leaf Passage’ (1998):

It’s not so easy to bundle up a house in a bed-roll;
Gone forever are the familiar things like
Land and language….
You crossed the frozen earth to find a warmer port.
Now you must fear
Rejection by both lands.
Can a single leaf carry so much woe?

Leung’s Hong Kong is an ‘island on the edge’, a borderland City at the End of Time to use the title of the selection of his poetry published in Hong Kong in 2012, for which Ackbar Abbas wrote: ‘The imaginings of disaster last for a moment, after which things just go on’. The forms of Leung’s poetry, seemingly improvised in the moment, allow for motions of renewal of that kind too, just going on, like seaweed, ‘each wave swaying / Into a new form’. That is where Leung draws most deeply on Chinese poetic tradition, quoting the eleventh- century master Su Dongpo:

Poems should be like moving clouds and flowing water,
Which have no fixed form,
But move on where they must move on,
And stop where they have to stop.

Minford writes of Leung’s affinity with the loser, the no-hoper, ‘the various drop-down-dead anti-heroes of his post-colonial world, his wistful gallery of “marginaux” people, “going steadily downhill”’. The stories of Hong Kong told by outsiders ‘invariably have an action-packed plot spiced with sex and adventure, always with a touch of the exotic’, explains Leung. ‘The Mainland has its own story. For them Hong Kong is a cultural desert, an orphan, a prostitute, a huge brothel, with everyone waiting to be sold at the best price. From both these versions of the story, the ordinary Hong Kong citizen, man and woman, has been excluded.’ Leung’s poetry gives them a voice.

His language is plain, wrangled, fluid – a dialogue in which ‘Conversation sometimes comes to a halt. / You and I tread on different stones….’ He reminds me of Eugenio Montale (1896-1981), the great Italian poet whose work, produced in a comparable situation of cultural breakdown, strips away the encrustations of literary language with tough modernist energy to arrive at a personal utterance with wide reference:

The dark wounds were never
What we sought….
With our shattered history
What kind of new bud can we grow?

‘Leaf Neighbour: Macao’, 1998

Lotus Leaves is both a memorial and an excellent introduction to a major poet of our world and time.

Hong Kong can be a zany place. The Teddy Bear Chronicles by Xi Xi, translated by Christina Sanderson, exemplifies that strain. It is the journey of a much-loved author through Chinese history and literature with her teddies playing the lead roles. Born in 1937 in Shanghai, Xi Xi moved as a girl to Hong Kong where she became an award-winning novelist and poet. After cancer treatment in 1989, when it was difficult for her to write with her right hand, she turned to dressing her teddy bears as therapy, drawing on her detailed knowledge of costume history and a playful inventiveness all her own. The bears are photographed in exquisite colour close-ups and accompanied by little essays. Minford places Xi Xi’s work in the Chinese tradition of literary ‘jottings’ (biji wenxue) with its predilection for ‘strange creatures, eccentric habits, unusual pastimes’: part of a ‘writing game [that] the author has learned both to respect and disobey’. The figures of Chinese legend are kept alive in plays, stories, images, cartoons, puppets, television dramas and popular sayings. Xi Xi’s whimsical work takes it a step further. Her Han dynasty (206BCE-AD220) Zhou Wenjun, for example, the rich girl who eloped with a musician, wears a wrap-robe designed ‘to envelop the body so completely so as to protect it from exposure’ and her hair is studded with the ‘wobbling-twig fashion accessories’ that caught on throughout East Asia. Xi Xi writes: ‘If teddy bears could walk, the accessory in Zhou Wenjun’s hair would wobble and quiver as she walked, too.’

Not all of Hong Kong’s literature can be included in the series, of course. Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City by Dung Kai-cheung would be on my list. First published in 1997 and in a revised version in English translation in 2012 by the author, Anderrs Hansson and Bonnie McDougall, this quasi-fictional work is a unique cartographical tour of a vanishing city: ‘the little heap of piled-up earth along the shore will turn into margins within margins even less negligible than negligible….’ The addition of short fiction by Dorothy Tse Hiu-hung would bring the survey of Hong Kong writing right up to the present. Her ‘Dark Things’ appeared in Antipodean China: Reflections on Literary Exchange published by Giramondo this year. There are Australian cousins too over several generations who write about and are influenced by life in Hong Kong, from Brian Castro to Emily Sun.

What Minford cheekily calls The Best China: Essays from Hong Kong is the last volume in the series and catches a range of writers, including Louis Cha, whose picaresque martial arts fiction made him the most popular Chinese author of the era, and Timothy Mo, the wonderful English-language novelist whose sharp comedy of post-war Hong Kong, The Monkey King (1978), is a classic and whose An Insular Possession (1986) tells the pre-history of Hong Kong back to the Opium Wars. The Best China goes back to the early days too. Minford’s selection acknowledges his precursors in the work of translation, notably James Legge, who translated the Confucian classics with his Chinese collaborator Wang Tao, and Cecil Clementi, who published his youthful translation of Cantonese Love-Songs in 1904 and returned to Hong Kong twenty years later as governor. I was pleased to discover Ernst Johann Eitel (1938-1908), a German missionary, sinologist and educator who was Hong Kong’s Inspector of Schools until he retired with his family to Adelaide in 1897, where he became a lecturer in German at the university. Eitel’s history of Hong Kong, published in 1895, presciently argued that the ‘fulcrum of the World’s balance of power has shifted from the West to the East, from the Mediterranean to the Pacific. Hong Kong will yet have a prominent place….’

The Best China ends sadly enough with an essay called ‘Memento Mori’ by Chip Tsao. You can’t read the Hong Kong Literature Series as other than elegiac. The books demonstrate the achievement and value of Hong Kong as a literary city and explain how this flowering occurred. Hong Kong’s culture is a unique product of upheaval and reinvention, transmission, transformation, moving on: a place of refuge and a new start. It has historical and geopolitical dimensions, yet it’s always personal.

Leo Ou-fan Lee’s favourite composer is Gustav Mahler whose Song of the Earth is a setting of Chinese poetry from the Tang dynasty in an early German translation. ‘You widened the scope of the [final song of] Farewell,’ Lee tells Mahler in an imaginary conversation. ‘You made it a Farewell to Life itself … Ewig! Ewig! (Eternal!) You yourself added that German word.’ Chip Tsao writes: ‘Leave-taking is part of life. It happens as the hurly-burly of the world falls away and the transcendent realm of the unknown unfolds.’

Who knows what lies ahead for Hong Kong? Its literature shows what did unfold and, collected and translated here under John Minford’s expert guidance, lets us share in what Hong Kong people care so much about. Australia and Hong Kong have been part of each other’s stories for a long time, as contemporaneous colonies and uneasy post-colonies. As Australia puts up walls against China, let us appreciate what Hong Kong managed to do, another island strung precariously between great powers.