The Savage is flying back home from the New Country
in native-style dress with a baggage of sensibility
to gaze on the ancestral plains with the myths thought up
and dreamed in her kitchens as guides.
–Denise Riley, ‘A Note on Sex and “The Reclaiming of Language”’
This Easter I spent five weeks or so living and writing in Hong Kong. It was only the third time I had been back since my family left for England in 1991, when I was almost eight. That childhood migration didn’t surprise me or, I think, my Chinese mother (though my little brother was tearful for days after it was announced, believing he would have to leave all his toys behind). My father had swapped East London for the Far East thirty years earlier, but had always encouraged us to think of England – a country we had scarcely visited – as ‘home’. I had it marked with a toothpick Union Jack on the world map in my childhood bedroom. But two decades later, it was Hong Kong that had come to feel for me like a place in the imagination.
People often ask me how much I can remember of it – and the answer is, surprisingly, a lot. But of course they’re a small child’s memories. The yellow-crested cranes in the enclosure at the park. The banyans hung with fishing-line hairs that sentried my walk down the hill to the school bus. The neon-silver vista of the skyscrapered harbour, peered at through the kumquat trees that lined our living room window. But I had no residual sense of the island’s geography, of how those memories would relate to each other plotted on a map. So this year, in what turned out to be an unusually wet and sultry April even by Hong Kong standards, I went on long walks, trying to knit together the places I could remember, or at least could remember being told about – sometimes a bit of both.
My hope was that all this would seed new poems, but what I didn’t expect was the unintended fact checking of older poems I fell into. Unintended, because it hadn’t really occurred to me I might have got things wrong – or that it would matter if I had – in the handful of poems about Hong Kong I’d already written over the past few years. One long poem, ‘A loop of jade’, which interleaves my early memories with my mother’s childhood in ’50s Hong Kong, proved especially problematic. Some errors were simply factual – retelling a Chinese fable, and embroidering one particular scene, I’d placed the draped bride at the ‘head’ of her wedding procession rather than in its midst. If I hadn’t stumbled on a traditional bridal sedan (plus explanatory plaque) in the history museum, I would still be oblivious of that modest howler. With its smoothed dark wood carry-poles, it looked much too small to fit a person inside.
Other errors were more to do with visualisation – details that were slightly off. I’d written how worshippers casting their fortunes at the temple would ‘shake out a fan / of red-tipped / sticks’ from the cylindrical box, then pick one to entreat their fate. Yet when I stood in the courtyard at Wong Tai Sin, watching the rows and rows of people before the altar alternately bowing and rattling out their quivers of bamboo staves, I found I’d remembered the exact sound the sticks made when shaken (like clackier maracas), but that my mental picture, though vivid, was completely wrong. The sticks didn’t ‘fan’ out at all – I must have conflated them with the way playing cards spread – but rather sheared forward until, after several low bows on the supplicant’s part, one scarlet-painted tip would come to the fore. After some pondering of alternatives (bundle? box?) I finally deleted ‘fan’ and typed in ‘sheaf’, resolving that that was the best I was going to get out of one syllable.
Conflated memory was certainly the issue a few stanzas away, where I’d described the temple’s ‘fluttering, tree-tied pleas’. Many times in temple precincts on the Chinese mainland I’d seen these extraordinary wish-festooned trees – their every reachable branch tied round with torn strips of red cloth, like Rambo’s headband, onto which thousands of supplicants had permanent-markered their hopes. The idea of these trees made such an impression, I guess, that I edited them in to my mental summoning of Hong Kong’s temples. During Easter, in all the temples I walked around, I never saw any sign of this particular practice – the closest thing was the way people at Wong Tai Sin had clipped shiny-beaded lucky knots onto a patch of chainlink perimeter fence.
Yet all these fact checking endeavours were complicated by the fact that the temple scene described in the poem was set 30 years ago: it was not something I or even my mother had witnessed directly, but part of her own adoptive mother’s experience. This old woman, who I never really knew, had taken in, somewhere in Guangdong province, the abandoned girl baby that would become my mother. Within a year of the adoption, by 1949, the Communists came to power and they fled, together with so many others, across the water to Hong Kong. When I was a newborn, my mother’s mother had gone to the temple to have blessed for me a jade bracelet sized for a baby’s wrist, and to have my future told. I asked my mum, but she didn’t think she’d ever seen any red-ribbon ‘fluttering, tree-tied pleas’ around and about such scenes. ‘There aren’t many trees left in Hong Kong,’ she ventured. ‘I don’t think people would want to risk hurting them.’ My adoptive grandmother seemingly never told what exactly the fortune-teller said that day. I wonder if he got it right.
These details might seem trifling, but cumulatively they made me think hard about what it means to tell the truth in a poem. Although descriptive precision has always been important to me, this more ‘documentary’ sense of truth is not a quality I’ve ever particularly sought out as a reader of poems. So it seemed strange to suddenly be getting het up about it. With a bit of thought, I became aware of all the small untruths I’d glossed over in previous poems, which had gone into making them feel right, artistically shaped. One example was the way I’d omitted the presence of my then boyfriend (now husband) from one or two poems based on our past travels in China. It just seemed more right – more true – to be wandering lonely as a cloud, especially when there was some kind of lyric quest at stake. I don’t think Marc minds being airbrushed...
