Recollections from the English Studies programme
by David C. Bates
There are almost 400 steps from the University of Hong Kong’s entrance to this sanctuary. 400 ankle-aching steps from the Bonham Road bus-stop upward to the sacred centre, the Main Library nestled in the old campus’ Sun Yat-sen Place. Eager students travail through buildings built ever skyward to reach it, past old structures where the school began a century ago. Here in the University of Hong Kong’s library, way up high, an almost spiritual silence covers the room.
This is an architectural motif many come to equate with learning at HKU, myself included, of humble beginnings and their elevated destinations. Like Rome’s famous Spanish Steps, crowned by the Trinità dei Monti church atop, or the 999 steps toward the door of heaven itself in Zhangjiajie City’s Heaven’s Gate Mountain, pilgrims wind their way up slowly to make offerings as best they can.
But what sacrifices do the School of English postgraduates make in this place? Like most: time, and heads bowed reverently toward open books and dusty pages, the lifeblood of learning in this place of enlightenment. It is less a spiritual awakening than one of knowledge stemming from experience and tutelage; it is something gained rather than given.
The labyrinthine library, once reached, is home to many a book-hunt, study-session and moment of solace. This is our kind’s home away from home since the capitulation of the Main Building and our reluctant move into the shimmering Centennial Campus, an even higher tower to scale.
Sadly, many do not attach such reverential significance to the study of English, with its soaring figureheads, even higher soaring theoreticians and canonical texts that rival the lengths and meanings of those sacred. English, especially in Hong Kong at large, is often perceived with that same abstract, supernatural awe — a wide-eyed otherness that gazes across the gap from Us to Them, from a silent East toward a long-written West. Here literary books lose out to business, tales are tossed out for tech and fiction is forgotten for figures. Such is the order of things in the self-described “artistic desert”, is it not? But what an oasis awaits here in the heart of it all, where art is celebrated on high!
At this point the analogy, perhaps overdone, reaches its literal zenith. Hong Kong is the paradise written of by those ever-searching travel writers, and its teetering bookish core is like the Dome of the Rock.
Highfalutin aside, what can a student of English and a soon-to-be Master’s degree holder (setting aside the pomp surrounding such a title as well) say once their head is pulled from the pulp? In plain Hong Kong English, you’d ask, what is it worth in terms you can measure and weigh?
First, it is no mistake that the MAES must be described like the school, from the outside in and the bottom up, for such macroscale concepts like globalisation, transnational literatures, modernism and postmodernism are so weighty, and their authors and finer-points so intricate, that it is a programme seemingly from scratch to needlework. And mapping English’s place in the university as a whole, and by extension the entire engulfing metropolis, is analogous to the way in which this study is best appreciated: in small but meaningful niches in a chaotic, ever-evolving literary landscape. English Studies is a very practical way to ground oneself, be it in the cracked concrete of shifting ideas.
English Studies does, in fact, occupy a peculiar place in Hong Kong (“you’re studying that… here?”), compounded by politically motivated English language educational concerns that only get more pronounced as years go by. Yet these issues bring to life conversations about linguistics, about English as a subject, about English as a cultural storehouse and the baggage that it carries — both good and bad, about English as a colonising force, about English’s past and about its future both here and abroad.
Second, it’s plain ol’ fun.
Very often does the academic merge with the recreational, especially with the likes of Japan’s celebrated Murakami or the lauded contemporary master David Mitchell. The dust on the pages is blown away, revealing concepts, characters and ideological frameworks that entertain and, more importantly, illuminate. I doubt, in fact, that any English major reading Saussure will ever look at an English language sign for char su the same way ever again (only to re-think it again after reading from Edward Said). Even now, sitting in this temple of sorts, surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses (to my right are reels of academic journals, to my left an entire shelf for Kafka criticism) there is pleasure in English as a study, both for literature and linguistics.
Soon enough though, this programme will end, dissertations will be bound and the 400 steps will no longer need to be taken. This chapter, too, will pass. But my hope, for myself and my fellow graduates, is that the books will stay open and the dust, both proverbial and otherwise, won’t have time to settle.