[FEATURE] “Love in the Time of Coronavirus: Postscript and Ten Poems” by Ho Fuk Yan

Co-Editor Tammy Lai-Ming Ho‘s note: All the poems in Ho Fuk Yan’s latest poetry collection, Love in the Time of the Coronavirus 愛在瘟疫時, were written in response to the pandemic as experienced, observed, interpreted, and reimagined by the poet in 2020. The poems are undated but they are presented chronologically according to the time of their composition. Read together, they are like a hazily defined episodic fever dream, featuring sympathetic or strange characters. One “Dr Pandemic”, for example, had “no mouth / because he’d said something he shouldn’t have”. There is a sick ship, which “may infect other ships… / No island allows it to berth / Island after island disappears / from the map”. Although we are undergoing a global pandemic, cities and nations do not react to it in the same way. Hong Kong is certainly a character too in some of the poems in Love in the Time of the Coronavirus—its dining halls with empty chairs, the empty luxury shopping plazas and malls, and a supermarket that is robbed of its toilet rolls. A number of the poems contemplate the increasingly intimate and highly dependent relationship between the human face and the mask. Yet a discarded mask in the mud is compared to the heartless aftermath of a passionate one-night stand. But the broad theme of “love” is generally tender and poignant in the poems, even if the word itself is absent. In the heartbreaking poem that concludes the collection, “Dialogue Between the Waterbird and the Reed”水鳥和蘆葦的對話, the anchored reed laments on how “this marshland now indeed looks no different from the rest”. Several lines later, it repeats to the waterbird, “Soon you won’t recognise it from the rest”, as other creatures “have moved to another mangrove forest”. The weed’s last words are “this is my patch”, showing pride in and love for its home and determination to stay.

Love in the Time of the Coronavirus is published bilingually, in Ho’s Chinese and Teresa Shen’s English translation, in April 2021. The book is designed by Yu Wing Yan and includes some of her illustrations. We are very pleased to present below Shen’s English translation of Ho’s Postscript to the book, with additional edits by me. We are honoured to also include a selection of ten poems as they appear bilingually in the book and two illustrations by Yu.

POSTSCRIPT: IN THE MIDST OF COVID-19 PANDEMIC

by ho fuk yan, translated from the chinese by teresa shen

You may wish to treat this anthology of poems as an exceptionally long essay, or a much abbreviated novella. The only difference is that the poems are divided into lines. These lines tell the stories of the pandemic in 2020 in Hong Kong. In a way, they are records of the time. The pandemic has affected everyone in the world, rich or poor. Many cities were forced into lockdown; people were forbidden to leave, and others outside the city were not allowed to enter. The situation had the makings of a plot for a novel. In a fortress besieged,1 people within wanted out, and people on the outside wanted in. It is a storyline that has been much explored, only that it has not been written in the form of a “novel-in-verse”. I am not a pessimist—on the contrary, my friends often say that, in my hands, a tragedy will become a comedy, sometimes even a farce. I can’t explain myself; I can only quote what Monkey King in Journey to the West2 says when he encounters difficulties: I can’t cry, I might as well laugh. I don’t think the pandemic will really disappear; it won’t. It may get bored, or it may subside, or it may need to recharge itself, but it will come back in another, perhaps stronger, version. Often in life, things have a tendency to go from bad to worse. You think it’s bad? The worse is yet to come.

I did not indicate the date of composition of individual poems, but they were written as the pandemic developed and they are presented in that order in the anthology. For example, there were limited supplies of face masks in March and April 2020. The World Health Organization insisted then that masks weren’t necessary unless one was sick, so people who wore them were regarded as infectious and were shunned. This is the background of the poems “Letter from Canada”, which depicts the prevailing situation at that time. Another poem, “Batty Heist”, is about the robbery at knifepoint of hundreds of rolls of toilet paper from a supermarket delivery man. People from outside of Hong Kong may find the incident portrayed in the poem ridiculous and greatly exaggerated, but it actually happened, in February 2020. During the pandemic, rumours abound, people rush to stockpile, and even to rob.

Naturally, I hope my poetry is not simply a record of current events. Circumstances change, and what is now a faithful record will become irrelevant over time. What I do hope to achieve is a balance between what happened in reality and what happened in our consciousness; in other words, to record the pandemic and beyond. And these stories are not yet done being told. In Hong Kong, one wave followed on the heels of the last. In December, we saw the arrival of the fourth and most dangerous wave.

