ASIAN CHA Issue#9 Editorial

Better Housekeeping
Anniversaries are, of course, a traditional time to take stock, find your bearings, make predictions about future directions. On the occasion of our second anniversary issue, I felt this would be a good opportunity to do the same for Cha. What can I say about the last two years working on the journal? Well, in a lot of ways, really rather domestic and every day. Editing an online journal with your partner from your home does not always allow for the surprises of travel writing or the glitz of New York trade publishing. It becomes more a part of the quotidian, and the more practical aspects of the journal have a tendency to slip into the household routine: Have you uploaded the poems, yet? No, you just told me to make dinner, dear.
I do not wish, however, to characterize the management of the journal as just another task which could be described in Better Housekeeping. This would be a great disservice to the talented writers and artists who have allowed us to publish them, to our generous editors, to our criminally underappreciated webmaster and particularly to my co-editor, whose passion and tireless energy are the real driving force behind this publication. Without her, Cha does not publish every three months, does not exist. She runs the journal. I just make the salad.
And the truth is that through all of them—the writers, the editors, the webmaster, my co-editor—I have had a chance to experience much of Asia and the rest of the world. The written word and the Internet are perhaps the two best ways to travel, to experience new things without ever leaving the comfort of your house. And for me, they have come together in Cha. My role at the journal is as much tea cup traveller as it is editor. The trips are taken, as they should be with literature, on the page; a sojourn in a new exotic location, or a surprisingly exotic moment spent in a familiar one. And the wonderful thing is that every morning, there is a new bunch of pieces to read in my inbox.
The submissions we receive reveal not only the great depth of Asian experience, but also a consistently deep pool of talent and vision. Sure not everything that comes over the wires is a masterwork (some of it, frankly, is a trip in another way), but a lot of it is very good indeed. When we started Cha two years ago, we were sure that there was a lot of great writing from and about Asia out there, and all we had to do was start a home page and it would come flooding into our email boxes. We had no idea. In the first issue of the journal, we wrote: “Yes, it is true that there are a limited number of English writers in Asia, but certainly not nearly as few as the more cynical commentators suggest.” It turns out that I was also one of those cynics—there were far more than I thought too.
I also had no sense of the diversity of the Asian writing community. When we began, I assumed that Asian writers were those found on the continent, locals, maybe a handful of expats. I have come to realise that this definition was far too narrow—that in a globalised world the idea of Asian writing must be more inclusive and fluid, must encompass the perspectives of writers from the diasporas, travellers to the region, even people with an interest in the continent. Asia it turns out is everywhere. All you have to do is open your doors. How else can one run a Hong-Kong based journal from a house in London?
I feel myself very lucky that through Cha I have been able to connect to this community, to be even a small part of the Asian writing. Of course, in most cases it has been a wireless connection, made through my computer from my kitchen table. This may strike some as tenuous, virtual. And perhaps in some ways it is. But for all its detachment and anonymity, the Internet is also remarkably intimate, surprisingly authentic. It has the ability to bring the foreign right to your screen, to make the remote immediate. I am amazed that we have fans in Argentina, thrilled that we receive submissions from Mongolia, honoured that people who I have never met in person would be our guest editors. But I am happy to say, that while this is all very exotic and exciting, it is also rather domestic and every day, too. It has been immensely rewarding to have your stories in my email and to have strangers help with the chores in our little teahouse.
I couldn’t imagine a better bit of housekeeping.
Jeff Zroback / Co-editor
22 November, 2009

ASIAN CHA Issue#8 Editorial

The current issue of Cha features a review of Todd Swift’s latest poetry collection, Seaway: New and Selected Poetry. One of the poems in the book, “Kanada Post”, offers this meditation on the expatriate experience.

I remember some other life as if it’s mine.
My country has become a stamp, weather,
And what my mother says, over the phone.

As all the editors of Cha currently find themselves living outside of their home countries, we thought it may be interesting if we each wrote our individual responses to Swift’s lines. Below you will find these responses. You are also welcome to post your own responses on here.

I have been thinking about home a lot over the last few weeks. I guess you tend to do this when you are travelling, and the idea of home is necessarily fluid. Every few days you are faced with the prospect of finding a new place to lay your backpack (an undersized tent, an antiseptic hostel, the bed and breakfast with the dictatorial landlady), learning new streets, and locating a restaurant at 10 o’clock at night. And then after two weeks and a string of temporary domiciles, you return to your actual home—although if you are an expat, return to your place of residence is more like it. Even in your own house, you discover the idea of home is fluid.

