Identity Handover by Sanaz Fotouhi

Sanaz Fotouhi is currently the director of Asia Pacific Writers and Translators. Born in Iran, she grew up across Asia and holds a PhD in English literature from the University of New South Wales. Her book The Literature of the Iranian Diaspora: Meaning and Identity since the Islamic Revolution was published in 2015 (I.B. Tauris). Her stories and creative fiction are a reflective of her multicultural background. Her work has appeared in anthologies in Australia and Hong Kong, including Southerly, The Griffith Review, as well as in the Guardian UK and the Jakarta Post. Sanaz is one of the founding members of the Persian Film Festival in Australia as well as the co-producer of the multi-award winning documentary film, Love Marriage in Kabul.

 
 
 
Identity Handover

August 1997, one month after the historic handover from the British to the Chinese, as foreign businesses and banks were hustling to send their representatives back, we touched down in Hong Kong. We had left our relatively large unit in a complex of desolated chain-smoking coffee drinking Armenian exiles in Glendale, Los Angeles, packing up all that would one day become distant memory of America. We had gotten rid of the still grooveless and stainless sofas that we had not even had a chance to break into or stain with memories, and headed to a state that was now part of China.Tearfully I had broken this news to my then best friends. There was the Cuban beauty Rachelle. She refused to touch sugar and her skirt got shorter and shorter during the two years of high school as she kept rolling it on top, blaming her growing teenage legs when Sister Mary Jean, in her full habit, called her out on it; there was Grace, the Colombian. She lived in a zoo of a barely standing weatherboard house on top a hill with her dysfunctional family of a Catholic praying mother and drunk father. They cohabited with rabbits, cats, dogs, roosters, hamsters, and birds that flew and pooped everywhere in the house. There was the Armenian Maria who was constantly shamed for her overweight body. She lived on the last mansion on one of the long drives up the hill and used to compensate with stories of non-existent boyfriends. And the Filipino born Michelle. She escaped school from drive by shootings in her street and gang member brothers and friends, stinking of cigarettes in the morning, before we even said the first of the Marys.

A Muslim-born Iranian girl, after two and half years in LA, I had managed to find solace in the friendship of these outcast and marginal American girls. Without any sort of legal rights in the country, I was beginning, more or less, by the virtue having built a community and immersing myself into the culture, to consider myself American.  

On the last days of Sophomore year on the grounds of the Holy Family High School, after we had finished our exam on the Bible, signing each other’s year books, my friends, some of whom didn’t and still do not have a passport, wondered about my parents’ sanity for accepting a posting in Hong Kong.

‘So, like why are you going back to Japan?’ Rachelle asked as we sat around exchanging and marking our memories on the back of each others’ books.

‘I am so not going to Japan. Hong Kong is totally not Japan!’

‘Totally Same thing. No?’

‘Totally not,’ I said eye rolling hands, gesturing Valley girl style.  

‘Yea, whatever, and are you going to turn Japanese with eyes like this?’ Rachelle giggled as she pulled on her eyes to make them narrow and then signed ‘Wish you a great time in Japan haha!’

No matter how much I tried to explain that Japan and Hong Kong and China were not the same thing, they didn’t get it. But then I wasn’t very convincing. I wasn’t even sure if I got it myself. I had heard of what was to be some kind of a handover of Hong Kong to the Chinese government. Yet, to my sophomore brain preoccupied with other things, that meant nothing.

And yea whatever, unadmitted, was also as much my teenage understanding of Hong Kong then and it formed my attitude towards it. Pre-google days, with dial up internet, my only source of information on Hong Kong had been the school library. The only book on 70s Hong Kong described it as a concrete jungle with faded photos of tall buildings and pirate style ships.

After an ‘oh my God, we are going to crash into the buildings below,’ as the plane descended on Kai Tak airport in the middle of the crowded city, I landed in Hong Kong with yea whatever understanding of it. Unassuming, unexpecting. When the sliding doors opened and we stepped out, my glasses fogged up and it was like someone had opened a rice cooker mid-cook and I had voluntarily stuck my head in it and kept it there.

It was stinky, humid, raining, sticky, hot, and crowded.  

If anything was worse than the moist entrance, it was the tiny shoe box of an apartment that my dad’s company had rented for us. The walk-in-closet in my LA room outsized, by far, the jigsaw puzzled space that was to be my bedroom. If I happened to leave my bag on the floor in the room, there was no space for the door to close smugly into the closet fitted right next to the bed framed at the bottom with a desk. And if feeling like an amphibian in the 99% humidity in a city that stank of dried seafood, and having to live in a shoe box as a room, was not enough to make me have a small bit of crisis, starting school gave me the last push into a tumble of identity crises.  

Adjusting from an American school system to the the British HSC style; going to a co-ed school for the first time; encountering the boy species; and saying goodbye to most of my new friends at the international school at the end of two years after they left for various universities in the US, UK and Australia, and then heading to predominately Chinese populated University of Hong Kong to study English literature, are minor and mostly painful details of life that followed. While not in full, I mention these here because they contributed in someway or another to my transition and of later understanding of what it means to be a Hong Konger in today’s transnational world.   

It took me three and half years to come to terms with calling Hong Kong home. It was a gradual process evolving through disdain, anger, loneliness, confusion, to tolerance, acceptance, liking, loving and then feeling more at home in Hong Kong than I did in Iran, or America. Yet, I remember the exact moment when I felt like a Hong Konger.

By then I had moved into a tiny studio on Pokefield Road near the University with my best friend, Marina. She was a local Hong Kong girl, who had spent the majority of her life away and at international schools. We had become friends during university when we gravitated towards each other as the only people in our Spanish class who spoke English with an international school accent. From there we had met other confused souls around the campus who had found themselves, like us, stranded in a university that was meant to be English medium but which was often conditional in adapting that. By the end of the second year of university we had formed a group. We were the only bunch that could be heard speaking English at the campus café near the library, Oliver’s. While we all spoke in English, I was one of three in this group of fifteen or so, who was not local Chinese. There was really no need for me to learn Cantonese. However, by simply hanging out with my local friends, I had picked up a few words here and there and incorporated them into my everyday speech.

On the day in question Marina and I were standing in line at Café de Coral, a very local fast food restaurant that serves Chinese food. While an English menu did exist, by now I knew exactly what I wanted and could even order it in Cantonese when I was alone.

‘What are you having?’ Marina asked so that she could order.

‘Char Siu Faan,’ I said.

‘Yum meiya?’ – What do you want to drink. She asked.

‘Ling Cha,’ I said – Lemon tea.

‘Dung m Dung a?’ –Cold?

‘Always Dung ah,’ I said.

As we ordered and waited in line, we continued our conversation about a cousin of hers. ‘So, Ken is an astronaut child who has just come back from Sydney and he has been so maah faan. My aunty, poor woman, she has to deal with his attitude after she has spent all this time alone there for him and now she has come back to find that everyone knew that his husband has had that Mainland mistress.’

As I was listening to her, I saw that two blond girls were standing close by us and were trying to decipher the menu and overhearing our conversation, which I noticed, was probably not making any sense to anyone unless they had been localized in the diction and culture of Hong Kong.

One of the girls smiled at me and in an LA valley girl accent long forgotten by me and said, ‘You seem to be from here. Can you please help us make sense of this menu, or tell us where the closest western food is, like, other than McDonald’s. We haven’t been able to find anything to eat except McDonalds for the last two days. I can’t bring myself to eat off the street, I feel like barfing every time I smell the dried seafood everywhere.’  

It was in that moment that I realized that I had actually become a Hong Konger. My immersion into the culture had been so gradual that I had missed the transition period and suddenly found myself transmuted on the other side as what my friends started calling, an egg – kind of white on the outside (or depending on where the eggs are from in my case olive) and yellow on the inside! My Chinese local friends, on the other side, referred to themselves as bananas – yellow on the outside and white on the inside. No matter which racially inappropriate metaphor we decided to imbibe, the truth was that together we were all Hong Kongers.

The strange reality is that while I stopped feeling like an American as soon as I left LA, even almost a decade after not continuously living in Hong Kong, I still feel like a Hong Konger.

