The Letters Page, Vol 5, #2: “Simple Mail”

The second letter in our new series comes from Xu Xi, the Hong Kong-born author of fourteen books, most recently This Fish Is Fowl: Essays of Being. She is currently a partner at Authors At Large and splits her time between New York and the rest of the world. This letter was posted in Albany, NY; by the time we emailed Xu Xi about publishing it she was back in Hong Kong, briefly, and rather preoccupied by the current upheaval there.

Dear Jon,

 How odd that I should write you on my “corporate” letterhead. There were several correspondents from Indonesia (the country of my former nationality) in the most recent issue of The Letters Page to land on my desk. As I’m headed to Indonesia later this year as both myself and my corporation that might be the reason for writing you as both. I also read Roddy Doyle’s letter in the issue and shared his sentiment that I don’t really know you, have only met you once (perhaps twice) but agree with his assessment of you as “a good egg.” That is not a term in my vocabulary, but life in a British colony taught me to read many Englishes easily.
However, my Aunt Helen is visiting right now with her college friend Marge, and they’re both staying at my “corporate headquarters,” a raised ranch on a rural road that had been my American home base since 2003 until I moved next door, earlier this year, into a newly built loft in the woods. Auntie brought me a letter dated June 6, 1994 that my late father wrote from Hong Kong to her late husband, my Uncle Tong in Plattsburgh, New York, the closest city to the village where I now reside. These two first cousins, Boen Beng (文明) and Boen Tong (文通), whose Fujian-Chinese (a.k.a. Hokkien) names hail from their home village of Tegal, Indonesia, were great correspondents. They gossiped. They shared bits of family lore about our global, diasporic family, as well as bits of real history. They were both retired by then and read a vast amount — Uncle Tong, I used to say, daily memorized the New York Times (he had a photographic memory), while my father absorbed the news of the day from the South China Morning Post and Kompas, as well as weekly from the now-defunct Far Eastern Economic Review (he daily clipped items of interest from all the magazines and newspapers he read and regularly shared these in handwritten or typewritten letters to family and friends, especially those in the West hungry for news from Asia — my father wrote on a manual typewriter up till his death in 1998, although he tried, unsuccessfully, to master the computer). Here’s a paragraph of what my father wrote which was, presumably, in answer to a question Tong must have asked: 

The native in the Medan area is either the Christian or the Moslem Batak. When the Dutch eventually took over control of Medan towards only the middle of the 19th century (1850 or [there]about), the Batak was still eating human flesh. Aceh which is north of Medan was only subdued towards the beginning of this century.

I first met Uncle Tong and his American wife Helen in 1971 when I was 17, shortly after I arrived in the U.S. for the first time as a foreign student. Tong was the only branch of my family who ended up in the U.S., and I still think of his four children as “our American cousins,” echoing the play of almost the same name (albeit singular not plural), the play Lincoln was watching in Ford’s Theatre in Washington DC when he was assassinated. Helen was a music teacher and still sight-reads just about anything on the piano. After dinner, she played Debussy and Trenet on my new-ish Chinese piano (I cannot afford either a Yamaha or a Steinway, but the Hailun has a marvelous tone and the action suits me fine). Before dinner the conversation centered on the current impeachment proceedings of our orangehaired monster of a president, as well as the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) National Day celebrations.

But what really engages my attention right now are the protests in Hong Kong, the city I’ve said goodbye to for the last time (or so I’ve told readers of my short memoir Dear Hong Kong: An Elegy for a City, published in 2017). I didn’t actually leave Hong Kong till summer last year, having finally settled my mother’s estate and launched my story collection Insignificance: Hong Kong Stories. Both books are now “banned” or “censored” in one fashion or another. The former was part of Penguin’s Hong Kong series commemorating the 20th anniversary of the city’s return to Chinese rule, and cannot be sold in the Chinese Mainland. The cover of the latter featured a “defaced” bauhinia, the hybrid flower that is Hong Kong’s symbol and is part of the flag; my publishers have issued a new edition with a blank page, concerned for the future of their imprint which is based in Hong Kong and Wyoming.

It is indeed a strange time to be a “Hong Kong writer.”

So this “dead letter,” this reminder of the global life Dad embraced that shaped my own desire for a transnational life, this handwritten epistle prompted a private protest: You will not shut us up, regardless. Both subject and object are equally plural. You are the PRC and the government of Hong Kong who must find a political solution for the protestors’ Five Demands. You are the idiots who are governing the world’s democracies into dictatorships, who would close borders and stop the free exchange of persons and ideas, who would stymie the evolution of human culture in an interconnected world. Us are the letter writers who, despite the exigencies of dust to dust, still speak in this paper trail left behind. It will not be the end of the world if the FAANGs (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Alphabet’s Google) do get broken up and are subdued in their relentlessly, artificially intelligent dominance of our future. It will be enough if their existence is relegated to a paragraph in some future correspondence by one as curious as my dad.

The letter is on an aerogramme, a 郵 簡 which may loosely be translated as “simple mail.” I insert here a photograph next to the Letters Page on my desktop.

May The Letter continue to live for a long, long time.


Order your copy of The Letters Page, Vol. 4 here.