Currently based in Glasgow, Scotland, Sean Wai Keung has lived in places including London, Yorkshire and Norwich. His maternal grandparents migrated from Hong Kong in the 1950s and he remains close to his extended family in Sai Kung. His writing engages with Chinese food and culture in innovative ways, and his poetry embedded with questions of race and racial stereotypes. With humour and wit, Sean Wai Keung’s poems negotiate the uncanny spaces of racial and cultural hybridity. From different ways of looking at packaged ham to Skype conversations and tomb-sweepings ritual during Chung Yeung, his playful use of poetic language and forms serves as an act of performance and resistance against stereotypes. In this conversation, I talked to Sean about his poetic practice, his views on race and racial stereotypes, and thoughts arising from his recent pamphlet be happy.
ON HOME AND IDENTITY
Jennifer Wong (JW): What is your family background?
Sean Wai Keung (SWK): My family—my grandparents—came over here from Hong Kong after the Second World War, to live in Yorkshire, and I have lived in the UK all my life. I have been to Hong Kong a lot, staying with my family over there for months at a time. I have a lot of relatives there and go back whenever I can.
JW: Can we find out more about your family background and the languages you speak?
SWK: I speak very bad Cantonese. I don’t get to see my family in Hong Kong that much to speak Cantonese with them. I talk to my grandparents in Cantonese because they don’t speak English. They are still living in Yorkshire. My own parents speak English, of course. My mum is Chinese. She lived in Hong Kong for much of her childhood. My dad is English, and they met in Hong Kong, when he was working there.
JW: In general, how you see the meaning of home?
SWK: A lot of my poetry was trying to discover where my home was because it feels strange: even if I am in the UK I don’t feel particularly British because I was brought up in a mix of cultures. I don’t feel part of it most of the time, especially when I was in the less multicultural parts of the UK. In my writing I try to find a place where I can become more comfortable with myself.
JW: How do you see homeland?
SWK: The places where I feel most at home are places that are more multicultural. I feel much more at home whenever I visit Hong Kong, and I feel much more in places like London and Glasgow than elsewhere in the UK. To be surrounded by lots of different people and ideas. I feel like I’m in between places all the time.
I feel like in smaller towns where there are more singular cultures or more British culture, I feel uneasy. In places like London, Glasgow or Hong Kong, you get a bit of both worlds, you can experiment and experience more.
JW: Have you encountered any racism?
SWK: I think there’s a lot of racism… It doesn’t affect my work as much. People ask me why I don’t write directly about my ethnicity because they feel I have some responsibility to write about it. But that’s not what I want to write about, not what I am interested in. I want to focus on my immediate experience.
JW: Do you show or share your writing with your family? How do they see your writing?
SWK: I don’t. It is too daunting. They know I write poetry and that I’m doing well. But they are not that interested in it.
ON WRITING STYLE AND POETIC FORMS
JW: You have a wonderful way of engaging with technology in your poetry.
SWK: Technology interests me. It has the power to connect people from anywhere in the world. At the same time, we are so disconnected from our surroundings. It’s all very new and exciting. For example, for my grandparents, they used to rely on sending letters home to communicate with their family in Hong Kong, whereas I use WhatsApp or Skype to communicate with people back home.
JW: Some of your poems in be happy adopt a distinctly hybrid style that straddles poetry and life writing/prose. What’s the concept behind adopting this original form and is that related to the concept of hybridity at all?
SWK: I enjoy exploring the middle ground between forms. I think overall the concept of taking something familiar and making it seem a little less familiar or a little bit different is one of the things that attracts me to art in general. By playing with form like that I hope to maybe make something a little different which reflect my experience of hybridity in daily life as well.
JW: In be happy and in your other poems, you have a bold, innovative way in using the lower case and punctuating your poems with symbols. What is the meaning or thinking process behind the adoption of such style (e.g. ‘+‘, no punctuation)? It also seems to me that your poems have an open ending to them.
SWK: I used to write a lot of my poems in longhand before typing them up but I have never been very good at handwriting as my thoughts always seemed to go too fast for my pen to keep up. Because of this sense of rushing I would often take shortcuts such as not bothering to use punctuation or writing a ‘+’ instead of an ‘&’ or ‘and’. I think because of this I would often type up poems in a similar way. Sometimes I would try to add punctuation but I think it changed the way my poems looked—I really liked the “cleaner” aesthetic of text with no punctuation. Recently, I’ve tried exploring more with punctuation and things such as using “and” again, but I am very careful with how and where I might use them.
JW: The first section of be happy is how to be authentic. Looking at “Tiger Woods” and “O.J. Simpson”, I wonder what does authenticity mean to you?
