DIALOGUE WITH DUNG-KAI CHEUNG: WHEN THE THEORETICAL AND CREATIVE MINDS MEET
DUNG KAI-CHEUNG 董啟章 (BA 1989; MPhil 1994) is an award-winning and prolific Hong Kong fiction writer who has published full-length novels and collections of short stories. Some of his well-known publications such as
Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City (地圖集) and Cantonese Love Stories (夢華錄) have been translated into English. His latest trilogy of spiritual history explores the intriguing dynamics between the physical and the spiritual. He shares with us his memories from his undergraduate and postgraduate years at the Department, as well as personal thoughts on the creative process of writing.
EMBARKING ON THE JOURNEY OF CREATIVE WRITING
Dung did not start writing until he began his postgraduate studies. Interestingly, his first piece of work was written in English, and the attempt was less than successful. “I remembered showing my first draft to Prof. Davey, who crossed out pretty much what’s on the page! I guess I tried too hard to incorporate theories into the piece, and at that time I have yet to develop a style or skill to make things work.”
This unresolved interplay between the two modes of thinking has continued to unfold, and now shapes his creative writing in a productive and organic way. “The dynamics between the rational and the sentimental change from time to time, creating an interesting tension. This dilemma that I experienced back then remains and is manifested in many of my works. The theoretical mind plays a role in my creative journey, but at the same time I hope to maintain a distance with it.” The theoretical and creative minds have become inextricably interwoven to engender a particular mode of thinking that characterises his works.
From literary appreciation to cultural criticism
Having studied only Chinese Literature throughout secondary school, Dung only began to have a taste of foreign literature when he studied Comparative Literature courses. In a course on European novels taught by the charismatic Prof. Rodney Davey, he was exposed to a wide range of literary texts, including Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past that later became the topic for his MPhil thesis. In his final year, he took an advanced course in literary theories co-taught by Prof. Ackbar Abbas, Prof. Jeremy Tambling and Prof. Jonathan Hall, and was introduced to key movements like Russian Formalism and New Criticism.
During the MPhil programme, Dung and a few postgraduate classmates compiled a student journal titled Cultural Criticism (文化評論). At that time, the Department was just established and the journal was an attempt to create a platform for articles they wanted to submit but didn’t know where to. Written in Chinese, a more accessible language to most people, the articles discussed texts and phenomena within the local context. They printed a few hundred copies and placed some at upstairs bookstores like Youth Literary Bookstore(青文書屋). Due to pragmatic issues like cost, narrow readership and divergent opinions among editors, the publication came to a halt after the second issue in 1994. Nonetheless, the experience preparing the publication from scratch was a memorable interlude during his postgraduate studies.
Developing a thesis under the supervision of Prof. Tambling and Prof. Davey was yet another interesting and challenging experience. Dung recalled moving between the text-based approach adopted by Prof. Davey and the theory-driven approach suggested by Prof. Tambling. “At times these two approaches created in me feelings of contradiction. Literary theories can be appealing and stimulating, yet I am sceptical about believing solely in them.”
Exploring through words: Expressing the indescribable
One thing that Dung’s works share in common is the close-knit relationship between fictional narratives and lived experiences. “What I explore in my stories is closely connected to the world I’m living in. I can’t go on writing if the ideas I have don’t fit into my world, unless I figure out a way to modify certain elements so that they respond to the reality I know.” He also hopes that his creative works can bring readers closer to zhen (真), a condition of the heart that cannot be captured by language. “You need to reach zhen through passing the illusory. It is not just reality or universal truth, but something within my heart.”
To Dung, words enable a greater degree of creative freedom than other visual media like film. Words are not confined by material existence, meaning there are unlimited possibilities to how the inner and external worlds interact and mutate. Meanwhile, words are limited in describing aesthetics and evoking an immediate response in readers like the way music does. Aware of these restraints, he aims to write texts that cannot be easily turned to films. “People must read it in order to understand the meanings within. Words would have lost their own ‘independence’ if a written work can be easily adapted into a plot-driven film. The literary form is just as important as the story itself.”