Fragrant Poetry

Fragrant Poetry


By David McKirdy

If our environment  shapes us as people then the place in which we live must also inform our creative endeavours and shape us as poets, this has certainly been the case with my own writing. Hong Kong is frequently viewed and portrayed as the archetypal modern Asian city, with it's thrusting architectural vernacular which is the main fodder of the documentary, travelogue and infomercial. Like Italo Calvino's book 'Invisible Cities', Hong Kong is a different place to different demographic groups and even to different individuals within these same groups.

My Hong Kong is the city of history, mythology and magic and I write these words from the summit of 'Flying Goose Mountain, one of the nine dragons from which Kowloon District derives it's name. Mine is a city of bird-song, cicadas and bamboo wind-chimes, abandoned hamlets high on mountain passes and a story under every stone. In the midst of the metropolis we find hidden shrines shrouded in incense, fortune-tellers, apothecary's, acupuncturists and ancient crones under freeway flyovers who will for a small fee beat paper effigies of your enemies with a wooden shoe.

The name Hong Kong, or 'Heung Gong' in the local dialect of Cantonese, means Fragrant Harbour, but this does not, as many people believe, refer to the sweet smell of the sea air as in actuality Hong Kong has always smelled of preserved fish and shrimp paste which hangs in the same oppressive, humid air of many Far Eastern trading ports. For the last 100 years or more it has smelled of burnt coal and diesel from the countless ships and small vessels traversing the harbor, as well as the pungent aroma of raw sewage discharged at various points into the sea. New arrivals to Hong Kong would be assailed by the smell at the now closed Kai Tak Airport in the heart of the city and upon asking through handkerchiefs and gritted teeth what the smell was would be informed by 'old hands' "that, my dear fellow, is the smell of money!" Hong Kong's name is actually derived from it's historical trade in incense and the 'Fragrant' in the name refers to the Agar Wood and Sandalwood trees which were harvested  to supply incense and joss sticks throughout China for devotional purposes. Several hundred years ago the trade was wiped out overnight by an edict from the emperor to clear all of the land within 25 miles of the sea to deprive a dissident pirate warlord of any food and support because of his opposition to the emperor. The trees were all cut down and the people dispersed only to return after a 50-year absence. The history and legends of these people still dot the landscape by way of place names like 'Yau Ma Tei' - Oil and Millet Fields, now concrete high-rise. 'Sham Shui Po' - Deep Water Pier, miles from the sea. 'Hung Hom' - Red Cliff, as flat as a plain and 'Yau Yat Chuen' - One More Village, a bucolic poetic concept amidst dense city-scape. Taken from a well-loved poem by the Sung Dynasty poet Lu Yu, here is the final stanza in translation;

Where the hills and streams end
there seems no road beyond
amidst the shady willows
and bright flowers
one more village.

Time travels faster in Hong Kong than anywhere else and an absence of a few months can result in a return to  a physical landscape where mirrored glass edifices full of designer retail outlets have replaced the run-down industrial units with tea shops, barbers and hardware stores that previously occupied the space. The access road may now be a four-lane highway a few metres from the original entrance. This has always been a feature of my life in Hong Kong and I have watched the disappearance of many streets and buildings, but perhaps more tragically the fading away of street scribes, rickshaw pullers, women with bound feet, knife sharpeners and itinerant herbalists - snake oil salesmen with live monkeys on a chain. Much of my own work has been an attempt to preserve some of these images for posterity.

The linguistic landscape is another source of poetic inspiration, with mispronounciations, mistranslations and misappropriations all adding richness to the emulsion. Contributions from Cantonese, English, Mandarin, Portuguese, Russian, Hindi, Nepali and Tagalog all add something to the mix, with place names, food and physical artefacts often transliterated into words that mean nothing in any of these languages but which are firmly incorporated into that unique mix of HK vernacular known as Yi Yuen, named after the popular distinctive HK drink consisting of half tea and half coffee. Yuen Yeung literally means Mandarin duck and is a reference to the fact that the male and female look completely different, this has thus become synonymous with two different but complimentary things - Hong Kong in a nutshell.

Although Hong Kong is 98 percent Chinese it is a city if immigrants and has through world wars, revolutions and colonial diasporas, welcomed people from all parts of China and all over the world. Few people, families or communities are entrenched for more than a generation or two and many maintain cultural, linguistic, clan and culinary affinities related to their historic origins. In such a mix this boy from Scotland has found a new home that inspires and provokes in equal measure. I feel blessed to be able to observe my adopted city with an insiders knowledge but the outsider's eye and to call it home.

Published at May 8th, 2014.

Última actualización: 04/07/2018