Last time I was in Hong Kong it was a few months after the 20th anniversary of the Handover. During my absence a lot had happened. Hong Kong felt more Chinese in a way only locals can feel after a long absence. One of the most important changes had been the creeping of the Chinese government into the Hong Kong political system in ways that people had not anticipated. The ‘one country two systems’ had been a promise made by China at the time of the handover. It had meant that while still technically a Chinese state, Hong Kong was meant to have political autonomy. Individual rights and freedoms were enshrined in basic Hong Kong law. However, in 2014, the Chinese government declared that despite this independence the Chief Executive of Hong Kong was to be appointed by the Central People’s Government in Beijing. Tens of thousands of Hong Kongers took to the streets protesting. To guard themselves against police pepper spray people used their umbrellas as defence and the term Umbrella Movement quickly took on to describe the protests.

As the result of the recent events Hong Kong people found themselves increasingly confronted by the Chinese government and to a push towards a sense of Chineseness that didn’t belong to them. You see, while the majority of Hong Kong locals are of Chinese descent and ethnicity, the years of British rule, and Hong Kong’s exposure to the West, has made Hong Kong Chinese culture significantly different to the mainland Chinese. This difference is a crucial point of Hong Kong politics of identity. Although essentially of Chinese ethnic background, the question of Chineseness of identity for many local Hong Kong people is debatable.

In being back recently I found myself with a set of questions that stems from a similar origin. Yes, I feel like a Hong Konger but what does that even mean in the complicated terrain of identity politics and the larger Chinese question? Should I feel allegiances to any particular government, race or ethnicity to feel a sense of belonging in a place and construct my identity around it?

In a collection of essays, poems and fiction celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Handover, prominent Hong Kong writers, tackle this question from different aspects. In a moving piece, Xu Xi, one of Hong Kong’s well known English writers with a complicated sense of identity herself, highlights the notion that identity politics should not be racialized or nationalized. As opposed to attaching identity to race or a nationality, she writes,

‘How refreshing to think that identity could be linked instead to the idea of existence. I exist in this space called Hong Kong from which I consequently derive an identity. Of course, if I happen to be Cantonese or Shanghainese or some other kind of Chinese, or perhaps, not even ethnically Chinese at all, but if I happen to exist here, this space will certainly lay some claim on me….Identity emerges from who we feel we are, who we have evolved to become over time, and is larger than mere nationality or political bias.’ (252)

In another piece, Umbrella Poetics, Jennifer Cheng describes best what I feel about my sense of identity in relation to Hong Kong.  She writes,

‘As much as home is anchor in the body, a protected space no one else can ever know, we have always known how identity is yet also fluid, murky: how we have had to construct it and claim it with twigs we collected and terrains we named, here and there: how its boundaries shifted and burned with memories uncovered, histories relearned, linguistics transformed, distances and shadows narrowing and growing and looming.’ (193)

This has certainly been true in my case. As I grappled to come to terms with Hong Kong and my relation to it, I made it mine. It doesn’t matter that I do not have a Chinese ethnic background. What matters is that I too collected twigs, constructed a home, and built a community from which I derived, in Xu Xi’s words, my sense of identity not out of national belonging or race, but of spatial belonging. And in this I am not alone. There is a large subculture of people who share the same understanding of Hong Kong: expats, diplomats, long term travellers, and those who are actively reclaiming and reconstructing their identities and also along with it the meaning of what it means to be a Hong Konger. And Hong Kong, because of its transient sensibilities of the expat community, offers the perfect space for that.

Again I share the sentiments in Cheng’s words when she writes, ‘Hong Kong is the one place in the world where I can feel both familiar and lost in the best of both senses, where a sense of wildness and safety intersect.’ And I agree with her that ‘I’ too ‘have never developed a language beyond this to describe Hong Kong, deep inside my bones.’ (200)

There is a famous line from the colonial times of Hong Kong. To live in Hong Kong was being in ‘a borrowed place living on borrowed time.’ During the colonial times many expats knew that Hong Kong was a place that would eventually return to China and many of those who lived there never really planted roots of permanence. However, I feel that this statement still holds true, not in relation to its political standing but in other ways. Given Hong Kong’s transient nature, its fast paced lifestyle, continuously changing landscape, and the shifting nature of its population, it is hard to stipulate otherwise or expect anything that feels a sense of permanence in Hong Kong.

But then again, in reflecting on the larger question of identity politics and our sense of belonging, this is a statement that is applicable to our global lives and sense of identity. Which one of us can claim permanent full undisputed ownership on the land, culture, society, and a sense of identity that we live by, or claim immortal existence? If you think about it, we are all living in a borrowed place on borrowed time. Yet our human desire to construct meaning of this fleeting existence by giving it a sense of permanence has driven us to construct imagined homelands and identities.

Perhaps the natives of the Australian land know best to not claim ownership but custodianship it. Perhaps this is the approach that we should all embrace in approaching our sense of identity politics. Perhaps the sense of identity that we struggle to make so much sense of is is much less complicated that we make it mean. Xu Xi sums up this to the point when she concludes her piece by writing, ‘What I am is a Hong Kong yan, my gaze fixed on an evanescent home, trusting it will find form and footing somehow as a Chinese city.’ (258)


Citations:

Jennifer Cheng, ‘Umbrella Poetics’ in Hong Kong 2/20: A PEN Hong Kong Anthology. (Hong Kong: Blacksmith Books, 2017)

Xu Xi, ‘Keystrokes by Loong Hei,’ in Hong Kong 2/20: A PEN Hong Kong Anthology. (Hong Kong: Blacksmith Books, 2017)

  

Peter Gibson reviews Encounters with Asian Decolonisation by David Fettling

Encounters with Asian Decolonisation

by David Fettling

Australian Scholarly Publishing

ISBN 978-1-925588-13-2

Reviewed by PETER GIBSON

Encounters with Asian Decolonisation compels us to rethink Australia’s place in Asia’s past through the work of individual Australian government officials in Asia after World War Two. In this first book for David Fettling, which is based on a PhD dissertation completed at the Australian National University, he highlights a disjuncture between Australian ‘ideology, ingrained ideas and assumptions on the one hand’ and these officials’ ‘first-hand experience and “learning” on the other’ (232). He thus contests prevailing historical scholarship on Australia-Asia interaction during this period, which emphasises Australian animus towards Asian decolonisation.

The book centres on the work of Richard Kirby, Francis Stuart, Tom Critchley, Keith Officer and John Burton. These men acted on behalf of the Australian government in diverse roles and in different locations released from colonial control at the end of World War Two: current-day Indonesia, Malaysia, China and India. All left a rich government archival record behind them, the basis for Fettling’s account.

After an opening chapter on popular Australian responses to Asia between 1930 and 1949, which provides background for ongoing comparison, the book delves into the activities of the five individuals. In Chapters Two, Three and Five, dealing with Kirby, Critchley and Burton, Fettling depicts ardent advocates of decolonisation in Asia. Kirby, a judge appointed by the Australian Department of External Affairs in 1946 to find the murderers of three Australian war crimes investigators in Tjaringin, Java, acted closely with Indonesian nationalists in this search for justice. Critchley, Kirby’s aide and then External Affairs successor in Indonesia, championed the Indonesian Republic, opposing the Dutch through the UN in 1947 and 1948. Burton, Secretary of the Department of External Affairs over the period from 1947 to 1950, similarly supported Asian nationalism, appearing perhaps most notably at a 1949 New Delhi conference of non-Western countries as the only delegate who identified as ‘European’ (188). These three men, according to Fettling, largely, but not entirely, defied the ‘racialist baggage’ of their era to become agents of change in Asia and Australia (229). In Chapters Four and Six, however, which explore the work Stuart and Officer, Fettling describes reluctant proponents, yet proponents all the same, of Asian decolonisation. Stuart was attached to the Australian Commission in Malaya and took part in what he saw as a hopeless British campaign against Communists on the Malay Peninsula between 1947 and 1950. He advocated a transition from colonial administration to a limited nation-state arrangement in Asia. Officer, who was the Australian Ambassador to China between 1947 and 1949, also supported a restricted form of Asian nationalism that protected the interests of the West. These two men, Fettling contends, indulged in regular stereotyping of Asians, yet simultaneously performed their duties in a way which recognised, in the words of Stuart, ‘how the world had changed’ (230).

The book’s principal strength is its use of biography. By following the deep archival footprints of five people, Fettling is able to compose an authoritative and absorbing historical narrative. The authority of this approach lies in its allowing him to interrogate overarching thought on a personal level and tease out discrepancies with which to contest other scholars’ assumptions about this period. This technique, often referred to as ‘microhistory’, has also been deployed effectively in landmark works such Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms. Fettling’s biographical sketches are absorbing, too, because they enable the reader to experience events of the time through the hopes, fears, realisations, reservations, satisfactions and frustrations of individuals, rather than through abstract concepts.

