無視生命 (Ignoring Life)
約翰百德 (John BATTEN)
at 9:16am on 16th May 2016
N’Goné Fall outside upstairs bookshop HK Reader in Mong Kong, April 2016
(Please scroll down for English version)
我在閱讀葡萄牙作家費爾南多．佩索阿（Fernando Pessoa）的《惶然錄》（The Book of Disquiet）。書首幾句是這樣的：「在我出生的那個時代，大多數年輕人不再信上帝，和他們 的前輩信仰上帝一樣，同樣出於未知的原因。」，是起筆的好例子。
(Translated by Aulina Chan)
I am reading the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa’s 'The Book of Disquiet'. Its ‘opening’ lines are one of the great starts to a book: “I was born in a time when the majority of young people had lost faith in God, for the same reason their elders had had it – without knowing why.”
He is referring to the years after his own birth in 1888, but if you replace the word ‘God’ and insert an equivalent, a general belief – such as, ‘democracy’, ‘capitalism’, ‘communism’, or ‘hope’, etc - it could simply be a truism. But, the rejoinder “… - without knowing why” makes it an almost believable truth as most beliefs and opinions are not fully understood. The question “why” constantly asked by children is also usually a demand for an answer. We wish the world to be understandable. As we get older, knowing “why” about something or something happening becomes less urgent. Prejudices and opinions are often a default, unthinking, ‘knowing.’
However, the opening lines of 'The Book of Disquiet' are only a suggestion by the book’s editor and English translator, Richard Zenith. Pessoa died in 1935 before the book’s publication; it was a long-term project that the writer visited on-and-off for twenty years until just before his death. Pessoa had put a stack of random typed and hand-written jottings and an envelope of potential passages for 'The Book of Disquiet' into a large trunk. These were only compiled into a first Portuguese edition in 1998. It is a book located in Pessoa’s home city of Lisbon, exploring life, his inner thoughts and personality. Pessoa was one of the first of Portugal’s modernist poets, but worked most of his life as an English and Portuguese translator for a variety of commercial businesses. In many ways, his life was banal, and this is much reflected in the book. Well-read in Portuguese, English and French, Pessoa at one point says in the book, “Literature is the most agreeable way of ignoring life.”
I met N’Goné Fall, a Senegalese art curator, writer and former architect living in Paris at the Sheung Wan MTR station. On a short visit to Hong Kong courtesy of Parasite art space in North Point, she wanted to know about Hong Kong’s urban environment. While chatting about art and Hong Kong urban planning, we travelled to Shek Kip Mei, a perfect place to start as it has a range of public housing dating from the 1960s. These older buildings are slowly being demolished and replaced by huge blocks of newer public housing lacking the intimacy and camaraderie that the older low-rise buildings with their communal and playground areas provide. We walked around and then visited JCCAC – housed in a converted industrial building. Despite its planning and renovation as artists’ studios, much of the building’s creativity is merely focused on children’s painting classes.
We walk to nearby Mei Ho House, one of Hong Kong’s first, innovative ‘H’ styled public housing blocks of the 1950s and the only one still preserved. It has been converted into a youth hostel run by the YHA – unfortunately, with newly enclosed balconies, mirrored glass, and an insipid repaint the layers and patina of its proud history are hardly acknowledged. It now looks like a new building, similar in size and height as a small school. Renovations, or as government refer to it, ‘revitalisation’, too often destroys the layers of history of the built heritage that has been preserved. We see a clean version of the built past as a homogenous life.
But, the small museum inside Mei Ho House is good. There are excellent displays about the 1953 Shek Kip Mei fire and the history of public housing in Hong Kong. There are evocative depictions of life in the 1950s and 1960s, with photographs of people’s work, schooling and daily life and stories from personalities, such as film director John Woo, who grew up in the area. I showed N’Goné the airline flight path over Kowloon towards the former Kai Tak Airport that kept, until recently, most of Kowloon’s buildings low-rise. We discussed gentrification and then walked to Sham Shui Po to see the destruction and mindless architecture of the Urban Renewal Authority. We strolled through the street markets and looked at global trade in action: African traders buying second-hand televisions from Hong Kong traders to sell in Africa. Finally, we then visited vibrant Mong Kok and I bought Pessoa’s book in the upstairs bookshop HK Reader.
A few days later, N’Goné gave a short talk about Senegal, African art and other artists from Asia and the world that she likes.
Then the legendary Congolese musician and fashion icon, Papa Wemba, died on 24 April 2016.
There is great literature and there’s no ignoring life.
This article was originally published in Ming Pao Weekly, 7 May 2016.