We have always lived, inextricably, in a tight relationship with viruses and bacteria. The kind of “until mountains lose their peaks, rivers void of water; until thunder rumbles in winter, snow falls in summer; until the heaven and earth united as one, do we part” 3 type of relationship. Viruses and bacteria are actually our seniors. They have a much longer history than human beings do. At different time and place, we have called diseases by different names: the Black Death, smallpox, malaria, syphilis, jaundice, tuberculosis… and now this pandemic that caused havoc globally is called Covid-19. Even names of diseases are controversial. The virus infected first and foremost human politics. Viruses are certainly smarter, more cunning and more willing to learn and evolve. Before humans developed intelligence, viruses had already flourished into biologically and chemically advanced beings. They have always maintained a state of coexistence with humans. When this delicate balance is upset, we stand at opposite ends. The truth of the matter is it is often humans themselves who destroy the harmony.

Viruses won’t lose. Fortunately, they have never won either, or they would have killed us all; nor have humans just rolled over and surrendered. Nevertheless, viruses have had the capacity to rewrite human history, and they are also changing the present development of mankind. Wouldn’t you agree that during the pandemic, current international politics and national priorities are not only changing, but undergoing significant transformation? As for human beings, myself included, if we aren’t in regression, we are at best going around in circles, repeating the same mistakes over and over again. One only has to look at the ugliness of humans’ predatory and gluttonous behaviour. In 2003, 17 years ago, as a result of wild animal consumption, SARS infected more than 1,700 people and killed 299 in Hong Kong; globally, more than 8,000 people were infected and about 800 people died. In 2020, within barely 12 months, more than 80 million people worldwide were diagnosed with the new coronavirus pneumonia, Covid-19, resulting in nearly 2 million deaths. And the new pandemic is still going strong.

With the history of SARS in the background, the Hong Kong administration nonetheless came up with some questionable decisions and responses. It is difficult to convince Hong Kong residents that the actions taken thus far are “not the best but getting better”. Compared with many other places, infection and fatality rates in Hong Kong have remained relatively low. This was largely due to the diligence of the medical community and the general conscientiousness of people in the city. Hong Kong was probably the first city in the pandemic where most residents took to wearing masks. News footage from the hardest-hit areas in Europe, the United States and Latin America shows people still going about their daily lives without masks. Advocating personal freedom and dignity at the expense of discipline, in the face of an invisible and silent enemy that requires a concerted effort to combat, is bound to take a heavy toll. Evidently, no political system is perfect.

What’s more, people have short memories, and due to pandemic fatigue, some have chosen not to remember, giving the viruses a chance to return; and return they do in a more infectious variant. At the beginning of 2020, a video of a young woman eating bat went viral. I was shocked. Abject poverty or extreme hunger may justify such behaviour, but as it is, we are hardly better than our ancient forebears, the first primates. Why won’t we learn? To me, the reason is these lessons have not been taken in properly and in their entirety. We need to stop deceiving ourselves and really commit to memory the bad as well as the good.

During the pandemic, I dutifully stayed home to re-read classics and to record my thinking in verse. Poetry is a lay person’s designation. I never thought that poetry was the crown of literary creations—this hierarchical theory that poetry is superior to prose is an antiquated thinking that, though never sanctioned, is still strong today. Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996), a contemporary, put poetry above prose and considered poets superior to writers. He had an interesting saying: “the cash-strapped poet can sit down and write an article; while the novelist in the same situation can hardly conceive of a poem… poetry is paid much less and more slowly, than prose.” Speaking from the perspective of remuneration, poets should write novels when they are strapped for cash, and they should write long, filibustering novels, the likes of Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. That is, assuming people are still willing to publish such novels. As for the poor novelist, he certainly will not write poetry. Why should he? Unless hunger has robbed him of his senses. He would be better off delivering food, and save his brains from being overtaxed.

I do understand what Brodsky meant: the poet has the best command of language and he excels in all its forms. This echoes the British legacy of Percy Shelley. Shelley idealised the divine power of the poet who alone is able to interpret cosmic truth; this closely follows the Russian traditional belief that poetry is the highest form in the literary hierarchy. In short, the kingdom of poetry is off-limits to other writers who might otherwise pollute its sanctity. In addition, there is the perception that prose and novels are easy to write. Of course, when you break it down, every line of a poem is but a part of prose. But to assume that good prose is easy to come by is, I’m sorry, the kind of misconception that prevents one from writing good poetry. Since the twentieth century, the novel as a genre has undoubtedly achieved much more than poetry, showing richer content, embracing more innovative forms of narratives and, needless to say, having many more readers. Poetry, on the other hand, has remained largely unchanged. I usually take public transport, and I rarely see young people reading books instead of looking at their phones. If they are indeed reading books, these will invariably be novels, usually fantasy or science fiction. I have never seen people reading poetry. Literary magazines are low in circulation, and poetry periodicals fare far worse. Do poets seriously believe that all this is society’s fault? What’s more, some poets, should they venture into the realms of prose, could well be exposed as having been hiding under obscure and dubious literary constructions all along.  

