Jennifer S. Cheng

Umbrella Poetics

*This essay expands on the author’s blog post on Kundiman Fireside on October 16, 2014.

In making for ourselves a place to live, we first spread a parasol to throw a shadow on the earth, and in the pale light of the shadow we put together a house.

—Junichiro Tanizaki

We might only begin mid-sentence. After my family returned to the States, I only ever thought of Hong Kong as a place of shadows: a loose daydream, a small hour, a vague and lingering homesickness. Or: After the island was given away, and then again and again; after its people were not let out after dark, told to carry papers and lamps to light their faces, after they were relegated to live apart in disease and poverty; after it was ruled over, conceded, occupied, after it was returned but only to another history—

First: And isn’t liminality a longing for voice? Then: What is the poetics of longing?


From Ackbar Abbas, Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance:

“Postcoloniality ... means finding ways of operating under a set of difficult conditions that threatens to appropriate us as subjects ... for example, thinking about emigration in a certain way, emigration not in the diasporic sense of finding another space ... with all the pathos of departure, but in the sense of remaking a given space that for whatever reason one cannot leave, of dis-locating.”



For many immigrants and children of immigrants in America, our belonging is a kind of longing. It is not as simple as saying that we belong nowhere or we belong everywhere but only that it is somehow precarious, that there is a quiet yearning for, an understanding of, some undefined space ever in the periphery of one’s eye. When I began travelling back to Hong Kong as an adult, I found I could still only know it as it belonged in my heart: deep green hills that cradled my body, moistened tile platforms and pedestrian walkways that rose and twined and ended at the ocean, passageways and alleys I could know and not know, bus rides up and down unkempt mountains, toward and away from the sea. What I mean is: I have never been able to know what Hong Kong means to other people, whether they are outsiders or my own father, and when I think of the city, I think of it as an aberration, a tiny crescent yearning in the midst of a large starry sky.

What I mean is: As much as home is an anchor in the body, a protected space no on else can ever know, we have always known how identity is yet also fluid, murky: how we have had to construct it and claim it with twigs we collected and terrains we named, here and there: how its boundaries shifted and burned with memories uncovered, histories relearned, linguistics transformed, distances and shadows narrowing and growing and looming.




“[Hyphenation] points precisely to the city’s attempts to go beyond such historical determinations by developing a tendency toward timelessness ... and placelessness ... a tendency to live its own version of the ‘floating world’ ...” (Abbas).




After the protests began, my friends in the States asked me to explain what was happening. I listed for them the history of Hong Kong, 1841, 1997, 2047, the Handover, the Basic Law, the “white paper” debates, the yearly protests. But it is not merely the pursuit of universal suffrage, as large as that is. It is not even merely the shadow of an oppressive hand. How does one describe the meaning of home or selfhood? How does one list a familial history of fear and survival and separation—and yet love for one’s culture, rooted and unrooted as it is? How my mother and father are bound, not to China or a nation or any government, but to something else unpinned—like the rough weave of my grandmother’s voice mixing Shanghainese, Mandarin, English, and Cantonese, a blurring that intensifies without awareness as she ages. How the texture of freshly fried youtiao softens as it is dipped into soy milk on Sunday mornings after a cooling ferry ride, how the overhead clicking of walkway traffic signs fills the air with footsteps underhand, how rain rushes down outdoor stairwells into a maze of drainage networks during typhoon season, how the air smells green in the quieter parts of the island. How does one say, even to oneself, how an immigrant’s longing for legitimacy is like this, too, the loneliness of the moon, a bright eye turned toward the unbounded sea?


“... not as a neither-nor space that is nowhere; not even as a mixed or in-between space, if by that we understand that the various elements that make it up are separable ...” (Abbas).


When the police began to clear Mong Kok, I could barely read the news stories. As closely as I had scoured and searched the Internet for every word and syllable at the beginning of the protests, now I almost had to force myself to read the headlines, take in their literal meanings. I do this sometimes with my relationships: distance myself when I sense a distance already threatening to swell. The facts and the news media would never tell me what I needed to know: What shape did the shadows cast on their bodies when they raised instruments meant to keep the weather out, in protection against a governmental force that was coming down on them? When they lifted those shields as a symbol alongside structures they built in order to shelter themselves in the city streets?

