"Valiant Beauty" — ASIAN CHA Issue#25 Editorial

Words from educators in Hong Kong:

My students have told me they’re boycotting classes indefinitely. I am proud of them. How can one not be moved?
—Eddie Tay

I applaud the courage and restraint of the protesters, who are mostly students, and am as proud as ever to call myself a Hong Konger!
—John Wakefield

… and you see, you see,
Love is disobedience, disobedience love,
And the dungeon doors open for you
And your questions to walk through.
—Shirley Geok-lin Lim

Hong Kong students continue to put ‘civil’ in ‘civil disobedience’.
—Colin CovendishJones
[A] movement such as this one, defined by youth, by love and peace, by aspiration and inspiration, will always find a way to win.
—Lucas Klein

I’ve seemingly always already been way more cynical than sentimental. But I found myself crying in the face of the generous and caring humanity of Hong Kong’s youth, both in Mong Kok and in Central. Hong Kong is my much loved home—and it’s the Umbrella Uprising that has delivered this sense of home to me.
—Jason S Polley

100,000 people on the street in Hong Kong (a reporter told me it was that many) singing, applauding, chanting. There is a feeling of great hope.
—Michael O’Sullivan

I hope that all of the students participating in the protests will stay safe and remain optimistic for a better future of this place we call home.
—Heidi Huang
Hong Kong’s higher education system should be proud of the exemplary”knowledge transfer” and “experiential learning” that our courageous students have been exhibiting.
—James Shea

Teachers, like many others, have doubts all the time. One that I often ask myself is “Should I keep teaching?” But seeing all of you in the streets, I am moved and I know the answer. Last night at 2am, I encountered a confused 18-year-old, who kept wondering what’s next. No one knows, except the battle will be long. And a quote from Hemingway may help: “I did not care what it was all about. All I wanted to know was how to live in it.”
—Nicholas YB Wong
You’ll learn more at the barricades than in my class. Take your notebook with you, this is history, you’re making it, and make sure you write it too.
—Justin Hill

I have run out of umbrellas to lend to my students,
braving all weathers, all scorn, for a future they no longer have any option
but to believe in.
Now it is my heart I would shelter them with.
I do so happily, without reservation.
They were the first, and will be the last,
to welcome me here.
They have always stood by me.
—Stuart Christie



Over the last week, Hong Kong has transformed—gone from a city that, while not politically apathetic, was generally willing to put prosperity and business first. But Beijing’s refusal to allow Hong Kong open elections and the growing unease among its residents about the SAR’s future in China have finally come to a head. The Umbrella Revolution has shown that Hong Kong is no longer content to allow Beijing to dictate its fate. The city has decided to stand up and fight. And it has brought umbrellas.
The struggle for free elections is nothing new—the pro-democracy camp has for decades been determined in its efforts to bring self-rule to the city. But something changed this week: the passion and energy of youth. Young people, yellow-ribboned, faces covered with cling film and goggles, and equipped only with umbrellas to fend off the fierce sun, rain and tear gas, have fought peacefully, proudly and insistently, for genuine democracy in their—my—beloved city. It is their efforts—nonviolent but still resolute and resourceful—that have not only captured the attention of the city, but of the world.
Like many people who care about Hong Kong’s political future, I have been able to focus on very little else over the past few days. At times, I have been worried—worried about the safety of the protestors; worried that their efforts will fail to bring change; worried about the future of the city that I love. But I have also been deeply moved and inspired. I have never been so proud of Hong Kong. It has never been so determined.
For those of us who support democratic change, we realise that the time has come, that we have to fight now, before it’s too, too late. We are uncertain of what the outcome might be, but we are nevertheless united, hearts with one purpose, and we are fighting.
Will we succeed? We already have. Hong Kong will never be the same again. A valiant beauty has been born.

Tammy Ho Lai-Ming
 / Co-editor
1 October 2014

ASIAN CHA Issue#24 Editorial

A Touch Of Cruelty
In The Mouth


Looking at old photos leads me to believe that the body evolves.
—Edouard Levé

I love to recall my dreams, no matter what is in them.

Of course, telling someone your insult is like telling someone your dream; the specific emotional core of it cannot be communicated …
—Sheila Heti


The golden boy Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde’s memorable creation, continues to capture our imagination, as seen in his most recent representation in Showtime’s Penny Dreadful. Who doesn’t want to stay delicate, young and exquisite? Skin flawless, teeth intact, hair shiny. In fact, our modern beauty industry relies on nothing but this overblown desire to slow down the clock. I am sure many of us, while reading Wilde’s story or watching an adaptation, have imagined, even if only very briefly, what it might be like to be Dorian.

For a large part of the story, Dorian’s physical appearance is unaffected by the passage of time, while his painted double, hidden in the attic, ages, withers and becomes loathsome and unrecognisable. That face on the canvas evolves with the sordid force of life, as it absorbs the negative energy of its original. This all begins with “the touch of cruelty in the mouth”:

He had uttered a mad wish that he himself might remain young, and the portrait grow old; that his own beauty might be untarnished, and the face on the canvas bear the burden of his passions and his sins; that the painted image might be seared with the lines of suffering and thought, and that he might keep all the delicate bloom and loveliness of his then just conscious boyhood. Surely his wish had not been fulfilled? Such things were impossible. It seemed monstrous even to think of them. And, yet, there was the picture before him, with the touch of cruelty in the mouth.

The cruelty here is Dorian’s, conferred to his pictorial likeness. But cruelty is an inherent element of every portrait or photograph of a human subject. The American comedian Mitch Hedberg, whom I admire a great deal, sums it up wisely and poignantly: “Every picture is of you when you were younger.” Everything that bears a reproduction of your image, then, is an inevitably cruel reminder that nothing good lasts, that you will grow old. Very old if you are lucky. Or unlucky.

At some point, you will envy your younger self, sitting awkwardly on an uncomfortable rug, drinking a cheap red wine as you and your friends couldn’t afford anything good, or wearing an embarrassingly slutty dress, silver and black, with no cleavage showing, for you had none (you still have none) or grinning so goddamned happily for something so life-defining then and so insignificant now that you don’t remember what it was that sparked that bright smile or even who else you were with at the time. You grow old … you grow old … You shall wear the bottoms of your trousers rolled. 

It is perhaps disingenuous of me to complain about ageing, for I am still regularly asked if I am a student due to my small size and unaggressive chest. But all the above acts as an introduction to a vivid dream that I had one night some weeks ago. I am one of those people who remember their dreams quite well and that particularly dream, I remember intensely. 

In the dream, I am in my old family home in Tuen Mun with my parents and two younger sisters. It is a small flat, with two small bedrooms, and, at night, we turn the small wooden sofa in the small living room into a small bed, which I sleep on with one of my sisters (everything was small in my past, nothing is grand in my present). My mother must have turned off the lights, and I, without much thought, reach for a torch that gives out enough light that familiar household objects cast strange, enlarged and dreamy shadows on the wall, which is by day covered with crayon marks, traces of my sisters’ creative vandalism. 

In the dream, I am looking at an older picture of my parents, my sisters and me sitting on a leather sofa so worn that it had been replaced by the wooden one. My mother is holding Ying on her lap, and my father has Ching on his. I stand in the middle. Squeezed in the middle. No one is holding me. I am too old.

The next moment in the dream, I am my current age again and frantically looking for that picture. When I find it, I see that Ying is no longer sitting on my mother’s lap and Ching is no longer on my father’s. They are grown-ups in the picture, and they stand next to my parents. I stand as before. I too am grown-up. My parents are eighteen years older, but on our faces we have the same expressions as before. My parents: reservedly proud of having three healthy and moderately intelligent daughters. My sisters: clueless. Me: clueless.

It dawns on me, in the dream, that all our images grow with us, agewith us, probably die with us. Whatever our present age, we are now the same age in past photographs. It has become impossible to recover photos of ourselves at a younger age—our Facebook accounts automatically update; in our photo albums we are no longer babies, but our current selves trapped in the faded photos of bygone days. We are all Dorian Grays without the benefits: our pictorial selves age but so do we.

In my dream, no one could remember exactly what others looked like in the past. No one could boast, “Look at this. I was once considered a beauty.” When I woke up, I instantly went on Facebook to check if my profile pictures were unaltered. They were. Thank goodness I had taken these photographs when I was younger, easier, more carefree. And better still, I remain that way in them, even though the flesh-and-blood me moves on, marching towards decay and death. Which is the way it should be, and I am glad.


… likeness, once caught, carries the mystery of a Being.
—John Berger

Tammy Ho Lai-Ming
 / Co-editor
29 June, 2014

ASIAN CHA Issue#23 Editorial

Venice, June 2013
Meetings with Remarkable Men and Women (Selected) 
The editorial for the Sixth Anniversary Issue of Cha


There was a coffee house not too far from the university library (but far enough to deter most students from taking a pilgrimage). I spent quite a few afternoons there, armed with a book or two. Thinking back, I was good at prolonging the life of a latte. I seldom paid attention to other people, and I enjoyed my anonymity. Still, I stole glances at others: some walked in wearing long black gowns that almost touched the floor; some wore masks like those on display in a Venetian souvenir shop; some carried such big sacks that I wondered if there were murdered bodies inside. I was minding my own business one afternoon, possibly reading a book about medicinal cannibalism, a man who smelt exactly like another man I’d met in Krakow (a distinctive mixture of cooked pork fat, expensive hair mousse and old leather) sat next to me and immediately drew his bulky armchair closer to mine. Despite myself, I became quite shy. He was not handsome, but he was dressed smartly, although I thought the shade of grey of his suit was perhaps too bright for a middle-aged man. There was a red dot—one of those dots you see mushrooming on older people—on one of his cheeks. We sat there, next to one another, for a long while. Then he stood up, patted my head two times and left as abruptly as he sat down. 