Brodsky’s poems are undeniably excellent—not for nothing did he win the Nobel Prize for Literature. His prose is no less brilliant­­—there are reasons he was repeatedly selected for The Best American Essays. Naturally, we will not take at face value just any old poetry selections or random best novel lists; a lot depends on the composition of the selection panels and their mandates. However, regardless of the genre, prose or novel, if one refuses to let go of the poet’s pride, coupled with the burden of artistic conscience, it is difficult to achieve success. To begin with, the literary path is never one for attaining riches. Brodsky was once jailed by the Soviet government for “social parasitism”. Poetic license was not something easily certifiable. He later had no choice but to move to the United States.

I don’t think poetry is better than other genres, nor, naturally, that is inferior to them either. It is a matter of “to each their own”, both in terms of strengths and challenges. In this time of pandemic, if one is to write in the form of poetry to capture all aspect of the “present”, one has to abandon the “spring moon and autumn breeze” type of lyricism so popular with our fellow countrymen, or the concept of “la poésie pure” embraced by the French Symbolists. One has to resort to prose, the novel, drama, and whatever other forms that are effective. The kingdom of poetry may not allow other writers to enter, but the poet can travel freely outside to broaden his horizons and learn from other literary forms. In short, the boundaries of genre must be broken down. In the face of the epidemic, we must wash our hands constantly, but there should be no obsession with cleansed genres. Write whatever you want without limits.

There are 50 poems in this anthology. Read these pieces as whatever you fancy, read them as your heart desires. They have one theme in common: the plague—written in the time of a global pandemic.

A word of thanks to Teresa Shen for translating the collection—she is an old colleague who has a good command of both the English and Chinese languages. I jokingly told her that at least half of the book was not bad. I am also thankful to Yu Wingyan. She stayed home during the pandemic and created, on the computer, graphite strokes that captured a sense of time, a delicate juxtaposition of light and dark and a record of the current circumstances. She is also the designer of the book’s cover. This anthology is the collective work of three people’s individual fight against the pandemic.  

December 2020

Supplementary note on 8 February 2021: When this book went to press, the number of coronavirus infections worldwide had exceeded 100 million, and the death toll went over 2.3 million; the United States had been the hardest-hit country, with 460,000 deaths, surpassing the number of US fallen soldiers during World War II.

Translator’s notes:

  1. Fortress Besieged《圍城》: A 1947 satirical novel written by Qian Zhongshu (錢鍾書).
  2. Journey to the West《西遊記》: A classic novel written during the Ming dynasty in around the 16th century and attributed to Wu Cheng’en (吴承恩).
  3. Extract from Shangye上邪, a Han dynasty poem in the Collection of Yuefu Lyric Poems (樂府詩集) compiled by Guo Maoqian (郭茂倩) of the Sung Dynasty.

TEN POEMS FROM LOVE IN THE TIME OF CORONAVIRUS

by ho fuk yan, translated from the chinese by teresa shen

愛在瘟疫時    

我只能讚美你的眼睛
隔著眼鏡我仍然看到
那雙晶瑩流轉的寶石
我本來也想讚美
你油亮的美髮
你那挺直自信的鼻子
你一定也有張暖紅的嘴唇
整齊潔白的牙齒
但我只能想像
用浮泛的修辭
因為都躲在頭套、口罩裡
我聽不清你的說話
你的眼神,充滿疑惑
又為什麼這樣憂傷?

LOVE IN THE TIME OF CORONAVIRUS

I cannot help but admire your eyes
Through my glasses I can still make out
twin gems sparkling in their luminosity
I want to admire
the luster in your hair
the poise and sureness of your nose
or the warm rosy lips you must possess
complete with tidy sparkling teeth
But I can only imagine
in rhetoric too shifty and shy
Hidden under headgear and mask
I cannot make out your words
But your eyes, full of misgiving
full of sadness, why?
binds

First published in Issue 54 of Voice & Verse Poetry Magazine.

Illustration by Yu Wing Yan

把你收藏在口罩裡

我把你收藏在口罩裡
安全、溫暖
這是局部封關
進出都要保持距離
距離就是,封是封不了
還有那雙看路的眼睛
一左一右的耳朵
不斷清洗的十隻指頭
只是要你輕緩地呼吸
不再亂說話
不再拌嘴
也不再親嘴
交換唾液
是危險的行為
會把你出賣
會把一個偉大的朝代
坑了

KEEPING YOU IN MY MASK

I keep you inside my mask
snug and warm
This is only partial quarantine
to maintain a safe distance out, a safe distance in
Only partial closure, complete lock-down is out,
for the eyes that watch the road ahead
for the ears on either side of your head
and for the ten fingers constantly being washed
All you need to do is to breathe slowly
Watch what you say
No more contraries
No more kisses
Any exchange of saliva is
a deeply dangerous act
It could betray you
It could push a great dynasty
over the edge

First published in Issue 54 of Voice & Verse Poetry Magazine.

