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Abstract notions of an 'essential' Chinese (or English) subject and a 'standard' Chinese (or English) language often come hand in hand, concealing a multiplicity of mutually unintelligible languages, ethnicities and identities (DeFrancis, 1984, cited in Chow, 2000: 8). Enforced, according to Rey Chow (2000), as 'a sign of the systematic codification and management of ethnicity that is typical of modernity’, Lo (2000, original emphasis) identifies the role of a written or print standard in the suppression of ‘the political chaos of the voice, a chaos that disrupts the tidiness and selftransparency of the logos that is the nation’ (p. 186). Chow (2000) adds that:

Mandarin is, properly speaking, also the white man’s Chinese, the Chinese that receives its international authentication as ‘standard Chinese’ in part because, among the many forms of Chinese speeches, it is the one inflected with the largest number of foreign, especially Western, accents. (p. 8, original emphasis)

As such, linguistic competence in ‘standard Chinese’ functions to lend the Western ‘outsider’ professional credibility and academic authority, a ‘status symbol, an additional professional asset’, whilst for the so-called Chinese ‘insider’, the ability to speak the language is frequently taken as an index of ethnic authenticity. Conversely:

Those who are ethnically Chinese but for historical reasons have become linguistically distant or dispossessed are, without exception, deemed inauthentic and lacking. (p. 9) [16]

While mainland Chinglish arises out of pragmatic attempts to engage and deploy the economic lingua franca, Hong Kong Chinglish evidences its subjects’ imbrication and ambivalence in the linguistic negotiation of a British colonial past and Chinese sovereign present, from a predominantly Cantonese (culturally as well as politically subordinate) position. As a latter day pidgin used widely among young people, professionals, academics and government officials alike, Chinglish signals both a habitual and playful ‘shuttling’ to and fro (Trinh, 1991: 11–26) of subjects inside and between languages and cultures, a wilful re-pidginization that declares both an affinity to an ‘inauthentic’ heterogeneous locality, and a distance from ruling authorities or homogeneous nations.

In the decade or so preceding the Handover, questions around the contestation and configuration of power, identity and history on linguistic territory, over language as territory and culture, came to the fore in works by a number of contemporary artists from mainland China and Hong Kong. Perhaps the most well known of these is Xu Bing’s A Book from the Sky, an installation consisting of books and hanging scrolls imprinted with some 2000 hand-carved woodblock characters, partially recognizable yet ultimately illegible, as they are all invented. First exhibited in Beijing in 1988 and 1989, the work met with ‘considerable perplexity over whether to read [it] as a critique, or as an instantiation of Chinese culture, or as both’ (Abe, 2000: 231). Subsequently received in the West to critical acclaim, ‘its insertion into a transnational circuit of exhibition [transformed it] from a limited work that responds to primarily local concerns into a commodified, aesthetic spectacle of contemplation and collection’ (p. 241). A Book from the Sky has been taken up as ‘a simple allegory of good (individual expression) against evil (traditional despotism)’ (p. 234), and the excessive labour invested in the work has been interpreted as both a ‘representation of oppressive human toil in China’ (p. 237) and a representation of authentic Chinese meditative practices. Yet as Abe points out, the very title(s) of the work reflects the slippery specificity of its readings between Chinese and western audiences of differing politics and degrees of literacy, the ‘unstable litany of names and translations suggest[ing] the manner in which it is able to elicit a multiplicity of readings, something like a Rorschach test, that reveals the interests and politics of the viewer’ (pp. 227–50). [17]

Since 1984, Gu Wenda’s productions of monumental pseudo seal scripts, following the format of calligraphic copybooks, have caused controversy for the simultaneous invocation and demystification of the written word, at once iconoclastic and glorifying, not of empire but ‘the spirit of the absurd’ (Chang, 1997: unpaginated; see also Wu, 1999: 36–41). Trained in the specialist classical scholarly art of seal-carving yet unable to comprehend the characters he crafted, Gu’s mimicking and reinvention of forms long incomprehensible to many Chinese (except for professional linguists), into an aesthetically convincing yet nonsensical script, multiplies their illegibility and negation of translatability. Gu asks: ‘Who writes the truth, and what gets written in or out of history?’ (quoted in Kember, 2000[1997]: 200).