SWK: be happy is about being told how and in what way society tells you to identify yourself. Concepts such as happiness, authenticity—these are both things that we are told are important and necessary, but how do you define that? For me, authenticity is about trying to be true to how you feel, but when you look at people like Tiger Woods or O.J., you see that they tried to be very upfront about their own relationship to who they identify as and yet everyone else told them they were wrong. At the same time, they both attempted to project an image into the world of wholesomeness and friendliness while actually both being objectively bad people–—so maybe everyone who criticised them was right in some way? I wanted those poems to explore that.
JW: I am interested in the way your poems explore the intersection between race and class through humour and irony. For example, in “how can I help you”, which to me seems a poem that negotiates self-perception and explores the complex causes for that need for permission. Can you share more on your views towards this intersectionality?
SWK: Humour has often been the acceptable way for the underrepresented to put their issues out into the world. At the same time, it has often been the tool of the powerful against the underrepresented. If I say “working-class poetry/working-class comedy” many people will have a certain expectation there in the same way that “race identity poetry/race identity comedy” often has certain connotations. I once got told by a well-established American poet that some of what I was writing wasn’t poetry, it was jokes. That comment hurt me. Because I had always viewed humour as a way to give voice to issues and themes that had caused me pain the past. For me, it’s a way to present vulnerability without being the victim. It’s a seizing of a narrative that has been used against me and a way to use it against them, instead.
JW: Technology and digital space are very much part of the reality depicted in your poems (e.g. “follow me”). How is that related to your own life journey as a Chinese diasporic poet? How does that affect the way we experience proximity and distance?
SWK: Technology is fundamentally changing the relationship many people in diasporas have with place, I think. Back when my grandparents’ generation first migrated to the UK there weren’t many options for sending quick messages back to Hong Kong or to keep in contact with the state of society there, and I think that led to them holding onto certain ideas around their own identity.
For instance, things like arranged marriages or folk religious festivals were important in Hong Kong, because that had been their experience of it; they couldn’t see how Hong Kong society had moved away from those ideas itself. So now, with technology, my generation can connect with all parts of the world in a much quicker and more direct way. This includes being able to connect not only with the place of origin but also to talk with the diaspora in other cities and countries as well and to discover how things are the same or different. For me, this experience of opening up to a diaspora community beyond the individual place I live has been one of the greatest joys.
JW: In your poem “Vesta”, you are able to draw the reader’s attention to the food as an experience of nostalgia, as a way of consumption, and to deconstruct its packaging or its perceived value. Why do you want to write about food the way you do and what do you hope to convey?
SWK: I believe that food has traditionally been how society has experienced the cultures of “others” in any kind of semi-direct form. The food that people eat may not actually be “authentic”, but I think the choice to engage with any food which has been marketed as belonging to a certain culture or race is a huge part of bringing people together. Then there is also the fetishisation or generalisation of food and culture.
So I think that by exploring the relationship we have with food we enable conversations around race and culture and society which can include people from different backgrounds without necessarily accusing them or judging them.
“Vesta” was inspired by many conversations I had with older-generation white British people who had been very upfront about ready-meals being the first time they had attempted to engage with anything “Chinese” and how it was only from that experience that they then went on to learn more and explore more and change their opinions on migrants or race. It may have been a slow process, and it may not be a process that everyone goes through, but I believe in its power and I want to convey that power through my food poems.
JW: Who are your literary influences and what books are you reading?
SWK: In general, British diaspora writing has been the most influential to me. Writers like Hannah Lowe, Mona Arshi, Warsan Shire, Jane Yeh, Nisha Ramayya. There are also international writers I love for many different reasons and who I see as having influenced me, for instance, Fred Wah and his relationship to food and hybridity, Hera Lindsay Bird and her relationship to humour, Nate Marshall and his relationship between page and stage. Writers such as Jenny Zhang deal very well with the theme of disconnectedness, something that speaks to me. They are very contemporary in dealing with identity.
JW: How has writing be happy affected your understanding of race?
