Those Vanished Sensitive Words

by Hung Hung

On Those Vanished Sensitive Words

by Tammy Lai-Ming Ho

Taiwanese poet Hung Hung talks about “vanished sensitive words” in his video. At the start, he points out that people in Taiwan, China, and Hong Kong all write in Chinese. This can be refined further. Traditional Chinese characters are used in Taiwan, as in Hong Kong, and speaking for myself at least, there is an affinity borne out of the similarity and familiarity between the two places. Hung Hung’s own parents were originally from China, and he admits that as a young boy, he “yearned for a cultural China.” However, the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989, a chapter in contemporary Chinese history so horrific and heart-breaking, led Hung Hung to reflect deeper on issues of oppression, control, and the Chinese Communist Party. For him, the continuing oppression can be seen in how languages of ethnic minorities such as the Tibetans and the Uyghurs are increasingly silenced and supplanted—a situation that reminds Hung Hung of the vulnerable Taiwanese aboriginal languages banned under martial law. Silenced languages and the erasure of cultural memories go hand in hand. On the 30th Anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, Hung Hung wrote the poem “June Fourth Has Never Ended,” hoping it would help keep the memory of the democratic movement and the subsequent crackdown alive. The poem emphasizes how the massacre is ongoing: the metaphorical tanks and fires have never stopped. The famous Beijing square seems peaceful now; tourists in knock-off sneakers lightly tread the, ground. Still, people are expected to dance in neat, neat lines. The second poem, “Ask Heaven,” questions our obsession with certain religious images, literary figures, cultural icons, celebrities, video games. Why not pay attention instead to migrant children, lost while trying to cross the sea, or protesters on the streets, or those in internment camps? The poem ends powerfully, with an answer to the question “Why ask why?” Asking, Hung Hung writes, is “our last weapon.” The third poem, “Visit to the Empty Chen Wen-chen Memorial on Children’s Day,” is ostensibly about the inscriptionless memorial slab commemorating a Taiwanese independence activist who died after being interrogated by the Republic of China’s Garrison Command in 1981, but it is also a poem for all who have felt stifled by power, been silenced, terrified at midnight, and those whose names are “erased and then deleted.” Hung Hung’s last poem “Life Scenes in Iran” is dedicated to filmmaker Jafar Panahi, whom the Iranian government has frequently persecuted, placing him under house arrest and banning him from filming. The work is a found poem—Hung Hung copied lines from a Persian primer called Three Hundred Persian Sentences and rearranged them to craft the poem, without adding a single word of his own. From Persian to Chinese, and then from Hung Hung’s Chinese to English by Fiona Sze-Lorrain, the verses present mundane everyday conversations and yet there is a predominant sense of unease, eeriness, and desperation. Perhaps it is the music that accompanies it; perhaps it is lines like these, which conclude the poem: “The window is broken. Please install a new one. / How long does it take to weld a shutter? // The battery is dead: time to change it. / The car engine isn’t working. // When can it be fixed? / Sorry, I don’t have a watch. // Can it be fixed?” The silence that follows appears to be a resounding reply.

Hung Hung is a Taiwanese poet, theatre director, and filmmaker. He is the author of eight books of poetry, including Homemade Bomb and Songs for the Violent Protesters, two collections of prose, a scholarly volume titled Taiwanese Theater of the New Century, as well as several novels and plays. Hung Hung is the founding editor of Off the Roll, Poetry+ (2008-2016), and has also directed more than forty plays, operas, and dance performances. His films have won several awards, including the Fipresci Award at the Chicago International Film Festival, and Best Director at the Festival des 3 Continents in Nantes. He has curated the Taipei Poetry Festival since 2004, and serves as the artistic director of Dark Eyes Ltd. and Dark Eyes Performance Lab. He was the resident artist at the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris in 1996-97, at the Literarisches Colloquium Berlin in 2011, and at the Asian Cultural Council in New York in 2014.

Tammy Lai-Ming Ho is a poet and translator of Chinese literature into English. She is the editor-in-chief of the Hong Kong-based Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, and a co-editor of the peer-reviewed scholarly journal Hong Kong Studies. She is also a Junior Fellow of the Hong Kong Academy of the Humanities, an Advisor to the Leeds Centre for New Chinese Writing, and an Associate Professor at the Hong Kong Baptist University, where she teaches literary studies. Her books include Hula Hooping (Chameleon Press), Too Too Too Too (Math Paper Press), Her Name Upon the Strand (Delere Press), An Extraterrestrial in Hong Kong (Musical Stone), and Neo-Victorian Cannibalism (Palgrave).