Confounding the possibility of a clearcut ‘insider-ism’ or ‘outsider-ism’ in relation to supposedly discrete, monolithic and immutable bodies of language and culture, questions around China’s heritage(s) and inheritors, its territorial, cultural and linguistic properties and proprietors, are brought into relief in the particular, peculiar context of the Hong Kong. Tsang Tsou Choi, dubbed the ‘King of Kowloon’ by the local media, has written himself into history by insistently rewriting Hong Kong’s past across its territories. For several decades, Tsang has claimed Kowloon as ancestral land wrongfully usurped by a foreign crown without compensation. [18] He makes his protests against dispossession via highly visible calligraphic inscriptions (in a context relatively free of graffiti) from walls and street furniture to flyovers and bus stops, including public places poignant for their proximity to sites of British crown authority, such as the Central Government Offices, Government House and Victoria Park; the demise of colonial power has seen Tsang redirect his claims to symbols of Chinese state authority, though he ‘doubts China will return land the British stole’ (Silverman, 1997[1996]: 69).

Given the absence of a public arena for the expression of dissent, Tsang invades or defiles existing sites of power, or at least occupies their margins. Usually he places his writing in sites with high pedestrian traffic, where it will have a ready visibility, but he is normally careful not to choose surfaces which are too sensitive, from which his inscriptions would be immediately cleared. Since his calligraphy can be found all over the territory it becomes a trace of its author’s wanderings . . . enact[ing] the displacement his texts speak of: the ruler wanders in exile. (Clarke, 2001: 177)

Tsang’s writing is described as ‘eccentric . . . bold’ (Lau, 1997: 10) and ‘raw . . . without clear precedent in calligraphic tradition’ (Clarke, 2001: 177) a makeshift miming and adaptation of the rhetoric of power, to publicly contest those in possession. In the period preceding the Handover, the reframing of Tsang’s project as art, first by a local curator, then by dint of its appropriation by a number of local artists and designers, [19] prompted outrage and accusations of manipulation (many question Tsang’s mental health); yet his work has nevertheless become ‘a much-circulated symbol of the local’ (p. 181). Previously inscribed objects and surfaces were exhibited between freshly ‘defaced’ gallery walls, Tsang’s public interventions re-presented as artistic installation, translated into a medium adopted by many young Hong Kong artists emerging in the late 1980s. The lack of affordable space for working in traditional media or of a developed market driving the production of art objects as commodities contributes to the popularity of installation, as does its relatively short history and cultural status as the preserve of neither Western nor Chinese canons. Moreover, its transience and particular relation to the specificities of local sites and their histories resonated with the prevalent concerns of a number of artists keen to recuperate local popular and material culture ‘for a fragile alternative history’, often via traces of the vernacular (pp. 70–99).

