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A Catalog of Such Stuff as Dreams are Made On, by Dung Kai-cheung

translated by Bonnie S. McDougall and Anders Hansson

Columbia University Press, 2022

Publisher's Blurb

Dung Kai-cheung’s A Catalog of Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made On is a playful and imaginative glimpse into the consumerist dreamscape of late-nineties Hong Kong. First published in 1999, it comprises ninety-nine sketches of life just after the handover of the former British colony to China. Each of these stories in miniature begins from a piece of ephemera, usually consumer products or pop culture phenomena, and develops alternately comic and poignant snapshots of urban life.

Dung’s sketches center on once-trendy items that evoke the world at the turn of the millennium, such as Hello Kitty, Final Fantasy VIII, a Windows 98 disk, a clamshell mobile phone, Air Jordans, and cargo shorts. The protagonist of each piece, typically a young woman, is struck by an odd, even overriding obsession with an object or fad. Characters embark on brief dalliances or relationships lasting no longer than the fashions that sparked them. Dung blends vivid everyday details—Portuguese egg tarts, Japanese TV shows, the Hong Kong subway—with situations that are often fantastical or preposterous. This catalog of vanished products illuminates how people use objects to define and even invent their own selves. A major work from one of Hong Kong’s most gifted and original writers, Dung’s archaeology of the end of the twentieth century speaks to perennial questions about consumerism, nostalgia, and identity.

Reading Chinese Network Reviews

Reviewed by Michelle Deeter, 27/7/22

Dung Kaicheung’s A Catalog of Such Stuff As Dreams Are Made Of was pretty good, for most of the book. This collection of short sketches (the author thinks they are too short to be called short stories, and I agree) takes place in Hong Kong in the late 1990s, and some of the references are very specific to that time and place. I have visited Hong Kong a few times, but I think readers who are more familiar with that time and place would enjoy this book even more than I did. While I know all of my Sanrio characters, and I recognized some of the fashion brands, I did not understand every reference that was being made. There were a surprising number of references to television shows and celebrities from Japan, where my knowledge is much more limited, and the overall impact of the story was then affected. Fortunately, there were notes at the beginning of each story with a cultural reference, so it was possible to read through the stories without constantly going to the internet to figure out what some obscure cultural phenomena meant.

I enjoyed about half of the stories. They are short, so if one of the stories is not to your taste, you do not have to sit with it for too long. On the other hand, the ones that were good left me slightly dissatisfied because I wanted to know what happened to the characters. Sometimes the characters were portrayed in such broad strokes that I had to fill in details by myself. Sometimes it worked, and I didn’t mind that the stories went so quickly.

A lot of stories used the boy-meets-girl set up. A lot of the stories involved a girl being fixated with a certain item of clothing, such as only wearing tank tops or only wearing camouflage. One boy always wore a cowboy hat, in one of the few instances where the male character was obsessed with something. Some stories had a touch of surrealism, such as people flying, or a convenient dress being located on a stage so the main character could change into it before sitting down at the piano. But that was part of the fun—a lot of Hong Kong fiction seems to be embellished with surrealism much more often than Mainland fiction. It was just that the same elements appeared again and again, which got a little tedious in some cases.

In the eyes of a reader from 2021, some of these stories might seem insensitive or problematic, but of course these stories were written in a different time and the types of jokes being made in this book were commonplace in the 90s. This is not specific to Hong Kong, either. Plenty of music and television shows from the United States seemed funny then but seem misogynistic now. The translators chose to follow the source text and include all the stories of the original, and I respect that, as it means the book remains a time capsule of that period and that author’s artistic expression. But it would have been possible to play down the stereotypes of women being obsessed with clothing, women being excited about cute things, men being more rational than women and hiding in one little sketch, that black people have exceptional talent when it comes to rhythm. It would have been possible to omit the stories that were more problematic, because there were always other stories that were similar in tone, or similar in set up.

Given that there were stories that I really enjoyed in the collection, I would say it was a worthwhile read. It was superbly translated by Bonnie S. McDougall and Anders Hansson, so that alone makes it a lovely form of entertainment. If you grew up in the 90s or you want to know more about Hong Kong from that period, this book is probably worth your time.

Reviewed by Michelle Deeter

Reviewed by Tamara McCombe, 18/7/22

On one level a nostalgic catalogue of once trendy but now obsolete items and brands, on another an unflattering evaluation of cultural values in 1990s Hong Kong after its handover from the UK to the PRC. Dung Kai-cheung has collected ninety-nine vignettes (they were first published in 1999) in A Catalog of Such Stuff as Dreams are Made On to capture the popular culture and mindset at a very specific and poignant time in the island’s history.

Each chapter or mini-story centres on a particular item or brand as a vehicle to represent a zeitgeist. Some are comical, others descend into melancholy, even acerbic analysis of prevailing attitudes. In "Hello Kitty" and "Bathing Ape" the key characters become inextricably connected to the brands and in "Konjak Jellies" they literally waste away by consumption of a particular product. Criticism of slavish fandom is impossible to ignore.

Dung Kai-cheung calls the chapters ‘sketches’ rather than short stories due to the brief period of time in which they were written. Like the best of the Impressionist artworks, he reveals enough to vividly evoke the moment. So those less familiar with niche trends or cultural fads are not lost, the sketches are headed with brief explanations of the referenced cultural icons, films, brands and the like.

In the preface to this 2022 English translation, the author explains the title and formation of his collection is drawn from records from the Southern Song dynasty (circa 12th century AD) composed by the intellectual elite who were “…deeply nostalgic about the material and cultural wealth of the old capital.” He also references the ubiquity of masks at the time of re-publication for anti-COVID protection, which not only protect the wearer physically but also protects them from observers being cognisant of their true self – a function of many of the ephemera listed in this catalogue. Will these masks too be included in a similar future catalogue? As much as we like to think our own era is distinct from those gone before, perhaps the stories are the same just with different items catalogued.

Reviewed by Tamara McCombe