Monday, 4 July 2016

RUNNING INTO SUNRISE - A Writer's Residency

Sarah Bower writes about her residency at Lingnan University, Hong Kong:

Towards the end of 2013, I decided it was time to run away. I was working for the British Centre for Literary Translation, helping to run a mentoring scheme for emerging translators. This located me in a world in which no-one I worked with stayed anywhere for long, wherever they might be based. I’m a light sleeper and frequently found myself engaged in email exchanges with people in Bogota or Byron Bay at all hours of the day and night. It was exciting; it made my feet itch.

So I started to trawl the web and follow up personal contacts in pursuit of a writing residency. I’d set these up in Norwich for other writers and translators, and it quickly became clear to me that a residency would give me, not just the chance to get away, but the even more precious opportunity for uninterrupted writing time, something I hadn’t had since completing my MA in 2001.

A friend in Hong Kong alerted me to a residency being advertised at Lingnan University, a liberal arts college in Tuen Mun in the New Territories Of Hong Kong. Their English department was looking for a writer to spend a semester at the college, to write and also to undertake some teaching and outreach work in the local community. Within weeks, I found myself applying for a Chinese work permit and packing for the tropics. I was to fly out in January 2014 and wouldn’t be returning to the UK until June. It was an exciting thought – Greece was the furthest east I’d been at that point.

View from Sarah's apartment in Lingnan
I had no idea what to expect. I always try to travel without expectations because that way, it’s easier to keep an open mind and be receptive to what you find. What I found in Hong Kong were extremes. The Territory is made up of more than 200 islands as well as Kowloon and the New Territories carved out of the Chinese mainland. Some districts are among the most densely populated on the planet, others, such as the island of Lantau, are largely given over to exquisitely maintained national parks. Lantau, with its mountain hikes, put me in mind of the West Highlands fringed by white beaches with palm trees and barbecues. There is fabulous wealth – shopping malls where you can buy a diamond choker or a wardrobe by Stella McCartney but not, for example, a tube of toothpaste – and a troubling underclass of ‘maids’, mostly from the Philippines and Indonesia, who have nothing but a tiny room in their employers’ apartments. On their Sundays off, they congregate in Central, in temporary encampments constructed of rugs and benders and corrugated board, where they gossip, eat picnics and conduct ‘boot sales’ of everything from clothes to vinyl records. When it rains, which it often does, many congregate in the undercroft of Norman Foster’s HSBC headquarters, where their voices echo around the concrete and glass like those of trapped birds.

New Year Lion Dance
The sense of dislocation induced by the loss of almost an entire day to international time zones never left me. My first real experience of my new home was Chinese New Year, when everything closes down for the best part of a week and a bewildering variety of ceremonies took place from which I felt cut off by my ignorance. I watched, I photographed, but not until months later did I make sense of the lion dances and fireworks and offerings of strong liquor in red cups on the steps of corporate offices. And hunger became a serious issue as all the shops and markets were closed! The markets remained places of mysterious fascination – the strange fish, bought alive for the table and dried for medicinal purposes, the unintelligible cuts of meat, entire stalls devoted to different kinds of mushrooms, ginger roots of phallic proportions. One immediate and abiding favourite sold fish, kitchen equipment and counterfeit iPhones...

Part Two of this article will be posted on Thursday.


Sarah Bower is the author of three novels and many short stories. Her work has been translated into ten languages. Her first novel, The Needle in the Blood, won the Susan Hill Award 2007 and her second,  The Book of Love, was a Toronto Globe and Mail bestseller.  Her third, Erosion (written as S. A. Hemmings), was published in 2014.She was writer in residence at Lingnan University, Hong Kong in 2014 and currently teaches creative writing for the Open University, Writers’ Centre Norwich and the Unthank School. She holds a MA in creative writing from the University of East Anglia, where she was shortlisted for the Curtis Brown scholarship in 2001. For five years she managed the mentorship scheme for literary translators run by the British Centre for Literary Translation. She currently works as general manager at Writer’s Centre Norwich and is working on a short story collection and a new novel, Love Can Kill People, Can’t It?, inspired by the history of Palestine since 1947 (though much of it take place in Whitby…)

1 comment:

Jan Toms said...

Thanks for this, Sarah, a glimpse into an unfamiliar place with its sights and smells and traditions. I look forward to the next installment.