My friend who was there on the ground asked what is the difference anyway between a shelter and a shield. One protects inward and the other outward, I thought to myself, but I knew this was not what he meant. What my friend meant, maybe, was that a shelter and a shield are structures of desperation, and that’s all that matters. Those assemblages of tents, barricades, first-aid stations, mobile libraries, study centers, shrines, and umbrella monuments— The people struggled together for days, weeks, months, to articulate their voice, and perhaps what matters is exactly this, that the desperation to erect a home is a fundamental human instinct, even, or especially, if what we are protecting, or protecting against, is something clouded, imprecise, ambiguously large.




“Above all, hyphenation refers not to the conjunctures of ‘East’ and ‘West,’ but to the disjunctures of colonialism and globalism ... a very specific set of historical circumstances that has produced a historically anomalous space that I have called a space of disappearance” (Abbas).




During the years between my family’s departure and my return as an adult, what changed was the protests. This is not entirely true. The July 1 marches were of course a new occurrence after 1997, but I later learned that the June 4 candlelight vigils had always happened. It began with 1989, one-sixth of Hong Kong’s population emerging in support of the students across the waters, and in the years after the Handover, pro-democracy protests swelled. This history of public demonstration is yet another mark of disjuncture from “Chineseness” in a city already anxious about identity. When you are one in thousands, a body among bodies, sitting and lighting flames one by one, neighbor to neighbor, you cannot help but ask, Why are all these bodies here? What heat do they feel inside? When you are one in a night on the street, sleeping side by side. Hong Kong is a city that has always protested, and these bodies emerge en masse again and again not necessarily because they think it will bring about real change, though perhaps more and more they are believing it can. Perhaps the city protests because that is a freedom afforded to it: an avenue for voicing itself: Hong Kong protests because it can.

At some point, the instinct to protect inward became a need to protect outward. It is the difference between keeping oneself dry despite the weather, and wielding fiercely, if vaguely, in the face of such weather. What is a city’s identity after hundreds of thousands of bodies have made a home in the streets for more than seventy days?


From Rey Chow, Between Colonizers: Hong Kong's Postcolonial Self-Writing in the 1990s:

“Hong Kong’s postcoloniality means both a kind of freedom (from the restrictions of ‘national’ culture) and a kind of danger (anything is possible).”

“To write itself, Hong Kong must move beyond ... the simplicity of the paradigm of ‘foreign colonizer versus native colonized’.”

“What is unique to Hong Kong, however, is precisely ... an awareness of impure origins, of origins as impure [emphasis mine].”






In the year that I returned to live in Hong Kong as an adult, I spent much of my time walking along the water on Lantau Island. Beyond my usual path by the pier, every so often I would take a rickety bus through the mountains, and I knew that I was close when the bus lurched upward between two green hills and reached a point where the ocean suddenly appeared, brazen and silver under the midday sun. I am by nature an anxious person who relies on precision and plans, but I never needed to know where the bus stops were located, I only waited to see the beaches appear through the trees. Hong Kong is the one place in the world where I can feel both familiar and lost in the best of both senses, where a sense of wildness and safety intersect.

I have never developed a language beyond this to describe Hong Kong, deep inside my bones.

Growing up, my parents taught me that the most important measures for a good life were safety, security, and stability. Do not go to Hong Kong, my father cautioned me when the protests broke out, even though he believes in the freedoms that come with democracy. Safety was what we were all taught, so what does it mean that so many of this next generation are still longing, desperate, for some unnamed shape, a wilderness to shield them in the night? 


“Hong Kong’s postcoloniality is marked by a double impossibility—it will be as impossible to submit to Chinese nationalist/nativist repossession as it has been impossible to submit to British colonialism.”

“What would it mean for Hong Kong to write itself in its own language?” (Chow).


Abbas, Ackbar. Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance. University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

Chow, Rey. “Between Colonizers: Hong Kong's Postcolonial Self-Writing in the 1990s.” Diaspora 2(2): 1992.

First photo by Vivian Yan. Final photo by David William Hill. All other photos by the author.

Original blog post:

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