HONG KONG (AFP) – As a teenager stuck in Hong Kong’s pressure-cooker school system, Mr Eric Yip found his escape in writing poetry – never dreaming that one day his work would go on to win a top prize halfway across the world.
In March, at the age of 19, he became the youngest ever winner of the United Kingdom’s National Poetry Competition.
He beat more than 7,000 contenders from 100 countries and placed himself squarely among a cohort of Hong Kong poets writing in English that has found increasing recognition over the past decade.
Now an economics undergraduate at Cambridge, Mr Yip recalled the “liberating” feeling of reading material that had nothing to do with high-school English classes taught according to a strict syllabus.
“Writing poems was a private rebellion against this regimented approach,” Mr Yip told AFP.
His award-winning “Fricatives” begins with the narrator taking English lessons as a “spectacled boy with a Hong Kong accent” and opens up to explore issues of language, race, sex and migration.
Hong Kong has developed its own literary tradition in both Chinese and English, although anglophone poets remain a minority and receive little establishment support.
“There’s always a certain estrangement one feels when writing in a second language”, Mr Yip said, but English has now become his “private language” in which words flow more naturally.
“What matters to me is the emotional truth of writing. If English is what will get me closer to that, then I’ll keep using it.”
Anglophone poets who spoke to AFP agreed their output was hardly mainstream, but said writing from the margins allowed them to challenge Hong Kong’s norms.
Mr Yip’s win caused a stir in Hong Kong media, though most newspapers were silent on the poem’s description of a gay encounter – mirroring the mixed reactions of some local readers.
“The sexual element and the poem’s queerness are absolutely essential,” Mr Yip said. “I was thinking about the parallels with oracy and colonialism, how it all ties back to submission.”
Other Hong Kong poets who have found success in tackling LGBTQ themes include Mr Nicholas Wong, whose collection “Crevasse” won one of the best-known prizes for queer literature worldwide in 2016.
His latest collection was a finalist for the same Lambda Literary Awards’ gay poetry prize this year.
Mr Wong said his writing tapped into themes about “everyday desire” in a way he found immediate and spontaneous.