“A Cha Chaan Teng That Does Not Exist” by Derek Chung

A Hong Kong cha chaan teng (via Flickr) A Hong Kong cha chaan teng (via Flickr)

Derek Chung is not only a prolific poet, novelist, and essayist, he’s also an acclaimed translator that has brought work from Li-Young Lee, Carl Sandburg, Williams Carlos Williams and others into Chinese. Now a new English translation of his poetry collection, A Cha Chaan Teng That Does Not Exist, from May Huang, brings back to life Hong Kong from twenty years ago. As the title and colorful cover artwork imply, the poems describe a Hong Kong that has changed greatly.

May Huang provides a comprehensive translator’s introduction and defines a cha chaan teng for those unfamiliar with this unique Hong Kong café.

 

A cha chaan teng is a Hong Kong-style diner. Translated literally as “tea restaurant,” cha chaan tengs are known for their fast service and affordable menu, drawing from Canto-western cuisine (a result of the British influence on Hong Kong culture following the Second World War). At a cha chaan teng, you can order Hong Kong-style French toast, rice served with char siu and vegetables, satay beef noodles topped with a fried egg, and other comfort food best enjoyed with milk tea or lemon tea.

 

Not all of Chung’s poems touch upon the cha chaan teng and the food and drinks found there, but a good half a dozen do. There’s the poem from which the book gets its title, which begins with notes of nostalgia:

 

I scour my memories for you
While patterns on the tiles grow blurrier
Shadows of feet sway between unextinguished cigarette butts
Discrete chewing sounds have vanished around the corner
How do I verify the month and year
Of the tea stains still on the glass table

 

And there’s the poem, “The Cha Chaan Teng on Fortune Street”, which ends with a longing for the past:

 

When the mop sweeps, scattered feet lift out of habit
And return to the ground. Is there still a sense of certainty?
Is this sense like a cool mist returning to the air conditioner
Or does it follow the rising smoke and disappear
Into the kitchen’s ventilation?
I pinch the bill and stride to the door, wondering
After I step outside, will I still think of
This once so real, so trivial world?

 

A Cha Chaan Teng That Does Not Exist,  Derek Chung, May Huang (trans) (Zephyr Press , October 2023)
A Cha Chaan Teng That Does Not Exist, Derek Chung, May Huang (trans) (Zephyr Press, October 2023)

There are also poems about milk tea and one about the pineapple bun, a sweet bread with a crunchy topping that cracks and flakes to appear almost like pineapple skin. As mentioned above, some of the more somber poems include one about the bird flu and another about staying healthy during the 2003 SARS epidemic.

People familiar with Hong Kong’s torrential rain will appreciate the cleverly-translated “Umbrellonely”, a poem about a broken umbrella that’s been discarded. In the middle of the poem, Chung writes:

 

I walked behind the glassy curtain wall
glimpsed your head in a nearby trash can
poking out
like a palm timidly extended after rain
yet the sky has nothing more to give
does a cheap plastic handle
still miss the first warm touch of a hand?

 

Other poems celebrate holidays like the Mid-Autumn Festival, including one that remembers the homemade, paper lanterns that have all but been replaced by plastic and cellophane lanterns.

 

The Chinese poems are printed on the left side of each spread with the English translation on the right. Huang has (curiously) used Mandarin terms or spelling for some of the Cantonese food terms and festivals, rather than, for example, attempting an English description. So sweet tofu is douhua and fried dough or Chinese crullers is rendered youtiao. The Ching Ming festival is Qingming. Some everyday terms like char siu and cha chaan teng are now perhaps de facto English words and need no translation.

Chung’s collection is short with just under two dozen poems, but each is substantial and reads like a comprehensive story about Hong Kong. The final poem, “To Still Write Poetry”, suggests hope even in the face of disappearing Hong Kong traditions like the cha chaan teng and homemade Mid-Autumn Festival lanterns, among others. At the end of this poem, he writes:

 

When others have already left
When tomorrow is Qingming
If we don’t go climbing, or
Tomb sweeping, then there may be
Nothing left to do
But to write poetry

Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.