病毒醫生     

有一天,他脫下口罩
發覺原來沒有鼻子
沒有嘴巴

沒有嘴巴
那是因為說了不該說的話
損害了免疫系統

但為什麼沒有鼻子呢
原來已沒有了呼吸
他也不能免疫

還好他留下了見證
那一雙炯炯有神的眼睛

DR PANDEMIC

One day, he took off his face mask
and found no nose
nor mouth

There was no mouth
because he’d said something he shouldn’t have
He disturbed the immune system

But why wasn’t there a nose?
because he had stopped breathing
He had no immunity

Thank goodness there were his eyes
The clear, steadfast eyes where truth resides

疫後

瘟疫沒有過去
不客氣地留下來
但一位政客
掰開前面幾個政客
從防空洞出來
已急不及待,大喊:
這是又一次,打勝了仗
在我的領導下
馬上就會復興經濟
大家歡呼拍手
他呢,是打手
左手打右手

都出來了,一位精神領袖
曾預言世界末日
他的臉面還留下口罩的深痕,說:
這是上主走過的烙印
懺悔啊,末日又再迫近
一個女孩問:因為我多吃了糖果?

我呢,一直樂觀得緊
冬天來了,春天還不肯出來?
我一位朋友宅居時發明了
可以蒸燉的口罩
讓人帶來貼身的食材
他準備開設幾間私房菜
招牌食譜是一罩三吃

另一位在研發激光眼鏡
令病毒無所遁形,用神一瞪
可以把病毒消滅
已經進入人眼測試的階段
我趕緊提醒他申請專利權

一位富三代從隔離營取得靈感
改良了劏房
本來容納五家的空間
變成了五十家
辦法是從食物入手
把人變瘦,縮小
變成哈哈比人

一位從事教育的校友也出來了
他認定由於防毒軟件不足
病毒就來偷襲了
切要保護學童
先刪除,再貼上
保險重重
密碼,要不停更改

他當年的宿友馬上駁咀
你從不汲取善忘的教訓
不是老在問人:改成什麼?
這兩個活寶吵了數十年
又要找我做和事老
倘其中一個遭逢不幸
另一個的日子真不知怎樣過

還有一位,想盡辦法
和認識半年的文青女友
浪漫而和平地分手,說
我們曾在一起誦讀聖典:
《愛在瘟疫蔓延時》
好歹愛過,如今
瘟疫快要過去
讓我們各自重新開始
別難過,真正的情人
自會在不太遙遠的
另一次瘟疫裡邂逅
這個人,就是我

POST-PANDEMIC

The pandemic is not over
Unceremoniously, it stays
But a politician
shoving off a few fellow legislators 
emerged from the shelter
of a dug-out, eagerly declared:
Once more, we won the war
Under my leadership
the economy will be restored
Everyone happily clapped hands
For him, he slapped hands
Left hand slapping the right hand

From the dug-out the rest emerged; a spiritual leader
who, Armageddon he once predicted,
with face etched deep in mask-furrows, opined:
Branded here are the marks of the Lord
Repent, the doomsday destined is nearer
A girl asked: Is it because I have too much sweets?

Me, I am forever an optimist
Winter has arrived, will Spring refuse to emerge?
A stay-at-home friend discovered
A mask that can steam and stew
with ingredients of different bodily flavours
He is going to open a few private kitchens
The signature dish is one mask in three different preparations

Another friend is researching laser lenses
that can expose viruses, and with a single glare
exterminate viruses
It has now reached human-eye testing phases
I urged him to ASAP apply for a patent

A third-generation-rich was inspired at quarantine camp
to improve upon subdivided-flats;
the space for five homes
will be transformed into a 50-home zone
with a simple hack on food
to make men smaller, shrunk
to the size of HoHoHobbits

An alma-mater friend in education also comes forward
The lack of antivirus software, he stated
enabled the virus to attack
We have to protect our students
We delete, then we attach
Protection upon protection
Password updates non-stop

His hallmate of yesteryear came back with a prompt retort
You never remember the lesson, your forgetfulness  
always asking people: Change? Into what?
These two clowns have bickered for years
and me again acting as mediator
If one of them met his demise
The other might have no idea how to survive

There is also this friend, who tried everything
with his bohemian poseur girlfriend of six months
to, romantically and peacefully, break up:
We once read together the literary bible
Love in the Time of Coronavirus
No matter how, we once loved
And now, the pandemic almost over
Let us begin our separate lives
Don’t be sad, your genuine other half
will be waiting in the not-too-distant future
to meet you in the next pandemic
This other half will be me