Stepping off the train last week at St Pancras station, being enveloped by London’s familiar unfamiliarity, I felt the ambiguity of home very strongly. I found a strange comfort in the scheduled tube station closures and obscene ticket prices, but I was still new enough to the city to be surprised by them. And I recalled similar experiences I had had while living elsewhere. Once while teaching in Korea, I had taken a ferry from Pusan to Fukoka in Japan for a brief trip. Despite having a perfectly fine time on my vacation, I was inexplicably relieved when I had set foot on the ferry back to the Hermit Kingdom; I almost enjoyed being rudely shoved by middle-aged Korean women, was at ease among men draining soju bottles. Boisterous Korea seemed much more like home than ordered Japan. But of course it wasn’t home; no one will ever confuse the Republic of Korea with Canada.

Perhaps it was because I was consumed by these thoughts that I was so taken by the quote by Swift, a fellow Canadian: “I remember some other life as if it’s mine. / My country has become a stamp, weather, / And what my mother says, over the phone.” I think that these lines offer some of the most concise and insightful I have read on the expat experience. Perhaps as a Canadian myself, his lines struck me particularly hard: there have been times that I too felt that the second largest country in the world had been reduced to a postage stamp, remembered Canada’s climate only through discussions of unseasonal weather with my mother. But the power of Swift’s words lies in their universality, as much as their Canadianess. I am sure they would resonate with expatriates from anywhere. They certainly did with my co-editor.

She seemed to experience the poem in a different way than I did. As someone who has been an expat for a number of years, I share the slight resignation in Swift’s tone, a sense that this disconnection from his homeland has become a matter of fact, the normal order of things. But my co-editor, who has been living abroad for a much shorter time, appeared to feel his words more directly, more poignantly. Although in the form of a shipping invoice instead of a postage stamp, her city’s post mark was very tangible; it decorated the box she received from home just last week.

Last week, I received a parcel from my family in Hong Kong. It is the fourth they have sent me; and it is the biggest by far. The contents were nothing extravagant: some snacks, Chinese noodles, dresses, stockings, letters, pencils. Really, it was just an assortment of items my family could easily afford to lose in the post. But I would have been devastated if they had been lost. I was overjoyed for days after the box arrived. They have not forgotten me, I thought.

Although I have only been living in London for about a year, to my consternation I have started to slowly disremember life in Hong Kong. I am now used to the inconvenience of the public transport here, even expect it. I cannot recall exactly the taste of curry fish balls from street stalls. I wonder if my old bunk bed in my parents’ home still smells the same: of mothballs, of ancient stuffed animals. Perhaps they have stored junk on it: broken electrical appliances, redundant pillows. Where did I hide my old notebooks?
This brings me back to Todd Swift’s lines “My country has become a stamp, weather, / And what my mother says, over the phone.” However, there were no actual stamps on the parcels and I do not talk to my mom over the phone (we use MSN messenger). But there is weather, drastically different from that of London. I love to hear news of Hong Kong’s sticky summer. Has this all become “some other life”, as Swift says in his poem?

When I first arrived several years ago, I thought I would never get used to Hong Kong, with all those pushy elbows and shoulders in the MTR. And what kind of abbreviation is “MTR” anyway? I kept thinking that the “R” had been misplaced. In Singapore, the subway is called the MRT.

Yet my five-year-old son enjoys riding on minibuses (which are ubiquitous in Hong Kong) and the MTR. He doesn’t talk about the MRT the way he used to, and he’s picking up Cantonese. My daughter is coming into the world at the end of this month. She will, in all likelihood, spend her formative years in Hong Kong as well.

I am beginning to think that Singapore and Hong Kong are to me what Hong Kong and Singapore will be to my children. They might grow up thinking that the MRT in Singapore is the subway with its “R” misplaced.

What is a migrant qualified to say? It’s an anxiety that besets many the creative person too, those who have up-anchored (up-ended?) and found another country…or a series of them. Where, in fact, is home—and does it even matter? This summer in Beijing—a city I have come to adopt— midway through a short story, “Fatty Goes To China”, I came to an abrupt and frustrating halt. Writer’s block, homesickness, midlife crisis: these are not concepts I believe in. There is always something going on beneath the surface. You learn a wily stoicism.
I needed a pilgrimage. On a sultry July morning, I trekked across this city to the National Library of China where I found, miraculously, an English copy of Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners. Here was a quirky, “grotesque” American author who never strayed far from her mother and the peacocks of her rural Georgia home. A writer’s country, she said, is “the region that most immediately surrounds him…with its body of manners, that he knows well enough to employ.”

How well do we know where we are? This, I think, is Todd Swift’s question too. With terror that I might know nothing of Beijing, let alone China, I rather blindly drifted into the woodland behind the imposing library and came upon a lake and adjacent fishing pond. Several days later—”Fatty” sputtering still—I cashed in my hundred yuan library card and, with a Chinese friend and angler, returned to the tree-encircled watering hole. We sat there, like ducks, for hours in the torpid heat contemplating an unbobbing float, retrieving bare hook after bare hook—such a mysterious disappearing bait! Two elderly passersby—a husband and wife, serious fishermen both—had a go and fared no better.

