In The Commune you write:
Spray paint ecru to heat searing through my fingers I’m leaving this block of farce we’ve inhabited and lost: the rights to sleep facedown on canvas,..
Nicolette, there is a fixed resolution here that springboards this piece: “…I’m leaving this block of farce…”
And resolve can be a potent device when used in prose and poetry. I can feel the energy crashing off the narrator, the page, off Oil Street. Tell us something about Oil Street that is real.
Nicolette Wong: Oil Street is a well-known street in Hong Kong and it has a long history. My piece is set in this warehouse building that was a part of the Hong Kong Yacht Club in early 20th century – right by the sea – and both buildings were later deserted.
The legend: the warehouse was used for storing dead bodies during WWII, then, in later times, as transit for coffins before they were shipped to the crematorium via the nearby pier. In more recent times, the warehouse became an art commune until the artists got kicked out. To this day there are lots of ghost stories surrounding Oil Street. The irony: the warehouse will be demolished for a property developer to build a five-star hotel in its place, and the former Hong Kong Yacht Club will be revamped into the government’s Arts Promotion Office.
It’s funny what you say about resolve. The narrator’s resolve comes from being expelled, the one thing he has no control over. And you picked up on the detail – “I’m leaving this block of farce” – that encompasses and drives the whole story. Very shrewd, Susan!
Susan: Fascinating history of Oil Street! I’m deeply fond of Hong Kong and its people though I haven’t been back in over a decade, I’m sorry to say. The piece opens masterfully, and there is your word choice: farce. Such a terrific word. It has brought down love affairs, friendships, governments, all manner of things. It’s meant to be funny yet in certain contexts it’s an insulting, degrading word. Here it’s used to explain the degradation of something that was once good.
“Farce” creates a chasm in the piece. You present this triad of Commune, Ghosts, Trees. Does this form you chose hearken back to the mysticism that is old Hong Kong?
Nicolette: Not consciously, though I think you’re spot on about that. Last summer a bunch of us (writers and artists) visited Oil Street for a community art project. The site was only revealed to us through sparse historical facts, ghost stories and silly references in our pop culture (e.g. bad MTVs), and it was going to get torn down, wiped out from our sight.
I must have chosen the word “farce” because that’s how I see Hong Kong: a place where all manners of things are destroyed, by absurd and random connections between the government, businesses and people. A lot of our old architecture/cityscape, all the landmarks that embody our ways of lives 50, even 30 years ago are disappearing real quick; even a restaurant we went to last month may be no more today, because some
luxury brand wants to open its new shop there and the rent has tripled. Soon enough, no one will remember what this city used to be. Like our cultural and socio-political identity that’s being constantly invaded, blurred, remolded into a void that we can’t grasp.
But, I digress…About the form of my piece: according to Chinese superstitions, ghosts are attached to places. So when the artists leave the building and it gets demolished, the ghosts have nothing to hold onto, they’re gone. The trees in the front yard will be gone, too.
Susan: Heartbreaking. Truly. Watching as your environment and your culture erode around you. Nicolette, I don’t feel that what you’re telling us here is a digression, but more an extension of your densely evocative “Last Night On Oil Street“.
You start with that feeling of primary colors shooting sparks out of the story, like Chinese firecrackers, or walking the streets of Kowloon in the dead of night, always full of color from the goods that hang off shops in the little streets, throngs of people everywhere. I have never felt as alive before or since! Hong Kong has its powerful hold, be it from ghosts or the dreams of ghosts.
In The Ghosts you write:
We’re the last departure before the sea rips for sand to kill surf and stretch the land our neighbors have feared.
Nicolette: The disappearing coastline. I’m curious where all the lost souls go?
And I’m big on visuals in my writing because I’m a voyeur. How do the artists spend their days, in frustration – sleep facedown on canvases, in a way that most of us never would? Who would have thought that ghosts could crack, scars seeping through their skin? What goes on in the dark alley past the street market? When I write, I see an image opening up – the sea rips, a red brick shoots out of the window – then I zoom in, envisage the details, move from one hidden thing to the next. The space unfolds like that. I never plan my stories or poems. All this makes me a terribly slow writer.
Susan: All this makes you a fascinating writer.
Nicolette: With “Last Night On Oil Street“ , I knew it was going to be the artists, the ghosts and the trees, but I had no ideas what they were doing there. I found a color – ecru – for the artist and it was on his hand. Then the rest.
Susan: It’s strange that you found “ecru” which is a mild shade of beige, a soft but innocuous shade, that you use to express so much physical and historical and actual and mystical power and ambiguity that drives this piece of writing.
The blank canvas- upon which the artists lie face down- well that is also beige before it receives the gift of paint. I find that an extremely interesting choice you have made. But there is nothing simplistic here, and that your choices seem contradictory pull this story into stronger conflicting modes. It’s a reflective piece that means more each time I read it.
In The Trees you write:
We grow bleeding oxidized bands to break free, leafy rhythm on the swing. The dead strum us; we lift each other.
Nicolette: The artists fade out, don’t they? On their last night in the commune, they can splash paint and carve their tales on the walls. Then it’s all gone. Nothing can be seen anymore.
The trees are rusted long before the end. They just keep thriving, playing with the ghosts in the dark. They’ve been there from the start and they’ve seen it all through the decades. Now they watch the final destruction until they become a part of it.
What happens when you’ve belonged to a place for so long that you just can’t leave, as your home is being taken away? Here comes the blade.
Read “Last Night On Oil Street“ by Nicolette Wong
Monday Chat is a bi-weekly series in which Susan Tepper has a conversation with a Fictionaut writer about one of his or her stories.Susan’s new book From the Umberplatzen is a collection of linked-flash published by Wilderness House Press.