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Provocative Stories: Hon Lai-chu's The Kite Family

Chinese Hong Kong writing tends to be grounded in daily experience, exploring interpersonal relationships. It also ably reflects on the absurdity of Hong Kong’s life, both political and social.

The stories in Hon Lai-chu's The Kite Family, translated from standard written Chinese by Andrea Lingenfelter, are adept at expressing this sense of absurdity and unease.

Several of the stories focus on a lone character confronted with societal expectations and prejudices, who finds him or herself in a disturbing situation that recalls Kafka or episodes of the TV show The Twilight Zone. For example, one story in the collection, "Spoiled Brains", features a man on display – to the amusement of onlookers – in a furniture showroom, while in "Forrest Woods, Chair" a jobless man wills and trains himself to become a chair to be sat on; in "Front Teeth" a woman's luxuriant pearl-like teeth sprout incessantly, threatening to take over her face.

Of the six stories in The Kite Family, "Notes on an Epidemic" is, for me, the most unnerving. In the story, a mysterious infection plagues the city, which perhaps reminds one of the SARS and H5N1 outbreaks in Hong Kong's recent past. Hon's story however takes a far more surreal turn. Single people appear to be especially susceptible to the disease. Single-occupant dwellings are being demolished by the government, making lives uncomfortable, even untenable, for those who are single. Worse, they are forced to live with other similarly unwanted citizens in makeshift 'families'so they might recover from their ailments. The protagonist, for example, is put in a 'family' with four others of different ages.

The stories in The Kite Family prompt us to think about whether our existence is unique, or just a convenient accident. In story after story, characters can be easily replaced by others without wider society being affected in any substantial way. We imagine ourselves to be these unfortunate characters whose existence is precarious, and one outcome would be that we become both more apprehensive about and appreciative of our embodied lives.

The stories in the collection also interestingly reimagine certain traditional Chinese practices and customs. One example is the service of 'professional mourners', who are hired to cry at funerals. In the story "Notes on an Epidemic", it is suggested that this profession is on the rise again as there are more 'families' being formed and every 'family' hires a mourner at least once. One character says, 'tears are a hot commodity'. This can be read as a metaphor of how in a capitalist society, everything can be monetised.

Hong Kong is not explicitly named in the stories in The Kite Family, but the issues besetting its people, such as the fear of losing one's job, alienation, and the need to conform to society's mores, are distinctly recognisable. The stories may not always be pleasant to read, but they are very provocative, and they make the reader sympathise with inhabitants of the city just a little more.

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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