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Tracings of ‘The Power of Words’

Dr. Vivian Chan
Prof. Fan Sin-piu
Flash mob to promote the ‘Not Exactly Lyrical: Hong Kong Poetry and Chorus Recital’
Talk by Hong Kong author Dung Kai-cheung at the Library's Learning Garden

‘The Power of Words’ is a reading and writing project co-organized by the Independent Learning Centre, the Hong Kong Literature Research Centre, the Office of the Arts Administrator, and Tolopoem. Other supporting units include the Department of Chinese Language and Literature, the Department of English, the School of Journalism and Communication, the University Library System, and the CU Student Press.

A stanza of a poem, a blackboard and several pieces of chalk—these were all the organizers of ‘The Power of Words’ project had when they started the ‘project’. By handwriting poems all over the campus, they ignited the passion for art and literature, and ushered in a series of poetic and artistic activities in 2012–13. ‘This was an incidental project. The idea came from casual chats between colleagues,’ said one of the organizers Dr. Vivian Chan, senior lecturer, Independent Learning Centre (ILC). She said the Chinese University used to be a cradle for writers, but serious readers and writers are rare now. That’s why she decided to revive the tradition by launching a series of literary activities using a primitive method—by copying poems on blackboards.

Quarrying with Chalk

Why poetry? Dr. Chan admitted she’s taking a risk, ‘People think poetry is impractical and has a niche market. But in fact, poetry represents the most refined and beautiful, and embodies the purest and the most sublime. If one wants to enter the humanistic world via words, poetry could be the most effective means. You don’t need to understand every line to be moved by a poem. I feel in every heart lives a poet and he will emerge when the conditions are right.’

Blackboard poems first appeared at Wu Chung Multimedia Library of United College and Ch’ien Mu Library of New Asia College in September last year. People were puzzled as nothing like that had been shown on campus before. Then the poems started appearing on whiteboards and glass walls. The ILC, the Learning Garden of the University Library, Elisabeth Luce Moore Library of Chung Chi College, Architecture Library, the Learning Commons of the Wu Ho Man Yuen Building, the United College Student Canteen, and Sir Run Run Shaw Hall, among other locations, are designated poem-copying zones.

Another initiator of the project, Prof. Fan Sin-piu, director of the Hong Kong Literature Research Centre, compared poem-copying to quarrying, ‘We are making a new path. This is an important process. We noticed glass wall poems are powerful. They have caught the attention and won the approval of many staff and students, paving the way for activities that follow.’

A Day to Remember

Many Faculties are holding exams in May, yet the project’s Facebook fan page remains busy. The project’s ongoing activity is a writing event titled ‘A Day in CUHK in the 21st Century’. It is still receiving submissions, and new works are posted daily on the project’s website since the end of March. The most popular submission so far is Prof. Lee Ou-fan’s ‘An Old Professor’s Diary on 21 March 2013’ which has attracted over 88,000 people. In number two with 12,000 readers is Meng Bin’s ‘Reading CUHK in Ten Thousand Fascicles’, detailing how the writer, who lives near the campus, feels about the University. ‘One Day’ by Yang Yang (Faculty of Social Science, Year 1), and minor staff work diaries penned by students from the School of Journalism and Communication, were well received by fans and scored thousands of readers.

Professor Fan recalled an ordinary day in September 1983, when he was a freshman. During a stroll on the University Mall, he discovered in a booth selling a collection of essays titled A Day in CUHK. He bought it right away. ‘Great! I didn’t realize there was such a book. It would let me know what others at CUHK are doing,’ he recounted excitedly. Thirty years later, he took charge of ‘A Day in CUHK in the 21st Century’ writing event, ‘My role is similar to wine making. The commonplace bits and pieces of today will become rich and intoxicating after one or two decades. If we don’t record them now, we won’t have good wine tomorrow.’

To encourage participation, the organizers launched a variation on the original theme on 2 May. Now, you can write on any day at CUHK you like, not necessarily on 21 March 2013. All members of the CUHK community are welcome to take part. The deadline is 30 June and there is no limit to the number of submissions. Professor Fan said there is a chance the articles will be published in print, ‘So far, we’ve had 80 articles about 21 March, and over 10 about other days. We hope that we will get more submissions after the final exams.’

Focus on Literature

On the project’s webpage, there’s a Chinese slogan that means, ‘Each word is a brick. Together we pave, engrave, and hurl.’ ‘To engrave is to record how we feel, to pave is construct a channel for all to communicate, and at times we also need to resist, so we hurl the brick. “The Power of Words” appreciates aesthetics from a literary perspective, but the kind of aesthetics must relate to our lives and society. I think we must stick to the literary perspective, otherwise, the whole project will unravel. However the literature focus does not mean we are blind to what’s happening in the world around us,’ explained Professor Fan.

‘The Power of Words’ organizes sharing sessions, workshops and public talks from time to time. Dung Kai-cheung’s talk had an overwhelming 100 participants. ‘They came for fun. We didn’t realize there were so many non-arts people who were fond of literature. This is a big discovery,’ he said.

Consolidate and Innovate

Dr. Chan said that the greatest support for the events came from students, who volunteered to post poems and promote events. A good example was the self-initiated flash mob held opposite Sir Run Sun Shaw Hall to promote the ‘Not Exactly Lyrical: Hong Kong Poetry and Chorus Recital’. It was warmly received by passing students. Stories like this abound. She thanked students for their ardent support, ‘The work is tedious, time-consuming and tiring. But still almost 100 student volunteers offered their help, in addition to the assistance of Colleges and colleagues. I am deeply touched by their devotion.’

‘In Minnesota’s capital city Saint Paul, there is an “Everyday Poems for City Sidewalk” project. Each year the government holds a contest to invite poets to contribute works to their collection. Selected works are engraved on the sidewalk. When I heard this, I began to imagine what something like this would look like on the University Mall,’ Dr. Chan said. Who knows? A year ago, no one would imagine that poems can blossom on glass?

Supported by the Teaching Development Grant, ‘The Power of Words’ series of event will continue in the 2013–14 academic year, with new events starting this September.

Do you like blackboard poems and glass wall poems? Did you slow down to read them? How did they make you feel?