She was a tall, short-haired girl and she wore jeans that were a little too short for her long legs. Her socks—their colour I cannot now recall—were exposed with her every step. There was another girl with us, too, but I remember nothing about her except that she brought our number to three. That afternoon, unchaperoned, we found ourselves first in a playground, then, in a kind of grassland. All of a sudden, someone (not me) took out a small cooking pot, and we started to make soup out of handfuls of unwashed grass. The tall girl also sprinkled some crushed purple and poppy-red petals in the pot, as well as parts of other plants I did not recognise. She did this expertly, in a theatrical fashion, as though mimicking a TV chef. I don’t remember how the soup tasted, but, afterwards, when I recounted the incident to an aunt, she said that we had been silly and that we could have been poisoned and that our organs might rot. Before we departed, the tall girl, under a barren tree in a courtyard, said to me in a tone that was neither indifferent nor insincere: “We never know how quickly a plant sprouts.” I realised much later that she was trying to sympathise with me about my height.

To whom do you fascinatingly belong? he asked, referencing Henry James without naming him. To the highest bidder? he asked again, and I remained silent. A young man whose sideburns were artificially curled, he could have been a bartender or a university student or a writer plotting his third “experimental” novel.


My mother, a woman of virtue, is not someone you would proverbially call “fun-loving.” I thank her dearly for that. For example, when my sisters and I were young, an uncle wanted to give us an old video game before buying a new one. My mother quickly and assertively declined the offer, believing that nothing that didn’t get us to read or write or sleep could come to any good. I was only given a fake Barbie when I was hospitalised, aged six or seven, for mouth surgery—my lower lip had become infected after my paternal grandmother had accidentally kicked me from the other end of the sofa while talking on the phone. The lip grew to such a size that speaking became difficult; I now believe that that imposed bout of silence might have been the impetus for my generally quiet disposition. The fake Barbie made me understand at least two things: 1) that dolls are truly boring and 2) that as Barbie didn’t have nipples (I didn’t know the word then), mine must be unnatural. On the day of my discharge, I was also given a new red dress, with a flourish of lace around the collar. But my initial elation at the gift was dampened quickly enough: it became obvious that I was only getting my Chinese New Year dress a couple of months early. On the short walk from the hospital to the bus stop, an old and seemingly kind woman was giving out balloons with smiley faces on them to sick children to cheer them up. I had been taught never to accept anything from strangers, and so when the old lady handed me a big blue balloon, I swatted it so hard with my Barbie doll, it burst. The popping sound was loud, and the woman’s shocked and injured face—I was ashamed to understand, even then—suggested she thought I was rejecting her, not the balloon, not even the idea of a balloon.

Tammy Ho Lai-Ming / Co-editor
28 March, 2014


ASIAN CHA Issue#20 Editorial

Hula Hooping
(First published in Berfrois on 28 February, 2013.)

“First snowfall of the year, Issy-Les-Moulineaux” by Oliver Farry 
I don’t want to be like a fruit that is small, round and has a bland taste. I like being written into poems but when someone does that I feel shy but also ridiculously euphoric. I have been using the same perfume since I was sixteen years old. One of the flats I rented in Hong Kong had a leaking ceiling and tropical rain came through the cracks like drizzles of piss. I want to have good taste in music but I don’t know where to begin. I like the Irish songs The Wind that Shakes the Barley and An Poc ar Buile. I don’t like hearing my voice rippling on Skype. I studied Buddhism for nine years and I am fearful of the concept of reincarnation. I don’t remember how many times I was photographed in my old school uniform. My first “jeans” weren’t made of denim. I have never arranged to bump into someone. The countries that I have visited twice are Finland and Poland. As I grow older, I try to moderate my desire for things that won’t happen. I want to write about Hong Kong like Guy Maddin wrote about Winnipeg but before I do that I have to love my city more. My sisters are twins. I would like to have a spare room so I can spread out unread books on the floor to form a small labyrinth.
My favourite professor can translate Baudelaire and Lorca. I think the best way to annoy an editor is to not address her in an email, as though you are writing to a void and have never learnt to be polite. Photos of embryos fascinate and frighten me. I was amused that John Alexander Bryan said “The existence which we name a shadow, possesses more natural oneness than the existence which we name gold.” I question authority constantly, secretly, timidly. After someone has told me a ghost story I would remain upset for days because the ghost would stay inside my head. My first and most Dickens novel is Great Expectations. If there’s a Magwitch in my life I would treat him very well. My passport photos are ugly but the urgency of having them taken means that one can’t be too fussy. I have never been to Spain. I have never planted orchids. I have never seen a river full of supermarket trolleys. I have never really understood the Euler circuit. I think Joshua is a beautiful name. I believe you have to thoroughly understand something in order to subvert it in any meaningful way. I ask myself, “How much of history is lost to illegible glances?”
Cambodia, 2006
I have been mistaken for Southeast Asian several times in my home city. In Cambodia, the locals thought that I was Cambodian and spoke to me in their language. Sometimes my shadow is eaten by whatever that walks before or behind me. I imagine Robert Creeley is talking about me in his poem “The Woman.” There is no particular hour in the day or in the night that I like best. I like the hour in which I have done something useful for myself or something kind to others. I can be quite selfish and I don’t want to elaborate on that. I harbour strong emotions towards the moon, especially when it’s deceptively large and I feel lonely. I never recline my seat on the plane; I hate it when others do. I was bitten by a dog once but no one else remembers the occurrence. I was dismayed to learn that human beings have a third pair of eyelids. I have noticed that if you smile to an unfriendly shopkeeper, her attitude will soften. I think it’s arrogant of me to try to convert people with friendliness. I often forget to put on body lotion after showers. I wish I didn’t occasionally think my grandfather walked too slowly on his crooked wooden cane.
A sofa that can comfortably accommodate me and him makes me happy. When I was younger I collected stamps. I particularly treasured those with the Queen’s silhouetted head. I am drawn to Richard Brautigan’s poem “To England”—“There are no postage stamps that send letters / back to England three centuries ago.” I’m afraid of holding babies in my arms or touching their soft heads but I must learn how to do these. I like the letter “O.” I find it hard to be warm to people who make fun of others. In Luxemburg, a Chinese chef made me a vegetable soup that reminded me of my deceased grandmother. I am not sporty. I am not musical. I don’t balance well. I like phrases that are difficult to translate into another language. A certain thickness of beard is very charming. The universe isindifferent. I want to have a balcony in my final home so I can leave it open when I am dead. I wonder why we often forget about a pain when it subsides. Same with love. Every sigh that another person makes certainly doesn’t diminish mine. I believe in attraction only when there is a mirror in the room and we pay no attention to it because we are too engrossed with one another. I believe in attraction only when there is a mirror in the room and we are too engrossed with our reflections in it looking back at us.
I agree with Borges that each of us is a caricature copy of oneself. I agree with Nabokov that curiosity is a pure form of insubordination. I agree with Johnson that to prove something exists one might as well kick it. I don’t have exaggerated ideas about things I don’t know. I may have prejudiced or romanticised ideas about things I do know. I think “love” said in a certain way can be chillingly passive-aggressive. Instead of a pair of Christian Louboutin shoes, I am happier to receive some lines for possible inclusion in my next poem. I think the intellectual, poetic and sexual itch are one. My sisters and I believe that playing with a hula hoop will give us slim waists (it doesn’t work on everyone). A famine survivor wept before me some years ago. I don’t like the buzzing sound of an iPhone in my presence, untidy sugar cubes in a broad-brimmed cup, ink stains on leather jackets, not having my English corrected when I make mistakes, poems that are titled “Untitled,” the texture of liquorice and the taste of non-alcoholic beer. I can be a little judgemental, even though I keep most of my judgements to myself and nurse them until they become irrevocable. I wonder which is more arousing—being ejaculated upon the face or in the mouth. I have been to three funerals; I wore black two times, white once. The dead body of a loved one leaves an everlasting impression. Sometimes, late at night, I imagine sleeping next to my dead beloved and that I, too, am dead.
My father is getting old fast. My mother is getting old too but at a slower pace. I believe freedom is first but as Cohen says, “Old Black Joe’s still pickin’ cotton.” When I am flying on a plane, I often look outside the window to see all these stars, stars and then below, a magnificent galaxy of city lights. I wish I could sing opera or draw or tap dance. I am hurt if someone says I am competitive. I want never to become a female Casaubon. What I like from Geoff Dyer’s Paris Trance: “on the outskirts of a kiss,” “unfettered potential,” “Her English deteriorated quickly when she became angry,” “There could never be another you,” “Time has run out.” I love eating oysters with the right and appreciative person. I am amazed by the idea that we are ancient; we are stardust. I like giving myself a kind of heightened sensation that only I myself can conjure. I have never held a ribbon for too long. Twice I was moved to kiss the pages of a book I was reading. I feel sad about the conflict between Hongkoners and Mainland Chinese. I like imperatives, old encyclopaedias, small apples, temperamental kettles, cutting price tags on new dresses, a sweetheart’s handwriting, a sunny and lazy afternoon. When I read literature on the Tube I felt I was in the right place. Many Chinese New Years ago, I dreamt of my deceased grandmother. In the dream she asked me to ask my mum to burn her some new paper clothes.
My best girl friend has a boy’s name. My own name is a dynasty and a whore. I sometimes self-censor. Some of my favourite films are Brief EncounterMake Way for TomorrowSolaris and Topsy-Turvy. I like to be silent together with a man and be perfectly content. I like gulping water from a huge plastic bottle. I would like to have an audience to see me do that. I used to share a bunk bed with one of my sisters. Sometimes people bore me but I bore myself too. I don’t like watching someone walk away. I don’t like walking away either. I found the view from the Centre Pompidou of ancient buildings congregating at dusk spectacular. My toenails have a perpetual sad look no nail polish can brighten. I played table tennis in secondary school. I like science fiction stories that include time-travel elements and paradoxes in general. I am never quick enough to come up with a wish when there is a stray eyelash. I want to see at least one great natural phenomenon in my lifetime. When I am lonely I imagine I am alone in a vast and still desert. I remain scornful of those who use “LOL.” I take photographs of objects that have once seen more glorious days. I have never jumped into fountains. I don’t think it’s as hard to pass from people kissing to people eating one another as Voltaire conjectured. I suppose I am likeable. I want to be multi-talented, multi-lingual. When I look at a fat pigeon I think of evolution.