After an entire afternoon (and between humorous exchanges with our new friends) Lei once again idly, resignedly, pulled in the line. This time to discover a tiny fish wriggling, but hooked in its belly rather than lip. Meandering past, no doubt. We looked at one another in astonishment: the behooked, Lei and I, those elderly passersby. Couldn’t we even fish properly? How we laughed. For his part, our tiddler chuckled off the barb and swam away. Catch of the day, at the back of the National Library of China.

As Todd Swift puts it, us migrants, travellers, may have only stamps, weather and, if we’re lucky, mother calls…as passports. We may have Rilke in our ears, “this is the way we live, forever leaving”. Yet somewhere between a fish hook in the gut and wisdom from some peacock-ruffled spinster in Georgia, there lies a country as home as it is frightening, seductive and unpredictable.

Another life indeed. A place where you can finish even a “Fatty” story. And for all its unanswered questions, this existence is a match for “some other life…over the phone”. Defined by our “absence” from them, both are lives we crave and fear, as does Swift, betwixt and between. We find a sanctuary of our own devising, I suspect—the difficulty, as Swift implies, is whether we can recognize a “Kanada” when it comes at us sideways, as it so often does.

Home. All ours to write about…and certainly not a catch.

Jeff Zroback, Tammy Ho, Eddie Tay and Royston Tester / Editors and Guest Editor

18 August, 2009

ASIAN CHA Issue#7 Editorial


Normally, the process for choosing a cover image for an upcoming issue of Cha is quite straightforward, and my co-editor and I come to a consensus without much trouble. This time, however, the selection proved more challenging. Almost from the beginning of our discussions, two photographs stood out from the rest. Although we briefly considered others, in the end, we found ourselves scrolling between the original two images.

Perhaps surprisingly both pictures were not only taken by the same photographer, Enrica Ho (whose work you can see more of in this issue of Cha), but both were of the same subject. What made them so difficult to choose between was not, as you may expect, their similarities, but their differences. As you can see below, the images present two very different interpretations of the same frailly constructed sphere. In Picture 1, the viewer finds herself under a woven dome, gazing upward at an illuminated orb reminiscent of the moon. In Picture 2, the perspective has shifted to the outside; the viewer is now in orbit around a planet of intersecting flight plans. For us, both images were not only beautiful but presented compelling thematic possibilities. The dilemma was which one to choose.

Picture 1
Picture 2
In some ways, this was quite a high class problem to have—too much choice is undoubtedly better than not enough—but it was one that proved intractable. Eventually, we decided the only option was to ask you, our readers, to help us out by voting for the one you preferred. And you did not disappoint: your responses were both plentiful and perceptive. You also, as it turned out, ended up making our choice even harder. The votes were not as decisively one-sided as we had hoped, and your comments offered insights, which only gave us more to admire and think about. Proponents of Picture 2, for example, rightly praised its superior composition, especially its shallow depth of field and subtle investigation of shape. Others preferred the image for its evocation of freedom and otherworldliness—its feeling of celestial exploration. Finally, some of you seemed to settle on Picture 2 by default, choosing it because of qualities you disliked in Picture 1. For example, several readers said they found the moon in the first image slightly clichéd; others felt oppressed by the scene, trapped earthbound under a net. Interestingly, however, many among you who picked Picture 1, identified these exact same qualities as strengths. A number of people mentioned being enchanted by the poetic romance of the moon. Others admired the image for its reflection of our own position in the cosmos, pointed out that we too find ourselves earthbound looking up into an unattainable sky. A few of you even found comfort underneath the web; experienced not a sense of entrapment, but of being sheltered safely in a nest.

Despite your feedback, however, we were still left with a choice to make, and in the end, we went with Picture 1. This is to take nothing away from the second image, which in our opinion, is probably the technically stronger of the two. However it did not affect us in quite the same way; did not, as it were, hit us where we live. And where we live is earth. To us, the second picture’s suggestion of space, of other worlds, belonged more to the realm of science fiction than to the poetry of everyday existence. (Even writers capable of the greatest flights of fancy find their feet firmly planted on the ground.) In short, it was the point of view of Picture 1, that of a terrestrial observer gazing skyward, which eventually won us over. There is a powerful familiarity and equality in this perspective. We have all seen it, we all know it. Indeed, it would be hard to think of a reference point more universal than the moon or to imagine a subject of investigation which has left civilization with more cultural legacy assets. Think for example of the calendar or the countless myths and poems devoted to the moon. Does this make it then, as several readers suggested, a clichéd theme? Yes, undoubtedly. But then again, which of the eternal themes isn’t? When you have been watched as long as the moon, you are bound to evoke a feeling of déjà vu.