我有一個噩夢

我有一個噩夢
有一天,我被長期隔離
不是因為我的膚色
而是我和隱藏的病毒
有過不足50米距離
的接觸

我有一個噩夢
有一天,我的生活再沒有病毒
再聞不到消毒藥水的氣味
也不用戴口罩了,只有罪犯
戴上,再扯不下來
而我的手長出了蹼

我有一個噩夢
有一天,我成為了一個數字
卻在千萬人群裡被認出來
我聽到已離世的母親的提示:
你又忘了今天要吃的藥丸
這會危害你和你朋友的健康

我有一個噩夢
有一天,我看見家裡進佔了
許多不屬於我的東西
噗噗抖動,我拚命把它們扔走
扔走的原來是自己
鼻子、耳朵、嘴巴、眼睛

我的噩夢是
從一個到另一個
我一直沒有醒來

I HAVE A NIGHTMARE

I have a nightmare
One day, I was quarantined
Not for the colour of my skin
But for the less than 50 meters’
distance with the hidden virus
I shared

I have a nightmare
One day, I got rid of all contagions
Not a whiff of disinfecting agents
No more facemasks; only sinners’
face masks could not be removed,
I grew webs instead  

I have a nightmare
One day, I became a number
But I was singled out from millions of others
I heard my long-deceased mother’s 
prompt: you are endangering yourself and friends
you forget your meds again

I have a nightmare
One day, I saw in my home
things that did not belong to me
Flipping and flapping, I hurl them away
Hurling what were really mine:
nose, ears, mouth and eyes

My nightmares
go on from one to another
a long slumbering affair  

Illustration by Yu Wing Yan

加拿大來郵

弟弟,不用再寄口罩
我戴了口罩到公園散步
其他人,都對我投以奇異的眼光
有兩三個甚至刻意避開
最難過是我大個子的鄰居約翰
隔著籬笆問我:
你真的沒有問題?
問了兩次,還禁止他的女兒
到我家和小文一起做功課
原來世衛的專家說:
只有不健康的人才需要戴口罩
我戴了,不是有病麼?
但健康不健康
誰知道呢,可以像圖靈那樣測謊?
詭異的東西,往往不露徵象
病了,是否就道德有虧?
我除了口罩才敢到教堂
彷彿這是瀆神的舉動
所以,我也不去了
弟弟,不要再把妖物寄來
我一直想一如其他人那樣生活
我最怕敵意的眼光


LETTER FROM CANADA

Brother, don’t send me these masks anymore
I wore one for a stroll in the park
Everyone threw me odd looks, clearly bothered
A handful walked away altogether
The worst was John, our neighbour, the big guy
asked me across the garden fence from his side:
Are you really alright?
He asked me twice, and banned his daughter
from doing homework with our Samantha
It turned out that experts at WHO said:
Mask is only for the sick
Was I sick, if I wore a mask?
But healthy or sick
Who’d know? Could it, like in Turing’s polygraph, be exposed?
These secretive things had no symptoms, no signs
Was it some form of moral deficiency, if I were sick?
I had to take the mask off when I went to church
as though it were some kind of blasphemy
I stopped going finally
Don’t send me these evil masks anymore, Brother
My only wish is to live like everybody else
Not under watchful, hostile eyes

這是我熟悉的城市麼?

這是我熟悉的城市嗎?
每年初夏我回來
站在同一碼頭同一的支柱上
我的確有點戀舊
風急,一片灰濛濛
的水氣,人稀少了
只一兩個坐在椅上
老遠地分隔開
沈默,失神地看海
也有一兩個在垂釣
都戴上了口罩
我認不出誰
抑或他們忽然老去
晚上更寧靜得出奇
不見遊船河的旅行團
吵鬧,喧嘩
拎著大大小小冒牌的土產

這還是我熟悉的地方?
十幾年前,禽流感肆虐
全球死了八百多人
鳥類, 本來不少已瀕危
可沒有人會統計
彷彿都帶來病毒
為了自救,我們成立流感紀念館
流動的,在空中
從一隻鳥傳到另一隻鳥
一個窩,到另一個窩
記憶短暫,所以
世世代代要牢牢記取
因為我們曾經受害
那時我還遠未出世啊
然後,十七年前非典肺炎
人類死亡過千
想來荒謬,自詡聰明的人類
妄想病毒可以打敗
他們懂得咬文嚼字
紀錄一大堆
就是不曾老實面對
難道真要我們飛翔的堂兄弟
進入饕餮的肚皮
才能喚醒沈痛的感官?
人類的記憶原來比鳥還要短暫
瘟疫又來了
這地方,還是我認識的麼?

半年前,我遇到一隻黑臉琵鷺
告誡我不要再回來
泥灘濕地正在不斷撤退
這裡的空氣
瀰漫西埃斯、二氯甲烷
令生靈火燒似的灼痛
咳嗽、嘔吐,還喪失視力
不停流淚,可不由於失望、憤懣
黑臉說,無數同類中毒
牠是倖存的一個
這地方,又不是你的故鄉
你會在一棵倒塌的樹築巢麼?
你何不流浪,像歌曲
流浪,到遠方?

