“Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories.”—Eudora Welty.
Travel broadens the mind. Recently I spent time in Hong Kong, my third visit to this amazing place. Of course I ate many Chinese dishes, as well as some fabulous cakes, but there is so much more to Chinese culture, sparking ideas for future writing.
These days we must be mindful of cultural appropriation. I contend that as long as we thoroughly research the culture we write about, and understand what it’s like to walk in another’s shoes, it’s no different from our setting stories in, for example, Australian colonial society. A simplistic way of putting it, but we, as writers of fiction, by definition are conjuring up people who never existed or, if they did, we’re imagining what their life might have been like.
When we travel, we can imagine our fictional characters doing what we do. So, for example, we take note of what it feels like to use public transport, what streets look like, how the air smells. All grist for the author’s mill.
But then there are stories and artefacts of bygone eras, to be found in a city’s museums. The Hong Kong museum’s a wonderful resource. We might, for example, sit in an old trolley bus or inspect the interiors of shops from the 1950s, and learn about dreadful experiences of Hong Kong’s ordinary citizens during the Second World War.
The highlight of my trip, though, was a visit to the very new and magnificent Xiqu Theatre for a performance by the Shanghai Kunqu Opera Troupe. Way back I’d seen a Chinese Opera performed in a Singapore street. It was interesting, and colourful, but I’d no idea what it was about. This occasion was different. We had English subtitles perfectly synchronised with the action. The opera was amazing! One of four related operas by Tang Xianzu, a Chinese contemporary of Shakespeare, A Dream Under the Southern Bough is the tale of a Tang dynasty general demoted for drunkeness, and his subsequent adventures in the kingdom of the ants. As weird as some of Shakespeare’s comedies, but with an interesting message. This play stirred my imagination.
How many other wonderful stories from other cultures are out there? The more we learn, the more we have to recognise that, besides experiencing modern cultures, we can find endless inspiration in the traditions and tales of other civilisations.
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