Winner of The 5th Dream of the Red Chamber Award

Children of Darkness  Wong Bik-wan [Hong Kong]
Hong Kong: Cosmos Books (2012)
Taiwan: Titan Publishing Co. Ltd (2012)


Introduction to the Winning Novel

Wong Bik-wan’s Children of Darkness is a portraiture of the society’s most marginalized: drug-users, triad members, thieves, gamblers, convict who have spent most of their lives in and out of prison – the underbelly of Hong Kong. Time: from the 1950s to early 21st century. Location: Wanchai district and different prisons. The protagonist “I” left home at the age of 11, joined the triads at 13, gambled, pickpocketed, used and dealt drugs. He spent most of his life deep inside that very underbelly. An ordinary men, decent in nature and a believer in fate, finally managed to free himself from the drug habit at the age of 60. He finds friendship and a normal social life, and volunteers as a social worker for other addicts like him. His capacity to embrace fate, his triumph over the hardships of life make for a moving tale. Wong Bik-wan moved away from her signature linguistic originality and violence of aesthetics, and instead adopted a restrained, rational and minimalist narrative style, demonstrating a sympathy to those bound within the purgatory.

Professor Chung Ling
Chairman of the Final Judging Panel
The 5th Dream of Red Chambers Award

Biography of the Awardee

Born in Hong Kong in 1961, Wong Bik-wan obtained her MA degree in Criminology under the Department of Sociology in The University of Hong Kong and a Diploma of Legal Studies in the HKU School of Professional and Continuing Education. She has worked as a reporter and is a qualified legal professional. She won the 3rd, 6th and 12th Hong Kong Biennial Awards for Chinese Literature in Fiction, the 4th Hong Kong Biennial Awards for Chinese Literature in Essays, the 6th Hong Kong Book Prize, Excellent Books of the Year by Asiaweek Chinese Version 2012, City Magazine’s “Creative Lifestyle Award 2012 – Literature”, and the 1st New Talent Award for Literature from the Hong Kong Arts Development Council. Her works have also been selected for Taiwan anthologies of fiction on numerous occasions.



Full text of Acceptance Speech by Wong Bik-wan at the Award Presentation Ceremony


The power of literature and the misgivings and repudiation of the spirit of freedom Wong Bik-wan


I thank the judges of the Dream of Red Chambers Award for their generosity, for offering this momentous award to such an insignificant book as Children of Darkness.


Perhaps because I was raised and educated in Hong Kong, and made my living here, I never thought of literature as “a big deal” – other than I read it as a child, and write it when I can.


We never imagined ourselves influential or powerful. We sold few books, had few readers, received little in the way of monetary returns. We weren’t respected socially. Every time I was asked about what I did as a living, I would be so overcome with shame that I couldn’t form an answer. Later, I simply say – I am unemployed. In Hong Kong, writing is – and never has been – a form of employment.


Is writing entertainment? If you consider entertainment to include getting up at 6 in the morning to write, then do something else, then continue to write, interspersed in the middle by brief periods of excursion and hurried return – as if there’s a child waiting for you to tend to. I trust few would find enjoyment in such “entertainment”.


Is writing a calling? We are quite reluctant to shoulder that burden. We do, however, feel that writing is necessary. That might constitute a calling in itself.


More precisely speaking, writing is a calling, one that is rather inescapable. No matter what country you fled to, what room you hide in, whatever vows you’ve taken about putting down the pen – when words surface, you sit down, you write.


And so I wrote one thousand, two thousand, and I threw them out. I wrote three thousand, four thousand… well, that’s something to consider.


I read, I did research in the library, I did interviews. I came back, wrote again, and I had forty thousand, fifty thousand. And I threw them all out again. I visited individuals, did volunteer work, book clubs and the like. The novel? I could give it up. I never believed it necessary.


I settled down, I wrote again. This time, I turned out a whole book. It didn’t feel right, as in “this is what it should be”. So I put it down, went to some country or other, did something else, continue my visits. I needed to understand people, their realities. The book wasn’t right as I did not undertand the people sufficiently.


I tried again. The second draft, looking better. But it wasn’t good enough.


