Reading Hong Kong in a New Light: Anna Tso’s Hong Kong Stories
Holly H. Y. Chung
The Hang Seng University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong
Book 1: Culinary Charades
Alpha Academic Press, 2017. ISBN: 978-1948210010
Book 2: The Summer of 1997
Alpha Academic Press, 2017. ISBN: 978-1948210027
Book 3: Unforgettable Neighbours
Alpha Academic Press, 2018. ISBN: 978-1948210034
Book 4: Taming Babel
Alpha Academic Press, 2018. ISBN: 978-1948210041
Book 5: Herstory
Alpha Academic Press, 2019. ISBN:978-1948210058
Declaration: I am not (yet) a mother and have no children. However, that could make me one of the best reviewers of Anna Tso’s Hong Kong Stories series. Free from the concern for questions like, “Could reading such books help my childpass their exams with flying colours?” (a question concerning many of my Asian students’ parents). Now I can let the profound but straight-forward writing of the author’s, an English and Comparative Literature professor at the Open University of Hong Kong, take me back to the culture and history of this international city I also call ‘home’, Hong Kong.
Another declaration I need to make: I am not an artist. Yet, not being bound by any traditional criteria for judging drawing, I looked to the illustrations to see how they grabbed my attention and held my interest. Joanne Lo’s illustrations have certainly ticked both boxes. For example, in Culinary Charades (2017), the various kinds of Hong Kong’s street food are depicted both with sophisticated attention to detail and vibrant colour palette. The imagery adds a cartoon-like aspect to what is an educational medium that allows them to learn how to say, in English, all that after-school snacks they enjoy. Furthermore, in Taming Babel (2018), adult readers can immerse themselves in the Pictionary-style illustrations while young readers could be entertained and informed at the riveting presentation of how sound and tone are decisive in determining the lexical meaning of Cantonese words.
I am, like Tso, a teacher of English as a language. Naturally, my eyes are drawn to the diction and language manipulation as a whole. A prolific academic researcher, scholar, and professor, Tso keeps the book series’ target readers in mind without dumbing down the language.
In her Hong Kong Stories series, Tso’s writing strikes a beautiful balance between simplicity and sophistication. The language is easy to follow, especially for younger readers. At the same time, Tso does not shy away from advanced language manipulation or literary delivery, without being too difficult. Tso writes with apparent effortlessness, creating asea of rich vocabulary for young readers to swim in, while enjoying the compelling storylines and character development.
For example, in Culinary Charades (2017), Alex, the Australia-born Chinese young boy, associated the name of his new friend made in Hong Kong, Yu-sze, with the homophone “You see” (p.4). In The Summer of 1997, the literary device of imagery plays out romantically in lines like “It felt as if the world around her was crumbling” (p.4), “She said she wished she could freeze time…” (p.5) and “Time was like a dream” (p.7). Herstory starts with a quick walk-through of the etymology of the word and the chapter, Herstory (= her story). The plot starts with Anna being a small kid at the beginning of the story, embarking on the exciting journey of book reading together with her sibling, all upon their mum’s inspiration. The story then changes the lens to their mother’s amazing and touching journey. It starts with being offered a study opportunity in one of the most prestigious universities in Hong Kong, to turning the offer down and joining a nursing school. The story continues to again turning-down a promotion offer to receive professional nursing training in England, to finally settling down as a mother of two. She then becomes one of the most fantastic mothers one can ever dream of, namely Tso’s dear loving mother. The storyline could be simple. However, the story-telling techniques present everything a story, a good one, needs to have: a beginning, twists and turns, a climax, and a thought-provoking take-home message: “This is her story and I am proud of my mum, my muse” (p.16).
For young learners aiming to advance beyond their basic vocabulary, Tso’s books could never disappoint as well. Culinary Charades (2017) enriches your vocabulary of describing food being delicious: “heavenly delicious” (p.10), “licked his lips” (p.5), “tasted surprisingly great” (p.7), and “all finger-licking good” (p.11). Unforgettable Neighbours (2018) showers us with an array of phrases describing different motions: “scratch his head” (p.2), “winked his eye” (p.6), “raising his right eyebrow” (p.6), “couldn’t hold his laughter back” (p.6), “flung him out of the balcony” (p.8), “slithered across” (p.10), “all coiled up” (p.10), and “keep rolling” (p.10). Taming Babel (2018) itself is a Cantonese phrasebook packaged into a little case, featuring how three non-Chinese people living in Hong Kong tried to learn Cantonese in aninnovative way.
There are two ways to enjoy Tso’s Hong Kong Stories: reading all books as a series, or reading each book individually.
First, reading from one book to another, as a series. In this manner, it is like a concert featuring songs from the same singer, thoughtfully selected and assembled to render to the audience a coherent and diverse musical enjoyment. It is not hard to spot a running theme emerging from each book: Lost in translation, or lost in thought. However, the “loss” is never a literal loss. On the contrary, the moments of being lost have landed onto a thought-provoking moment of reflection, about learning, about oneself, or even about life itself. For example, in Culinary Charades (2017), the 12-year-old Australia-born Chinese boy, Alex, is literally “lost in translation” (p.7). He experiences cultural shock when reading a menu of Chinese dishes translated into English names, such as “Delicious roasted husbands” and “Prawn many privates” (p.5).