Yet, the use of biography is a weakness as well. Indeed, the subjects of Fettling’s inquiry are representative and relatable only to a point. All were male, educated, literate and articulate, coming from middle- and upper-class families, employed in desirable government positions, and all of Anglo-Australian ancestry. As such, the implications of their work and their appeal to a general readership are finite. The men’s activities in Asia often also seem to obscure the central drivers of decolonisation in Asia, Asians, who have been extensively marginalised in Australian histories until recently. This is not only somewhat disconcerting, but it also makes Fettling’s approach seem odd in that most microhistories are intended to revive overlooked groups of the past, or those ‘passed over in silence, discarded or simply ignored’ as Ginzburg calls them: groups of which Fettling’s subjects were not members.

On the whole, nevertheless, Encounters with Asian Decolonisation is a significant, stimulating addition to historical scholarship on Australia-Asia engagement. We should look forward to David Fettling’s forthcoming autobiographical work, Transit: Travels in South-Eastern Asia. Details about this book and other food for thought can be found at <ahref=”https://davidfettling.com/”>https://davidfettling.com/

Notes

1. I thank Feng Zhuqin for helpful advice on drafts of this review.
2. Ginzburg, Carlo. The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul 1980.
3. Ibid., xiii.

PETER GIBSON is a PhD candidate at the University of Wollongong. His thesis is about Australia’s Chinese furniture industry in the period between 1880 and 1930. He has published in the Australian Economic History Review, Labour History and Chinese Southern Diaspora Studies. He is passionate about bringing unheard voices into the narrative of Australia’s past.

Yunhe Huang translates Fan Zhongyan & Li Qingzhao

Fan Zhongyan (989-1052) was a Chinese statesman, writer and philosopher of the Song dynasty. A significant portion of his career was spent working on China’s defences along the North-western border, which inspired the theme of loneliness in his writings. His best-known poems contrasted his experience of solitude and homesickness with a sense of duty to his country and people.

 

 

 

Li Qingzhao (1084-1151) lived during the Song dynasty and was considered one of the most accomplished woman poets in Chinese history. Many of her poems intimately reflect her experiences of love, loss, fear and uncertainty living in a war-torn China.

 

 

 

 

Reminiscence
Fan Zhongyan (989-1052)


碧云天,
黄叶地,
秋色连波,
波上寒烟翠。
山映斜阳天接水,
芳草无情,
更在斜阳外。

黯乡魂,
追旅思。
夜夜除非、
好梦留人睡。
明月楼高休独倚,
酒入愁肠,
化作相思泪。


Nostalgia in Autumn
Fan Zhongyan


纷纷坠叶飘香砌,
夜寂静,
寒声碎。
真珠帘卷玉楼空,
天淡银河垂地。
年年今夜,
月华如练,
长是人千里。

愁肠已断无由醉,
酒未到,
先成泪。
残灯明灭枕头欹,
谙尽孤眠滋味。
都来此事,
眉间心上,
无计相回避。




Slow Song
Li Qingzhao (1084-1151)

怎一个愁字了得!
寻寻觅觅,
冷冷清清,
凄凄惨惨戚戚。
乍暖还寒时候,最难将息。
三杯两盏淡酒,
怎敌他、晚来风急?
雁过也,正伤心,
却是旧时相识。

满地黄花堆积,
憔悴损,如今有谁堪摘?
守着窗儿,
独自怎生得黑?
梧桐更兼细雨,
到黄昏、点点滴滴。
这次第,





Yellow-leafed earth.
On the autumn-tinted river,
A green mist floats the waves.
Under a sky merging into waters,
Hills frame a glorious sunset.
The grass stretches endless
Into the sun and sky.

Home-yearning soul,
Travel-weary heart.
Dreams, my only refuge
Through these endless nights.
The moonlit balcony is not for the lonesome traveller.
When the wine reaches my sorrow-stricken heart,
It turns to tears of longing.







Blue clouded sky,
Leaves fall on paved steps.
In the tranquil night,
I hear broken whispers of the cold.
Curtains open, I linger alone on the balcony.
The Milky Way drapes low across a pale sky.
Every year on this night,
The moonlight a silk ribbon
Stretching thousands of miles.

My heart is stricken beyond a drunken cure.
Before wine reaches my lips,
It had already turned to tears.
Watching the lamp flicker as I lean on my pillow,
I have long understood the taste of sleeping alone.
It hovers between my brows and drifts across my heart,
Refusing to be pushed away.






Empty solitude,
Bleak misery,
Despair.
I am restless as the warmth makes way for the cold.
A few glasses of wine,
No defence against the evening wind.
Wild geese fly past my heavy heart,
My old acquaintances.

Petals collect in my garden,
Wilted gold. Long past their prime.
Standing by the window,
I have no courage to face the black night.
Tiny raindrops fall among silent trees,
Dripping and drizzling into twilight.
Everything becomes one word:
Sorrow.






 

Translator’s note

I have selected three ci poems from the Song dynasty under a common theme of coping with loneliness. The ci was traditionally a form of song, which later evolved into written poetry with a unique lyrical quality. In order to capture the musical quality of these poems, I used a more liberal approach in my translation and re-created them in a more contemporary style using the English language. My aim was to show the rhythm of language in these poems, which is often lost in traditional literal translations of classical Chinese poetry. I had chosen to de-emphasize the exotic setting of these poems in my translation in order to highlight loneliness as a human condition common across all cultures. In particular, Li’s poem reminded me of English-language confessionalist women poets, and the form and language used in the translation was intended to reflect that similarity.

 

Yunhe Huang is a Chinese writer based in Australia. She has written poetry and prose in both Chinese and English, using a variety of genres from Song-dynasty ci to American confessionalist poetry. Translation has been her passion since childhood, with a special interest in translating poetry from Chinese to English. Her original poems have appeared in Dubnium.

Childhood Surprise by Wanling Liu  

Wanling Liu (born 1989, China) completed her MA in Translation and Transcultural Communication at the University of Adelaide. She is a literary translator and teaches translating and interpreting in Adelaide. She has developed a passion for performance poetry and storytelling events and has won spoken word prizes with her poetry published in local anthologies.

 
 
 
Childhood Surprise

It was nine o’clock at night. I was five and feeling bored at home, scribbling away with colourful pencils in my colouring book. There were never enough colours to choose from. I yelled out to Mum that I wanted to go to Mrs. Han’s to play with Huahua.

Mum glanced at the clock on the wall, “It’s already nine, and you still want to go out? And I don’t know the way to Mrs. Han’s.”

“I know the way! I know how to get there. I know how to get to Mrs. Han’s! You can come with me!” I persisted.

Mum sighed, “Fine, if you must go, let’s go.”

We took the No. 9 bus and after a few stops, I could see that we were almost on Zhongshan Road. “There, there, next stop is Triangle Garden!” I started yelling, “Triangle Garden is where Mrs. Han lives!”

Mum and I got off the bus and walked through the garden paths and a few dim-lit alleys until we reached Unit Block 3. “I remember she’s on Level 3, 303.” I said. Mum and I walked up the stairwell in darkness as the light was not working. When we reached level 3, I couldn’t wait to knock on the door.

The light from the gap between the door and the floor flickered. Someone was coming to get the door. The inner wooden door opened, glaring white light leaking out from inside. Mrs. Han appeared, with only her silhouette visible against the dazzling light. I dashed forward and banged on the door, “Mrs. Han, I am here to visit! Is Huahua home?”

Mrs. Han opened the door fully, and unlocked the screen door from inside. She smiled at me and didn’t seem very surprised. She called out, “Huahua, Dandan is here to visit you.” Mum nodded and smiled apologetically. Mrs. Han, still smiling, said “Hello.”

We walked into the living room. I sat right next to Huahua. On TV a group of kids were singing my favourite tune, “Not as sweet as flowers, not as tall as trees, I’m just a little blade of grass that no one ever sees….” We sat in front of the TV and watched attentively. Mum sat down, and Mrs. Han was busy making tea for us.

Half an hour had passed; I started to feel tired and bored. The songs started to grate on my ears. Mum and Mrs. Han were chatting away. My eyes started to wander: The fluorescent light was still dazzling, but everything in front of me seemed a bit dull.

Huahua offered to show me her picture collection, but realized there were a few pages missing. We started searching in drawers and chests. As we were looking for the missing ones, I noticed a yellow wooden door beside me with a silver door knob on it.