from left to right: Ying, Ching (my younger sisters), me
Writing this for days exhausts me. It is a good kind of exhaustion, like what Hemingway said about finishing a short story. I wish the friends and family I have mentioned or alluded to will continue to love and admonish me. When I die I want somebody to close my eyes and make sure my horny feet are not exposed at the funeral. I sometimes think of hula hooping with my sisters but I don’t really remember much. I wouldn’t want to revisit my childhood. I wouldn’t want to go back to any period of my past. I imagine it’s more cinematic to part with someone at a snow-covered train station than a provincial airport. If I am to write a book in my senile days it will be The History of the Clock. I am in a seizure of love. When I read this back in a few years’ time I will probably find my current self unbearably pretentious and naïve — “hard to believe I was ever as bad as that.” I want to be happier. And I want to believe that my best days are still ahead of me before I belong to the ages.
Tammy Ho Lai-Ming / Co-editor
7 March, 2013

ASIAN CHA Issue#19 Editorial

A Hundred Years of Karma
Recently I’ve been riding the bus a lot—three hours a day, more or less. I spend one eighth of my time on a “moving can,” only slightly less than the amount of sleep I get at night. Have you heard of the effectiveness of a four-hour sleep cycle? It’s not so effective.
It feels strange to think that I regularly spend so much time in a confined space with strangers. In Chinese, there is a saying, “We have a hundred lives’ worth of karma to thank for our riding on the same boat today” (百世修来同船渡). My fellow passengers have faces haggard and dull and worn out by the world—what previous lives we must have shared! I have much sympathy for them, even when they are bumping into me or are taking the last seat.
I sing the song “Twenty-Seven Strangers” to myself sometimes. It is beautiful, and Buddhist in its own way. If you have studied Buddhism, you know that we could have been any organism in our past lives: ants, bees, bats, small fishes, bacteria. But now, now, in this life, we are humans. And you are with me on this journey. Rain outside. Bugs. Twigs scratching the window. A speedy and annoying bike. You are with me, although we all eventually and inevitably “separate without a sound.” And the following day, “it could be the same / when I do it all again.”
As commuters, we will do it all again, and it will be the same. Or at least largely the same. The route remains constant, but there are subtle changes in the trip: it moves—if not forward—at least on. It develops. More and more faces get recognised, the portion of strangers decreases, acquaintanceships develop. The weird overdressed man you first noticed that sweltering afternoon becomes the friendly guy who just happens to like heavy jackets. That grumpy old woman becomes just another person trying to get through her days. How many years of karma do we have to thank for riding this same bus, not just today, but every day?
At Cha, we have been riding this bus for five years now. Sometimes we have imagined that we are driving, and perhaps occasionally we have steered a bit. But mostly, it has been like a commute, where we try to run on time but happily let our passengers set the route. By my count, there are forty-two this time—twenty-four returning contributors and eighteen new—none of them strangers. I love seeing so many old faces on the seat across from me, but I like the new ones, too. More faces to recognise, more friendships to develop.
And I am happy to share a space with them, a space which in nineteen trips has never once felt confined. As soon as they board, our writers, artists and guest editors fling open the windows and let the air rush in. They start talking, too, and I am content to ride along and listen, let their ideas bump into me, sway to the rhythm of their words. Happy to let the cycle continue and the trip move in new directions.
Sometimes I sing “it could be the same / when I do it all again,” and I hope I can do it all again and that it will be the same, if by the same you mean constantly new and rewarding.
Maybe I did something right in my past lives, because this ride has felt like a hundred years of good karma.

Tammy Ho Lai-Ming / Co-editor
25 November, 2012

ASIAN CHA Issue#18 Editorial

originally posted here.

In My Piecemeal Fashion
           With this pen I take in hand my selves
           and with these dead disciples I will grapple.
              (Anne Sexton, “Mother and Jack and the Rain”, Collected Poems, p. 109)
The previous issue of Cha was released just as we were shifting house, and, between packing and unpacking, moving out and moving in, we couldn’t quite manage an editorial. After its launch, former contributor and guest editor Ankur Agarwal wrote to me: “I was surprised that there was no editorial this time and I missed reading it. I hope the editorial is not discontinued for the future issues as well!”
I assured him that it had not been discontinued and there would be one in the following issue. I also decided that I would write it myself.

Deciding on a suitable topic to write about is hard. But once you have found it, the job is almost half done.

While editing former contributor Ricky Garni‘s recent poetry collection, 2% Butterscotch, I came across the following poem, which I like for several reasons—I love Borges. I love Middlemarch. I love “kinship between things”: 

I didn’t have time to read the whole interview and so I was happy to think that this was just the way he liked to start sentences, like some people who say “Uh, well” or “Hmmm.” Borges was blind, I mean, I am not telling you anything you don’t already know here, but still, I had another idea, that people who are blind just have to occasionally make a big statement, like AH MIDDLEMARCH!, so they can sort of claim the territory of the conversation and people will stop and listen. It is really a bold move when you think about it, because people who have read Middlemarch realise what an extraordinary universe it is, and how George Eliot has produced a world in which the whole universe is one living thing, and how there is a kinship between things that seem far off and by the end are all interwoven, and so, once you have startled people by saying AH MIDDLEMARCH! you have really raised the stakes on the tenor of the conversation, because people automatically are thinking about a world in which there is a kinship between things that seem far off and by the end are all interwoven, which was Borges’ point, really, anyway because I read the rest of the article interview later that day and this is exactly what he said:

INTERVIEWER: What do you think there is?
BORGES: (annoyed) I think there is a kinship between things.
       (Ricky Garni, “Borges Says: AH MIDDLEMARCH!,” 2% Butterscotch, pp. 182-183)

I fact-checked the poem (there were a few American expressions I had to ask the author to elucidate, and Google answered quite a few questions as well), and my research led me to the treasure trove of Paris Review‘s author interviews. I immediately gulped down a few, and then sipped some more over the next days. What particularly fascinated me was how often the writers were asked about their writing process: 

HOLLANDER: I always write in longhand, and I revise when I type. Then, when a poem is to be published in bookform, I may redo something in its magazine version, something that doesn’t seem right to me. Berryman: I got one of those things that have a piece of glassine over a piece of paper, and you can put something in between and see it but not touch it. I would draft my stanza and put it in there.

CLAMPITT: Oh, the thought of it! I don’t understand how, but a lot of poets do relish computers. My own original handwritten drafts are usually on the backs of those silly announcements law firms send out[.]

TATE: I was just sitting on my bed in a dormitory room and I started writing. The thing that was magic about it was that once you put down one word, you could cross it out. I figured that out right away. I put down mountain, and then I’d go, no—valley. That’s better.

SNODGRASS: Often I print them [the poems] off and make pencil or pen corrections on that. Or sometimes I just do it directly on the machine.

SEIDEL: I use what’s at hand to use. Literally. Sometimes, not often, it’s a pen and a small spiral notebook that I’m carrying around. Much more often, I start a poem on the computer. I sit down at the computer every morning. It’s my feeling that working on the computer puts less between me and the poem I’m writing than my own handwriting does. The computer is nearly transparent to me. As a quite separate thing, I take real pleasure in the device itself, typical sleek Apple elegance—the physical thing gives me pleasure. I travel a certain amount and the computer goes where I go.

 Etcetera. Etcetera.