SWK: Writing be happy enabled me to explore the pressures of feeling like I have to in some way “understand” myself better. It helped me to feel more comfortable with being a hybrid. For a long time, I felt like I had to look for places where I felt like I could in some way “belong” and with be happy I feel like I’ve erased that feeling in myself, at least for the time being. I felt like my race or my class or my history made me stand out too much or be different too much, but since the publication of be happy I have felt more confident in just saying “this is who I am and how I feel—and if you disagree or don’t believe me or think something differently of me, then fine, but I won’t let it define how I feel about myself.”
to my 公公 hongkong always seemed to be a place
of snake restaurants and poverty
violence and dismantlement
black and white photographs of unsmiling families
in stone-built courtyards
i saw him once watch
the chow yun-fat film hong kong 1941  and cry—
saying things like thats it
yes thats it
so when other people i meet at universities or poetry
readings say that they are from hongkong and they tell me what
its like from their perspective things seem unrecognisable
even though i do recognise the place names
both from his stories
and my own limited experience
on one of my experience trips there i found myself
visiting aunties in sai kung and walking by the seafront
thinking is this really hongkong or eating
in a japanese restaurant on my way to doing the touristy thing
and getting the bus across the island to repulse bay
thinking is this really hongkong or being hassled
for money by men on nathan road thinking is this really hongkong
and now here i am and im really not in hongkong
but i am in a restaurant eating special fried rice [the hoose
fried isnae worth it jist git the special im told] and there is
a giant plastic dragon hanging over me on the ceiling
and im thinking of beautiful clear water and tourist buses
a world or two away
wondering how it could be possible for me
to have washed up this far
tomb-sweeping day, glasgow, 2020
with thoughts of my 婆婆 and 公公
i tried to imagine it once—what it would be like—living
over half your life not fluent in the local language
how much more intelligent you would have to become
at things like social cues and body language
at reading the expressions on faces more times correctly
than incorrectly—if you failed then the consequences could be
i always thought i had a slick imagination for that sort of thing
even as a kid i would flick through the world atlas looking up far away places
wondering what languages they would speak
what food they would eat
if there would be anybody there who looked like me
and meanwhile down the road at the spring bamboo they would sit
together in silence at the exact same time each and every day
thinking inconsequential thoughts but doing so in their own language
and there would be no need for any words between them
because she knew that he had already put the right change in the till
and he knew that she had already twisted the dial on the fryer
from the circle diagram to the one-line diagram
and they both knew that in a few moments time they would both stand up
walk to the front door and flip the sign
from the red side reading closed
to the blue side reading open
your tombstone is simpler than the other
chinese ones in the anglican cemetery – no fancy
vertical calligraphy to go alongside the english
detailing age of death or words like
beloved – a photographic inlay
depicting you as you were in your 70s
—a couple decades ago now but still living
just down the road in your old house near asda
—around the time when i was still small enough
to sit with you on your chair with the tv on loud
watching fred flintstone slide down a diplodocus tail
break into a huge smile—shout his catchphrase
to which we would always join in
i had never heard you speak english like that before
sometimes i wonder how much of the tv we watched back
then you really understood and how much of it
was just you copying the sounds that i reacted to most
we laughed so much that your fake teeth fell out
and i thought that was the coolest thing ever
you were buried with them i was told
just in case you would need them in the next world
eventually in the cemetery its my turn
to pay my respects and i get told to light
three incense sticks then bow three times while saying a prayer
as i do my bows i dont feel like i have enough chinese
in my vocabulary to do the prayer properly
instead—a different word forms in my mind
How to cite: Keung, Sean Wai and Wong, Jennifer. “Jennifer Wong Interviews Sean Wai Keung.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 23 Jan. 2021, chajournal.blog/2021/01/23/sean-wai-keung/.
Sean Wai Keung is a poet and performance-maker. He has a BA in Creative Writing from Roehampton University, London, and an MA in Poetry from the University of East Anglia. His poetry pamphlet you are mistaken won the Rialto Open Pamphlet Competition 2016 and his debut full-length collection, sikfan glaschu, will be published in 2021 by Verve Poetry Press. He also authored be happy (Speculative Books). Sean is a poetry editor for EX/POST MAGAZINE, an online international zine. He is on the Many Voices programme with Bella Caledonia, where he writes about food and social engagement. The COVID situation changed his trajectory somewhat, and he is currently developing a digital solo-performance based on the experiences of the BESEA diaspora during the pandemic, a project for which he has received Creative Scotland funding. His full-length collection, sikfan glaschu, will be out in April 2021 and uses restaurants as a portal for exploring identity.
Jennifer Wong was born and grew up in Hong Kong and is the author of several collections including Goldfish (Chameleon Press) and a pamphlet, Diary of a Miu Miu Salesgirl (Bitter Melon Poetry 2019). Her latest collection, Letters Home 回家 (Nine Arches Press, 2020)—which explores the complexities of history, migration and translation—has been named the PBS Wild Card Choice by Poetry Book Society. She studied in Oxford and has earned a creative writing PhD from Oxford Brookes University where she teaches as Associate Lecturer. Her poems have appeared in World Literature Today, Oxford Poetry, The Rialto, Magma Poetry and others. She also teaches at Poetry School. Her reviews and translations have appeared in a number of magazines including Poetry Review, Poetry London, PN Review and Asian Review of Books.