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Writer Tang Siu-wa steps back from sparring with words to promote literature instead

By Natale Ching

Tang Siu-wa writes, she writes and writes, and writes. She writes about culture, about literature, about society, on lifestyle, and about her daily life. She writes essays, commentaries, criticisms and poetry – in magazines, newspapers, books and on her own blog. However, to some people, the 37-year-old writer and critic is perhaps better known for her active engagement in wars of the written word.

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Tang Siu-wa has a “calling” to promote literature in Hong Kong

Tang is bold in her assertions and is not known to sit on fences. When local writers were criticised as “parasites” living off grants from the Hong Kong Art Development Council, she leapt to their defence, pointing out how they struggled to make ends meet. When she suspects the incorrect usage of a Chinese character, she will go miles to show the right usage. For Tang, getting things right is a compulsion.

She set off on her journey in the local literary world while still a student at The Chinese University of Hong Kong where she was an active member in the poetry society. She continued her studies in literature at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology where she received her Master of Philosophy in 2006.

During her student years, Tang won prizes in city-wide literary competitions, coming second in the poetry category in the Hong Kong Public Libraries Awards for Creative Writing in Chinese in 2002 and winning in the “essay” category of the Awards for Creative Writing in Chinese in 2004.

Her writerly credentials are not in doubt but some of her peers and even prominent, established writers find it hard to understand Tang’s tireless participation in wars of words. Most of them concern the arts and literary and cultural issues. Sometimes she will persist in fierce debates over something as minor as the use of a single word.  “Suddenly it is like I’m intellectually possessed,” says Tang. “I just can’t bear it.”

Apart from wanting to get things right, Tang says what motivates her is the desire for a healthy debate. She hopes everyone taking part in the battle can become more familiar with the issues and the theories behind them. Tang spars with film critics, art critics and cultural commentators, but she does not fight to win. Instead, she hopes both sides can benefit and she admits she is not always right.

A case in point was the debate over the title of the Chief Executive’s 2014 Policy Address. Tang criticised the use of a character to mean “youth” in the Chinese version. However, others rebutted her with proof from more credible sources that the usage was correct. Tang says she was pleased to be corrected.

But such constructive discussions are rare. Tang says that with the rise of social media, many of these battles on the page attract the attention of anonymous netizens. Soon, the discussion becomes filled with personal attacks, foul language, and even sexual harassment. “[It’s like] people are blindfolded,” says Tang, “They can’t see the light, and their [ears] are stuffed so they can’t hear.”

Over the years, she has learnt to be stoical – she no longer expects people to show decency and respect, she knows her words can be distorted, she says some people just cannot distinguish right from wrong, and bystanders will just be bystanders.

Sometimes, it can be even worse. Tang says some people just invent labels to stigmatise those who hold opposite opinions on the internet. “There is no justice in the internet,” Tang says.

Having come to this conclusion, she says she will no longer be so active in wars of words.

It is just as well that Tang does not only lead a virtual life and has many other pursuits to occupy her time. She is devoted to promoting culture, to making a mark on the local cultural scene. It was a mission she set herself after completing her graduate studies. “I was planning to kill tigers,” she says.

However, she discovered there was a big gap between her expectations and reality. The cultural industry appeared to be in decline and Tang recalls many of her classmates who are knowledgeable about Hong Kong literature and comparative literature ended up editing textbooks to be used in local primary and secondary schools.

It may have been a common career path but it was just not Tang’s style to accept fate. Tang knew she could not wait around for fortune to come calling. She had to create a stage of her own, where her professional knowledge would be valued and she could do something for the community.

Apart from teaching creative writing courses at universities, she co-founded the Fleurs des Lettres magazine, a bi-monthly Chinese literature magazine targeting youth in 2006. The publication aims to be at the cutting-edge and innovative, arousing young people’s interest in Chinese creative writing and literature. Once the project was established, she took a back seat.

Tang now spends much of her time editing books related to the development of local literature. “There’s really no one doing this,” she explains. It is not an easy task – the books lack mass market appeal, and she has had to scale back her own writing projects. In the past 10 years, she has only written five books, but edited four.

At the same time, Tang also lobbied for the founding of the House of Hong Kong Literature, a non-governmental advocacy group that promotes the development of literature and the arts, which was finally established last year.

When the organisation advertised for an arts administrator, it was inundated with an overwhelming number of applicants. Tang was impressed that there were so many people in Hong Kong willing to contribute to the literature community. She also hopes the organisation can set a precedent and encourage people and groups who work in the arts to organise so they can better apply for funding.

Since setting out to create her platform, all of Tang’s work has been based on one simple belief – to develop and benefit the literary community at large. She hopes the community will have chances to better hone and organise their arguments and consolidate their ideas.

“As long as I create a brouhaha with lots of things happening everywhere and make the environment full of energy, then I will be very happy,” Tang says.

However, her optimism was dampened by the outcome and aftermath of the 79-day Occupy Movement last year. She worries civil society will become fragmented again, and progress in the arts will slow down.

But this does not mean she is deterred. “As I always say, we must be calm,” she says and strikes a pose of meditation before continuing in customary dramatic fashion, “that’s the only way we can kill our opponents.”

Looking ahead, Tang is uncertain about her future. She does not know what her next step will be, and will see if there are any gaps she can fill that have been left unnoticed by her peers.

Whatever does transpire, Tang knows there is one thing that will remain constant – she will treasure her identity as a writer and value the right to freely express ideas. For now, she has given herself one maxim for this year, which is “just to become enamoured with beautiful things.”

Edited by Benny Kung