Much of the romance of the moon lies in exactly this sense that it has been seen before. Constancy and familiarity have been drawing gazes upward for thousands of years, and they drew ours to Enrica Ho’s picture. And yet, we do not see the moon clearly in the photo; we are not offered the view of a stargazer in an untouched corner of the world. Instead we see it the way most of us do, filtered through a manmade filter. In Ho’s photo, we could be looking at the moon through any number of screens: the frame of a thatched hut, the ceiling of a futuristic dome, the permanent partial eclipse of light and pollution provided by the modern city. Or perhaps we are seeing it though the metaphors of Han court astronomers who felt that “Heaven resembles a covering rain-hat, while earth is patterned on an inverted pan.”

Today it may be tempting to look back at such ancient interpretations of the cosmos with a certain degree of amused condescension. Our understanding of space has certainly advanced since the inverted-panners advised the Emperor on celestial matters. We classify galaxies, calculate the gravity of collapsing stars, watch the expansion of an infinitive universe. A handful of us have even walked on the moon. But despite all these accomplishments, not much has changed in our basic relationship with the sky. We may find alien an ancient emperor’s reliance on astronomers to maintain his heavenly mandate, but we would not be surprised to read about a politician who seeks prestige in a space program or rocket. A few of our astronauts can claim to have seen the view from the outside, experienced the otherworldliness of orbiting a frail sphere, but most of us still remain earthbound, trapped under the dome. And like our ancestors, we are still intrigued by celestial mysteries, susceptible to the wonders of an illuminated orb. The moon continues to exert its gravitational force upon us. And even if this force is not strong enough to pull us off the inverted pan, to yank us through the rain-hat, it is enough to lift our heads skyward and make us look.

Jeff Zroback / Co-editor
20 May, 2009

ASIAN CHA Issue#6 Editorial


For a few days following the incident at Cambridge University in which a young German protestor threw a shoe at Chinese Premier Wen Jiaboa, the small thread of the web that originates from my house erupted in a stream of bilingual bursts. The incident proved to be of natural interest to my Chinese expatriate co-editor and her blogging friends, some of whom also live or have spent time in the United Kingdom. Their conversation mostly focused on whether Wen, speaking off-the-cuff after the shoe had been thrown, actually meant to describe the incident as “despicable” or whether it had been mistranslated and he had in fact intended something less forceful such as “mean” or “inappropriate”. To me, their conversation was intriguing: partly because Chinese-Western relations is a topic ripe for speculation, and partly because I am fascinated by translation, an art for which I have the highest respect and absolutely no natural ability. (I remain in constant awe of my co-editor’s ability to function in three languages more adeptly than I can function in one.)

I am not sure if they ever came to a decision. In some sense it did not matter. The audience at the event, much of it Chinese, seemed to consider Wen’s reaction appropriate for such an obvious sign of disrespect. And as for everybody else, by the time my co-editor and her friends began translating the translation, “despicable” had already been set in the English record. For some who later saw the video, it seemed a strident response for what had actually occurred, the typical overstatement of a mainland leader unused to reacting to public criticism. (Wen’s later call for leniency proved to be a much more adept piece of public relations.) In comparison to the Bush press conference, in which the assailant managed to get off two shoes in quick succession and right on target, the Cambridge protestor’s efforts were decidedly lackluster, his missile falling harmlessly a few wide of the target. Likewise, if he had been hoping to have his gesture repeated endlessly as infectious viral video, the results were also less than stellar. With most of the action falling off screen, it certainly lacked the drama of a ducking Bush.

But even if anticlimactic and poorly executed, a shoe thrown at a world leader, especially one of Wen’s stature, is an event that demands attention. In Britain, there were the predictable denunciations and apologies necessary to quell a diplomatic incident. In China, the story, after initially being held back by the censors, was released to predictable sentiment. It was not hard for Chinese nationalists (and they sort of had a point) to interpret the incident as another sign of Western disrespect for China. That the shoe was thrown at Wen certainly didn’t help matters. In recent years, the premier has successfully nurtured an image of himself as the nation’s benevolent grandfather. A few minutes spent looking through Chinese comments online, at least those I could read, revealed a common feeling: Who could throw a shoe at grandpa Wen? A German protester whose political aim was as bad as his arm, as it turns out. But never mind the political fallout — the shoe thrower’s goal, whatever it may have been, was certainly not to win converts in the Middle Kingdom. And even if it were, extreme Chinese nationalists were not going to be convinced by his means of expression.

