Susan Tepper: You break up your stunning prose poem “Last Night On Oil Street into 3 distinctly separate yet linked stanzas: The Commune, The Ghosts, The Trees.

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.

  1. Marcus Speh

    I love your digressions. Fascinating look behind the curtains of your prose. I’m readying myself for the blade. Thank you both.

  2. Robert Vaughan

    This is a great chat, bared open by bold honesty from Susan’s probing, insightful questions, and Nicolette’s bare essence, the soul laid open, the vitality beneath words, the detritus of our daily lives which surrounds and envelopes us. Bravo, thanks for the inspiration!

  3. gay degani

    Thanks for taking me to a new place. I love it when this happens. What a terrific way to start my week. In both questions posed and answers given, you’ve made me ready to get to work this morning.

  4. Meg Tuite

    That was amazing, Nicolette and Susan!! WOW!! I love this piece so much, Nicolette! And hearing the back story is intriguing! So much history behind it! LOVE! Thanks for sharing and always a great interview with Susan!!

  5. Foster Trecost

    Enjoyable from the start, both of you. Such candor, Nicolette, and a truly engaging back-story.

  6. Joani Reese

    Interesting discussion. I am particularly fascinated by the entropy of Hong Kong and Nicolette’s artistic vision of it in her discussion and in the piece itself. In the US, most of us embrace this destruction/substitution of the old for the new, believing newer is somehow better, yet it’s hard to accept in a place like Hong Kong where those who don’t live there imagine the exotic and the old as being an important aspect of the culture and therefore somehow revered. I suppose we’re all becoming Disneyfied. More’s the pity. Thanks for this talk.

  7. Darryl Price

    “..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..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? ”

    Loved reading this thoughtful exchange..thank you both.

  8. fran Metzman

    This is an amazing interview that hits at the heart of art vs. commercial. It is an exotic setting BUT a tale often told with heartache. We are always making room for COMMERCE that, most times, has no heart. Artists are expendable in the wake of dollars — and humanity in general. The interview questions by Susan is spot-on. The poetry, heart wrenching. fran metzman

  9. Matthew A. Hamilton

    Enjoyed the interview. Excellent poem, Nicolette.

  10. estelle bruno

    wonderful story, wonderful history. Spectacular chat.

  11. J. Mykell Collinz

    Entertaining and instructive, the poem, the analysis, and the chat. My thanks to you both, Nicolette and Susan.

  12. susan tepper

    I’m in love with this piece by Nicolette, it keeps calling to me. The artists face down on canvas, as if in prayer, is an image I’ll never forget.

  13. Nicolette Wong

    Thank you all for the read, your kind comments and the input! I truly appreciate it.

    Re Joani’s observation – let’s say, like I mentioned in the chat, it’s related to our cultural and socio-political identity, i.e. we were returned from the British to the Communists. While our city has been continually reshaped into something else – architecture being the most visible kind of transformation – the people will have no choice but to succumb to other forms of ‘erasure’. And the implication can run very deep. E.g. The government can put forward some half-hearted public consultation about tearing down an old ferry pier we love; it never gets publicized so we don’t know about it; next thing, it’s time for goodbye and we wake up to see, “OH, so we’ve been kept in the dark.” Or, it can be a massive renovation of an old neighborhood, and hundreds of people (often elderly) get pathetic amounts of compensation for losing what they’ve spent their lives building (e.g. those who live in rural villages). Then we’re caught in this struggle against the government’s misuse of our Basic Laws, its total disregard of public opinions…and then, as we go on protests, the police arrests protestors for totally absurd reasons…

    It doesn’t sound too alien to you guys in the States, given the way some protestors were treated by the cops during the Occupy Movement?

    Here in Hong Kong – with this city being so tiny – land is the primary area of contention. The biggest businesses in this town are property developers, and the struggle permeates every single and often invisible level of our daily life (E.g. the property developers own our supermarket chains, too). We let one thing go – someone’s life gets uprooted, someone else goes to court for ‘crimes’ they haven’t committed, that’s just the way things are under the current government, and it’s only going to get worse…

    My artistic vision doesn’t always stem from my ‘concern’ about this city being a farce…then sometimes it creeps in.

  14. susan tepper

    Nicolette, it’s really heartbreaking and horribly disturbing to hear how things are changing so drastically in HK. Everyone feared the worst when the change-over occurred. And now it’s coming home to roost. When you say the old ferry terminal, do you mean the Star Ferry? Now I’ll start to cry. Is the Stanley Market still operating?

  15. Nicolette Wong

    Star Ferry is still there and pretty much the same, though the waterfront (where you take that stroll and take photos) is changed – way too many stupid decorations for the mainland Chinese tourists. Stanley Market is still operating

    It was the Queen’s Pier in Central that got taken down – you might have been there coz it was just 5, 10 minute ferry ride from there to Star Ferry, and it was a popular route. Now there’s this massive, ultra-ugly, multi-colored, fake Disney-like ferry pier at a nearby location with the same name. They do that with a lot of our landmarks. I mean, if they just want to wipe out our colonial memory, why not just give it a different name?

    I used to write more or less realist fiction, but as you can imagine… that’d mean I’d turn to what happened around me (all sort of social situations in HK) as the underling premise. But the chaos in this place has become too overwhelming. When I so much tried to focus on a character that’s like, someone who lived down the streets from me, I couldn’t quite think straight. There’s no way out of that oppression even in art.

  16. Susan Tepper

    Oh. Sad, sad. Queen’s Pier– unbelievable. What you’re telling is a nightmare. Of course as a writer, as an artist, you will be deeply affected by the demolition of your place, both in physical and psychological ways, your place. I have to say I felt heartsick reading this. HK has stayed with me all this time as it was. I guess I was afraid of probing and finding out what you’re telling us here. It really sounds like a slaughter. I can see why you came to “the blade.”

  17. Michelle Elvy

    What a wonderful interview, and what insights into one person’s experience of landscape, ghosts, and what constitutes past/present/future. The development of a city — naturally or by the invasive hand of five star hotels — provides such a fascinating backdrop for stories, poems, and observations into the (sometimes dark) heart of things. Nicolette has always done this so well. And it’s quite something to hear more from her about how this landscape informs her writing… ‘creeps in’ so to speak. The use of the image of ‘farce’ strikes a chord. Enjoyed this thoughtful exchange very much.

  18. susan

    I really love this conversations that tie writers together yet bring out our inspirations and thought processes to contrast. Great read, Susan; great piece, Nicolette!

Leave a Comment