The doorknob lured me. The temptation was simply too great. I put my hand on the door knob and it turned effortlessly. Realizing I could open the door, I walked in. I could see a giant bed, with its edge high up and with a white sheet and a white quilt spread over it. Someone was lying under the quilt.

“Who is that?” I turned to Huahua, whispering, with my eyes still fixated on the person. Suddenly the black hair looked somewhat familiar. I hollered, “Daddy! What is Daddy doing here?” Huahua was silent. Mrs. Han did not utter a sound. My mum did not utter a sound.

After a few seconds, the head turned toward me, looking a bit purplish red, and with squinting eyes on it. The person mumbled, “I’ve drunk a little, I need rest.” Something felt wrong to me. I closed the door, went back to the living room, sat back on the lounge, and did not dare to speak.

Huahua, Mrs. Han, Mum and I just sat in the living room and watched TV for another half an hour. What was on TV did not make sense to me anymore. I felt like I had done something wrong, but I couldn’t figure out what.

Dad came out with his coat later and said, “Let’s go home.” I could not understand how the night got spoiled like this, and I was not ready to put up with this. I quietly whimpered, “I want to play with Huahua a bit longer”. Mum answered, “Then you stay and play with Huahua. I am going home. Your father can take you.”

Dad said, “It’s late, let’s go home.” On the way back, I felt sleepy and upset. No one spoke a word on the way back. Their faces showed no expression.  

I thought Mum would be furious. I thought Mum would teach Dad a lesson. I waited in silence in my bedroom, with my ear to the wall.

After a long while, all that could be heard was the faintest, almost inaudible sound of weeping.

Cyril Wong

Cyril Wong has been called a confessional poet, according to The Oxford Companion to Modern Poetry, based on his ‘anxiety over the fragility of human connection and a relentless self-querying’. He is the Singapore Literature Prize-winning author of poetry collections such as Unmarked Treasure and The Lover’s Inventory. A past recipient of the National Arts Council’s Young Artist Award for Literature, he completed his doctoral degree in English Literature at the National University of Singapore in 2012.
 
 
 
 
False Labours: Eight Immortals Passing Through

Knuckles on chest, leg under heftier leg:
how we get trapped under and cannot move.

I seem to weigh less every morning.
My tibia is Han Xiangzi’s flute

whittled from golden bamboo
and played with a broken heart; his lover

imprisoned by her father at the bottom
of an ocean. My bones are hollow music.

That owl-hoot of an old woman
breathing beats during qigong

is He Xiangu between gulps of vomit
discharged by mendicants; suffering

without suffering at the hands of her mistress.
A meme of a baby swaddled by a mother’s shirt

and calming down mightn’t be about love
but about the bliss of repetition:

tenderness for what feels like nothing new.
Lan Caihe floats between genders over a basket

of flowers down a river of flux, a shoe
fallen off. Neither young nor old. Perpetual

child on the inside. Spirituality is a state
of mind as timeless, selfless affection.

You tell me how Sufis danced, rooted to the source.
My fingers do the flamenco across your waist.

After riding for a thousand li, Zhang Guolao
folds his donkey into a box or one of his pockets.

He declined invitations from emperors. I sit
all day at home beside you, staring into space.

Han Zhongli is like Budai with a fan,
fanning stones into gold and into stones again.

I imagine poems are pebbles in my skull
unloaded onto these pages, where they become

pebbles of gold. Lü Dongbin, multi-hyphenate—
poet-drinker-swordsman-seducer—could be

Guanyin re-animated, re-emanated. I’m not
handsome like him, but I’m your baby in the dark.

Together, dim shape our bodies make is protean:
bag of rocks, mountainous terrain, discrete forms again.

In daylight, I remember you as ex-civil servant
but with only a towel to wrap your nakedness

before your gods on the altar, rudraksh beads
dripping from your wrist; covert prayers

chasing each other across your lips. What you
remind me of on a dry-iced stage inside my head:

Cao Guojiu in officious robes, even as an immortal;
after handing his riches to the poor for a brother’s sins.

Giving everything and gaining more than everything
in return. The stories the same: everyone flew

post-hermitage and upon private cultivation;
once realising that what they had to give up

was nothing at all. Truth as practice as awareness
as heavenward departure from cloudy conditioning.

I’m keen to fly beyond flying, like Tieguai Li;
suffering temptation, reborn disabled, a tramp.

(Are you surprised I relate to him most of all?)
Squatting quietly, irascible, mincing feelings

under a tree (I assume) before this recognition:
“All is farce, fuss-free, appearances, nothing

more.” Your stomach as resting gourd—replete
with medicinal serenity. Our life together

an iron clutch or vaulting pole I employed for lift-
off from shaky ground; hobbling free

of freedom, self, emotional fixities. Eight
immortals as eight-for-infinity; perhaps, Sufi-like

circularity. No more effort beyond love
without labour. How far from you I’ve been taken

towards Elysium without ever having moved at all.

 

Feng Shui

How beauty, as we come to know it, is shaped by our circumstances is something men (gay men even more so, I’d argue) are more likely to forget than women. What does this mean for our sense of self? Self-belief is so overrated we don’t register that what we feel we feel against our will when we desire or love. Even as we recognise the cliché in this, we remain subjugated by circumstance nonetheless. Knowing or seeing clearly is not freedom, not at first.

Other things shape us—our moods, our capacity for intelligent thought, our actions—and not as a result of when we perceive ourselves as pilots in cockpits, calling every shot. Move a chair here, unfold a screen there, paint three lines overhead, wear more blues or reds, remove plants, place a bowl of water in the corner: create the conditions for a better life, a more beautiful mind. Not that there is no autonomy whatsoever, but where does it end and the pinball machinations of circumstance begin?

Then even when we’re happy, is it our happiness (neural alignments, dopamine production, serotonin levels) that speaks or is it us? Since nothing we feel or do may be because of us, then everything can be manipulated to grant us what we need. So call our feng shui specialist today, so we can be cleverer, happier, more in love, healthier, etc. Or do nothing and just watch as everything falls apart or comes together—watch without judging ourselves or the circumstances that will ultimately pack our bodies into neat little boxes and tilt us into the crematory fire.

Wing Yau

Wing Yau was born and raised in Hong Kong and has lived in Australia since 2008. She enjoys re-discovering beauty and small things in life when she is not at work. Her writings have appeared in  Life Writing and 2412 Digital Chapbook, Peril and Gargouille.

 
 
 

Rooftop Chicken

My grandma said in the fiction of flying
everyone knows about the rooftop chicken,
who used to live on the top floor of buildings
in a place known as the Pearl of the Orient,
before its beauty was pilfered
by the Symphony of Light –

or so it’s called. Each time the chicken hopped
from one building to the next, their wings spread,
such is the pretext of flying on rooftop.
A mottled feather floated like an aria flowed
out of the prostitute’s window – a reward for us
who worked hard and dreamed with our heads low.
“It’s a symbol of good luck, if the feather got stuck
to your back on your way home.” But

Someone bridged the gaps between buildings
with power and concrete. The chicken now walked
from one roof to the next. Down in the wet alley
we still worked hard – washing dishes with sweat
and digging endless holes on dead-end roads .

Half intoxicated in the sunless heat
I asked my grandma about the chicken.
“They were chased away by the pheasants.
One by one they plunged off the concrete heaven,
eaten and forgotten.”  But how did the other
birds got up there in the first place?
Even my grandma did not know.

 

Hard to Think

Sweaty hair stuck on his forehead
as he sings with the muted tune on TV.
His lips do not sync with the screaming next door —
a human soundscape in Tagalog.
It is hard to think here – what he has
left behind: a room on Queen’s Road,
slithers of Victoria Harbour
between high-rises. Immigrants always
say they come here for a better life.

The corniced ceiling incongruent
with its unrelenting peeling plaster –
a fungal disease at the centre.
Underneath, the square holes for air
spotted with dead insects. When strong wind
blows, how many upturned bodies
it will take to make a chorus for the home-
coming concert? It’s hard to think.

Taped on the wall,
above where his head lies every night
a poster of an Asian woman –
Her naked honeyed back smooth
like a tune he hums in the shower.
Her face half-turned,
seducing no one in particular.
He spends more time studying
the trapped spider somewhere at the corner
of the wall than missing the women at home.
He finds it hard to think back –

To his left, the heel of yesterday barely scuffs
the wooden floorboard as it makes its way
to the backdoor. It sounds, he thinks,
like a yawn of a polite host.

