Xi Xi, Whose Writing Defined a Changing Hong Kong, Dies at 85
HONG KONG — Xi Xi, whose poems and stories described with playful humor and poignancy life in the margins of Hong Kong and the city’s limbo between British and Chinese rule, died on Sunday in Hong Kong. She was 85.
Her death, in a hospital, was announced by a writer’s collective she co-founded, Plain Leaves Workshop. Another founder of the collective, Ho Fuk Yan, said the cause was heart failure.
A keen observer of city life, Xi Xi (pronounced SIGH-sigh) focused on the quiet strength of underdogs and the overlooked significance of Hong Kong itself. Her incisive and poetic writing cemented the city’s place in Chinese-language literature and beyond.
Using language that was deceptively simple, almost childlike, Xi Xi infused her fiction and poetry with eclectic references to literature, cinema, art, architecture and fairy tales. In one of her best-known works, the novella “The Floating City” (1986), she described Hong Kong as a vibrant city suspended in time and space as she explored the city’s pending transfer to Beijing.
“The pumpkin turns into a carriage; mice turn into horses; Cinderella’s rags turn into a ball gown. But at midnight everything turns back into what it was,” she wrote. “Was the floating city just another Cinderella?”
Decades after Hong Kong was transferred from Britain to China in 1997, she suggested that the question was far from settled.
“As 1997 approached, people wrestled with the question of identity,” she said when she accepted the Newman Prize for Chinese Literature in 2019, becoming the first Hong Kong writer to win that accolade. “Many young people are still wrestling with this question today. Don’t assume that a change in governance is an easy fix.”
In nominating her for the prize, the Hong Kong poet Tammy Lai-Ming Ho described Xi Xi’s poetry as “feminine, tender, witty, observant, and capable of tugging at the heartstrings,” adding that it “speaks to the character of the city and its people.”
Xi Xi also published one of the first Chinese literary narratives about breast cancer, “Mourning a Breast,” in 1992, three years after her own diagnosis with the disease. She said she wrote the book to support other patients and, in part, to challenge the societal taboo against speaking about illness.
A former public-school teacher, she wrote poems about animals and children that were often steeped in commentary about wealth disparity and David-and-Goliath power dynamics. In one, “Butterflies Are Lightsome Things,” heartless butterflies flutter freely as kangaroos are weighed down by the worries and concerns collected in their pouches. In another, “The Butterfly and the Crocodile,” a butterfly defeats a crocodile by sealing its eyes shut with “soft, sweet-smelling pollen.”
“She’s like the butterfly,” said Jennifer Feeley, who translated some of Xi Xi’s work, including the poetry collections “Not Written Words” (2016) and “Carnival of Animals” (2022). “She’s really good at showing how things that people might dismiss — that seem very light, sometimes feminine, tender and whimsical — are actually very important and strong.”
Xi Xi was born Cheung Yin in Shanghai in 1937, to parents of Cantonese descent. Her father, Cheung Lok, was a clerk at a British shipping company, Butterfield & Swire, and her mother, Luk Wah Chun, took care of the couple’s five children and their aging parents.
Xi Xi is survived by two brothers, David Cheung Yung and Cheung Yiu.
In 1950 the family moved to Hong Kong, where Mr. Cheung found work as a bus inspector. Money was scarce, and Cheung Yin was always two days late in paying her monthly school fees. While still a student, she began selling poems and essays to newspapers for pocket money.
She trained as a teacher at the Grantham College of Education, now part of the Education University of Hong Kong, from 1957 to 1960, and later taught Chinese, English and mathematics in primary schools for more than two decades.
She wrote widely and prolifically while teaching. She published hundreds of pieces of film criticism under different pen names and, using the pseudonym Hai Lan, wrote scripts for the Hong Kong movie studio Shaw Brothers, including a 1967 adaptation of “Little Women.”
In 1970, she adopted the pen name Xi Xi because its Chinese characters, 西西, evoked for her the motion of a girl jumping from one hopscotch square to the next. She soon began writing the serialized novel “My City,” which zeroed in on the perspectives of working-class Hong Kong residents, as well as the neglected value of mundane items like a discarded page of poetry.
She retired from teaching in 1979 to focus on writing full time.
The next year she wrote one of the first literary pieces to refer obliquely to the looming handover of Hong Kong to China: “Glass Slippers,” a short story describing the adaptability of Hong Kong residents, including their ability to squeeze into ever-smaller apartments.
In “The Floating City,” translated into English in 1992 by Linda Jarvin with Geremie Barmé, Xi Xi questioned whether the apparent solidity of Hong Kong was chimerical, like the Surrealist painter René Magritte’s image of an apple.
“The apple in the picture was not a real apple,” she wrote. “The city that existed so miraculously might not remain stable forever. But could the floating city control its own destiny?”
Her writing often emphasized the importance of the voices of children and young people, as well as the working class. In her short story “The Case of Mary” (1986), she questioned why a child should not have a say in a battle over her custody. She took aim at Hong Kong’s education system in a 1997 poem, “A Primary One Interview at a Band One School,” in which she wrote about a girl who gave a fake address to increase her chances of admission into first grade.
Xi Xi earned a wide following in the Chinese-speaking world after winning Taiwan’s United Daily News fiction prize in 1983 for “A Woman Like Me,” a story about a mortuary makeup artist on the cusp of revealing the full truth of her profession to a new boyfriend. Another story, “The Cold” (1982), presented a soccer match as a reprieve to a perplexing love triangle.
In “Mourning a Breast,” she chronicled feelings of isolation and alienation from her own body, observations of how illness is portrayed in literature and art, and the frustrations of maintaining the healthful diet of a cancer patient. She described forays into wealthy neighborhoods, where she combed supermarket shelves for groceries free of carcinogenic additives.
The cancer treatment damaged a nerve in her right hand, forcing her to learn to write with her left. She began making puppets and mohair teddy bears as a form of physical therapy, dressing them as figures from Chinese mythology, literature and history Photographs of the bears and her notes on their muses were published as “The Teddy Bear Chronicles” in 2009.
Her work inspired the opera “Women Like Us” (2020), by the composer Daniel Lo and the librettist Wong Yi, and a graphic narrative, “The Cat’s Coming (in a Left-Handed Version),” by Chihoi.
For Xi Xi, life in the city provided endless inspiration.
“The Hong Kong experience is actually a treasure trove for writing,” she said at the Newman Prize ceremony. “Because of our unique cultural context, perspective, way of thinking and manner of expression, Hong Kong writers are different from other Sinophone writers, and undeniably are a boon to the Sinophone world.”