The Summer of 1997 (2017) presents a “lost in thought” moment when the five friends are opening the time capsule to reveal a Hong Kong they used to know and remember twenty years before their departure.
Unforgettable Neighbours (2018) has its own “lost in thought” moment when one of the three siblings, Anna, spent a night camping with her two brothers under the starry night, why and how time went by so quickly.
Taming Babel (2018) is the most straight-forward “lost in translation” book. It describes challenges for a non-Cantonese person to master the right tones and sounds. Young learners can also be motivated to realize that their journey to master a foreign language, be it English or any other, can be a bumpy road but common for all learners, young and old!
Other than reading Tso’s Hong Kong Stories as a series, another huge source of enjoyment is to read each book individually. As an English-language teacher myself, I find each book a treasure for your readers to learn everyday and useful English, such as traditional street food (Book 1); how to make a contrast between past and present (Book 2); how to depict exotic animals and animals’ movements (Book 3); how to translate Chinese prose into English without losing the essence (Book 4); and how to describe the inner struggle of someone close to us (Book 5).
Besides, what has deeply touched my heart as an English-language teacher, is the line: “All that she had learned from the English class in school was classroom English only” (p.9). It is hard to hear, but at the same time, they have provided a light-bulb moment. Yes, our children can be spoon-fed vocabulary to score straight As in exams. Nevertheless, how useful is the vocabulary that teachers and parents want them to learn, to children’s everyday life? Learning to speak another language should be about being able to communicate with others. However, the protagonist in this book–the local Hong Kong girl–even struggles with English names of her favourite snacks. Her “lost in translation” moment has seriously encouraged me, and hopefully, my fellow English-language teachers to reflect upon our teaching philosophy and materials.
There is no need to read the books in sequence. Borrowing Tse’s beautiful saying in Herstory, each book itself is an adventure. While young readers could easily feel these books are written for them, those in Hong Kong will be able to find a little bit of themselves in every single chapter, whether they be in their adolescence, adulthood, or silver years. Theses stories will resonate for those from Hong Kong, in particular, highlighting: the food enjoyed or are still enjoying, long-lost friends from high school, animals that used to scare them (or still do), little jokes made by their Filipino domestic helper or their Native English Teacher (NET) when trying to speak Cantonese, and the person who is with us forever–right next to us, or living in our heart–our mother.
Tso, W. B. (2017). Hong Kong Stories: Culinary Charades. Illustrated by Joanne Wai-nam Lo. Dearborn, Michigan: Alpha Academic Press. 20 pages.
Tso, W. B. (2017). Hong Kong Stories: The Summer of 1997. Illustrated by Joanne Wai-nam Lo. Dearborn, Michigan: Alpha Academic Press. 20 pages.
Tso, W. B. (2018). Hong Kong Stories: Unforgettable Neighbours. Illustrated by Joanne Wai-nam Lo. Dearborn, Michigan: Alpha Academic Press. 20 pages.
Tso, W. B. (2018). Hong Kong Stories: Taming Babel. Illustrated by Joanne Wai-nam Lo. Dearborn, Michigan: Alpha Academic Press. 20 pages.
Tso, W. B. (2019). Hong Kong Stories: Herstory. Illustrated by Joanne Wai-nam Lo. Dearborn, Michigan: Alpha Academic Press. 20 pages.
Dr. Holly Chung is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English at Hang Seng University of Hong Kong. Committed to the study of English, she majored in English and Translation in her undergraduate studies and then sociolinguistics in her postgraduate journey. Her passion for English has further grown to teaching as a second language, leading to her pursuit of a postgraduate diploma in Education with a concentration in English-language. Holly is keen on building a bridge between her research endeavours and her role as a teaching practitioner, leading towards the completion of a Doctor of Education in Organizational Leadership.
Dr. Chung has more than 13 years of experience as an English-language teacher. She is also engaged in reference book writing in the areas of English-language learning, creative writing and collocation. She also worked as a freelance translator and interpreter for legal firms and publishing houses and a subtitle writer and editor for English-language TV programmes.
Suggested Reference Citation
Chung, H. Y. (2020). Reading Hong Kong in a new light: Anna Tso’s Hong Kong Stories (2017, 2018, 2019). Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 7(2) http://journaldialogue.org/reviews/book-reviews/reading-hong-kong-in-a-new-light-anna-tsos-hong-kong-stories/
Chung, Holly. “Children’s Book Review: Anna Tso’s Hong Kong Stories (2017, 2018, 2019)” Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, vol. 7, no. 2, 2020, http://journaldialogue.org/reviews/book-reviews/reading-hong-kong-in-a-new-light-anna-tsos-hong-kong-stories/