The Aid Worker by Martin Kovan

Martin Kovan is an Australian writer of fiction, non-fiction and poetry, which in recent years has been published in major Australian literary journals, as well as in France, the U.K., U.S.A., India, Hong Kong, Thailand and the Czech Republic. He completed graduate English studies with the U.S. poet, Gary Snyder, at UC Davis. He is completing a PhD in academic ethics and philosophy, and has volunteered in humanitarian work in South East Asia.

 

The Aid Worker

Long lines of people stretch as far as the first palm-trees on the horizon. The trees bend to one side, as if under-nourished, or importuning the earth. You have fed and sustained us, our roots are in your soil, but we are wanting. We need more, earth. Can you offer it, have you more to spare? The aid-worker is employed with the ground crew, meeting those first come from over the border. She sees the beseeching trees, hovering at an incline over the vertical figures beneath, and knows the thought is an idle fancy, mingling between their hazy contours and her own mind. Trees don’t make appeals to the earth; trees are just trees, growing, giving forth flower and fruit, diminishing, then dying.

Like the people themselves, she thinks: the burgeoning, the plenitude, the slow demise. She can see the long lines of figures, often in single file, traversing the raised, dirt paths between paddies. Smooth planes of low-lying water are lit blankly by the morning sun: sheets of electric light that flash, off and on, but convey no clear message. It has been raining for days; now the sky is a sheer blue above them.

The people are diminished, and many are infirm. Even the newborns, clinging to the girls’ arms, have begun the journey from a place of deprivation. The aid-worker’s job is to ameliorate the worst of the suffering, as much as it is in her power to. And her power is not something to be dismissed; she can even offer a little more than the earth can. Where the refugees have come from, they had water, pigs, flour and small crops. They enjoyed some natural, earth-given bounty. But it wasn’t enough, once the killing started. They needed more, then, than nature can provide.

They need the provision of food, and formula for the newborns, ointments and antiseptics the young mothers can’t find in the villages, even the well-stocked and well-situated ones. The people need medical aid and supplies, but still more, the specialized attention which knows how to apply the aid in effective ways. A certain kind of attention, it would seem, that they have not cultivated themselves. For they are poor, and have grown used to being deprived of things most others take for granted.

So that when the aid-worker meets the first of the young women, many of them carrying babies, who after descending the mountain ranges of the border have toiled across the vast flat and watered plains to her encampment in the green-zone, she is made aware, not for the first time, that she is the specialist, with a specialist’s skills, tending to people who themselves lack them. The girls are bent under loads, weighed down with babies or young children on their hips. Many of them are too young to be mothers; they carry nephews and nieces, the children of elder siblings, women who, the aid-worker knows, have died of unnatural causes.

The aid-worker notices, as she touches the children for the first time, relieving the girls of their various burdens, how beautiful the women are. Their strong, limpid eyes glow from smooth-skinned faces—weary, worn, still warm with the exertion of days and weeks on the mountain-paths. The aid-worker is neutral beside them, even nondescript: her pale limbs are concealed by synthetic fabrics to protect against insects and the fierce tropical sun, gloves and sometimes disinfectant on her hands, to ward off malign microscopic intrusions.

In her dun clothing, she feels diminished next to these exhausted, exquisite women, loosely covered in bright-coloured clothing. Their arms and wrists are finely-boned, adorned with childish jewellery, their smooth, dark feet often bare. The breasts of those bearing babies are also left bare, given to the open air. The women have no self-consciousness; they might not care if they did.

But this is how things are on the border: rich with contradiction, and the aid-worker has grown used to it.

Later that night, after the young women, and those who have followed them, have been treated and given shelter, fed and properly clothed, the aid-worker goes to the common area outside a tent-enclosure. There she meets with some of her colleagues: doctors and nutritionists, nurses and anaesthetists. All are tired but satisfied with the progress of the day. On the margins of the compound the palms bend and sway lightly in a mild breeze, hoopoes call from the adjacent stand of forest where, some have said, wild animals can sometimes be seen—elephants and even panthers.

‘So long as it’s not guerrillas, from over the border,’ one of them says, a man’s voice, jocular in the night. No-one can drink here, but many smoke, especially the European doctors, who might pride themselves on their immunity from the usual weaknesses. They are as if the gods of the place, who have come in from on high, and wield benign power over their domain. ‘I have heard all kinds of noises, in the night. Unearthly, incredible things,’ the same man says.

A voice says, ‘It’s the wild pigs, routing for food’.

Another opines, ‘Spirit-guardians of the place, disturbed in their rest.’

‘Don’t be silly,’ says a woman with a brassy voice. ‘It’s sex in the jungle. The call of the wild.’

‘Rhea the realist,’ the man says. ‘Always the basic needs with Rhea.’

‘And so?’ Rhea asks, lighting her own cigarette. ‘That’s our job here, isn’t it, to find the most realistic solutions?’

‘Yes,’ he replies. ‘You’re right. We’re the opposites of dreamers. We’re guardians of earthly sleep who allow the others to sleep in peace. Without us, they’ll come to harm in the night, and die.’

Birds cachinnate in the tree-tops; from deeper in the scrub surrounding, there are sounds of movement.

‘That’s putting it a bit archly, isn’t it?’ says a younger voice, a godling, his English still inflected with ivied walls, a consciousness of its own facility. ‘We’re only human,’ he says. ‘We need to sleep as well, you know. Speaking of which.’

He gets up and stretches his legs, as if to retire.

‘Wait, my young friend, not so soon. Let me ask you. We need to hear your opinion.’ It is the first man, with his garrulous, deep voice.

‘Oh, really?’

‘You have an expertise we older ones seem to lack.’

‘What would that be, great Hector?’ he playfully replies. His tone is ironic in a way apt to be misunderstood.

‘So, is that how well you think of me?’

The younger man laughs, and stretches long limbs, looking up at the black of the sky, dusted with constellations. ‘I was just poking fun. Probably not the wisest thing to do with the greyback of the pack, is it?’

‘Probably not, Achilles. It might look like you’re trying to diminish my authority.’

‘You could imagine that, if you chose to. It doesn’t really matter, though, does it?’

‘What does matter, in your view?’ Rhea says, blowing out plumes of smoke. The group sit otherwise in silence on the border, as if awaiting a tribunal. The people who have come to them from the other place sleep now, it seems peacefully, under plastic roofs and between hessian walls. The rain has stopped falling, though it might start again tomorrow.

‘What I mean,’ Achilles says, ‘is that if we are merely serving our allotted roles, then it’s not up to us, is it? To make the decisions, to call the shots? Someone else is doing all that.’

‘Oh, God,’ Rhea murmurs. ‘No politics, please. It’s too late in the day.’

The older man speaks again, interested now. ‘As if we were just—what? Puppets?’ Hector says, and makes a snorting sound. ‘You really are undermining my authority now!’ he says again, coughing on his cigarette.

‘Well, maybe we are. You just called me Achilles, after all. But my name is Tom.’

‘I’m sorry, Tom. Achilles seems to suit you better. I don’t know why.’

‘Exactly—I don’t know why I said it. Maybe someone else made me do it. I don’t know, I’m confused. I’m sorry, I have to sleep. Good night.’

‘And your advice, you’ll deprive us of that?’

There is an uncomfortable silence while those who have remained wait for his answer. But none is forthcoming. Tom, or Achilles, lifts his hand weakly to them, before departing the company.

***

The next day there is, as there always is, a lot to do. It is raining, and many of the lower-lying tents are inundated. Many of the people are sick, with flu and infections. The eyes of many of the older ones are inflamed with filmy sores. The children’s noses run, and because the people spit phlegm everywhere they go, illness moves fast. Some of those who have been more badly injured in crossing the mountains, who have met with mines, or whose wounds are too far advanced, must have limbs amputated.

Many others can barely walk and require crutches or wheelchairs, in short supply out here in the field. The latrines, too, are overwhelmed with use; food that has been prepared in rudimentary kitchens gathers flies, and children eat it sloppily, with their hands. Some of the older ones refuse to eat at all, as if they distrust food that has not come from the village, because it is foreign to them.

It is while she is talking with the interpreter, in the course of processing some new arrivals, that the aid-worker hears of a rumour. It has begun making the rounds of some of the refugees. The interpreter tells her of some of the first arrivals from a remote, lesser-known village, visited with massacre early in the outbreak of violence. They have recognised one of the newcomers: a young man, with a wound on his brow, who is generally silent and receives food and treatment without thanks. The aid-worker has come across him, but she has thought he is still in shock, the witness to events a teenager should not see.