Their responses led me to several questions: Do people still write longhand with a fountain pen, as though composing an important sermon? Or do they mostly tap away on their electrical devices? This is what I wanted to write about.
But, naturally, I could only speak for myself (more about my experiences in later sections), and I wanted to know more about how others approach writing. And who better to ask than our readers and talented contributors? I set up a questionnaire on Facebook (hoping the medium wouldn’t skew the results too much to the digitally inclined; as it turned out my methodology had other larger flaws), in which I asked “Do you write poems? If so, do you use a computer, or do you write in longhand?” and provided the following possible answers:
1. i carry my spiral notebook with me (i carry it in my bag) i’m never without it
2. What is “longhand?” My mum said my hands are short.
3. What difference does it make? None of my “poems” are published.
4. Have you heard of “global warming?”
5. And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own[.]
6. I walk around the city with the poem I’m working on folded up in my head.
7. Before our lovemaking, longhand. After, computer.
8. Your answers don’t speak for me. I’ll add my own below.
One hundred and forty-three people responded. I was gratified by the large number of answers and decided to draw some conclusions in my editorial. As I said earlier, settling on a writing topic means that the job is almost half done. Surely, with the help of over 140 people, my task would be as light as half-eaten… cotton candy.
But one needs time to do anything (the line “Can’t believe how strange it is to [do] anything at all,” comes to mind), and, shortly after I set the questionnaire, an opportunity for me to return to the home of Cha, Hong Kong, had emerged. (A pattern also seemed to be emerging that I hoped I wouldn’t have to keep up—one issue, one move.) From that moment on, there seemed to be endless things to do—packing up, moving out, checking in—and that just getting there. Because of my changed circumstances, I knew I had less time to focus on Cha and the new issue would have to be published later than usual. And I thought to myself—”No, I can’t write the editorial after all.”
Saturday 21 September 2012. 2:00pm.

I am sitting in a hair salon in a Link shopping centre in my home district of Tin Shui Wai. My hair is covered with white cream and being steamed. In Hong Kong, “negative air ionisation therapy” (負離子) is a household name, although just ten years ago it was not so readily available. I remember when the treatment was first introduced, one needed to set aside six hours in a salon (at least those of us with really thick hair), and having your hair straightened was a half-a-day affair. Now it’s down to three or four hours.

My head is inside a glass bubble. I look like an astronaut.
Not having any interest in gossipy magazines about celebrities I no longer know and finding Anne Sexton best ingested nine pages at a time, I take out my notebook (black, hardcover, small, cheap, reliable) and start to write: “The previous issue of Cha…” and continue up until I reach “I take out my notebook…”
What interesting things one sees in a public housing estate’s hair salon:
– a steady stream of husbands, dragging their young children in tow, searching for their wives (unfamiliarly aproned and having their heads massaged or perms re-permed) to ask if they are ready for lunch. The answer is always a resounding “No.”
– the father with two sons and a daughter, their hair very thick like mine. While the boys are charmingly enthusiastic about having the backs of their heads shaved (as though it were the most exciting event of their entire lives), the tiny, chubby girl insists that she does not want to have a haircut! The proprietor of the salon—a woman whose own styling is hardly the best advertisement for her business—asks one of the stylists, apparently very good with kids, to convince the little girl of the joys of having a haircut. The negotiation (or rather, manipulation) is a pleasure to watch, although I will not reveal the stylist’s strategy here, for fear that parents’ groups might disapprove.
– passers-by, walking outside the shop, yelling someone’s name and then someone, heavily-shampooed inside the salon, yelling back.
– the legendary “The Tall One,” asked for by name by many clients. He apparently has the morning off, but when he finally comes in, he is instantly recognisable. Why? He’s the shortest hairdresser in the shop!

Computer vs. Longhand

“Do you write poems? If so, do you use a computer, or do you write in longhand?” Answers:
1. i carry my spiral notebook with me (i carry it in my bag) i’m never without it (52 people chose this answer)
2. What is “longhand?” My mum said my hands are short. (2)
3. What difference does it make? None of my “poems” are published. (2)
4. Have you heard of “global warming?” (5)
5. And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own[.] (1)
6. I walk around the city with the poem I’m working on folded up in my head. (36)
7. Before our lovemaking, longhand. After, computer. (16)
8. Your answers don’t speak for me. I’ll add my own below.
Reading these answers again, I am embarrassed of how biased I was from the very beginning. The answers favour handwriting, apart from No. 2, which is my attempt at a joke; No. 3, which I deliberately included to show my mean streak; No. 4, which argues against the sacrifice of trees for art’s sake and No. 5, which is a reference to Whitman. There isn’t one answer for those who primarily use the computer or who use both a computer and write in longhand. Luckily, the respondents were more level-headed and came up with their own answers: “I write in a notebook and also use a computer. If my notebook and computer are not near me, I write on scraps of paper, and upload them afterwards, editing as I go.” (Rumjhum Biswas); “I use a computer, and as I revise I save off any significantly changed versions as new files.” (Bob Bradshaw); “I write poems longhand and on computer, and I revise both ways as well.” (Jon Tribble); “My mind, and then the computer.” (Steven Digman); “It’s somehow more personal to begin with pen and paper, but once I have some kind of poem there, I prefer to revise on computer.” (Ace Baker). There were also these longer responses:

Dear Tammy Ho, In view of the fact that most of your respondents have not taken your question seriously and have chosen to be witty and cute, I will risk taking it seriously and answer that I do, even at my advanced age, use the computer with its ability to correct my work with the flick of a finger. I can’t imagine how the great writers of the past managed with nothing but longhand. (Hal O’ Leary)

Actually several of your answers speak to me. I carry a notebook with me most of the time, but mostly it’s for recording birds i see or making notes from events I’m reviewing. Some poetry does get in though, specially haiku. I also keep poetry in my head, folded up in fact, like your answer suggests. When it comes to writing poems out, i write them in pen on paper and it’s usually not until I feel a poem is almost complete that I transfer it to the computer. (Juliet Wilson)

Almost always the first draft is in longhand on a yellow legal pad. Sometimes several drafts. When it begins to feel poemly, I put it on the computer so I can see what shape it’s taking. I print out and save all copies. Newest goes on top. I work on the poem in my head, eyes and ears open for the right image or word, the one I’ve been searching for. I often freewrite in the margins of the latest draft. Sometimes that’s where the real poem is. (Diane Lockward)

The majority of people, however, opted for Answers No. 1 and No. 6, the former inspired by e. e. cummings. Both speak to a kind of defiance against modern technology, although as I said, the options provided were not entirely objective. I was also surprised to see that quite a few liked No. 7, “Before our lovemaking, longhand. After, computer.” The answer was intended to be vague, playful and slightly provocative, and I am glad that it resonated with some. It also left open the possibility of a more metaphorical interpretation: after the consummation of ideas in the form of intense (and sexy) scribbling, the aftermath can be dealt with on screen.
One Unknown Person’s Story

W.F. Lantry shared his process thus: “I write in a strange, highly focused trance, and it only lasts so long.” I suppose this experience is echoed in many writers’ lives. For me, this “trance” can occur when I am in a stable moving vehicle, at a seminar, reading Butler’s Notebooks in the library, watching TV or slurping Japanese udon noodle soup on a stainless steel table (it can also be Sichuan beef noodle soup). So long as I can write on paper, I can slip into this “trance,” although before this state kicks in some lines might already have been forming, usually in reaction to some external stimuli. The “trance” can be incredibly short—several minutes from start to finish. Or it can be long—hours of abandonment. In order to be able to write in a variety of settings, I carry several pens (light blue, black, dark blue) and a notebook with me most of the time, sometimes several; as Reid Mitchell wrote, “Does it matter that my notebook is not spiral? And that I usually carry two?”

But I do not write poetry very often, and all that carrying around of stationary is more for show and security than results. Still, when I do write, I love to first scratch out the lines on paper to test their shape. When I move them to the screen, I often tear out the spent pages and crumple them mercilessly. It is like killing the poem’s past selves. Deincarnation.

However, after showing a professor of mine a first draft of “An Anatomy of Memory” (Fig. 1) on Facebook, he suggested that I start keeping my working papers.

Fig. 1 “An Anatomy of Memory,” May 2011. The poem was published in Asiatic in December 2011.
I think he was right—not because I delude myself with fantasies that someone will have idle, romantic or scholarly interest in them once I die, but because they retain the aura of the time when I first conceived the poem. Although this aura is of no significance to others, it is invaluable to me. Take “An Anatomy of Memory” as an example—I wrote it in a car while travelling near Glenshee, Perthshire, in May 2011. The discoloured wreathes, the blue sky and the many shades of green were all drawn directly from what I saw, although not the hooker, who I invented and randomly turned from ageless to middle-aged. (There was an inn that looked like it could have been built in Shakespeare’s time, though.) The handwriting, done on that late May morning, connects me intimately to the morning itself; it precisely conjures the time, the place, the people, the smell, the dots, the weather, the sounds, the carelessness of “The Anat” and “A Ana,” the carsickness from writing in the backseat.
Below are two more scanned images of my first drafts, if you will indulge me just a little bit longer. I should add that no physical copies of these remain. I was still into “killing” the pages at that time…
Fig. 2 “From Greenwich and the Maughan Library and Back.” 22 November 2011. When I began the poem, I was alone in the Maughan Library’s second-floor photocopying room and had just copied a few pages from Barthes’s Mythologies (I think it was the part about steak and chips). It was rather hot in the room, and I remember having a little bit of a temper, the kind that makes you angry at yourself for no particular reason. You can tell from how I crossed out most lines. And although you cannot read it, this draft also includes the line “with the smell of British beer and cat piss,” which was perhaps an accurate reflection of how I was feeling. The final version of this poem is forthcoming in Unshod Quills.

Fig. 3 “Minute,” 2007. This draft was done on the 969 Citybus from Tin Shui Wai (my parents’ home) to Sheung Wan (where my apartment was at the time). I finished the poem quickly—an outburst of sad feelings. You might find the texture of the paper interesting—I wrote on the back pages of a Victorian novel (my own copy!), now sadly two pages short. The final version of this poem, which can be read here, was published in Muse in January 2008.