但我為什麼要流浪
到一個我沒有記憶的地方?
我到過南北的大江大河
記得我飛過大小磨刀的水域時
認識了兩條美麗的白海豚
今年流連水面,再沒有遇見
年輕時聽長輩說
塞納河、威尼斯、巴塞隆拿
會飛翔的,一生總要去一次
可如今整個歐美都淪為大疫區
死亡的數字遞增
屏幕上我看到一幕
美國人在荒島上挖掘
黯黑,長長的深坑
把失救的人掩埋
這不是歷史上的黑死病麼?
這,還是我認識的世界?

IS THIS THE CITY I ONCE KNEW?

Is this the city I once knew?
Every summer I return
and perch on the same post at the same pier
I am indeed the nostalgic kind
Wind rushes, a sky of grayish
water vapours, a few people
scattered on the benches
separated by distance
in silence, gazing at the ocean
A few of them are fishing
under their face masks
I don’t recognize anyone
or they may have aged all of a sudden
The evening is incredibly serene
Tour groups on cruises are no longer seen
Those cantankerous, boisterous  
laden-with-counterfeit-souvenir bunch

Is it still the place I once knew?
The place a dozen years before by Bird Flu ravaged
when worldwide, eight hundred people perished
Birds, some already on the brink of extinction
—no census enumeration—
were virus-carriers, it seemed
For self-protection, we set up influenza memorial centres
mobile, up in the air
from one bird to another
one nest to the next
Memories are short; please, future generations,
don’t ever forget
that we were once victims
long before my time
Then, SARS that took place 17 years ago
killed humans in the thousands
Ridiculous it may now seem, people, self-conceited
harboured the delusion that the virus could be defeated
People are good with words
and keeping annals and chronicles
but not with facing facts
Do they really need our winged cousins
to enter their gluttonous stomachs
again, before they recall the pain?
People’s memory is short, shorter than birds’
The pandemic is upon us again
This place, is it still the same one I knew?

Half a year back, I met a black-faced spoonbill
who warned me from returning
Mudflats, wetland, fast receding
The air, here,
was filled with CS and dichloromethane
searing burning pain on all living things
Choking, vomiting, loss of vision
Crying non-stop not just out of anger and frustration
Black-faced told me many birds were poisoned
He was lucky to have survived
‘It’s not like this place is your hometown
Will you build a nest on a fallen tree?
Why not wander, like the song
Wandering faraway?

But why should I wander away
to a place my memories do not hold sway?  
I have flown past rivers in the north and south
I flew past the Brothers Islands before, I recalled,
meeting two beautiful White Dolphins
This year, I flew by, they were no longer there
When I was younger, birds that were older
would talk of Venice, Barcelona and the Seines
Places, for anyone who flies, to visit at least once in life
But now the whole western world has fallen prey to the virus
Death tolls mounting
On a screen I caught sight of a scene      
On a remote island the Americans are digging
long, dark pits in the ground
to bury the deceased
Isn’t it the same as the plague in history?
Is it, still, the world I once knew?

Translator’s note:

The song mentioned in the original is called “Olive Tree” (橄欖樹). The lyric was written by Sanmao (1943-1991), a writer/translator famous in the 80’s in the Chinese speaking communities.

請鍾馗

請你來袪邪除鬼
但你的尊容直把我們嚇壞了
頂破帽,衣藍袍,繫角帶,蓬頭虬鬢
圓睜怒目,笏板插在腰上
活像後來小說裡的李逵
你說你本來並不那麼醜
進士出身,不過殿試落第
平生沒嚐過失敗
這是致命傷
還鄉沒有面目
就一頭撞向殿階
說時又逕啖一小鬼
其他小鬼豈敢再胡鬧
莫不乖乖下跪
之後呢,我們瞇著眼問
這就血肉下碎如泥
再併湊不起來,當年
恰巧遇上一個小白臉的皇帝
多情善感把你厚葬
土地神打聽後上報天帝
天帝瞄了一眼你的樣子
馬上晉升你為大鬼王
管治人間眾小鬼
天庭也不需特別破費
鬧事的就當是你的口糧
我們遍查錄鬼簿
你的履歷最輝煌
你的確很醜,對不起
但心底肯定很美麗
你知道,總有些小鬼冥頑不馴
這次最狡黠的一個
隱形,無聲,化成病毒
躲在水渠,電梯,乘搭空氣
出席婚宴,參加舞會
偷襲不設防的善男信女
再幾何級分身,再分身
即使懸掛你的畫像
仍然無法驅除
求求你,人間走一趟
大駕親臨
替我們解難消災