Sometimes there is a fine line between the personal and the political. This it turns out was one of those cases, as the incident found reflection in my own relationship with my co-editor. My reaction to the event, if not quite that of the shoe thrower, was at least to see Wen’s retort as typically stiff and tone deaf. Then again, I am inclined to be weary of the Chinese leadership generally and I am completely deaf in all four Putonghua tones, so perhaps I am not the most impartial or accurate judge of these matters. The feelings of my co-editor on the other hand, while not jingoistic, certainly echoed the sentiment I had encountered online: that it was completely unacceptable, and vaguely mystifying, that someone had thrown a shoe at Grandpa Wen. Indeed, there is no topic of discussion, at least of a non-personal nature, more likely to cause tension between my co-editor and myself than Chinese politics. On more than one occasion, I have found myself reacting to a relatively innocuous comment about the country with an uncalled for, and only half-believed, tirade on human’s rights, environmental degradation, Tibet, etc., etc. (Strangely, when speaking to my fellow Canadians, I often find myself defending the Middle Kingdom with lectures about the hypocritical West.) Conversely, my co-editor often personalises (sometimes surprisingly so for an Anglophile Hong Konger) even mild criticism of China, reacting with party one-liners and nationalists sentiments. No matter how such a conversation begins — I think once it was over whether we should have pasta or chow mien — the result is always the same. The overstated feelings of one will annoy the other, leading to a positive feedback loop of more strident views and less actual communication. Fortunately my co-editor normally has the common sense to say “Why are we fighting over noodles?” before these debates escalate to the point of actual shoe throwing.

Of course, the issues at stake in China’s rise are infinitely more serious and complicated than what my co-editor and I should have for dinner, a fact which I find troubling. If two people who live together, aren’t really that political and are comfortable with each other’s cultures can get so worked up about Chinese-Western relations, what hope is there that the West and China will be able to work together. Now admittedly, you don’t have to have read too deeply in psychology to know that many household fights about current affairs are as much about personal issues as they are about political ones. But I think there is more to our quarrels than displaced domestic tensions; there are also inherent cultural differences. And if we can’t always manage these differences, how will political leaders, faced with protestors and cyber-nationalists, overcome them in a world of tightening resources and global warming. What if the shoe had been on target? What happens when the other one drops?

Then again, I saw another image during Wen’s visit to England, one infinitely more striking than that of an off-target shoe. It showed a young Caucasian boy holding a sign written in Chinese that read “Happy Chinese New Year, Grandpa Wen.” Maybe not all Westerners are tone deaf and find Chinese leaders stiff after all.

Jeff Zroback / Co-editor
18 February, 2009

ASIAN CHA Issue#5 Editorial

Recently my Hong Kong-born co-editor has developed a series of strange new habits, or, perhaps more accurately, several symptoms of the same habit. Her new quirks include buying instant noodles in bulk, lingering in front of dim sum restaurants and unconsciously slowing her gait to read the greetings on Chinese knickknacks. The onset of these symptoms coincided with our recent move from Hong Kong to London. (Rest assured that Cha will not be giving up jasmine for Earl Grey or ‘yuan yang mgoi’ for ‘three sugars in mine, luv’ and will strive to remain an Asian publication even if its editors have temporarily shifted house.) There is of course a sense of distance that comes from changing cities, a feeling of being separated both from where you were before and from where you are now. This sensation undoubtedly lies at the heart of my co-editor’s recent attraction to everything Chinese. Homesickness makes nationalists of us all. There is, I think, quite an ordinary and inescapable truth in her situation. Even in a world of very regular regularly scheduled flights and infinite networks of fiber-optic cables, we cannot completely escape geography. Reading South China Morning Post online will never be the same thing as a morning spent in South China and that is all there is to it.
But I think that there was something more to this sense of distance than the isolation of a new life in a new town. We arrived in London at the climax of the economic crisis — a moment when one could have been forgiven for thinking that if the whole system had not quite been driven off a precipice, it was at least parked on the edge of an eroding cliff. It was impossible not to contrast this gloom to the buzz that had infused Hong Kong and China in 2008. In the months and weeks leading up to the Olympics, the country was overcome by an immense sense of national pride, which despite maxing out occasionally into disturbing hysteria, also provided a feeling of uplift to the entire nation. And lying behind this spike in Chinese self-esteem, there was also a kind of continental background enthusiasm pulsating from much of the region — a great anticipation for the future buoyed by double digit growth and predictions of an emerging Asian century.
These impressions, however, belong to a specific time and place, and you will find no grand theory about a dynamic East and a declining West here. What the mood is in Admiralty or on the Bund these days, I can only speculate. Somewhat less buoyant seems a safe bet considering the current economic climate, but from this remove, it is hard to know. It is also hard to recall exactly the excitement I have just described or the extent of Chinese emotional investment in the Olympics. Subsequent events and geography cannot help but mould our memories and point of view. If comedy comes from tragedy plus time, then perspective comes from distance plus time.
At the start of the year, it was easy to imagine, no — the media in fact openly encouraged us to imagine, that 2008 would be China’s and Asia’s moment. But I now suspect that despite Beijing’s clock-work efficiency and knock-your-socks-off opening ceremonies, the games will leave a lasting mark only in China’s domestic psyche; internationally, however, they are likely to be remembered more as an also ran in 2008 rather than its defining moment. If the Beijing Olympics were supposed to be China’s ‘coming out party’ (I admit a slightly silly metaphor for a civilization of 5000 years), it was that reliable diva the United States who, for better and worse, once again stole the night.
Like all divas, America in 2008 has been temperamental and inspiring, and completely unignorable. The financial crisis had an undeniably hypnotic power (and perhaps for many, a kind of Schadenfreude in seeing Wall Street undo itself), but it was accompanied by a sinking feeling that toxic derivatives and bank failures meant trouble for us all. Terrible economic news in the U.S. is still, at the very least, bad news for everyone else. But, if the delirious international reception to Obama’s victory is any indication, good news for America (or for the Democrats anyway) is also good news for everyone else. I am told by our guest editor, for example, that his election was celebrated by his university students in Wuxi China.
The election captured the world’s attention for a number of reasons — its dramatic horse race, a desire to see the back of Bush — but there is no doubt that it was primarily because of the junior senator from Illinois. Obama had the right message (change, hope) and, crudely put, the right face for today’s flat, multi-racial world. He certainly provides an appealing model for a new breed of international statesman. With his Indonesian childhood, he will also be seen as one of the most Asian of American presidents. (Those with long historical memories may correctly point out that he does not outshine William Howard Taft, onetime governor general of the Philippines in this regard, but I am not sure the youth of Manila or Jakarta would see it this way.) Once in office, time and political realities will likely dampen the world’s opinion of Obama. It is difficult to imagine how one person, even one with his preternatural gifts, can live up to the world’s inflated expectations or tackle America’s intractable domestic problems. But there was a long moment after his election, an instant stretched from Tuesday night across the international dateline into Wednesday, where the world’s perspective shifted. You could see it everywhere: on the blogs, on the TV, in the newspapers. And I have to admit the whole thing brought a tear to my eye. Not primarily for the history of America’s first black president or for the hope that things will get better, but for the joy of seeing such a diversity of people inspired by the same event. Barack Hussein Obama had made internationalists of us all.
As for my co-editor, time and distance will shift her perspective, too, and she will soon be seeing her homesickness from a remove. But for the time being, there is Chinatown and that excellent Sichuan place in Soho we went for her birthday, which now that I think of it, is just around the corner from a pub where Orwell used to drink and within walking distance of the West End, and that actually borders on …
We can’t escape geography, so we might as well start embracing it.
Jeff Zroback / Co-editor
15 November, 2008