I am back in Hong Kong, my hair is straight and I have just finished typing out scribblings done while my head was inside a glass bubble. For a moment, I consider crumpling up my notes, their purpose now served. But I decide not to—better to have a direct link to that housing estate hair salon, halfway around the world from where I was only a few days ago. It’s funny, I think, my own survey did not even include an option for my own writing process, but this process did allow me to find time to write this editorial after all.

Tammy Ho Lai-Ming / Co-editor
27 September, 2012
I have just told you my story. What is yours? Tell me in a comment below.

ASIAN CHA Issue#16 Editorial

originally posted here.

Pillow Books
[1] Things that quicken the heart/give you goose bumpsA Saturday morning latte, sprinkled with nutmeg. A cup of warm red wine infused with cinnamon.
The wails of the neighbour’s cat—more human than feline. The alarm at 2.00 a.m.
The thud of an Amazon book landing at the stoop. The lights coming down at the theatre. The opening chords of “Helplessness Blues.”
[2] Things that rise—Banana bread. The sun, every morning, even though I may not see much of it. Boiling water. Friends’ pregnant tummies. A dozing cat roused by a distinctive sound. Nipples aroused by a distinctive touch.
[3] A thing that surprised me at firstBeing called “luv” by a complete stranger.
[4] Mysterious thingsHow one supermarket can close at five, when its neighbour closes at nine. The difference between brands of washing powder.
What a partner sees when he goes running alone.
A photograph of my family which cannot be deleted from a memory card and follows me from camera to camera.
[5] At seven o’clock last night, my partner returned from work. He stood outside the door, adjusted his red scarf and then walked away to get the milk he always forgets. Ten minutes later, he reappeared with a Tesco bag, claiming he had come straight from the train and had only now just arrived. I was highly suspicious, especially since he smelled faintly of beer. It did not occur to me until later that there is no Tesco nearby.
[6] Memories of my grandfather—Peanut-buttered bread. Empty peanut-butter jars, scraped nearly clean, lined up on the far end of the table. His wooden staff. Him, sitting alone on a bench in the playground. His smile when he saw my sisters and I skipping rope.
[7] Infuriating things—A person you are fond of turns out to be far less worthy than you thought. Discovering that an image you thought original has been used before.
Delayed trains. Departing trains that squeak too loud.
Someone’s underwear—visible beneath his loose jeans. A still-lit cigarette thrown in a bush.
When you are wearing your tallest heels and the elevators in the Russell Square station aren’t working so you have to climb the 117 steps.
When receiving guests in your house, you see a cobweb that you had not noticed before.
Fine hair above the lip. Shadows that bear little resemblance to their owners.
A recalled library book. A paper clip that doesn’t clip. A zigzag in a pair of stockings that leads everybody to speculate on its cause.
An inadequate supply of chilli oil at dim sum. After you spill wine on your keyboard, and the keys stick and produce random letters.
[8] The electronics graveyard in the closet—Three digital cameras. Every generation of iPod. Headphones. Discordant cords. Keyless keyboards. Wireless mice. Once loved brands, now out of favour.
[9] One day a Jehovah’s Witness came to the door and promised to return with a Chinese bible. The next day he delivered the book as promised, and he asked when he should come again. When I told him “in one year, the disappointment on his face almost made me convert.
[10] Things that someone else takes care of—Hair mice in the shower drain. Contact lens cases. Leftover soup in a Nissan cup noodle. The cup itself. Orange peels. Fallen leaves that sneak past the door. A dead spider.
[11] Kinds of days—Dewy days. Due days. Productive days. Reproductive days. Redo days.
[12] Things that sadden the heart—That each lover is not a recapitulation of all those loved before and after. A white cloth that is no longer white. A hole visible when the nail is pulled out. The removed second place setting at a table for one.
[13] Things that give me pleasure—It is pleasing to unexpectedly discover a particular Cantonese dish you love on the menu of a local restaurant.
Seeing herons along a bridge. Deleting junk emails en masse. Returning a dropped coin to its owner. Brushing my teeth for five minutes, undisturbed. Seeing my mom comb her thick hair like a young girl. Feeling the stubble on the sweetheart’s face.
When the pot of morning coffee turns out perfect, not too bitter or too watery.
That every day is not like the next. That as John Steinbeck said, Nothing good gets away.”
When my name is uttered softly or raindrops on the windowpane doodle a letter. Well-worn boots.
The smell of new books. The smell of old books.
Being praised, even stutteringly. Being admonished by someone I love and who means well. Being reminded of something in a timely manner.
Listening to my father sing old Mandarin songs, perfectly-pitched and confident—something which has not happened for three years.
[14] Things to have when sleeping—The light on. Two bottles of water. A stifling number of blankets. Six pillows to my partner’s one, including two orthopaedic. Soft-covered books which can double as pillows in an emergency.
Tammy Ho Lai-Ming / Co-editor
18 March, 2012

ASIAN CHA Issue#15 Editorial

Listening Outloud

My favourite place in Hong Kong is forever tied to a book, or rather a scene from an audio book. The spot is a small glade a few kilometres south of Tai O’s salt marshes on the Lantau Trail. Objectively, it’s not much, just a small clearing in the forest, fifty metres where large trees make way for shoulder high bushes. If you ever found yourself walking along section 7 of the Lantau Trail, you would likely pass right through it without a hint of recognition. Just perhaps, if you happened to arrive at this clearing right as the late afternoon sun broke through a cloudy day, you might judge it a pretty spot. But if you were lucky enough to see it lit in warm afternoon sun while listening to The Corrections, particularly the memorable scene in which Chip slips an overpriced piece of wild salmon under his sweater, the glade would form a lasting memory, at least if you were me. For me, that glade will forever be associated with the attempted theft of nearly eighty dollars of wild fish from a trendy New York shop, and The Corrections, as read by George Guidall, will always be a leitmotif of the Lantau Trail.
As leitmotifs go, it is one that can only exist in personal memory. The location and the book have nothing particularly in common, share no themes. Jonathan Franzen is hardly known as a great recorder of Hong Kong life, and there is little in a set piece about the dietary habits of New York’s super rich to associate with the wilds of Lantau. Yet, I can no longer think of one without the other. There must be something in the relationship between audio books and memory because as an avid listener, I find that more and more of my memories are tied to what I was listening to at a given moment. To be sure, this is nothing new. People have long associated vacations with the books they read, movies with former lovers, summers with the songs on the radio. For me, it is just that the soundtrack of my life increasingly features audio books: getting progressively drunker on beer and failing to build an Ikea bed while listening to The Wind up Bird Chronicles; hiking up a rainy Korean mountain to the sound of 1984; cooking pasta in my house at university with The Castle on in the background; standing at a lonely Toronto street corner while learning about The Wisdom of Crowds, laughing outloud to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as I pulled into a local gas station. Sometimes the match between the book and memory is apt—rambling in Sussex to Notes from a Small Island and listening to Kafka at Hong Kong immigration come to mindbut most often they are like The Corrections and a glade a little south of Tai-O—a locale and story connected only by me and my iPod.
The growing number of experiences I associate with audio books has a lot to do with the number of them I am getting through; obviously the more books you listen to, the more memories you’ll collect around them. This increasing number has come at the expense of other media. I’ll admit it—I read fewer books, listen to more and more. Exactly zero of my 500 CDs are on my iPod, and I don’t miss them a bit. But it is positively bursting—or at least running very short on memory—with spoken word, particularly audio books.
So what is the appeal? It is partly their ease; it is much easier to listen to a book, then sit down and work through the pages. Like many of us, I fear that the digital world is, if not undermining my ability to focus on long passages, at least providing me with enough distractions to keep from trying. Or maybe I am just tired of reading, even if I am not tackling that many books, it feels like I am looking at words all the time—emails, text messages, the opening few paragraphs of countless articles online (there is that waning focus again), the Evening Standard on my train seat. Sometimes it is nice to just be able to listen to a story and not have to strain your eyes (or endure the conversations around you for that matter).
After all, who doesn’t like being read to? Obviously, a huge appeal of an audio book is the pleasure that we all get from being told a story. I know I certainly do, and did. My mother read extensively to me as a child, but she sometimes outsourced her duties to a number of audio productions we had around the house. One, an LP version of Disney’s adaptation of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf was a particular favourite. (I can’t help but hum Peter’s string leitmotif as I type.) We also had a cassette version of 101 Dalmatians that we played to fraying on car trips, and which must have driven my mother to distraction, no matter how engaging the interpretation. Since then I have been hooked; and fortunately the internet and its thousands of audio titles is always there to give me my fix.
To the purists who say that books are meant to be read, not read out, I point only to Charles Dickens. As anyone who has ever heard a convincing reading of A Christmas Carol can attest, there may be no one better to listen to than Dickens. There is a good reason for this, as it turns out. My co-editor Tammy Ho‘s Master’s thesis argued that the author constructed his books with reading aloud in mind, knowing that both he, when he gave a reading, and the public, when they picked up his latest serializations, would share his words with others. You can imagine my delight, therefore, when after I mentioned how much I was enjoying a particular production of Great Expectations, my co-editor suggested I should read the book instead, and I got to gleefully point out that she had spent 40,000 words arguing that the author wanted his words read out and heard, not just taken in by individual pairs of eyes.
This can all go too far. Of course, Great Expectations and all other books are intended to be read by people sitting in a chair, quietly turning the pages. I concede that some things are lost in the translation from paper to mp3. I am sure, for example, my grasp of the arguments I have heard instead of read are less complete and subtle. A book will undoubtedly reveal more when read closely than listened to, especially when that listening is undertaken in conjunction with another activity. Multitasking, that symptom of our schizophrenic world—is undermining the book. Is not even reading sacred?
In my case, no, I am afraid it isn’t. For me, the portability and versatility of the audio book, its multitaskingness, is its greatest virtue. Reading, when done properly, is a thoroughly heads down experience, an activity which excludes all but the simplest of additional tasks—drinking a cup of tea, eating a sandwich, writing in the margins and that is about it. You can’t ride a bike and read, although I did once see somebody trying. With an audio book, you can go out into the world and experience both the story and the environment around you. And the one influences the other, making the experience all the more memorable. Of course, how you read a book is dictated by your age, where you were, how you were feeling. But when consuming an audio book you can add even more inputs and senses to your experience of the story—the feeling of cutting mushrooms, the rain in your face, the sunlight in a small glade along the Lantau Trail.
I have a very vivid memory of listening to Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City while walking around the O2 Arena on a snowy evening, the lights of Canary Wharf ghostly in the distance. And I am sure I recall both the book and the walk the better for the combination. For me, Chronic City was a decent novel, fine as far as it went, but hardly the most memorable I’ve ever read. I doubt I would remember much of it at all if I had been, for example, reading in my house on a snowy day instead of walking along the Thames. And I am sure I would have no recollection of the walk without the sound of Lethem’s prose in my ear. But brought together, they added up to something more. Chronic City is now part of the soundtrack of winter 2009, another New York novel the leitmotif of an otherwise unrelated location.
Which reminds me, it is almost time for my evening constitutional, and I haven’t yet charged my iPod. I wonder how The Fat Years will sound from Woolwich Free Ferry.