I wrote Children of Darkness, thenI forgot about it. For the author, a work lives only in her room. Once it left that room, the work is done – it no longer has anything to do with her.


The work belongs to the reader. Children of Darkness is written in such plain language that it belongs to anyone who is literate. It may not even qualify as literature – but this is fine with me.


Literature is open to all – in that it has no entry requirements. I was quite young the first time I went to Paris, and the thing that amazed me the most was a hobo in the metro – he was reading a novel by Sarte even as he laid prone on the station floor.


In the beginning I wrote because I was rebellious. I couldn’t change the world, but I could at least create one and become a free spirit within.


This writing is not something sacred, to be worshipped by the masses. I hope among my readers are the dejected, the failed, the defective, and that my book can console and empower – just as I was consoled and empowered by writings by others before me. They helped me realise my insufficiencies.


Literature has an unbridled life of its own. In the 1980s when I travelled north into the mainland, the youths there were make oil print copies of handwritten poem collections – for passing between friends. Upon return to Hong Kong, I received a number of such copies. I held them in hand, each a treasure that was almost too precious to read. Raw literature brings with it a raw pleasure.


This is why I never thought literature should be abstruse. I’ve written some less than approachable works, but that is because I haven’t restrained myself. Even Kant, who was famous for writing abstruse philosophy, said, “Each philosophical work should be assessable and popular, approachable by the masses; if any philosophical work departs from this, it would be hiding nonsense aplenty under the pretence of esoteric rhetoric.” Later, Schopenhauer also wrote, “Nothing is easier than writing something no one can decipher; nothing is more difficult than writing something everyone can understand while conveying significant and meaningful thought. Indecipherable words are closely tied to ignorance and absence of rationality.” Of course, fiction is more lenient than philosophy, and thus abstruse fiction may still qualify as works of literature.


Once the work leaves the room, it no longer belongs in there; it is public property. Its fate has little to do with the author. One is recycled; some exchanged many hands; other became dead stock – lethal in the sense they were actually used as murder weapon.


Then there were the rare works read by those are invested with the power to compile literary history, and were canonised: they become “literature”. If fortune would have it, such works would be read by those who weren’t in the know, but only out of a fondness of the work per se.


This canonisation has a mechanics of its own: institutions, reviews, preferences of established writers, awards. I believe though that the most truthful and dependable qualifier is none other than time – i.e. readers through the ages. Not all literary works survive reading from generations of readers. But what is left are the treasures of our civilisation. Every time I read a classic that I like, I feel a sense of awe: whatever that can be written has been written. What narrative work can compare to Records of the Grand Historian (史記)? What can rival Songs of Chu (楚辭) in beauty of rhetoric?


Who can go further than Shakespeare in writing internal monologue?


Being canonised does not mean being qualified for this race of time. I believe one hundred years later, few works called “literature” today will still be read. But we will not be there to witness it, and so it is a trivial matter.


We have the ability to learn about what is beyond our day-to-day experience. It humbles us; we cannot help but be feel inadequate.


Upon leaving the author, the life of a work is tied to the reader – including readers with the power of discourse and review. Like people, once born works embark on the inevitable journey toward death, and being canonised slows that process. If a work is blessed with such vitality that it survives, I dare not say it will be a classic; I never thought of it becoming a classic.


The mechanism for canonisation transcends individual works, giving literary works a chance of renewal, even revival. The realist fiction of 19th century France and Russia was replaced by the abstract modernist western works; the rise of Latin American fiction in the latter part of the century broke the Eurocentric hegemony of world literature. If we want to read the works from beyond our immediate circle of life, we need canonisation.


This means that the canonisation mechanism has the power to shape historic material. A work may find no further a readership than among hobos, or may become literature.


Power and freedom are mutually exclusive – this is not to say those with power can be free, but rather that the greater the power – especially political power – the greater the restraints imposed upon an individual, and the greater the resulting resistance. We’ve all read Márquez writing about the loneliness of dictators, and I’ve interviewed a former Governor of Hong Kong who said he went hiking every Sunday because he had no one to talk to. Those in power have to give a great deal of thought even to speaking a true word from the mind. I never envy the lives of those in power.
In Hong Kong, those with economic power seem to enjoy more personal freedom. It is little wonder that few want to go into politics.


