Unveiling the cultural interplay in contemporary British poetry: Hong Kong and mainland China through the lens of ekphrasis

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Unveiling the cultural interplay in contemporary British poetry: Hong Kong and mainland China through the lens of ekphrasis

Reading poetry enhances aesthetic appreciation and cultural understanding. Poems involve the unique and creative usage of words to express emotions, thoughts, and ideas of poets, and this can certainly be said about the works of poets from different cultural backgrounds. ‘Ekphrasis’ is a traditional literary device commonly used in poetry for describing visual arts; its usage in the works of a new generation of British poets with Hong Kong connections has received critical attention for depicting specific places with the uses of everyday visual images and cultural artifacts and thus complicating our understanding of ‘ekphrasis’. By examining the close relationship between these poets’ unique bicultural background and their ekphrastic practices in depicting Hong Kong and mainland China, we can gain great insights into the impacts of cultural interplay on contemporary literature.

Through an in-depth analysis of the poems written by a group of British poets with Hong Kong heritage, Dr Antony Huen, Research Assistant Professor in the School of Arts and Social Sciences at Hong Kong Metropolitan University (HKMU), defined two closely related ekphrastic practices in contemporary British poetry, namely ‘Hong Kong ekphrasis’ and ‘Chinese ekphrasis’.

Dr Huen proposed that ‘Hong Kong ekphrasis’ could be poetic representation of the city in its old days. The poets reconstruct the ‘old Hong Kong’ they have learnt from their parents or seen in visual images such as photographs and films, linking up their personal and family histories with the cultural history of Hong Kong. For example, the poem ‘Going Home’ written by Jennifer Lee Tsai is said to represent the poet’s understanding of Hong Kong with the uses of the stories and pictures of her father and her struggle to recognise an authentic image of the city. Meanwhile, ‘Chinese ekphrasis’, according to Dr Huen, involves the depiction of crucial incidents and characters in the Chinese history, and often the combined uses of ancient Chinese scholarly records and European mythologies and imageries. Sarah Howe, as suggested by Dr Huen, has demonstrated an alternative way of narrating historical events in her poem ‘(b) Embalmed’, a vivid retelling of the incident of Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇)’s burial of scholars from a first-person perspective. The poem is said to allow the scholars to ‘speak for themselves’, stimulating our imagination of ancient China.

The two ekphrases defined by Dr Huen are entangled with each other and connected with the literary and cultural history of Hong Kong, mainland China, and the UK. Dr Huen’s study highlights the importance of literature in navigating and expressing the complexity of cultural identity, as well as the ambitions and thoughts of a rising generation, characterised by their creative engagements with personal and political histories.

The findings of this research project have been reported in the article “The ‘old Hong Kong’ and ‘a Gold-sifting Bird’: Hong Kong and Chinese ekphrasis in contemporary British poetry” published on Wasafiri: International Contemporary Writing. This publication was awarded the Bronze Prize of the Outstanding Research Publication Award 2022 by HKMU and the inaugural Wasafiri Essay Prize by the refereed journal, being some of Dr Huen’s recent research achievements. More details of Dr Huen’s research can be found here.