CALLING UPON ZHONG KUI, THE DEMON QUELLER

We asked you to eradicate evil and ward off devils
But your very appearance scared us the most
Horn belt, raggedy hat, blue loose robe, hair and sideburns all disheveled
Eyes burning in anger; in your waistbelt, a court board anchored
you looked like the spitting image of Li Kui, in fiction
You weren’t that ugly to begin with, you said  
You were once a Jinshi scholar, but failed the imperial examination
In your whole life, you never suffered a failure
A fatal error
Now too ashamed to return home
You bashed your head against the royal staircase
Recounting the history, you took a hearty bite of a small ghost
The others at once ceased all silliness
And knelt down in earnest
What happened afterwards, we asked, squinty-eyed
The flesh and gore all minced up
Could not be patched up. A lily-livered emperor
happened to rule in those days
and a lavish teary burial for you he delivered
The village god heard and reported to the Emperor of Heaven
who, one sidelong glance at your appearance,
immediately promoted you to the rank of Top Ghost Master
in charge of all the world’s spectres
As such, the Court of Heaven got to save on your keep
The unruly spirits would be your daily food ration
From a thorough check on the Ghost Chronicle
You had the most impressive curriculum vitae
Ugly indeed you were, sorry to say
But you had a heart of gold
You know. There would always be incorrigible
ghosts. This one was the most duplicitous
Invisible, deathly silent, into a virus
it turned, hidden in gutters, elevators, riding on air
attending weddings and dances everywhere
to ambush unsuspecting ladies and gents
Exponential multiplication of exponential replication
Even after your portrait was hoisted
T’was not enough to dispel this virus
Please, to the human realm,
a personal visit you must make
to deliver us from our mayhem   

Translator’s notes:

  • Zhong Kui (鍾馗): A mythical character in ancient Chinese folklore. Zhong is believed to be a guardian god against all ghosts and evil spirits. His portraits were hung in household as a means to ward off devils and ghosts.  
  • Li Kui (李逵): A fictional character from The Water Margin. Described as ferocious and ugly with unruly beard and sideburn.
  • Jinshi (進士): Scholars who achieved the highest and final degree in the imperial examination in Imperial China.
  • Ghost Chronicle (錄鬼簿): Compiled in the Yuan Dynasty recording the life and works of Yuan ‘qu’ opera writers.

     

病毒移民

3000年,風雷震作
瘟疫攻陷了地球
我們倖存者展開星際飄泊
尋覓新的家園
進入宇航船後我開始記錄:
我們化整為零,不分國族
一千家一船散佈
像億萬顆殞石,飛向
不斷膨漲的太空
就是不成功,也夠崇高、悲壯
誰先找到理想的地方
就以宇宙語通報,不過
我們馬上重新戴上面罩
保持社交警覺,因為
我們的探測器發瘋似的警示
病毒一直緊隨,潛入了
我們下一代的腦袋
再伺機擴散,所以
我們急忙在幼兒的休眠艙
進行搶救,重新改造
抗疫多年,全盤失敗
我們終於領悟,最好的對策
不是解毒,而是以毒攻毒
輸無可輸,輸入適量的病毒
令新生代比病毒狡黠得更病毒
令病毒,後悔跟隨我們移民

3070年,我們仍然在星際流浪
尋覓那怕是不那麼理想的地方
其他的宇航船已經失聯
空寂,無垠的宇宙
曾有過幾艘落腳的消息
最後是失望,徹底地
船毀人亡,而我們
成為了最後的餘生
苦悶,疲累,垂垂老去
我們的氧氣急劇減少
只餘下一個月,因為
要和愈來愈多的新生病毒分享
不能多,也決不能少
彼此勉強維持
食物也逐漸短缺
開始嚴格分配
我們吃的,是打印的藥丸
然後和排洩循環再造
簡單恐怖,但有什麼辦法呢
我們都瘦弱得不似人形了
失去說話的力氣
話語,其實也成為禁忌
病毒充滿猜疑,敵意
全賴疏通一點血緣
也不會笨得殺光宿主

當我們和病毒頭頭靖綏
那晚上,我筋疲力盡
難得沈沈睡去
我做了一個好夢
到了那麼一個地方
城市非常整潔好看
有一座凱旋門
一座羅浮宮,一兩座
金字塔馬丘比丘
長城在山上不斷延長
病毒組長說,想有什麼可以商量
有問題也可以向組長通報
家中的洗手間有一條長江
一條好脾氣的黃河
食物立體還原,自然消毒
水很潔淨,分三種
很好、極好、最好
誰不指望活得最好前提是
活著;我們到醫療室脫下面罩
空氣太清新了,肺許久才適應
我們學會對一切寬容
學會如何整齊地散步
讚賞病毒的領導
我回到了和女友分手的時候
她去了非洲當無國籍醫生
五年後,幸得不死
我們重頭再來
然後是六七歲
我在公園裡踢球,大口吃掉
妹妹手上的冰淇淋
仰頭看,那是久違了的月亮
它多麼寧靜、祥和
我背誦母親教我的「但願人長久」
她慈愛地向我微笑
我本來已忘了她的樣子了
我不再做記錄,才五個月大胎兒
輕踢了母親的肚子,卻看到
父親一臉的愁思