Does possession of literary power harm the spirit of freedom?


When an influential award, review, or reader preference emerge, it turns the writer, a free, unfettered individual no one cares about, into an author. It allows him or her to affect others, become someone with the power of social discourse. Because I refuse to acknowledge this, I’m not fully aware of it.

I, however, do write. Today, this writing remains pure, free from the lure of considerations beyond writing or from any power. The spirit only roams in spaces of freedom.


When this spirit comes to the boundary of freedom, it halts, asks, is that you? Are you lost? How far will you go? Can you resist the whole world?


If I keep writing, my readership grows. Even if I don’t accept the award, I still can’t escape the power I possess: my works are read, and my personal actions and words – whether good or bad – affect others.


If I can’t escape from something, I need to face it.


The award is an honour. With the award, my work becomes canonised as literature. The writer gains power and becomes and author. With the reception of this award I heard criticisms toward me as a person; and toward my work. The latter is normal and I consider any discussion generated by my work an honour. But being criticised personally – I think it’s because this honour has caused others to expect more of my personal morals.


A writer can be elusive; an author has to act like she writes. She has to be the conscience of an era when confusion strikes.


I have probably reach the age where I have to take responsibility. With it comes an awareness: a weighted freedom. The spirit of freedom is weightless, never stopping; while responsibility forces you to put down roots and hold you to one place. This is a realisation of the moral confines of freedom.

The tension comes from juxtaposing efforts: levitating, landing; floating, affirming. When I write, I am still that spirit of freedom, but when I come face to face with the society, I have to be member of that civic society, act from my conscience, and watch my every word and action. As I have mentioned earlier, the halo effect for this award will soon pass, and the prize money – every last cent of it – will be used for the travel and research for my next book. Nevertheless, I am grateful for this award as it has made me aware of my limitations and duties. I am filled with trepidation but my spirits are high. I will exercise my freedom of will upon my next work and my other difficulties in life. I will shoulder my responsibilities and forge ahead, without fear.


 Excerpt of comments of the Final Judging Panel

Children of Darkness is afirst-person narrative of a criminal. The survival space of the “children of darkness” is interwoven with the time and fate of the junkies living on the margins, creating a fictive account of the history of the locale (of Wanchai). Hidden in the district, lurking just out of sight, are the many sea changes that befell the city over the past 60 years. The first character of the Chinese book title “Liè” (烈) – which stands for “intense, violent, honourable” – is the very depiction of Wong’s philosophy of life, of history. Liè, as a characterization of these “children” of darkness, is not about their involvement in gang violence nor the indoctrinating capacity of legal machinery; rather, it speaks to their serenity and composure in the face of fate, even at a time when their physical body finds no recourse from inevitable ruin. Wong departs from her highly-honed literary style, leaving out any and all emotive and subjective descriptors, reducing the storyline into no more than day-to-day conversations and actions. The ingenuity of this novel lies in its ability to distil the Cantonese dialect into a literary language that is unhewn, solid and profound, and which offers the “illiterate narrator” a subjectivity and dignity on a narrative level. Children of Darkness represents yet another tour de force in the wake of Wong’s Portraits of Martyred Women, and is an important contribution to the world of Chinese literature.

Professor Huang Ziping
Honorary Professor of Hong Kong Baptist University

Strict adherence of the laws of fiction, unbounded freedom of imagination within a self-delineated form – such is the awareness of the narrator as realised from a first-person perspective. One life, blissfully unconscious, draws its raison d'etre from the infinite void, becomes slowly tamed by time and the society, and arrives at normality. As the civilisation tames the wild, trims the unwanted, illuminates the disarray, extolls the mainstream, the trifle, the individual are incorporated, consumed, regurgitated as dregs of history. Wong Bik-wan left her marks only on paper, a memory of their once vivacity, opening a chapter beyond the bounds of formal history – is it not what every novelist dreams of?

Professor Wang Anyi
Winner of the First Prize of 4th Dream of the Red Chamber Award for her novel Scent of Heaven