ASIAN CHA Issue#4 Editorial


The cover of this issue features two family photos, one taken in Hong Kong, one in mainland China. There is a striking formality in these images, even by the standards of family portraiture. Of course, in days when film was expensive, the moments recorded by such photographs were expected to be taken seriously, especially since they often represented the definitive image of the family, a cherished memory to be carefully saved or prominently displayed. And for families without a written history or genealogy, such images may have also taken on the added importance of being the only real record of their lives and past.
And yet like all portraits, this image is in many ways not a record of a real moment, but a construction: the studio background, the austere poses, the father’s place at the centre of the picture. If these photos serve as a family record, they are an idealized and polished one—a marketable image the family can show itself, its descendents, its outsiders. Nor is this type of idealization limited to formal portraiture. There is artifice and convention throughout the family photo album. Flipping through family pictures reveals that from household to household which photos get taken, or at least which get shown, is remarkably consistent. Images of domestic harmony and happiness are in, those of pain and internal strife are out. Thus, weddings and holiday celebrations (redacted of the antics of embarrassing relatives) make the family album, but funerals and divorce proceedings do not. (When was the last time you saw Facebook albums with names such as: Uncle Jim’s funeral 2007, Custody Hearings Aug. 2006?) A wide variety of childhood events are worthy of film, but there are also a number of situations too gruesome, depressing or distasteful for Father to shoot.
Likewise our photographs reveal that only a limited number of expressions and poses are acceptable for our family memories. Anguished faces are subjects for photojournalism, not domestic photography in which smiling visages dominate. And although the width of the frame is certainly partly responsible for dictating how we gather in group photos, it seems equally certain that these formations are also designed to stress unity and togetherness.
There is an irony that is difficult to ignore in the fact that all our family photographs are so much alike. If such images are intended to record the memories of individual families, why do they look exactly like those of all their neighbors? The conclusion that some theorists and critics have drawn from all this sameness is that our photographs demonstrate our conformity to generic conventions, as well as revealing the dominant social, familial and gender roles of our particular place and time. This is undoubtedly true. But for all its truth, there is something in this cold analysis which, apart from being slightly condescending, sits uneasily with our more romantic impulses. I suspect that it is because even if our family photos are generic constructs, they are constructs with real emotional weight. We may frame our memories in response to the dominant social structure, but when all is said and done they are still our memories.
A photograph, no matter how formal, evokes memory in a way no other art form does. A picture appears to be reality, unmediated. History sliced paper thin. There may have been framing and cropping, and a choice of which stock to print on, but who doubts, as we view photographs, that we see a representation closer to reality than most other media. When we look at an old picture, we can be at least fairly confident that at the moment, someone looked that way, wore that hat, stood that tall. Of course, in terms of recording the past, video is probably the superior medium. Yet the evocative stillness of photographs often reveals truths that the jittery flow of film cannot. Their suspended events invite mediation. Linger a moment on a family portrait and it will betray its family secrets. Why was he chosen to sit on his father’s lap? What about her dirty socks and ill-fitting shoes?