VIRUS EMIGRANTS

Year 3000, in squalls and thunders
the pandemic besieged the Earth
We survivors embarked on an interstellar wander
in search for a new home
In the spacecraft, I started recording:
We broke into groups, regardless of roots
A thousand families per ship we scattered
like hundreds of millions of meteors, flying towards
the ever-expanding universe
It might not be successful, but a noble and tragic mission it was
Whoever first found the ideal location
would send, in cosmic language, communications, but
we had to re-mask immediately
Keep social watchfulness, because
our detectors went crazy with alerts
The virus had been following us, sneaking in
to the heads of our next generation
waiting for an opportunity to proliferate, so
we rushed into the toddler sleeping cabins
to conduct rescues, and to organize reforms
For many years we had fought the virus, to no avail
We finally realized; the best strategy was
not to neutralize, but to fight virus with virus
We had nothing to lose; let loose the right amount of virus
to make our new generation more viral than the last virus
Make the virus regret ever emigrating with us

In 3070, we were still wandering the galaxy
In search for a place, even if it was not the most ideal
The other spacecrafts had lost contact
in the immense, empty universe
We heard of touch-downs from several ships in fact
But they proved to be disappointing news; utterly
these ships and crews were wrecked, and we
became the last lives remaining
Dejected, exhausted, slowly withering
Our oxygen was radically reduced
Only enough for a month was left, because
it had to be shared with more and more new virus
Not too much, not too little either
Just enough to maintain each other
Food supply became scant  
Strict rationing began
What we ate were 3D-printed tablets
and later upcycled from recycled excrement
Crude and abhorrent, but there were no other methods
We were so thin and frail, we no longer resembled human
And we lost the power of speech
Speaking, besides, had become taboo
The virus was full of suspicion and hostility
Thank goodness there was still the symbiotic link
It wouldn’t be stupid enough to kill off the hosts

When we and the virus leaders reached a peace agreement
That night, I was exhausted
Fell into a deep slumber
I dreamed a good dream
We arrive at a place
a neat and tidy city
We have an Arc de Triomphe
a Louvre museum, a pyramid
or two and a Machu Picchu
The Great Wall meanders endlessly on the mountains
The virus leader says everything can be deliberated
Any problem we encounter, we can report to the virus leader
At our home the bathroom is equipped with a Yangtse River
and an obliging Yellow River with excellent temper
The food, 3-dimensional, sterilizes itself
Water is very clean and comes in 3 tiers
Good, Very-Good, The-Goodest
Who wouldn’t want a Goodest life, but we need to first stay
alive; we go to the medical room to take off the mask
The air is so fresh, it takes the lungs a while to acclimatize
We learn to tolerate, to take it easy
Learn how to take a stroll neatly
and appreciate the leadership of the virus
I go back in time to when I broke up with my girlfriend
She went to Africa as a doctor without borders
Five years later, fortunately she’s still alive  
And we start over
Then I go back to when I was six or seven years old
I play football in the park and steal a bite of ice cream
from the hand of my sister
Looking up, the long-lost moon emerges
So peaceful, so serene
I recite the line my mother taught me “May we endure”
She smiles lovingly at me
I have forgotten her looks
I no longer keep records, now a fetus of barely five months
I give my mother’s tummy a shove, and see
on my father the face of despondence

水鳥和蘆葦的對話

DIALOGUE BETWEEN THE WATERBIRD AND THE REED

Ho Fuk Yan (Poet) is an award-winning Chinese-language author and poet in Hong Kong. He was the former Head of the Chinese Language Department of St. Paul’s College and he taught Chinese History, Chinese Culture and Chinese Language before his retirement in 2010. His early works included A Reborn Tree 再生樹 and An Interview with the Dragon 龍的訪問. He has recently directed a documentary film, Birds of Passage: A Writer of Our City 候鳥:我城的一位作家, on Xi Xi, winner of the 2019 Newman Prize for Chinese Literature.

Teresa Shen (Translator) is an editor/writer/translator based in Hong Kong. She is also a ceramicist. Teresa studied English & Comparative Literature at the University of Hong Kong. Apart from a short time teaching English and working as English Editor, she had jumped onto the corporate bandwagon in a number of management positions in the chemical and luxury goods industries. For the past decade or so, she has returned to her first love, writing, and started an affair with ceramics.

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