When I read the first published review of my poetry book, Justice for Romeo, I was surprised to see myself described as Australian poet. It was the first time I’d ever seen the two words put together alongside my name.
I wrote my first poem at Clearwater Bay Primary school, in the New Territories of Hong Kong. The school was, and probably still is, one of those poured concrete slabs, perched on the edge of the coast. Mum drove my sisters and I up from Clearwater Bay Marina every morning, past Po Toi O fishing village. It was the closest instalment of the English Schools Foundation. My classmates were a smorgasbord of expat brats and local kids, immersing or isolating in English. I remember that Cantonese was unofficially banned beyond the gates. Everyone had to speak English, but when the teachers called for the whole school assembly to count down from ten, to cheer a teacher’s birthday, everyone defaulted to Cantonese. I remember mouthing along, wishing I knew the way.
I can’t remember the topic of that first poem, but to be honest, knowing me, it was probably horses. Not horses as I know them now, but horses as in Black Beauty meets Silver Brumby meets the Houyhnhnms. Either way, it would certainly have been in regimented rhyming couplets. In my seven-year old mind, that was what made poetry real. It had to rhyme. Later, I learned to breathe. Each piece was carefully written out on lined paper, illustrated in coloured pencils and then glued to a backing sheet of bright card. Each poem was framed and pinned up with solemnity. I recall my teacher, an Australian expat, commenting that the back wall of the classroom was filling with them. A rainbow of careful couplets, with an Enid Blyton tang to them. I was one of the privileged few who was allowed to use the paper cutter so that I could make more backs – blue, green, orange. I didn’t collect them before we moved to Australia, just before the handover.
I say moved, but we never really ‘left’ Hong Kong. My father still works there. My mother and brother live there as well. My sisters and I all have permanent residency. Before COVID-19, I could still safely say that I returned at least three times every year. The longest stretch was two months, to attend the Institute for World Literature. For a brief time, my brother and I caught the same trains to school. Between the years, we shifted between apartment blocks throughout Hong Kong. The New Territories to Lantau, to Hong Kong proper, on to Central. The latest, and likely last, is nested just below the Peak. You can see it on most postcards, from a certain angle.
For a short while, in primary school, we lived on a boat. I can remember typhoon waves and my dad hanging off the side to scrape barnacles, mum losing her wooden giraffe-keychain with the keys over the side. Dad dived for them, but they never reappeared. My sisters played Polly Pockets on the deck, pouring water from a narrow jug into tiny plastic swimming pools. I was the only one who ever fell overboard. Twice.
I wrote my first published poem in second-year university, while sitting on the Star Ferry. It was a resentful little piece, now that I think about it. For all the love of place within those lines, there was a snagged feeling of mistaken identity. Tourist. I still prefer to catch the ferry rather than the MTR to get across the harbour, wandering down the hillside and then paying the short fare. I love watching the foam of the shipping lanes, piecing together the weather forecast from the clouds. I know to pull the bench backs to face the direction of travel; a reassuring clunk that sets the directions. You’ve got to hurry through the barrier to avoid being forced to sit on a tourist bench, stuck facing the wrong way. There’s a red-skinned junk that comes out most days, all frilled sails. It paddles from edge to edge, sneaky little motor pushing where the wind fails. You never see it in photos.
I wrote my first collaborative piece sitting on a bench in Hong Kong Park with my good friend Rosalind. We had brought notebooks and pens, paused with coffee in Kowloon Park. I remember the giddiness of it. Now I was a poet. The freedom of wandering the city alone was not new to me, but this was my first poetry walk. I had been walking Hong Kong by myself since I was fourteen; I have never felt safer anywhere else in the world. We wrote about our voices, growing louder between the gaps. We visited Harbour City after dark, took off shoes and walked barefoot in silence. Poems flickered to life in the free spaces. We shared them on postcards, split between us. Ownership of experience and voice held so many implications. I hesitated over my name.
When I visited Hong Kong with my husband, I felt a new weight of identity. Street vendors never tried to grab his arm or offer him directions. More fool them – he had no idea where he was going. He has the language, he has the name. His family lives in the New Territories and beyond. He went to school in Australia. I had the knowledge, I had the passport. My family lives in Central, leaves frequently. I went to school in England, Hong Kong and Australia. In Australia, when asked where I am really from, I name a country where I have never lived. So does he.
In August 2019, I walked amongst my first protest. I wrote lines, then hurried back to my parents’ apartment, finished the rest of the poem thirty floors above the street. It scored well in the Fair Australia Prize.
On one school trip, I remember being taken to see wild pink dolphins, native to Hong Kong waters. The infants were dark grey, adults the palest petal pink. They appeared as if from nowhere, hidden from the islands in the distance. I crunched Pocky and stared into the foam long after we’d turned for the ferry terminal. Twenty-five years later, I learned that they are actually called Chinese White dolphins. There are only thirty-two left.
In 2018, I attended a conference on Hong Kong literature at HK Baptist University. We could all fit into one cramped classroom, excited to pore over the in-jokes of street names in translation, shaking heads over the narrow margins of the Basic Law. There are no Hong Kong citizens, only residents. One speaker lamented a general reluctance or fear among writers to claim the city. Not to write of it, but to belong to it. I am a writer living in Hong Kong. I am an Australian writing in Hong Kong. Never a Hong Kong writer. I am still a poet who writes of Hong Kong.
Siobhan Hodge has a Ph.D. in English literature. Her thesis examined the creative and critical legacy of the ancient Greek poet Sappho. She won the 2017 Kalang Eco-Poetry Award and was shortlisted for the 2019 Fair Australia Prize. Her work has been published in Overland, Westerly, Southerly, Cordite, Plumwood Mountain, Voice&Verse, Peril, and the Fremantle Press Anthology of WA Poetry. Her chapbook, Justice for Romeo, is available through Cordite Books.