While gazing on a photograph depicting a fondly remembered past event, we often experience a powerful emotional reaction. There is of course a reason that everybody takes pictures of holidays, birthdays and vacations, besides blind adherence to social norms: they are the good times we want to remember. The similarity of our photo albums surely says as much about the universality of human experience as it does about photographic conventions. But family photographs have a power beyond reminding us of our dearest recollections. They capture a past which occurred before our birth or that we cannot remember. And in this, they contain an especially potent emotional force. To see yourself when you were young, to see your grandmother when she was still beautiful, to see an ancestor on whose life your very existence depended, is an experience that is full of pathos and wonder. For me, there is no picture which encapsulates this feeling more forcefully than one of my father and I sitting in the forest, taken when I was a baby. Of the day, I have absolutely no memory; my only memory is the image itself. And yet the picture has become an emotionally charged part of my life. That I was once so small and wearing that jacket remains to this day a slightly surreal experience. But it is my father’s appearance that represents the real source of the picture’s power. There is something about him which is both familiar and strangely alien—an ambiguity which is simultaneously unsettling and deeply comforting.

I suspect it was just this ambiguity that Roland Barthes had in mind when he wrote “There is a kind of stupefaction in seeing a familiar being dressed differently.” And I suspect that despite their formality and conventional framing, it is something like stupefaction that my co-editor feels when she looks at the pictures in the masthead. Was her mother ever so young? Was her father ever so small?

Jeff Zroback / Co-editor
6 August, 2008

ASIAN CHA Issue#3 Editorial

In the first major treatise on the subject of tea Chajing (The Classic of Tea) (8th century), Lu Yu categorized the different varieties of the drink by name: When tea has a sweet flavor, it may be called chia. If it is less than sweet and of a bitter or strong taste, it is called ch’uan. If it is bitter of strong when sipped, but sweet when swallowed, it is called ch’a. Since the Tang Dynasty, the nomenclature of tea has simplified somewhat. Although the Chinese still recognize many different types of tea, the general term for the character 茶 in Mandarin and Cantonese, give or take a few tones, has settled on the last of Lu Yu’s terms, ch’a, or cha. Today similar words for tea can be seen throughout much of Asia. For those familiar with Japanese or Korean, cha should be easily identifiable as the transliteration of tea. Similarly, ch’a is not hard to see in the Hindi chai, the Tagalog (Pilipino) tsaa or the Nepali (chiya).
The similarity of these names for tea is of course no etymological accident, and their close variations reveal the drink’s Chinese roots. Tea was first consumed in Southern China, probably in Yunnan. Exactly how and when people began to boil its leaves with hot water remains mysterious, a fact reflected by the numerous myths surroundings its discovery. If tea’s ancient culinary past is cloudy, its early linguistic history is only slightly better understood. The word ch’a likely derives from the Chinese character 荼 (), which is nearly identical to that for tea 茶 except for one stroke. Tú signified various things, including a type of bitter herb, but at some point may have come to represent tea. How the character and name for the drink ultimately made the jump from t’u to ch’a is not entirely understood, although neither seems a great leap. Whatever the arcane verbal transformations that eventually led to the use of ch’a and its cognates, however, it was surely these words that spread along with the drink to much of the continent.
It should be noted that not all Asian languages use a variation of cha to signify tea. There is another branch of words for the plant, which can be seen in the Javenese teh, Sinhalese thé and the words used in most European languages, including English. (One notable exception is in Portuguese, which adopted the word chá from Cantonese speakers in Macau). Once again, however, the taproot of this linguistic tree is probably tú. Its origin is clearly seen in tê, the pronunciation of the character for tea used in Amoy Min Nan, a Chinese dialect of Fujian province. It was this name that Dutch sailors, trading with Fujianese merchants, likely picked up along with the drink and took back to Europe. That these merchants were the source of much of the early tea brought to England is probably the reason that English now uses the word tea, not a variation of cha, as might have been expected considering British involvement in Canton and Hong Kong.
And yet even in English, cha has made its appearances. For example, the English merchant R. L. Wickham wrote in 1615 “I pray you buy for me a pot of the best chaw.” Likewise, cha appears in char, an old British slang word for tea probably picked from either Cantonese or Mandarin. More recently, cha has reentered the English language, this time as chai, a kind of spiced Indian tea. That this Hindi word has been spread by Starbucks and its clones speaks to the fact that tea has become a thoroughly globalized drink. Today its consumption easily equals that of all other manufactured beverages combined, including coffee, soda and alcohol. This international popularity, however, is nothing new. Tea has been at the centre of the global economy since the colonial era. The terms Ceylon Tea and The Boston Tea Party are enough to remind us of the leaf’s central role in the British Empire and how far and wide it spread along its trade routes.
Ultimately, however, these routes almost always led back to Asia. And when all is said and done, tea remains a quintessentially Asian drink. Its near ubiquity on much of the continent certainly speaks to its fundamental position in the region’s social and cultural life. (It surely also goes a long way to explaining tea’s preeminence in the world’s beverage market.) Some writers, eager to stress tea’s Chinese heritage, have seen this popularity as representative of the Middle Kingdom’s cultural influence throughout Asia. Others, writing in a much similar vein, have sought to stress its fundamentally Chinese character. Although it is certainly impossible to deny cha’s Chinese roots or its role in the country’s culture, one does not need to spend much time on the continent to see that such arguments, apart from having a slightly bitter taste of Han superiority, are wanting. Cha has clearly become a unique element of many Asian cultures. On this matter, there is no more eloquent source than Okakura Kakuzō’s classic commentary on the central role of tea in Japanese life The Book of Tea (1906). Describing the effect that the culture of tea, or Teaism, had come to play in his country, Kakuzō wrote that “Our home and habits, costume and cuisine, porcelain, lacquer, painting — our very literature — all have been subject to its influence. No student of Japanese culture could ever ignore its presence. It has permeated the elegance of noble boudoirs, and entered the abode of the humble.”
But in the end, one need not scour high-minded philosophical tracks to understand tea’s central position in Asia — a few minutes spent on the ground on the continent would suffice. Try taking a train ride in India without a hawker offering you a cup of chai or visiting a Korean household without being offered some cha, hot or cold. Cha may have Chinese roots, but in myriad local variations, it has gone well beyond this heritage. It is a taste of these variations that we hope to capture in our journal.
Tammy Ho Lai-Ming & Jeff Zroback / The Editors
7 May, 2008