‘No,’ the interpreter says. ‘They say he was one of the group of attackers—young men armed with machetes and knives. They came before dawn and left only those here now still alive.’ He has infiltrated the refugees, the interpreter says, to escape retribution over the other side, and to disappear on this.

‘He has slightly lighter skin,’ he says, ‘not as dark as theirs. He’s probably a half-caste.’

The words in the interpreter’s mouth are strangely of another time; he would probably have to describe himself as a half-caste as well, applying an old, foreign language to the people to whom he belongs, the once-colonised. But he has been away, in the West, and returned; he is one of a new class who are entitled to old words for ambiguous things.

‘They are fleeing,’ he says, ‘because they were never welcome.’ It is right that they should leave, he thinks, and return to the places they came from—just as the colonisers did. No-one likes having foreign interlopers on their native soil.

‘Have you spoken to him yourself?’ the aid-worker asks.

The interpreter shakes his head. ‘Not a good idea. If the others see me doing that, they’ll trust me less.’

‘Yes,’ she says. ‘But you’ll need to come with me, and report it. It will be confidential.’

In the afternoon, the aid-worker sees Tom, the young intern, working in the camp-area where the teenage refugee has been assigned. Tom tells her he’s seen nothing strange in the boy’s behaviour. ‘He sits quietly. Eats when he’s fed. Doesn’t talk to anyone.’

‘Some of them think he’s from the enemy side,’ she says. ‘Lured by the military…probably with favours. They think he’s a machete boy.’

‘He’s got the right kind of injury for that,’ Tom says. He’s cleaning hypodermic equipment, needles and syringes. ‘I treated him myself.’

‘Stay with him, Tom. Watch how he interacts. What the others say.’

‘OK. You’ll tell the chief, then?’

She nods. ‘Unless he’s heard already.’ The aid-worker leaves Tom alone with his equipment, and returns to the women who are under her charge. She tells the interpreter they might have to get the boy out of there at any moment.

‘Then I’ll have to go with him,’ he says. ‘There’s no-one else who can speak his language.’ Nor is there anyone who knows the people as well as he does.

‘What would they do?’ she asks him. ‘If they were able to?’

‘You don’t know?’ the interpreter says.

She doesn’t answer him. She’s spoken casually, as if they are discussing a revision of the roster. The women see him nod his head, and leave the aid-worker alone again. They wonder if the white woman and the dark man, almost as dark as they are, and so informal with each other, are in the privacy of their separate places secretly lovers. Where they come from, that would be reason enough for fear.

But under cover of darkness, where the staff gather to speak of the day’s events, such a thing seems more possible, and even the fear something to surmount. There is always escape, after all. The question of the teenage boy is broached, eventually, by Tom.

‘We ought to evacuate him, tomorrow,’ he says. ‘Anywhere but keep him in the camp.’ No-one speaks while the question hangs in the dense, humid air. It might rain again, that night; if it does, it might not stop for days.

The head of operations takes this in, calmly. He has begun, now, to smoke cigars; the aromatic smoke loops among the loose circle, sitting in a darkness filtered by the artificial light of lamps coming from nearby tent-enclosures. ‘I need my people here,’ he says. ‘We don’t have the resources to send people off on goose-chases.’

‘It’s a question of safety, not goose-chases,’ Tom says. ‘Can we afford that?’

‘You again. My friend Achilles. The humanitarian of high repute. No-one disagrees with you.’

‘I can go tonight, then.’

‘You can stay here, with everyone else.’

‘I’d prefer not to.’

Hector lifts his heavy eyebrows. He sighs. ‘We’ve been tasked to help these people, medically. That means all the people. It doesn’t matter where they’ve come from, or what they’ve done before. We’re not here to judge people for alleged crimes. We treat their bodies and their minds. We’re tasked to save their lives, not to spirit them to secret locations in the middle of the night. No-one knows who this boy is. It might be just a rumour. These people are half-crazed, in shock. They don’t know what they’re talking about. The boy with the machete wound will stay here. I’ll see to him myself. No-one will dare to touch him then.’

‘You don’t know what you are talking about, Hector,’ the young intern says. ‘We train their armies. We sell them the guns.’

‘And so? What’s that to us? We can’t decide how they use them. We’re only here to keep them alive, if we can.’

‘If he stays in the camp he’ll be killed within days.’

‘Who asked you for your advice? Did anyone?’

‘Actually, they did. You did. But I’m just an intern. My job is to learn from you.’

‘Well, in that case,’ Hector says, ‘I have something to teach. If I hear more disrespect from you I’ll throw you across that border just over there, and leave you to the hospitality of that guerrilla army you probably sympathise with. You probably imagine they are your friends in the moral fight, because you are a nice, intelligent boy. But they’ll put you in a cage, feed you rotten birds and mice, and make you shit in your clothes. Do you understand? Then they’ll call me on their mobile-phones and demand I give them half a million bucks from our overflowing coffers, before sending you back to me. And I won’t hesitate—after hesitating just a little. Because I’ll ask myself, is clever Achilles worth that much? There are plenty like you, from your fancy colleges, that I can pick out of the pool any time, and maybe Achilles is really dispensable, maybe his privilege means nothing, and he is only a little scrap—a scrap of pretentious crap. Do you like the sound of that, Achilles, or Tom, or whoever the fuck you are? Do you like that—how literary it is? Now go and sleep your precious sleep of the intern, knowing as you always have that there are those who are more powerful than you who can be trusted to protect you and take care of you, should you come to harm from the wild animals of the night.’

Hector puffs furiously on his cigar and he really could be blowing hurricanes of wrath across the millennial heavens. ‘I’ll see you tomorrow, young man. You’ll come to my quarters, at a time to be decided. For now, you are suspended from further duties. Now get lost, get out of here.’ He raises himself from his camp-chair, and throws the half-smoked cigar into the murky edge of the enclosure. But as soon as the younger man is gone, he smiles desperately. ‘Well, that was a bit of fun, wasn’t it? You all enjoyed that, didn’t you?’ Hector’s voice trembles, he is embarrassed by his outburst, and looks like he might break into tears. ‘A good thing it’s all play-acting, as he says,’ he adds.

‘I think it’s time you took a rest,’ Rhea says.

‘I do too, my dear,’ he says, relieved at his rescue. ‘What do you have in mind?’

‘Why don’t you come to my tent, and I’ll let you know there?’

An expansive, celestial smile traverses his broad Olympian features. ‘For real?’ he says, his eyes dilating with regained power.

‘As real as it gets,’ she says, stubbing out her cigarette.

 

In the morning, the interpreter visits the aid-worker again. ‘I was with the villagers just now,’ he says. ‘More than one of them remember him. It’s no mystery to them. He’s probably an orphan. Should I speak to him?’

‘Are they talking with any others? People from the other villages?’

‘Not as far as I can tell. But they will, when things get restless. As they’re bound to do.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘They always do, don’t they?’ he smiles. ‘Why don’t we go to lunch,’ he adds. ‘You’ve been working hard enough.’

But the aid-worker decides to stay in, and write her own account of events. In a lined notebook she writes of the cloying air, the mosquitoes, the sense of moist inevitability, seeping into everything. She is waiting for the rain to break, again, like a new mother with her waters. There is water everywhere, in her picture of things.

The picture includes the interpreter, the machete boy, and Tom, and the portentous leader of their crew, like figures in a film. But not herself, she stands outside it: to herself, she is just a worker, an aid-worker, in a place of need, and of privation. Everyone needs her; but no-one really needs her. Most of the people there barely remember, or even know, her name. Even in a fiction she would probably go nameless.

Like the interpreter, and the machete boy, who are perhaps her confreres. If she ran away with the interpreter, she wonders, would they set up a life together, somewhere, with the machete boy as an adopted son? There’s no reason why not, she thinks, it would be an acceptable outcome.

In her world, however, it would be a make-believe. What would she say to the suspected killer, a teenager with blood on his hands, and whose language she doesn’t speak? Would he care what she has to say, any more than anyone else would?

When she goes on rounds of the different wards, she takes care not to look in on the boy. No attention should be drawn to him. She agrees with Tom, and would help him make the escape, if anyone asked. But no-one asks her what she thinks, not even the interpreter. They expect her to do her job, dimly, as befits her bland and mousy appearance. Like someone in a lab, or a primary school, or a factory, doing a dim and minor job that few others want to do. She decides to go and find the interpreter, and take him up on his offer of lunch.

