About the Author 

Xi Xi

Xi Xi: Updates and Recent News

 

The name Xi Xi is known to everyone in literary circles in Hong Kong (although whether everyone has read her work may be another matter!). There is no need to introduce her life in great detail. Only three things are important here: first, her name; second, age. Third, her recent situation.

 

1. Name

Xi Xi’s original name was Zhang Yan. In English it was Cheung Yin, as it was transliterated from Cantonese by customs officers when she came to Hong Kong at the age of 12. Of course, it is possible to change her name on the ID card later, but it takes time, and in fact, it was transliterated properly. After Cheung Yin, she added a foreign name, Ellen. When she was studying at Heep Yunn School, the foreign teacher thought it was more convenient to have a foreign name. The teacher listed a bunch of names on the blackboard for her classmates to choose—when only a few were left, Xi Xi chose Ellen. So when Xi Xi began to write, as early as secondary school, she used many pseudonyms. In her early years, Zhang Ailun also appeared by accident, but it has not been used for a long time. Some English translators transliterated “張彥” into “Zhang Yan.” Again, there was no problem—except that when she received a cheque for a manuscript, she could not cash it if she used this English transliteration!

 

As for “西西”, it is generally translated as Xi Xi, and it has also been transliterated as Sai Sai in the past, which is considered to be a transliteration of Cantonese. In fact, reading Xi Xi as Sai Sai is like thee foreigners who cannot speak Cantonese accurately. “Sai” has the same sound as "嘥", which means a waste of time and effort in Cantonese. Therefore, Xi Xi chose “Xi Xi” because she uses Chinese written language and uses Cantonese in her daily life, and of course writing is also in Cantonese.

 

2. Age

Xi Xi’s ancestors were from Zhongshan, Guangdong, but she was born in Pudong, Shanghai in 1937. The family then moved to Hongkou District, where a group of Cantonese people lived. According to many previous introductions, she was born in 1938. This is how Hong Kong identity card shows it, and she always thought it was so. However, her eldest sister died a few years ago, and when the family's documents in Shanghai were consulted, they showed that Xi Xi was actually born in 1937. When mainlanders came to Hong Kong at that time, customs allowed people to report the date of birth freely. For various reasons, some reported an older age and some reported a younger age. My parents reported that they were born in 1911, during the Xinhai Revolution. It was a momentous year, and it was a catchy thing to say to the customs officers. But as a result, they can no longer determine their actual age, as well as that of their children. Many of the previous generation and even my generation are like this. I think that Xi Xi’s father probably reported a younger age for Xi Xi for the purpose of enrolling in secondary school. It was not advisable to be older, because the new semester of secondary school has already started when she came to Hong Kong.

 

Given the new information, Xi Xi will actually be 83 years old in 2020.

 

3. Recent situation

At nearly 83 years old, Xi Xi still reads and writes. She has been unwell, but long illness has made her a doctor. She is tired only after walking for a long time, and she is distracted only after an hour or two of talking. Of course her memory is not as good as before, but she can still remember what is worth remembering. She takes a lot of medicines every day to maintain blood pressure, blood sugar, blood lipids, and cholesterol level. I used to laugh at her eating these as breakfast, but Xi Xi knows that I have to eat a lot of pills as well, and I often don’t remember whether I ate them. Health is always related to diet and Xi Xi is very careful in this respect. In the past ten years, she has rarely eaten out, except with close friends. There is a documentary which filmed her ordering greasy take-away. But that was just a convenient arrangement, not her actual practice.

 

About five or six years ago, Xi Xi stopped writing her column in the newspaper and began to concentrate on writing a novel called "Imperial Astronomer (欽天監)". She has prepared by reading a lot of materials. The writing process has been very pleasant but also difficult, because the background is from the early decades of the Kangxi Emperor's reign in the 17th and 18th centuries. Forty years ago, she wrote "Shao Lu (哨鹿)" (serialized in the Hong Kong Yearbook in 1980) about the Qianlong era, which may have already brewed the idea of this novel at that time. The early decades of the Kangxi Emperor's reign was a golden age for the astronomers, a great era when missionaries came to China and the Chinese and Western cultures clashed. The novel is narrated by its protagonist, who enters the planetarium to train as an astronomer. The novel deepens as the protagonist ages, revealing his responses to various problems and to matters of affection, friendship, love, and to changes in values at a historical turning point. There are total 160,000 words, rich in texture, with great vision, and also many humorous descriptions. Since most of Xi Xi's long stories have been serialized in newspapers and periodicals in the past, she has just had to design a good layout of the story, and then write and publish bit by bit. This novel is different—she wrote it carefully and concentratedly. Similar to the past creations, it implements Xi Xi's characteristic innovations: no matter what the content, there is a special feature in each chapter.

 

During the writing of “Imperial Astronomer,” she suddenly felt that her left eye had blurred vision, and she was actually suffering the macular hole. After the surgical operation, it was necessary for her to lie down for most of the day. After 4 or 5 months of hard work, she could neither read nor write. Once she overcame this and started writing again, she finally finished writing the novel at the end of 2019.

 

In 2019, she was very productive, and she published several books (including a few simplified Chinese editions in the mainland) and won two foreign literary awards. There would be more, but she gave it up because she was asked to attend and to be interviewed. The most important thing is that after coming back from a trip to the United States, her health has improved. Before March, she visited the doctor two to three times a month, and her medical vouchers were used up quickly. After April, the doctor who has treated her for 30 years said that she is doing well, and she will be in good health.

 

Recently, when the epidemic spread, she went out less and did some cycling exercise at home. She also found a special hobby, which is watching TV drama. She goes to the small bookstore near her home every afternoon to watch the ancient Chinese dramas produced in the mainland on a computer. She looks at the scenery, the clothing and the performances. She found ‘The Joy of Life (慶餘年)’ very interesting, and now she is watching Tang Wei(湯唯)'s ‘Ming Dynasty (大明風華)’.

 

- Ho Fuk Yan

Other awards include:

  • United Daily Fiction Prize

  • Hsing Yun Global Chinese Literary Award

  • Swedish Literature Prize (the Cicada Prize)

  • Newman Prize for Chinese Literature


 

Other titles by Xi Xi:

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© 2020 by Centre for Popular Culture in the Humanities at The Education University of Hong Kong.