ASIAN CHA Issue#1 Editorial


Why start an internet journal? Why add another voice to the cluttered and overexposed world of creative writing online? We believe that these are questions that must be considered by anyone who wants to publish literature on the web. After all, there are already thousands of online journals, blogs and websites with literary aspirations. Most of them (this website is no exception) are devoted to the commendable goal of “publishing quality literary work”. But can there really be enough good writing out there to fill thousands of empty web pages? Depends who you ask. There are many curmudgeonly internet cynics (journalists, academics, editors) who would say “No”, explaining the web is a wasteland of mediocrity, in which the cult of the amateur is destroying professionalism and quality. From the internet’s supporters (the electronic gurus, 2.0 geeks and blogists), however, we are likely to hear an enthusiastic: “Yes! Yes!” According to them, the internet is unleashing the creativity of the many and freeing us from the narrow monopoly of the professional media.
That you are reading this editorial in an online journal should tell you where our sympathies lie in this debate. We feel that there is a comfortable space for our endeavour on the internet, especially as the number of resources for writers in Asia is quite limited. Unlike the crowded marketplace of online publishing in other countries, English internet publishing in Asia remains underdeveloped. For us, this offers the great opportunity of entering a market, not nearly as cluttered with journals as in North America or in the United Kingdom. Indeed, currently there are only a handful of Asian online journals. We do not expect (nor hope) that this will continue. As Asia expands its economic and cultural influence, we are certain that interest in English Asian literature will increase. In fact, it already has.

Yes, it is true that there are a limited number of English writers in Asia, but certainly not nearly as few as the more cynical commentators suggest. And the real problem with Asian writing in English is not the limited number of its writers, but the limited number of its writers that are published. This sad state of affairs is largely the result of the economic realities of English print publishing on the continent. English publishers in Asia face similar constraints to their western counterparts, only much tighter ones. Think it is difficult to sell poetry in the United States? Try selling it to a handful of English readers in Asia. It is also true that in some cases local publishers in Asia face a certain conservatism of taste—in which the reading public prefers recognisable forms and topics. This conservatism limits a publisher’s options and further compounds the difficulties of selling literature to a limited audience. The upshot of all this is that it is only financially feasible for local English publishers to support a small number of writers.

At Cha, our goal is to bring together Asia’s underpublished writers and established ones. As an online journal, we do not face the same economic constraints as local print publishers. Indeed, with almost no operating cost, we are free to take a chance on unknown or less commercial writers, which is exactly what we intend to do. We also hope to use Cha as a forum for Asia’s aspiring writers—to be one of the places where they can go to be read and to develop. Finally, we also intend to support more established authors. Within the Asian context, even the most celebrated English writers may only have a limited readership. We hope that, in our small way, we can help bring their work to a larger audience.

In the future, we can imagine an online creative writing community in Asia just as overexposed and cluttered as those in other parts of the world. We are certainly going to do our best to make it that way.

Tammy Ho Lai-Ming & Jeff Zroback / The Editors
4 November, 2007