The literary critic part of me suspects this is a naive set of questions to be asking – except that the literary expectations revolving around autobiography and ‘authenticity’ (I’m thinking now via Graham Huggan’s important book, The Postcolonial Exotic) seem particularly charged when (female) minority writers are concerned. What I had written in my latter years away from Hong Kong, was it – like the ancestral plains imagined by Denise Riley’s homebound Savage – so many ‘myths thought up / and dreamed’? My flurry of Hong Kong fact checking had, in fact, exposed the clash between a place in the imagination – the backdrop for one’s self-mythologizing – and a place where you might sublet a studio flat for five weeks.
That tension between reality and projection is one I’ve been thinking about a lot in recent months. I’m coming towards the end of my year’s tenure in the Harper-Wood Studentship from St John’s College, Cambridge. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s not far off heaven – a year’s grace in which to travel and write poems. I’ve used my time to learn Mandarin and to spend a substantial time in China and Hong Kong, writing poems on the way. I’ve been trying to work out how you might use poems to explore the historical encounter, broadly conceived, between China and the West (not least because I’m one product of that cultural encounter, albeit pretty far down the line). I’d like to spend the rest of my posts this week musing on a few highlights from my travels, which have stretched from Hong Kong in the East to the Silk Road in the far West. Perhaps the most enjoyable path I followed was in tracking, late last summer, the northward progress from Macau up to Beijing of the first and most famous of early modern Jesuit missionaries to China, Matteo Ricci (1552-1610). I managed in four weeks of buses, high-speed trains and internal flights a journey that took Ricci twenty-eight years.
But even as I trekked across China, I found myself still fascinated by Western accounts and imaginings of the country I was seeing – partly because I know I can’t escape the European cast to own my vision. The kind of willow pattern fantasizing you get in Chinoiserie is a mode that fascinates me, not least when it turns up in English language poetry. I recently stumbled across a moving example in a poem by the American poet Cathy Song:
He thinks when we die we’ll go to China.
Think of it—a Chinese heaven
where, except for his blond hair,
the part that belongs to his father,
everyone will look like him.
China, that blue flower on the map,
bluer than the sea
his hand must span like a bridge
to reach it.
An octave away.
(Cathy Song, ‘Heaven’)
Rather as I spent my first seven years staring at a tiny Union Jack blutacked to the pink triangle of England on my bedroom wall, the speaker’s son imagines China’s ‘blue flower on the map’ (like the blue flower gracing a porcelain bowl?) as the place where he will perfectly belong. I’ve experienced that same elated sentimental fiction of belonging all three times I’ve walked off the plane into Hong Kong airport – it even smells like home! That is, until I get a bit further down the arrivals corridor and realise that, though I might, from behind, for a second, mistake one of the older women for my mum because of the way her hair falls along her chin, they would never make the same mistake with me. On a flight from Lanzhou to Chengdu last week, the very nice stewardess asked me where I was from (‘Oh, Engelan!’), and then told me I looked like Lady Mary from Downton Abbey – a programme I’ve never watched, but know enough about to know I don’t look very much like Lady Mary. Maybe Downton Abbey stands to England as blue-white painted willows stand to China.
I have to say, I’m more comfortable with these lines of Cathy Song’s than I’ve ever quite been with a poem like Derek Mahon’s ‘The Chinese Restaurant in Portrush’:
While I sit with my paper and prawn chow mein
Under a framed photograph of Hong Kong
The proprietor of the Chinese restaurant
Stands at the door as if the world were young,
Watching the first yacht hoist a sail
– An ideogram on sea-cloud – and the light
Of heaven upon the mountains of Donegal;
And whistles a little tune, dreaming of home.
(Derek Mahon, ‘The Chinese Restaurant in Portrush’)
The proprietor of the Northern Irish seaside town’s (one?) Chinese restaurant ‘whistles a little tune, dreaming of home’ – a home we’re meant to imagine corresponds to the ‘framed photograph of Hong Kong’ hanging above the speaker’s chow mein laded table. I know that Mahon is quite conscious of the way what looks at first like empathy here is actually, on closer inspection, a kind of overwriting – but then that kind of representational imposition is hardly alien to Ireland’s own colonial history. Of course the idea is that both men are equally outsiders, and usually I find Mahon compelling on place and home and exile and homelessness. (‘What's the difference between an exile and an expatriate?’ he jokes in one interview. ‘It seems to me that an Englishman in France is an expat, but an Irishman is an exile.’) Maybe it’s just ‘little tune’ that grates with me. Perhaps unfairly, I can’t help hearing that diminutive slip from qualifying the tune to qualifying its whistler.
Plate with a view of Burghley House. Qianlong period (c.1745-1760). Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.
I’d like to leave you with one other, to my mind, charming example of the problems involved in conceiving (let alone representing) otherness. This eighteenth-century Chinese plate is in the collection of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, and was produced to order for a British market hungry for Chinoiserie. The ceramic dish is decorated traditionally in blue and white, yet looks at first glance rather odd – it features a linear rendering of the Elizabethan facade of Burghley House, perhaps copied from an English print. But what makes the object so fascinating is the way its two artistic vocabularies, Western and Eastern – one might even say ‘realistic’ and ‘fanciful’, while noting the terms’ Orientalizing charge – sit in it side by side. That is to say, the backdrop the Chinese artist has imagined for this Lincolnshire pile is, to our eyes, the realm of fantasy. The house is set among a stand of twisting Chinese mountain pines, as a phoenix flies past in the glaze of sky.