The interpreter is meeting with the teenager in his corner of the camp. Nor can she find Tom, who has been taken off work and is confined to his camp quarters. It is only after nightfall, when the electric lamps begin to come on, and candles are burning among the bivouacs of the refugees, many of whom prefer to sleep outside, that she hears there has been a disturbance.

One of the women comes to her, still wearing the ragged clothes of her journey over the mountains. She points briefly to her chest and shakes her right hand in a fluid, dismissive motion: there is something wrong with the heart, hers or another’s the aid-worker can’t tell. The woman looks quickly back over her shoulder, and points towards the authorised area of camp administration and central quarters.

The aid-worker goes there and among the doctors’ inner circle meets Rhea, regally taking control of the crisis. She gathers that someone has died: the head of operations, the hero Hector, found dead in his bed. She is not alarmed by the news. No-one has seen anything, there is no evident injury, he might have had a heart-attack.

But she is not so sure. Why would a healthy man in his prime, smoking cigars with a flourish only the night before, suddenly die without any sign? Rhea suggests that the aid-worker return to work, a meeting will be convened later. Returning to her designated wards, she sees the interpreter rushing up to her. ‘I can’t find him anywhere. The boy. He’s gone.’

She takes hold of his arm. ‘The head is dead,’ she says.

The interpreter nods, still breathless. To him it seems a clear thing, to make the obvious inference.

‘But there’s no sign,’ she reminds him. ‘No blood, no wound, nothing even broken. No machete blows.’

‘People can be strangled,’ he says. His hair is awry and sweat beads on his face, as if he’s been running, wildly, in circles, like someone searching for the end of a labyrinth.

‘He was found in a deep repose.’ The words coming from her mouth are as if spoken by someone else, she is sure she has never used the word repose before, it seems completely alien to her.

***

When Tom has entered the head tent he is already well-armed and mentally prepared, it is not at any arranged hour, it is premeditated but spontaneous and the head of operations is still in his bed, waking from a nap, he is surprised in his domestic repose, an intruder in his sanctum, and the boy, the intern boy, like Achilles with his spear, coming in without warning as if to surprise him in his sleep, and Hector says, ‘Who do you think you are coming in like that?’

‘You called, and I had nothing else to do,’ Achilles tells him.

‘I am still in my bed,’ Hector says. ‘You have not been invited here.’

‘I believe I was. But you can stay there, it is better that way.’

‘Better for what? For whom?’

‘Better for you, and for all of us,’ Achilles repeats, his normally calm eyes adjusting to the weak light of the sunken place. ‘Not much of a place to die, Hector. You probably had better plans for yourself. Instead of rotting in an obscure grave, on the border of someone else’s civil war, none of your business after all, just here to save the sick and disenabled, the ones who can’t save themselves. The irony, doctor, is that you can’t save yourself either. No-one can save you, now. Don’t worry, it will be swift and almost without pain. The only pain will be in leaving. In leaving this place of privation. Returning to your abode of the gods.’

Achilles lifts the large syringe held down by his side and quickly plunges the needle into the chest of the other man, its full dose of hydromorphine discharged directly into the heart.

‘And there will be no mark to show,’ Achilles says. ‘Maybe just a little blood, but I’ll clean it up. Barely a surface wound.’ Hector lies still in the bed, a large smile gradually transforming his face, that could come from a final wound of pride.

‘You are good, Tom. I could trust you after all, to do the right thing. Now go back to work, and leave me.’

Achilles looks down at him for a moment longer.

‘One day you’ll be where I am now,’ the doctor says. ‘And you’ll know that it’s right, like this.’ Achilles takes a last look at the doctor before leaving his sunken tent. The sun is high again, outside; the paddies stretch away in every direction. He can hear the noise of people, preparing food, moving from place to place. There are people talking, with urgency, engaged in life. There are still all the others to save, and those not to. Only a god can know how to choose between them, he thinks.

But Tom, or Achilles, as he has said, is only a kind of functionary, so he could not be expected to know. As he moves towards the people, he sees the aid-worker coming towards him. ‘I need you to do something for me,’ he says to her. ‘Can you help?’

The aid-worker nods, looking past him.

Motive by HC Hsu

HC Hsu is author of the short story collection Love Is Sweeter (Lethe) and essay collection Middle of the Night (Deerbrook), which has been nominated for the Housatonic Award, CALA Award and Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature. Memoir competition winner and The Best American Essays nominee, he has written for Pif, Big Bridge, Iodine, nthposition, 100 Word Story, China Daily News, Epoch Times, Words Without Borders, and many others. He has served as interpreter for the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China, and his translation of 2010 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo’s biography Steel Gate to Freedom was published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2015.

 

Motive

When she arrived, he was already sitting at the table.

‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘I got held up at work.’

‘That’s all right,’ he said, and smiled. It was their usual table, and on it her favorite wine had already been poured, the candle lit, and everything was so familiar and wonderful.

He handed her his napkin, smiling.

She noticed her hair dripping water onto the table, making small wet spots on the white tablecloth.

She took the napkin and patted her hair with it. The waitress already arrived with another napkin.

‘Sorry.’

‘That’s all right.’

He looked gently and lovingly into her eyes. He was always so considerate and forgiving.

She excused herself to go to the restroom. The waitress cast her a glance.

She checked herself in front of the mirror.

Did he know? All of a sudden she became scared.

How could he not know? The constant lateness, the flimsy excuses, the hair still wet from a shower…everything was just as she had planned.

She thought about coming clean, but she had done that already before. He said he appreciated her even more for her honesty, and that he should work to try to rekindle the romance between them, and so they began having weekly dates. How could she leave someone so considerate and forgiving?

She walked back to the table. Her wine was still sitting there, the candle still soft-lit, and he, still smiling.

She took a sip of the wine; for some reason the astringency made her wince this time, as if she were enduring some kind of punishment.

‘I took the liberty of ordering for you this time,’ he said, his smile overflowing exuberantly from his eyes. ‘I hope you don’t mind.’

She began to suspect his motive.

 

 

Jenevieve Chang reviews Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang

Sour Heart

by Jenny Zhang

Penguin 

ISBN 9780399589386

Reviewed by JENEVIEVE CHANG

“We hate soft peaches. We hate soft, sweet peaches and we love hard, sour plums,” mother tells daughter in “We Love You Crispina”, the first story in Jenny Zhang’s tender, brutal and deceptively artless Sour Heart, a collection of narratives about the immigrant experience that unfolds in the serpentine sentences of a child’s retelling, in all its vulnerability and unfettered access to primal love, pain and loss.

But of course, there is no universal “immigrant experience” and where Sour Heart succeeds is in the specificity of detail Zhang gives to time, place and context. In all seven stories, we are in New York in the 1990s (with the exception of “Our Mothers Before Them” that leaps back and forth to China’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s), following episodes in the lives of recently arrived Chinese families soon after the Tiananmen Square massacre. The fathers and mothers are themselves artists, filmmakers, writers and poets whose youth and careers and family bonds have been prematurely cut down by the Mainland’s bloodshed, flinging their lives over to the USA in the hope of rebuilding what had been lost, and what might still be restored.

More often than not, dreams splinter and corrode. In “We Love You Crispina“, the narrator’s parents are reduced to pushing their Oldsmobile into the Harlem River after it breaks down when they don’t have the money to tow it into a junkyard, and later resort to dumpster diving and selling casino chips at inflated prices to unsuspecting elderly people. In “My Days and Nights of Terror”, the narrator is forced to watch her mother’s lone figure standing on a highway recede further and further into the distance after her father pushes her out of the car during a rare road trip, as if the sudden taste of leisure was too much for the nuclear unit more accustomed to the constant rut of toil. In these stories, the bewilderment of the child is ever present navigating strange worlds and even stranger adults and the blurred boundaries between cultures and time and place and bodies – where the plains of one end and another begins, as the theatre of familial love plays out with crippling ferocity.

