Sunday, August 10, 2008

A poem on Hong Kong

Left-wing political poet W.H.Auden and his partner Christopher Isherwood came to Hong Kong by boat in 1938.

He wrote,
"Here in the East the bankers have erected
A worthy temple to the Comic Muse."


Goodness, was Hong Kong already full of bankers back then?


"...off-stage, a war
Thuds like the slamming of a distant door"


Hmm...so even a visitor like Auden saw Hong Kong's political apathy.

Hongkong
by W.H. Auden

The leading characters are wise and witty;
Substantial men of birth and education,
With wide experience of administration,
They know the manners of a modern city.

Only the servants enter unexpected;
Their silence has a fresh dramatic use:
Here in the East the bankers have erected
A worthy temple to the Comic Muse.

Ten thousand miles from home and What’s-Her-Name
The bugle on the Late Victorian hill
Puts out the soldier’s light; off-stage, a war

Thuds like the slamming of a distant door:
We cannot postulate a General Will;
For what we are, we have ourselves to blame.


The poet was probably attacking Europeans who were apathetic to the wars in Asia (this was pre-WWII), who were still erecting their banking temple in the safe haven of this British colony while a bloody war is going on in the rest of Asia.

The poem was set in a particular time. Nowadays, we're no longer a colony, "we" are no longer Europeans, but the general feeling of unapologetic capitalism and political apathy still seem to have some truth in today's Hong Kong.


HERE is a mention of the poem in the Far East Economic Review's blog.

And HERE is an article by Stuart Christie, a scholar at the Hong Kong Baptist University, who is more skeptical of Auden's observations on Hong Kong, and who probably will not agree with my simplistic understanding of the poem.

In his article, he said, "In other words, the colonial exceptionalism that had prompted Auden's mockery of Hong Kong and Macao had become his own: far from gaining a better purchase on Chinese alterity through his writing, he had merely confirmed his credentials as colonial short-timer, a redundancy in terms that made the poet's many protestations to the contrary sound hollow."

No comments: