(The Fallacy of and the Pleasure from) Irrelevance

In my days of living alone I wander a lot in the parks between Prince Edward District and Yau Ma Tei. It is always late at night when street lights are dim and the silhouette of trees implies a shelter from notice. While my sense of smell is hopeless, bits and pieces of sounds weave into a vast blanket covering me. There are tweets and chirps and rustles and whirrs together with sounds of breeze and stray cats. Some heartbroken people shout on their phone from far away. With peace in my heart, I go on reading by the street lights. There would be phone calls from my dear friends from afar, sending me festival greetings or wishing me a happy birthday. I always surprise them by being in these cramped, filthy cage-like parks even in big festivals.

Outliers are sleeping on stone benches a little further away; a couple rises and leaves; a stooped elderly person is an obscure dark shadow; around a chess game gathers a quiet crowd. Streetwalkers try to keep a distance from me. How I hope I have not caused these girls too great a disturbance. I like that we are sharing the same space with our stories entirely irrelevant to each other. I have a flat all to myself, in which everything has something to do with me, is imprinted with the smell and the daily routine of mine. Even the dust is undeniably related to me. Sometimes I just wish none of these had anything to do with me.


I am forever late when I am abroad. I would lose my way, hop on the wrong bus and train, and miss one stop after another. And I never get upset for that. Imagine travelling abroad for the unfamiliar. Indeed we can never compare the intended destination with the landscape that comes our way when we get lost, and decide which one is more important. How can we tell which is the most desirable among a bunch of unknown objects? Can you choose the strangers you meet? Therefore I am completely at ease with the aimless drifting when I travel.

That’s why I usually end up arriving nowhere, dragging a pair of exhausted legs, smiling even when there is nobody around. That is, as I later discovered, the kind of polite smile I would put on when hosting a party of guests. So who am I hosting on a foreign land where I am a complete stranger? Is the world my living room? Could it be that the “living room” as I understand it is indeed an “inn” in its common sense? I am supposed to be the owner, be it a living room or an inn. Can I say that such an attitude towards travelling is based on giving up the familiar for an alien land before creating again an illusion of having the whole world in my hands, a faint yet newborn sense of subjectivity surrounded by some mysterious sense of security? Pretty ironic. According to Canetti, becoming a stranger is better than receiving one. Easier said than done. Not everyone knows how to become a stranger before receiving one, especially when I live in a small city with no memory of history and become inevitably short-sighted.

Familiar landscape. Mutual distress among the intimate. When I smash my favorite plate into pieces, there is history behind every single piece of broken glass. A simple stare at any one of them would recall an enormous yet trivial interpersonal network. After a series of interpretations, retorts, connections, looping, and predictions, a small stone in a shoe expands into an impassable mountain range that puts climbers off. The stone is, of course, me myself. I am formed by countless others before causing myself to stumble. Perhaps the happiness from travelling comes only from comparison: difficulties in dealing with strangers are sometimes slightly more bearable than difficulties arising from intimacy.

Unfamiliarity is discomforting in that it makes us leave ourselves. Yet there are times when we wish to leave ourselves.


When Yin Jiang comes across a couple of sentences, he writes a lot of poems about strangeness, encounters, and reconciliation so that readers may come across things unknown even to the poet himself. “Meditating Train Compartment” opens with a quote from Paz, “Two bodies face to face/ are two stars falling/ in an empty sky,” and jumps into a metropolitan scene of contemporary Hong Kong where strangers meet each other in an MTR train compartment so packed they are nose to nose. Though the stranger facing you will soon vanish like a falling star, there is not even enough room for any meditation in such an overcrowded environment. And Yin Jiang can always go further. He imagines a tragedy drawing even closer the already too close personal contact: if the train derails, the two strangers will die, their thoughts unknown to the world, and both will become wandering souls before they get to know each other. The insight sounds simple in the poem: “Oh my dear vanishing stranger whom I meet by chance/ You must move your nose away/ Before I can/ Take a look at you/ And / Meditate.” Apart from the real life experience of squeezing into a crowded train, the irony of distance between strangers lies, more importantly, in Yin Jiang’s imagination of dying together which gives rise to a space of wanderings and encounters. The short, choppy lines would lead the souls of readers away from the annoying closeness and to experience wanderings and encounters. This is what we call speech acts in literature. The work transforms the reading experience into almost some other experience. In more popular words, the poet says, “Let there be light,” and there is light.