At night, if I was itchy, my mom would scratch my left leg and my dad would scratch my right leg while I slept with double protection – I wore oven mitts on both my hands…In the mornings, my parents woke up with blood underneath their fingernails, dried and dark as a scab even though I was the one who had been wounded. (17)

Zhang has been described as a 21st century Whitman, only female, Chinese and profoundly scatological, and certainly the body – in all its vomit and shit and snot – figures largely in Zhang’s unique lyricism. The way her characters experience the trauma in their lives play out as both physical and psychological secretions, in glorious, grotesque and sometimes shocking ways. There is the minutiae of grinding desperation in “We Love You Crispina” where Christina’s family uses the toilet in the Amoco station across the road if they wanted to take “a big dump…and if more than one of us felt the stirrings of a major shit declaring its intention to see the world beyond our buttholes, then we were in trouble because it meant someone had to use our perpetually clogged toilet…and we would have to dip into our supply of old toothbrushes and chopsticks to mash our king-sized shits into smaller pieces since we were too poor and too irresponsible back then to afford even a toilet plunger.” There is the insecurity of friendship in “The Empty the Empty the Empty” when Lucy and best friend Francine spend their afternoons sticking their fingers inside each other’s vaginas and supplementing their Grade 4 pre-sex sex education classes with their own practical experiment by tying up a Chinese girl called Frangie who has recently lost her mother to cancer and trying to force Lucy’s boyfriend – a hapless 9 year old called Jason Shrimpson – to have sex with her. There’s the elaborate Spanish villa constructed entirely of Annie’s uncle’s boogers on a wall in “Our Mothers Before Them”  its forced demolition leading to a critical stand-off between parent and child in the high stakes situation of the Cultural Revolution. Zhang seems to relish and find ever more inventive ways in which the voluntary and involuntary ruptures of the body gives voice to moments that language itself could never do justice to express the internal rupturing of a child who witnesses the previous generation’s sacrifice and dissolution.

So many migrant stories focus on the violence inflicted by a hostile, dominant culture towards a marginalised one. This is not the case in Sour Heart. These stories are about the violence within cultures – within the Asian-American community, and more notably, within the Chinese diaspora. Jenny Zhang doesn’t preoccupy herself with the single thread of a binary Anglo/Asian divide. The cumulative power of this book lies in its visceral portrait of how being part of a minority stifles, distorts, bruises and tangles from the inside.

In “The Evolution of My Brother”, the narrator Jenny (and possibly the character whom the author most identifies with, given the identical name) points out, while her parents were “people to be saved” because they’d had little more than the hardboiled eggs they’d stuffed into their pockets when they’d first arrived in America from Shanghai… “I didn’t want to be saved…I wanted to be free to be selfish and self-destructive and indulgent like the white girls at the high school my parents worked so hard to get me into.” It is this tension between the fierce lovingness of family who sacrifice their all to provide for their children in a new land, and the fiercer act of forgetting that necessarily follows for the next generation to supposedly reap the benefits of what’s been sown – the cruel dance of assimilation – that arcs through these seven tales like an arrow shot through glass. The sharp fragments of this one theme refract with varying opacity under the author’s unflinching inspection. In the same story where Jenny overlooks the six months’ salary it cost for her parents to send her on a study opportunity to Stanford because she longs “to be part of a family that wasn’t mine,” her growing absence gradually estranges her little brother from her until what had once been an inseparable sibling attachment grows into a gulf that can only be bridged with bribery: a few dollars for every five minutes on the phone with his big sister.

Perhaps the most affecting of the stories is “Why Were They Throwing Bricks?” about a grandmother who craves the love of her grandchildren but is only able to travel to America intermittently to visit them, often overstaying her visa. Each time she has to endure the ignominy of being a little more forgotten until one day her grandchildren literally resort to wrestling themselves out of her grasp. Barely literate, she begins to teach herself to write so that she can one day write a book about her grandchildren.

“The world needs to know about you two,” she said. For a moment, I was moved. But I knew if either of us had any chance of growing up into the kind of people that other people in this world would want to know about, we had to leave her behind.  (252)

At the end of the story Stacey accidentally interrupts her grandmother’s sleepwalk and discovers her hidden childhood wound-  as a child, her grandmother watched her house burn down with her mother inside, while she and her father escaped. Our narrator admits – though she had always thought that she would remember that night, and be profoundly moved by it – this itself was just like a dream, the only thing remembered being the act of trying to remember. And as big and sweet as we like to think our hearts to be, as well as we try to align the compass of our intentions, perhaps this is the sourest truth of all: no matter what horrors we hear about, know about and brush up against – we go on with our lives. Some learning nothing or changing at all. Others striving forever harder to outrun the bitter horrors of the past, climbing the precarious ladder of upward mobility in a land far, far away from where we began.  
 
 
 
JENEVIEVE CHANG is an author, actor and story developer. She has created and presented shows in Berlin, London, Montreal, Vienna, Beijing, Shanghai and across Australia. Jenevieve’s memoir, The Good Girl of Chinatown reflects on her time living in Shanghai during the Global Financial Crisis as a showgirl in China’s first Burlesque Club. It was published by Penguin Random House in 2017 and has been described as a story where “heritage and hedonism collide.” The book is currently being developed into a TV series. Jenevieve has also worked as a development executive at Arclight Films and Screen Australia and will be playing Lady Capulet in Bell Shakespeare’s production of Romeo and Juliet in 2018.

Nadia Rhook

Nadia Rhook is a white settler historian, teacher, and poet, recently moved onto Whadjuk Noongar Boodja, WA. Her research is much inspired by her background in ESL teaching, and in 2016 she curated the City of Melbourne heritage exhibition Moving Tongues: language and migration in 1890s Melbourne. She’s published her poetry in Cordite and Peril Magazine, and is currently writing a book about Asian migration in colonial Melbourne, and researching the history of Vietnamese indentured labour.

 

The Greeting

a labourer met a merchant and now sense lives in a
capacious wood-split frame

Commercial Bank of  [The [ Murder ] Case ] Australasia

right angled souls, the insanity of capital, this
diary lightly conquers that banknote; pens fire, and ink’s
unfurled from grainy words to characters, firm, in silken thrum

Cantonese dances with halycon English and
meanings are unhinged, by pounds, and history’s odd limbs

Jong Ah Siug never shook Lowe Kong Meng’s hand so in this world
triumph translates into the daily timbre, of prison, & Pidgin, as if carved words
flew to be cut by razored ears, as if when
nothing’s level loss is telling stories like they’re only one

two men, clear in open sunlight beyond a grave’s lines and muddy amalgam, deposit
perpendicular pains, & pride, but

even after all tongues are untied
some walls remain more soundproof than others

don’t be fooled; it’s neither competition nor some hapless union
but a greeting, to incense the border’s gilded innocence

 

Artist statement: ‘The Greeting’ is written in response to the work of Hong Kong-born Australian artist, John Young. ‘The Meeting’ is an embroidery that layers the material history of the Chinese diaspora in 19th Century Victoria, in particular that of two men, a labourer, Jong Ah Siug, and merchant, Lowe Kong Meng.

The Meeting, John Young, 2015. Single thread hand-sewn embroidery 41 x 42 cm Image courtesy of Arc One Gallery, Melbourne

 

when a sound wells from belly to tongue

like water, goaded by neoteric force
choose me, says this word, and your soul may inflate, like
flattened grass, to understanding
산을 갑시다 …  어디?  설악산… 가자
and when you travel from throat to word I look to
the roaring sky and listen for movement, round
in a circle … til I find us by this
tributary of meaning
sounds fly, winged breath round temple rooves

climb …  산 …  listen

the river’s bemused. you flow past your syllables, and now
the river laughs … so? it’s your first time with
this word but I’ve heard it all before

 

t do

I caught sight of you in District 1, bold, purple, by
the curved façade of Louis Vitton

“tự do”, I said to my friend, recognizing you, even then
in the delicious pause of late morning, between
coffee and …  lunch

“tự do”, he said
trimming my elongated consonants
putting the Hà Nội ‘z-’ into my lazy Đà Nẵng ‘y-’
as if in trying to speak “freedom” I might just trap you in the wrong tone
and we’d be stuck browsing these boutique stores together forever
surrounded by silk and denim each pining for our true lovers

“đấu tranh giành tự do”, he said in his smoothest Saigon northern
accent, like this
was a word with status
and
in the middle of our sojourn down a Street named after that old French physician.
between the monosyllables
I heard
now, the fight for freedom’s a war against foreigners’ depraved pronunciation
I heard. Na ơi, my custard apple friend
for the next thirty seconds I’ll fight against your depraved pronunciation
and then I’m done. it’s up to you
to wield an accent
as shield as sword, but whatever you do

start.    by listening

I heard
tự do is not a sign, painted on a façade for my tongue’s twisted consumption. it’s
not a fad either. it’s a question mark and

it’s not my job to teach you that the laziest of tongues may twist
but it’s too late
you’d already showed me
the most important roads are lined    with tall words, struggle, fashion