Jeff Zroback / Co-editor
20 November, 2011

The Chinese Curse


“May you live in interesting times.” Thus goes the first part of the famous Chinese curse, or at least the curse commonly attributed to the Chinese. Like all good curses at first sight it could be mistaken as a blessing. This curse has, in fact, long been granted to and put upon Chinese writers and artists: they have certainly been living in interesting times.

Back in 1972, shortly after Nixon’s visit to China, Susan Sontag wrote her short story “Project for a Trip to China.” While calling China “the most exotic place of all” and her planned trip to the country a “mythical voyage,” she also admitted that “mythical voyages were to places outside of history” yet “now such voyages are entirely circumscribed by history.” In other words, Sontag felt she was merely a tourist fantasizing about a “real” China that she could not enter.
The “real” China, however, can be a real curse. About the same time, an anonymous, lone Chinese youth, who would later go under the poetic pseudonym Duo Duo, was writing secretly about the birth of a new subjectivity that had been alienated and isolated in the night of history. This night provided such uncanny visions:
In a night full of symbols
The moon is like the pale face of a patient
Like a mistaken, shifting time
And death, standing in front of the bed like a doctor:
Some merciless feelings
Some terrifying changes in the heart
Moonlight coughs softly on the empty ground in front of the house
Ah moonlight, hinting at the clearly seen exile… (“Night” [1973])
Here we encounter a strange, nascent reflective consciousness that was reporting back to us on two separate worlds: not so much Eastern and Western as aboveground and underground. And it was underground where Duo Duo resided. As he understood well as we first enter the underground, we can only grope, blindly and intuitively, for the threads of history:
The past sinks into silence without any reason
Along with the principle of the sun shining all over the earth
And the dreams once written in books
They once existed and vanished subjectively
In the permanent graveyard of time (“Untitled” [1976])
Having apparently inherited the “seer” tradition that Lu Xun founded with his “A Madman’s Diary” (1918) at the outset of modern Chinese literature, Duo Duo proved himself to be an “anti-prophet” of an underground China during the Cultural Revolution.
Contrary to Duo Duo and his anonymous, cryptic lyric voice, Ai Weiwei is one of the most outspoken and dynamic artists in today’s China. Ai Weiwei embodies the paradox of the second, more intense, clause of the Chinese curse: “May you come to attention to those in authority.” He is an independent artist with underground roots, but he is by no means an underground artist. Instead, he works and expresses his opinions publicly and aboveground. A conceptual and performance artist, a diligent and defiant blogger and a deliberate exhibitionist, he challenges visible and invisible walls in art and daily life. Ai Weiwei’s provocative works and social activism have made him so dangerously suspect in the eyes of the Chinese authorities that he was abruptly arrested on April 3, 2011. Ironically, his arrest only solidified his stature as a new international art icon.
Ai Weiwei is the best example of the rapid globalization of contemporary Chinese art, which in turn mirrors another prominent fact, namely that the Middle Kingdom itself is perceived as an emerging global superpower in the 21st century. Following his subsequent release on parole, regardless of how his personal life and career might have been affected in the short term, it is almost certain that Ai Weiwei has made decisive long term gains for himself and for contemporary Chinese art more generally. He has broken various taboos and provided a wide open vista for a new generation of ambitious Chinese artists who aspire for freedom within the nation and a place within the larger international stage. In this sense, the unprecedented publicity, visibility and attention heaped upon contemporary China and its artists have only turned the curse that has befallen Ai Weiwei into a blessing.
Duo Duo and Ai Weiwei have each been pioneering and revolutionary figures in their respective realms and times. Meanwhile, over the past three decades and more, there have been an impressively diverse and complex spectrum of Chinese writers, poets and artists, who like Duo Duo and Ai Weiwei, have deep roots in the underground of history. And they all, one way or another, have found their own distinctive and increasingly aboveground ways to wrestle with the burden and curse of history. Their works, considered together, testify to a kaleidoscopic, sometimes super-real but more often surreal, contemporary China. Natural questions arise: to what extent have these writers, poets and artists already succeeded in rendering their unique messages comprehensible to non-Chinese audiences? Can Chinese literature and art finally explode through the opaque or transparent walls surrounding China, and truly “make sense” to the world?
Perhaps one need not be overly concerned by such questions at all. Earlier this year, when attending a conference in Beijing on Chinese literature and its introduction overseas, I had the following to propose on the whole affair:
1 Before we introduce or promote ourselves, we must know who we are.
2 We can only present ourselves, we cannot impose ourselves upon others.
3 If others do not accept us, in the end, we have to accept ourselves.
This is as much pragmatic advice as it is highly idealistic, on both a collective and an individual level.
The late Chinese writer Wang Xiaobo (1952-1997) once speculated, via the male protagonist in his novella The Year of Independence, on the existential purpose of poetry writing itself:
I come to think: it’s not necessary to write a poem for others. If a person comes to enjoy a quiet night by himself, then my poem has no use for him. Reading it to him would only prevent him from enjoying his own poem on the quiet night. If a person can’t sing, then all the songs in the world have no use for him; if he can sing, he must sing his own song. That is to say, poet as a profession should be eliminated, and everyone needs to be his or her own poet.
Such a steadfast assertion, of course, might sound romanticized whereas in fact it should be understood from a particular moment in which Wang Xiaobo found his fictional alter-ego, a discovery not free of its own curses. In another novella, Love in the Era of Revolution, Wang Xiaobo further explored the dual theme of “seeking miracles” and “negative lotteries” and came to the conclusion that in the era of revolution, the impulse to seek miracles would invariably be met by misfortunes or “negative lotteries.” In the term “negative lotteries,” Wang Xiaobo not only summarized his generation’s grotesque experience during the Cultural Revolution, he also suggested, before his own sudden, untimely passing in 1997, a dystopian prospect for a future China of, say, 2015 or 2020. The sobering, somewhat fatalistic, prophecy of “negative lotteries” is like the Chinese curse itself, and serves as a useful reminder to those practicing contemporary Chinese literature and art: optimistic projections may turn out to be only wishful thinking.
This acknowledgment, nonetheless, brings us back into Duo Duo’s “Night” of the 1970s. That “Night,” one of many, was so agonizingly quiet, yet so distinctively audible, and was like that young, isolated poet himself, who, like a needle dropping to the ground, with no outside attention whatsoever, no media hype, no noise, was trying to find his way, absolutely alone, into—and out of—the maze of history and dreams:
It once lingered in a place of misery
Leaving unconscious and indecipherable black spots on the memory
It was sleepless, like a poet, tossing and turning
Passing in and out of ancient rooms of dreams… (“Night” [1977])
“May you find what you are looking for!” A curse is a curse. But, this last clause of the Chinese curse may, strangely, sound the most like a literal and honest blessing to China and its contemporary writers and artists. Indeed, just as another, although non-Chinese “curse” once had it: “The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.” Only those who have been cursed by history are blessed with the ability to see their predicaments clearly and to shatter the false spell of that same history.
Mai Mang (Yibing Huang) / Guest editor
17 July, 2011

ASIAN CHA Issue#13 Editorial

originally posted here

When You Live with a Poet
When you live with a poet, you know exactly which three-year-old work she means when she asks, “Did you like the enjambment in the second stanza?”
When you live with a poet, you are expected to know words like “enjambment.”
When you live with a poet, you need to have a job. It is hard to retire on a poet’s salary.
Right from the start of your life with the poet, you come to understand that she does not see the world in the same way as other people.
When you live with a poet, you realize that books make gift-giving easy and cheap, especially when bought second hand. The poet thinks that used books have more character anyway.
While working at your job because you are living with a poet, you learn not to panic when you receive an email with URGENT!!!! in the subject line, knowing it will contain her latest work, which “Really needs to be proofread now. It is very important that I don’t miss the deadline for _____ Review.”