Oscar Ho’s ongoing works on paper, Stories Around Town (1991–), resemble newspaper cartoon strips, combining text and image to fabricate tales based largely on urban myth, sometimes incorporating imitations of Tsang’s writing style as well as news stories (on occasion produced for and disseminated in the press itself), questioning the veracity and power of ‘truths’ and expressing the frustrations and boredom in anticipation of the ‘historical moment’ encapsulated by the date ‘June 30, 1997’. [20] In contrast to the interest in written Chinese languages demonstrated by such artists from the mainland as Xu and Gu, a number of artists from Hong Kong display a particular interest in spoken language and Cantonese as the predominant local vernacular. The English titles of various pieces by Antonio Mak render absurd and opaque homonymic and visual/verbal puns revealed only in their Cantonese translation, such as Bible from Happy Valley (1992) [21] (a horse with a large open book across its back for wings symbolizes gamblers’ dreams of winning; ‘happy valley’ is a race course and ‘bible’ translates into ‘shu’, which can mean ‘book’ and ‘to lose’). Kith Tsang Tak-Ping translates his Hello! Hong Kong series (1996–7) [22] by sounding out English with Chinese written characters (a method that harks back to the Cantonese phonological representation of English that typified CPE), [23] while Warren Leung Chi-Wo has monumentalized and memorialized the vernacular in Dream of a Path (1996), by engraving items from a 1960s street stall menu into the floor of a former shop space, a ‘fake relic’ that recovers the lost traces of urban renewal and development. Leung also deploys word play in both titles and inscriptions, notably Vis(i)ta (1996–7), [24] in which the locations of photographic views of Sun Gai, Gau Long and Heung Gong are occluded from those without adequate knowledge of romanized Cantonese to recognize the otherwise familiar New Territories, Kowloon and Hong Kong Island; in this way, Leung highlights the dimensions of the local and the linguistic in the hierarchical production of knowledge and designation of territory and ownership, imitating and escaping the dual competitive hegemonies of Standard English and Chinese.

Reflective perhaps of the historical exclusion of Chinese women from reading and writing, hence from centres of power, the artists from mainland China and Hong Kong engaging language appear to be predominantly male. Work by such so-called ‘British Chinese’ artists as Lesley Sanderson, Yeu-Lai Mo, Mayling To, differently up-rooted from ‘motherlands’ and ‘mother tongues’, often articulates a silence or silencing, a speechlessness or sense of speaking into a vacuum. [25] Sanderson’s ‘disappearing act’ takes place as her self-image disperses across several works, returning doubled with mouth, face and head bandaged and bound, and speaking only at odds with her collaborative partner, less a dialogue than two monologues comprising Western rhymes and taunts; a solitary Mo mouths an equally limited repetitive script as part of a soundless spectacle, her voice inaudible until disembodied; To’s cartoon anti-heroes say nothing. [26] However, like their Hong Kong and mainland contemporaries, a common strategy lies in the visual/verbal punning of titles, usually in English, whose ‘Chinglishness’ resides in the frequent cultural double entendres, for example in Anthony Key’s Free Delivery, Great Wall, Chips with Everything, and To’s Pandemonium and A Cute Puncture. As Coco Fusco (2001) comments on the artist David Hammons, ‘jokes are there for those who [can] decipher them’. Puns and word games ‘short-circuit’ the dominant meanings accrued to given objects or terms, ‘taking, twisting, and transforming English to make it otherwise’. Paraphrasing Fusco’s description of Hammons, these artists might be positioned as sometime investigators of how oppositional, marginalized and diasporic Chinese identities ‘can be generated through a dialogue with “high” culture, particularly as it is articulated through Standard English’ – and Chinese (pp. 43–8). In the case of PIDGIN, such dialogue is generated via the mobilization and performance of language in its emphatically unstable, esoteric and (un)popular forms, both within, with and in excess of a differently esoteric ‘fine’ or ‘high’ art context.

PIDGIN strikingly contrasts the aforementioned examples through the sheer proliferation of voices, relentless word and image play, linguistic invention and experimentation. Traversing silences and inarticulacies, the speeches and transliterations generated by PIDGIN are compelled by curiosity yet recall the resourcefulness and ingenuity of those historically, linguistically and economically excluded from discourses of power, among them the inventors of the recently discovered nüshu, literally ‘women’s writing’, a unique, secret script originating in oral traditions of the southern Chinese province of Hunan, created and used exclusively by women in transgression of a formerly male preserve and defiance of an imposed illiteracy. [27] Debunking the myth of flawless standards and steadfast origins, there can be only flaws and fluctuations. Mispronunciations, interruptions, pidgins and Chinglishes – these practices of speaking across move from economic to cultural necessity. Reliably incompetent in various languages, can we take pleasure in owning up to what some would decry as ‘artificial pidgin scholarship’ – in more senses than one? (Lui, 1995, cited in Yeh, 2000: 264) Ngai dai teng deg chut ngo me hai boon dai yan a o? Dan hai – while some of us do not claim to ‘speak about’ ‘Chinese’ and ‘Chineseness’ with suitably distanced ‘authority’ or an intimate ‘authenticity’, we can ‘speak nearby’: for ‘this is our pidgin’ – our ‘business’, our responsibility, our affair.