In Yin Jiang’s poems we are so close yet so far. It is a weird thing quoting him. Taken away from their original context, those lines seem to be plain as water and choppy like rain. The only purpose, it appears, is to slow reading down. But then we must follow the slow pace of the poem before we can enter that space of meditation, and then we can be friendly to strangers and others, rearranging the reference points for difference/ sameness. In fact this is exactly the logic behind public squares: plenty of space, free flows, perhaps limited yet unconditional kindness.

Thematic coordinates of strangers: (non-) encounter. Yin Jiang addresses the theme on two sides: for one thing, strangers would always meet and embrace each other somewhere in Time, where life and death is consigned to oblivion, like the two opposing parties in “Somewhere… On Seeing Chihoi’s Painting, The Promenade, in East Bank Bookshop”: “You cast me a glance/ I return a smile/…/ If not in our lifetime, then when we are dead.” While benevolence between opposing strangers is often suggested in the theme, such goodwill materializes into war when it comes to depiction of reality. “One Man’s Bible, or The Day after a Nuclear War” demonstrates an ironic dialectical combination of its form and content: “imagine all the yellow ribbons/ Tied in a jardin of the alienated/ Surviving fists/ Punch surviving chests/ Every dialect every accent every folklore/ Uttered/ In the same tongue.” Here we have “sameness” expressed in a hybrid language, adding to the poem a spectacular dialectic.

Encounters between strangers imply love, which is only one step away from eternity. In “Seven Passages of Fox Talk”, after a one-night stand between a man and a fox spirit in the form of a woman, they exchange their heads as tokens of love. Thus the two of them exchange their identity as a man/woman and human/spirit, both becoming strangers to themselves. Destiny or chance is in fact a kind of alienation. The unpredictability of destiny implies that we may end up not meeting someone we are predestined to meet: “When the unobserved moon/ Exists/ Someone who exists/ Wakes up/…/ Wakes up/ Thinking of some unknown soul in the crowd/ Who has fallen for him/ And goes unnoticed/ By him/ What a pity// What a regret though it’s worth the while/ Sunk/ In sleep.” The expected change does not take place. A quiet sorrow. How should we understand the triad of “exist” - the realization that one has overlooked a chance - asleep? Is it that we can be regarded as existent only when we realize we have missed certain possibilities? Or is it that we exist because we have missed certain possibilities? If we realize the latter, are we awake or asleep?

Even without much imagery, Yin Jiang’s poetry lines shine with the glamour of countless “possibilities”. Apart from his penetrating insight into the world, the poems Yin Jiang writes for his children are suffused with a mist of tenderness. “Strangers are angels/ Others are Bodhisattva Manjusri/ In the hands you shake stands Mount Wutai/…/ Everyone is a sage if/ They come across a sage/ But unless you are a sage/ How/ Would you/ Meet/ A sage?/ Friends/ Strangers/ Are not/ More unfamiliar to you/ Than you yourself are/ Be a sage!/ Thus the sage said/ Work hard to become a sage so that/ Those who/ Meet you/ (Like me)/ Or ’im/ Shall become sages/ And turn people they meet/ Into/ Sages// Ain’t it fabulous?” (“Strangers are Angels –For Dan and Shi” ) The whole logic is turned upside down: if one is self-sufficient enough to become a sage without encountering anyone, there is no need to think about what strangers one will meet; a sage needs not worry about how he can meet another sage. All in all, on the road to wisdom on his own, Yin Jiang coaxes and cajoles and rejects his own ideas while raising two possibilities to his children: 1) Strangers are sages; 2) The mutual influence between people who meet would turn them both into sages.

And who said we will definitely get wiser? Who said all strangers are angels? Among millions of possibilities some are better than our wildest dream, and some are so horrendous that we could not bear them. Yin Jiang insists on talking about the bright side, so the gloomy possibilities remain a subdued shadow of that unrealized world. People torn apart by frustration and separation are lifted up by poetry from reality to the mysterious origin of the world where everything is yet to happen, while still keeping their traumatic memories. In their eyes reflects a carefree origin they would never have reached on their own. Such is the mysterious healing power of poetry. That is why those short yet lingering, light-hearted yet tender, humorous yet profound poems of Yin Jiang’s move us into tears many a time.


It takes as little as a space of flow to hint at the far shore, just as wind has tempted mankind into dreaming of flying.