When corresponding with a poet, it is advisable not to write sarcastic replies about the “importance” of submitting anything to ________ Review.
When you live with a poet, you get used to being plagiarized, although the poet prefers to call it “fair use.”
When you live with a poet, you somehow know without asking that the fair use policy is not reciprocal.
One night, during your life with the poet, you will find yourself explaining that her reading Auden out loud while you do the dishes is not quite the equal division of labor she seems to think it is.
When you live with a poet, you become very good at counting syllables and thinking of rhymes.
When you argue with a poet, it is bad news if she starts taking notes.
Even though you live with the poet, she thinks you will somehow believe her latest poem is not “autobiographical in any way.”
When you live with a poet, you sometimes catch her staring at teacups or laughing at a single sock. You pray to god that this has something to do with being a poet.
When discussing living arrangements with the poet, you actually hear her say that she will do the laundry when she “is inspired.”
Sometimes you wish you did not live with a poet.
When you live with a poet, you learn it is a compliment if your newly baked bread has her reaching for a pen instead of a butter knife.
If, while cohabitating with your poet, you hear the hoover running, you do not assume that this means she has been inspired into domestic duties. You know it is just as likely you will find her sitting next to the vacuum with a worried expression on her face, “Does it sound more like Brrrrr or Wrrrrr? I can’t get the onomatopoeia right.”
When you live with a poet, you automatically reply it is more like “Vrrrrr,” as if this kind of thing happens all the time in other houses.
When you live with a poet, you are amazed by her creativity, but wish she didn’t always have such a goddamn active imagination.
When you live with a poet, you live with a poet.
After a few years living with a poet, you start to worry about who will have to pack all those books when you move.
When you have spent enough time living with a poet, you no longer complain when her typing wakes you up at night. Instead you put in earplugs and go back to sleep, content that at least she is writing.
Living with a poet is easier when she is writing than when she is not.
Every day you live with the poet, you become more and more grateful she does not see the world the same way as other people.
You hope you will always live with the poet.
Jeff Zroback / Co-editor
27 February, 2011
Leave a comment and tell us what it’s like living with your writer/poet.

ASIAN CHA Issue#12 Editorial

The Mortuary and the App

In this issue of Cha, we have a special section of essays devoted to picture book authors, curated by our Reviews Editor Eddie Tay. In one of these pieces, “Portrait of a Children’s Book Author as a Young Reader”, Malaysian writer Margaret Lim beautifully describes her introduction to the world of fiction. Lim, who spent part of her formative years living in Kuching in Sarawak, had limited access to books as a child. During her first years as a primary student, there was no library in her mission school (it got one later) and the local British Council Library did not stock titles for children. She did, however, have one source of books: the patient library at the hospital where her father worked. While the first-class ward of the hospital was being renovated, its books were temporarily stored in a disused mortuary. Lim’s father, recognizing her passion for reading, gave his daughter the key to the room. For the young woman, it was life-changing moment:

I went unaccompanied, so hungry was I for reading material that I had no fear of the ghosts that reputedly haunted this place. My heart did thud though as I unlocked the door. A murky ray filtered through the dirty panes of this one window and lighted grudgingly upon the books piled up against one wall and sliding to the floor in a muddle.

O, wonder! O, brave new world. Miranda could not have been more overcome with amazement and delight.

Lim’s excitement is palatable in these lines, an excitement I think many young bibliophiles feel when they first get hooked, even if their discovery of literature isn’t quite as adventurous or romantic. It is hard to imagine that today many kids in the developed world (the situation is sadly different for young people elsewhere) would need to run a gauntlet of ghosts in a mortuary, climb into an attic or even search a dusty library to find something to read. Instead they have access to thousands books, marketed and segmented to meet their needs and age, a perfectly graded progression from pictures to paragraphs. Well-meaning aunts give charmingly illustrated volumes as gifts, school and public libraries stock the latest titles, the internet offers a vast resource of age-appropriate material. There is, in short, a lot out there to entice the eager young reader.
Such eager young things are often aspirational in their reading: they turn the pages in search of experiences beyond their own. For many children—and this was certainly the case for Lim, who cherished adult adventures stories and The Illiad above all else—the attraction of reading is the potential discovery of something more grown-up than themselves, a slightly taboo introduction to adult things. (One of the secrets of children’s book publishing is to write slightly older than the target audience, so that readers can imagine themselves more worldly and mature than they actually are.) At least this has traditionally been the case. Whether kids will continue to try and grow up through books is uncertain. It seems difficult to imagine the youth of today needing to resort to anything as quaint as perusing a novel to learn about sex.
Many wonder if young people will resort to anything as quaint as reading a novel at all with all the forms of distraction available to them. And there may be some cause for concern. Will our kids still choose the pleasures of the written word when much more immersive and immediate forms of entertainment are available? Will they read Issac Asimov when they can play BioShock? Is their ability to focus on an extended piece of writing being hampered by the hyperactivity of the internet? Maybe. Maybe not. The only thing that it is really safe to say about these questions is that it is too soon to tell.
If our media landscape does tell us one thing, though, it is that humans still crave stories. The written word remains one of the most potent forms of story-telling, and at least for now many kids are still seduced by its charms. And for those who aren’t, well, I am not sure it is time to panic. Despite our romanticism, it is important to recall that not every child in the past approached books with the passion of a Margaret Lim. And although early childhood reading is undoubtedly beneficial, many who don’t read as kids still manage to grow into it—Tammy Ho, my co-editor for one. Tammy barely read as a child but is now the most bookish person I know. (We can’t take a day trip without at least three novels.) Nor do I think that—and this is perhaps a mildly heretical statement for the editor of a literary journal—we should always stress to our kids the value of novels and poetry over other forms of expression to the extent that we often do. There is nothing innate about writing: it too is a technology (albeit a highly successful one) just like the other devices which have the professional fretters so worried. Who can predict what brilliant artistic forms the non-readers of today will generate on their touch screens? And it’s not like the digital revolution has killed reading off anyway—quite the contrary. The internet has resulted in a proliferation of words like never before. You might quibble over what our children are scanning, about the detrimental effects of some debatable usage, the logorrhea of certain bloggers or the shortening of attention spans, but it would hard to argue that they aren’t consuming enough text.
Nor is all this reading being done online. Young Adult novels, many of them quite serious, are one of the hottest parts of the publishing industry. Harry Potter and the Twilight series reveal that kids will buy books if you can find the right formula.
One part of this formula has always been serialization, a fact I was reminded of recently. As part of my day job as an editor, I occasionally need to attend photo shoots. This particular shoot took place in a family home in which several children lived. One of them, a boy of about ten years old judging by the decorations in his room, had a bookshelf full of several neatly ordered fiction collections. This impulse to gather a series of books reminded me of my own childhood; it brought back memories of compulsively rearranging a Narnia box set and of being nagged by a feeling of inadequacy one whole summer after finding a frustratingly incomplete set of Fables of the Green Forest volumes in our cabin. His library also made me think of my cousin—an avid reader of the-stay-under-the-covers-with-a-flashlight sort—and his fondness for books from the Stratemeyer Syndicate—both the blue covered Hardy Boys titles and the yellow covered Tom Swift ones. This young man probably would have gotten along just fine with my Korean students, who gave me excited summaries of their latest Harry Potter acquisitions, bought in hardcover and in English on the release date.
This impulse to collect is one that originates, I think, from both the innate curiosity of children and their desire to be able to put limits on their experiences and environment. In serials, kids find a perfect outlet to do both—a way not only to escape into a fictional world, but also to control and organize it. And perhaps in so doing put some order on their own lives. It is a desire which publishers understand well, and exploit effectively by coming out with an endless series of series, all designed to keep kids reading and parents buying. They know that young readers are some of the true completists of the book world, a culture which is itself obsessed with collecting. Readers as a whole are avid textual hunter-gatherers. What are the great libraries and their attempt to assemble and systematize all knowledge, but child-like collecting writ large? Doesn’t our tendency to build and display our own Great Libraries of Alexandria suggest a psychology not unlike that of teenaged obsession with the Marvel Universe?
Soon with the way the internet is going, we will all be able to be completists with little or no effort, great archivists at the touch of a button. Just open your Library of Congress App and you will have all the reading material you could ever ask for. The kids too will have access to the same dizzying choice of texts. I have a feeling they might even choose to read some of them, discover a few grown up things through means that do not require lying about their age. Discovering the pleasures of the written word on their iphone will undoubtedly lack the romance of Margaret Lim’s introduction to books. And in a world of instant and unlimited choice, some things may be lost in the ease of access—some of the discipline and the sense of achievement that comes from having to work for what you want, perhaps some of the tactile pleasure of pulling a book from the shelf. But on the whole, I think the future looks bright for young readership. An infinite supply of books is infinitely better than not having enough to read. And do you really want your kids snooping around old mortuaries anyway?
Jeff Zroback / Co-editor
25 September, 2010

ASIAN CHA Issue#11 Editorial

Bathing in a Ski-Suit: Writing in a Second Language

Background: On 30th April, 2010, I gave a speech at the official launch of VAANI, a group of Asian women writers and artists based in London. The launch was part of the 8th Annual Redbridge Book and Media Festival, and I was one of three speakers for the evening. Apart from discussing Cha and reciting my poems, I also shared my experience of writing in a second language. The editorial for this issue is based on part of that speech.

