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Cantonese Love Stories as Time Capsules

Dung Kai-Cheung's Cantonese Love Stories: Twenty-five Vignettes of a City, which is one of seven slim books in Penguin's Hong Kong Series published in 2017, contains 25 short pieces - the 'vignettes' of the subtitle - translated from the Chinese into English by Bonnie S. McDougall and Anders Hansson. These pieces are selected from Dung's earlier collection, The Catalogue <<夢華錄>>, which includes 99 sketches. First written in 1998 and 1999, shortly after Hong Kong's handover from Britain to China, the pieces comment on Hong Kong society at that momentous time.

Reading the sketches in Cantonese Love Stories-each less than four pages long-two decades after their original publication, one feels that Hong Kong of 2018 is both different and similar to the city of the earlier time. Some of the commercial and cultural items that preoccupied Hongkongers' imagination and fancy in the late 1990s may have now gone out of fashion, and as such these stories are like time capsules preserving the idiosyncrasies and preferences of a bygone era. However, we are still, by and large, wedded to material objects, brand names, and the desire to be associated with certain desirable things and names.

The title, Cantonese Love Stories, for me, has at least three interpretations. First, these are Cantonese love stories, despite the fact that the sketches are translated into English. Second, these are love stories for Cantonese. Third, which is straightforward - these are love stories, even though conventional romance may not seem to be the immediate focus or outcome of many of the 25 vignettes.

For Dung, what constitutes the Cantonese flavour of his stories does not necessarily come from 'word-for-word transcription of the spoken word', but instead has more to do with 'the shades, texture, tone and rhythm peculiar to the linguistic community' (p. 8, Cantonese Love Stories). Dung, then, suggests that Cantonese, albeit primarily used in verbal communication, can possibly be felt and experienced in written form, even in another language - and in the case of Cantonese Love Stories, English. This is an innovative notion, one that explains why the sketches in the collection are simultaneously Cantonese love stories and love stories in honour of the author's native tongue, Cantonese.

In Cantonese Love Stories, Dung presents to us love stories that speak not always of traditional love.

True, some sketches do depict budding romances or the potentially pleasant unions of some of the characters. But more often, the protagonists are quietly observing others while they are themselves experiencing life in the city: riding on the MTR, attending a Christmas dance, walking in a park or taking an elementary Mandarin class. Some characters' paths unexpectedly cross, then diverge, and life for all concerned parties returns to usual. There are no dramatic ups or downs in these stories and no absolute resolutions to the characters' lots. And yet, the stories underline a profound admiration and love for these often minor characters who make up the city, characters who are usually overlooked by grand narratives. You may recognise traces of someone you know.

Tammy Ho Lai-Ming

Tammy Ho Lai-Ming is an assistant professor of English at Hong Kong Baptist University. She is founding co-editor of Cha: An Asian Literary Journal and, also a vice president of PEN Hong Kong.

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