How to make sense of (impulses to) ‘home’ when the means or mechanisms – political, economic, ideological and linguistic – fall short or fail? Pidgin languages, like the subjects that speak them, ‘[do] not belong to a particular place’, but arrive and depart ‘when two or more cultures meet at any border’ (Papastergiadis, 2002: unpaginated). Across such hyphenated realities, what is ‘home’ but an illusory origin, an imaginary centre – several and no places at once? Conceptualizations of diaspora are often formulated around axes of origin and return, centre and periphery. Ien Ang (2000[1998]) notes the tendency to ‘favor . . . a hierarchical centering and a linear rerouting back to the imagined ancestral home’ (p. 290), a paradigm that suppresses what James Clifford (1997) calls ‘the lateral axes of diaspora’ – ‘the ways in which diasporic identities are produced through creolization and hybridization’, and we might add pidginization, ‘through both conflictive and collaborative coexistence and intermixture with other cultures’. While ‘the empowering paradox of diaspora is that dwelling here assumes solidarity and connection there . . . there is not necessarily a single place or an exclusivist nation’ (pp. 266, 269, original emphases).

As a legally recognized place of domicile and residence, ‘home’ may locate one as a ‘Citizen’ here and ‘Permanent Resident’ there, a status familiar to recent generations of Hong Kong’s migrants whose relocations – to Australia, Canada, Britain or the United States – determined by economic, educational and political prerogatives, are often protracted, ‘in perpetuity’. When the distances of dispersal are regularly crossed, leaving and arriving may become not events but conditions of living. ‘Home’ as neither ‘there’ and ‘here’, nor ‘then’ and ‘now’, but staggered by air-miles or electronic ether in not-quite synchronicity – ‘ahead’ or ‘behind’ depending on direction of travel. Such disorientiating and exhausting looping and curving of identities and histories dispersed through/under/over temporalities, geographies and languages, demand the complex de-configuring and reconfiguring of subjectivities, inadequately approximated by the notion of ‘jetlag’. (‘Subject/sujet-lag’?) [28] Yet such duplicity and multiplicity, as difficult and often unarticulated mundaneities, may also in part be playfully spoken through linguistic flights ‘home’ and away, to and from ‘the home we make, or the homes that are made for us . . . which [are] anywhere, and everywhere, except the place from which we began’ (Rushdie, 1992: 57).

Precisely because translation is an activity that immediately problematizes the ontological hierarchy of languages – ‘which is primary and which is secondary?’ – it is also the place where the oldest prejudices about origins and derivations come into play most forcefully . . . (Chow, 1995: 184)

Emerging as a necessary and imaginative leap, miming, seducing, intertwining, pidgin glances sidelong in more than one direction, at a supposed ‘first’, ‘original’ language, but also at others. Having no time or need to discriminate between virginal originals and tainted derivatives, pidgin presumes and embodies indiscretion, treating and treading supposedly discrete bodies of languages and cultures as porous and malleable media of transformation, ‘corrupt’ from the outset, amorphous like water. As a mode of translation, pidgin upsets and contradicts conventional expectations – that it should entail a uni-directional movement (from the ‘original’), that it should be ‘natural’, and self-effacing, covering its tracks. Contravening limits, pidgin moves in several directions, making its betrayals and deceptions explicit. [29] Emphatically ‘bad’, it sounds aloud its translatedness, the tracks of its trespass everywhere announcing its un-originality and infidelity. [30] Pidgin is, as Papastergiadis (2002) puts it, ‘promiscuous’ – its promiscuity the very ‘poetry of translation’.

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