I’m originally from Hong Kong, and I grew up at the end of British colonial control in the city. I was in late secondary school when the handover occurred. English had been the city’s official language, in education, in law, in governance and in commerce for more than a century. Unsurprisingly, this all started changing with the handover of Hong Kong back to China in July 1997. Although English was and still is a very visible language in the city—road signs are all bilingual, for example, not all of the citizens speak the language, or at least not comfortably and daily. Most locals speak a Chinese dialect, such as Cantonese (my first language), Mandarin, Hakka and others. My parents, for example, do not speak much English except some very simple words such as Yes, No, Good Morning, Good Night. Thank You. OK, Not OK.

As for myself, I received a largely English-language education in secondary school and eventually I went to The University of Hong Kong, where I studied English Literature and Translation. Before university, I mainly wrote, if I wrote creatively, in Chinese (it is natural that one begins with one’s first language). It was only at HKU that I started to write in English. I suppose it was the intellectual environment, good professors and the daily contact with literature that got me interested in English writing in a more engaged way. The impetus of my own writing was an idle afternoon in the university library. I spent a lot of time back then studying there, and one day, out of boredom, I guess, I picked up a literary journal which was on a nearby shelf. I remember the title of that journal, Ambit, which is based in my current home of London. (Carol Ann Duffy, the British poet laureate, was one of its former editors.) To be honest, I do not remember a word of the works I read. But I do recall I read poetry, and I remember I liked it, and that I thought to myself: maybe I could write some, too. It is not as if I had never read or studied poetry before that moment—I had taken literature classes in secondary school and there was a poetry module in my wonderful first-year course “Introduction to English Studies”—but there was something about seeing poems, not in a book, not in a bound course pack, but in a slim journal, that excited me. That’s how I started. I was lucky to have my first works, both poetry and a short story, published in the university’s literature journal, Yuan Yang, set up by the Malaysian poet Shirley Lim. And I have not stopped writing since then.

When we talk about Asian writers writing in English, I think there are actually two very broad categories. The two that I can think of, and I am sure there are many more subtle ones, would be those who use English as a first language and those who use English as a second or even third language. The first group of writers tend to be born and bred in an English-speaking country and are thus able to use English as a first language or pseudo-first language, even though their parents may not speak it very well. The second group of writers, I would say, tend to be born and bred in a non-English speaking country and English is a language of contact but not of necessity. For them, writing in English is often a matter of choice and a sign of passion.
I know that I am over-generalising here, there are surely very talented bilingual (or multi-lingual) writers who can switch between two (or more) languages without much difficulty. But I think this is an important distinction that ought to be made and remembered, because the writing experiences between these two groups of writers can be very different. A character in the Chinese author Fan Wu’s novel Beautiful as Yesterday says, “Speaking English is like taking a bath with my clothes on,” a feeling that some readers who speak or write in a second language may find familiar. What Wu is describing in essence is a sense that there is a filter between what we intend to say and what we actually say. Of course, everyone speaking and writing in any language, even their first tongue, have moments where there is a gap between what they intend and what they deliver. (Surely, this is one of the greatest challenges of writing.) Indeed we all, to some extent, take baths with our clothes on. It is just that native speakers might be wearing swimsuits, whereas non-native speakers are wearing ski-suits.

Have I ever wanted to shed my ski clothes and be completely, comfortably naked so that fragrant hot water can become my glistening second skin? Have I at least wanted to have the ski-suit replaced by bikini? You bet. But this desire has subsided a great deal in recent years, especially since I have come to realise the foolishness of having an inferiority complex towards my relationship with the language. Some readers may ask: why do I use English instead of Chinese, at all? Why make things difficult, by exiling yourself in a second language? I have been asked about my language choice many times in the past, and for a long time, I felt I was never able to give a satisfactory answer. Now I wonder if it is to a certain extent a question without a satisfactory answer. In many cases, it seems to be more a question in search of a justification on the part of the author than an honest explanation. I remember in a joint-interview which took place five years ago, my friend Ellen Lai (author of the Chinese collection, Except for Spiders and Psychotic Women) commented, “They don’t ask you why you’re playing a Western musical instrument […] But if you’re writing in English, they’ll ask you why you don’t say it in Chinese.” Exactly. Imagine if every Asian family had to defend their decision to enrol Wing and Yoko in violin or piano lessons!
I learnt (as opposed to ‘was taught’) English in my formative years and for better or worse, I now see it as my default instrument for writing. I freely play my own poetic music on it, tuning my instrument to suit different registers and ranges. Just as Asian music often focuses on tones which sound foreign to Western ears, I can use words and grammatical structures differently than a native speaker to bring foreign thoughts and sounds into the language. My deployment of the language is more personal than ideological or political, although of course the personal is inevitably political, especially when it comes to language. (I suspect the central role of language in culture and identity explains why people question my not writing in Chinese, but do not wonder about the motivations of Asians playing Bach. Music may be important to our cultural identity, but it is surely not as crucial as language.) I cannot deny I am, neither proud nor ashamed, a by-product of colonialism and postcolonialism, and that therefore my use of English in some sense has deep political roots. But I have no intention to use my acquired tongue in Caliban’s fashion: “You taught me language, and my profit on’t /Is, I know how to curse.” (I am no Caliban, anyway: I have a powerful first language which I treasure greatly and use regularly.) Instead I hope to use English as a way of expressing one particular Asian identity, as a means of exploring my own personal, Chinese themes.
In this goal, I find the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe’s comment on writing in a second language very insightful and resonating. His response to the question “Can [an African writer] ever learn to use English as a native speaker?” was:

I hope not. It is neither necessary nor desirable for him to be able to do so. The price a world language must be prepared to pay is submission to many different kinds of use. The African writer should aim to use English in a way that brings out his message best without altering the language to the extent that its value as a medium of international exchange will be lost. He should aim at fashioning out an English which is at once universal and able to carry out his peculiar experience.

I think this is a perfect piece of advice for creative writers whose first language is not English but have made a choice to use the language anyway: you do not need to use English as a native speaker. You just need to use it honestly and your experience will shine through whatever medium you use. Take it from me, shedding your ski-suit is easier than you think.
Tammy Ho Lai-Ming / Co-editor
26 May, 2010

ASIAN CHA Issue#10 Editorial

Thoughts of Trains; Trains of Thought
There are two conflicting images of train travel. The first is of a train journey as romance, an unhurried and meandering trip through exotic lands—a luxurious ride eastward on the Orient Express, the slow epic of the steppes from a Trans-Siberian window, the freedom of rooftop riders in India. The other is of the daily commute: monotonous, stressful and soul-destroying. Think of the crush of the Tokyo Subway, the delays and inefficiencies of British Rail, the suburban professional’s long, tired ride to retirement.
My daily ride to work is a combination of the two, having little of the romance of the earlier and all of the inconveniences of the later. My office is located in the commuter belt between London and one of its many airports, and the train I catch operates primarily as an express service for air passengers heading to and from the city. Nothing makes you feel like you are always travelling, while never going anywhere, quite like a daily commute shared with returning holidaymakers and excited visitors. Navigating their wheelie-luggage and watching them struggle with the door switch, I am torn between the annoyance of an aggrieved local (Push the button next to the door! They have buttons in Barcelona, don’t they?) and deep jealousy (I wish I was in Barcelona.). I guess I should be thankful. The food vendors have it worse. They spend their days pushing carts the length of a train that is itself bouncing between two terminals. That is travel without romance, work as a commute. And they probably have to take the train home after their shift.
In the forty minutes the trip affords, I tend to read the paper, listen to my ipod and, when an issue is approaching, work on Cha. Or I just sit and watch the scenery go by. At moments like these when I find myself staring blankly at the fields and housing complexes, I wonder if I should put my commute to more productive use—maybe learn to knit or study for a realtor’s licence or something. For those set on self-improvement, the train has obvious advantages over other forms of travel. Unlike driving, your attention is free; unlike the bus, you have space, maybe even a table. Come to think of it…time, open attention, a table…these conditions are perfect for one activity in particular: writing. Perhaps I could write a train novel, a successor to Strangers on a Train or Murder on the Orient Express. I could follow the lead of others who have written on the rails—Langston Hughes, who penned “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” on a ride from Mexico or those Japanese school girls who thumb out entire cell phone novels on the subway. I could find stories in the seats, inspiration in the scenery, rhythm in the swaying of the carriage. I wouldn’t even mind the delays—they would give me time to finish difficult passages. Let my train be a train of thoughts; thoughts I would follow along entire networks of imagination, changing at junctions, making connections, before terminating in the great commuter novel.
A romance. At least in my case. I think, for the time being, I will settle for the occasional working commute, remind myself that even if I am not writing the great train novel, much of this journal has been the product of time spent travelling to and from work. I have managed to type out a few editorials on my daily journey, found rhythm in the rails and inspiration out the window. I found inspiration out the window—a good reminder that not every moment should be spent in productive activity or electronic distraction. Through the glass, I have seen much which is beautiful and dramatic: flooding tracks, snow covered fields, hunting foxes. There is romance in our commutes, if we just take time to look.

Cha Number 10 with services to stations in Asia and beyond has now boarded. Enjoy the trip.

Jeff Zroback / Co-editor
25 February, 2010

Read Tammy Ho’s train poem, “Inside the Train” here.