[REVIEW] “Childhood Memories: A Review of Nina Mingya Powles, Tiny Moons” by Jennifer Wong

{Written by Jennifer Wong, this review is part of Issue 46 of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Tiny Moons- A Year of Eating in Shanghai

Nina Mingya Powles, Tiny Moons: A Year of Eating in Shanghai, The Emma Press, 2020. 96 pgs.

Tiny Moons: A Year of Eating in Shanghai—the award-winning writer Nina Mingya Powles’s latest book about food, home and belonging—is one that you can read and reread for pleasure, for empathy and self-renewal.[i] With original illustrations from the founder and publisher of The Emma Press, Emma Dai’an Wright, the book stems from a blog Powles kept a few years ago, and it traces her childhood memories of Chinese food and culture and her later travels in Shanghai as a student. Lyrical and nostalgic, Powles’s writing brings the reader into a world where memories of food, family and city collide.

In this memoir, Powles has established a wonderfully distinct voice: authentic, honest and full of warmth. A poet at heart, her writing is rich with refreshing imagery not just about her experiences with food, but her way of seeing and sensing the world. With her attentive and poetic language, she constantly brings to light the relationship between experiencing or assimilating a culture and one’s own interiority. Whether she is thinking of her childhood encounters with noodles, or her cooking classes (making zongzi) in Shanghai, there is a constant search for the meaning of home in food: “Home sickness comes in waves, sometimes leaving me reeling.”

For those who have lived in Hong Kong, the chapters on Powles’s trip to the city and her introduction to its street food and popular eats such as “Lo Mai Gai” so commonly found in Chinese dim sum houses are mesmerising:

As a child I was reluctant to try them, with their strange wet leaves and rich aroma. As an adult, the delicious smell won me over, along with everything it reminds me of: the sound of crowded dim sum restaurants, cups of jasmine tea, glowing custard tarts, my mother’s hands moving plates around the table, and afterwards sucking on the peppermints that came with the bill.

One of the most intriguing features of her work is the place-making and, in particular, her poetic narrative of urban life—the exuberant energy she finds in the urban landscape and its people but also its lingering sense of solitude: “Some days I speak to no one except-briefly-the baozi vendors and the friendly security guards outside the foreign students’ dormitory.”

In the book, Powles not only traces her journeys through Shanghai, but her experience of her home language(s): “For a long time I didn’t know what ‘Bo Luobao’ were called in English. My introduction to Cantonese, Mandarin and Hakka, the three languages my mother and her family all speak, was through food.”

Throughout the book, naming becomes a learning journey, where one constantly discovers new words and new ways to express oneself. Delving deep into the intricacy of the Chinese language, Powles demonstrates the myriad ways in which we can understand and assimilate language, and how being bilingual can offer glimpses into such different worlds, allowing one to explore or unearth the subtle differences between expressions. Local terms and expressions are sometimes spelt out the way they sound, such as the lady in a local cafe in Shanghai asking “‘Yao la ma?’ Do you want it spicy?” Sometimes, it is the imperfect translation in Chinese places that intrigues: “There are fewer people in the so-called ‘Western Canteen’ on the far side of the hall, where pizza and salads and steaks can be bought for almost three times the price of the Chinese meals.” Sometimes she lists out words in both English and Chinese, along with her original, witty translations:

huntun                 irregular-shaped dumpling

yuntun                 cloud-swallow

chaoshou             to fold one’s arms

Through tender observations and recollections of the different places where she grew up—she was born in New Zealand and has lived in Wellington, Kota Kinabalu and Shanghai—Powles explores one’s sense of solitude, the longing for friendships and personal space in big cities. For example, the painterly narratives of her friendships and encounters are refreshingly told, provoking the reader’s curiosity: views of the Huangpu River with a “a French boy with kind eyes” met through Tinder; her friendship with Katrin as they enjoy each other’s company in their food excursions in Shanghai; her memories of folding jiaozi on Jessie’s bedroom floor. These brief encounters and her keen self-introspection about her inner feelings and bodily sensations lead to discoveries about the necessity of self-knowledge and acceptance: “[t]o be half-elsewhere all the time, half-here and not-here. There are two sides of myself: one longing for the city, one at peace near the sea.” In writing about this solitude in Shanghai, Powles conveys with subtlety the many layers of identity an individual can have at the same time. The reader understands what it feels like to embrace a city—its foreignness and familiarity—and fall in love with a culture:

I ride my bike through the campus without once glancing behind me. It’s partly my white-passing privilege that affords me this feeling of freedom and safety, but I see many local students around me doing the same. I order my noodles and eat them in peace and, for a little while, I feel less like an outsider.

Intelligent, poetic and entertaining, Tiny Moons is at once an intimate, personal account of Chinese food that will make you crave dumplings and noodles, as well as a profound contemplation on the notions of cultural hybridity, emotional landscapes and belonging.

Note:

[i] Powles won the inaugural Nan Shepherd Prize for Nature Writing (2019) and was the joint winner of the inaugural Women Poets’ Prize (2018).

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Watts gallery portrait

Born and grew up in Hong Kong, Jennifer Wong is the author of Goldfish (Chameleon Press) and Diary of a Miu Miu Salesgirl (Bitter Melon Poetry). Her latest collection is Letters Home (Nine Arches Press 2020), which explores personal history, migration and translation. It has been named the PBS Wild Card Choice by Poetry Book Society. She studied in Oxford and UEA, and obtained a creative writing PhD from Oxford Brookes University where she teaches part-time. Her poems have appeared in World Literature Today, Oxford Poetry, Stand, The Rialto, Magma Poetry, Cha, Voice and Verse Poetry Magazine, among other places.

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