Published by Renditions Paperbacks
Translated by Eva Hung
Adventures of My City
Xi Xi's My City was originally serialized in the Express Daily, from January 30 to June 30, 1975. Xi Xi wrote a thousand words a day and drew the pictures by herself. That was already 45 years ago. Since then, four editions have been published, and a simplified Chinese version was added ten years ago:
1. Su-yeh Publications edition (1979, about 60,000 words);
2. Asian Culture Company edition (1989, about 120,000 words);
3. The updated edition by Su-yeh Publication (1996, a slightly revised version of the Asian Culture Company edition);
4. Hung-fan Bookstore edition (1999, about 130,000 words);
5. Guangxi Normal University Press edition (2010, following the Hung-fan Hung-fan Bookstore edition).
The earliest edition published by Su-yeh Publication, only occupies one-third of the original serialization. There is no preface or appendices, only the main line, attached with some drawings. In that edition, everything is simple, but still, it is possible to read it independently. At that time, very few publishers in Hong Kong were willing to publish serious literary creations, and Su-yeh Publications was a publishing house founded by Xi Xi and friends. It aimed to develop literature creation in Hong Kong, including poetry, novels, and prose. The author received neither remuneration nor royalties. The revenue from the sale of books was used for publishing other works. Initially, only thin books can be published, and Su-yeh is a homophonic translation of "number of pages". The slender first edition of My City sold out immediately.
In the past two decades, more publishers have published Hong Kong literature, and some of them have received funding from the Hong Kong Arts Development Council. In 2014, after many acheivments, Su-yeh was retired, since their role was no longer as important as before. The original register of the publishing house was cancelled as well. Seventy-five books were published before and after its founding, include the authors of three generations. Su-Yeh was at one time a brand in Hong Kong literary circles.
The edition of My City published by Hung-fan Bookstore of Taiwan in 1999 is the most complete. Xi Xi has added the serialization in revised newspapers to this edition, in order to make up for the cut branches and leaves. Also, the appendix contains a few thoughts of my own.
As far as I know, My City has only been translated into English and Korean. The English translation was published in 1993. The book was difficult to translate, and unfortunately the first edition was translated, rather than not the full edition.
Over the years, there have been many articles discussing My City both home and abroad, both long or short. Most of them have collected in the four volumes of Xi Xi Research Materials (西西研究資料), published by Chung Hwa Book Company in 2018. The term “My City” has been used extensively locally, and has also been used in mainland China and Taiwan in the early years, with different references. Many titles of books and events have also picked up the phrase "My City".
The feature of My City that has attracted the most attention is the use of language. Xi Xi deliberately used a poetic, unfamiliar language to present the atmosphere of teenagers’ lives. This is undoubtedly different from the slick, experienced writing that can be found in newspaper columns. While Xi Xi’s teenagers are pragmatic and optimistic, her thematic concerns in the novel are also quite apparent, often expressed through the mother. The older people in the book went through the war and its tribulations. The mother asked the young people again and again, “What else do you see"? This voice differs from that of the teenagers—if you want to find the source of this voice, it is probably that of the author.
But this can only be a hypothesis. My City aimed at an esoteric language and way of thinking, not a discussion of social issues. But of course linguistic innovation is easier said than done, and it cannot truly be said to reduce or evade the criticism of society. Society expects that young people should think differently from adults. For one thing, they are deeply in love with Hong Kong (they shout: "I like the sky in this city / I like the sea in this city / I like the road in this city"), and it also expects them to look at the society like a sociologist. This may become a question in reading the book: one can’t use the same ruler to measure everything. We can't simply read novels using a bunch of social problems.
Even in recent years, there are still people arguing about the ingenious words of My City. A philosopher read the first sentence and shook his head, saying that he could not read it anymore. But a young creator in Taiwan read the first sentence and said, “It takes my heart.”
In any case, My City has become a "classic" of Hong Kong literature. In 2005, the Hong Kong Arts Center edited collection of writings, i-City, based on the idea of My City. The editor said, "It includes a number of creators aged from twenty to thirty, from different sectors, and some have established a certain position, and some have revealed outstanding talent." That collection includes the i city in novels, the i city in paintings, the i city in theaters, and the i city in reading, as a response to My City.
The selection of My City for “One City One Book Hong Kong 2020" is definitely in favor with the general public.
- Ho Fuk Yan
About the Author
Xi Xi: Updates and Recent News
Xi Xi is well-known to everyone in literary circles in Hong Kong, although whether everyone has read her work is another matter. It is therefore not necessary to introduce her life in great detail. Here, I will focus on only three things: first, her name; second, her age; and third, her recent situation.
Xi Xi’s original name was Zhang Yan. In English, it was transliterated from Cantonese by customs officers into Cheung Yin when she came to Hong Kong at the age of 12. Of course, it was possible for her to change this name when she was old enough to have an ID card, but it would have taken time, and in fact, it was transliterated properly. After Cheung Yin, Xi Xi added a foreign name, Ellen, which she used when studying at Heep Yunn School. There, her foreign teacher thought it was more convenient for Xi Xi to have a foreign name. The teacher listed a bunch of names on the blackboard for students in the class to choose—when it was Xi Xi’s turn, only a few names were left, and she chose Ellen. Xi Xi began writing while in secondary school, and she used many pseudonyms. In her early years, she used Zhang Ailun occasionally, but she hasn’t used it for a long time. Some English translators have 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 transliterated as Xi Xi, though it has also been transliterated by some in the past as Sai Sai, which is a transliteration of the Cantonese. Overseas friends have also asked about Xi Xi’s name. In fact, reading Xi Xi as Sai Sai is like those from other provinces who cannot speak Cantonese well. “Sai” has the same sound as "嘥" in Cantonese, which means a waste of time and effort. Because of this, Xi Xi preferred to use “Xi Xi” because she uses Chinese written language on the one hand and Cantonese in her daily life. On the other hand, there is no need to emphasize that in writing she also uses Cantonese.
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 Xi Xi consulted the family's documents in Shanghai, 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
Asia Weekly praised her novel My City as one of the one hundred best Chinese-language novels of the 20th century.
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: