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Swimming in Two Seas: annotated excerpts from Goldfish

Goldfish, my second collection, explores the idea of poetry as child’s play: the intuitive powers of association, the democracy of imagination, and one’s arbitrary efforts to decode the world. There’s something magical about being a child, of growing up and forming one’s first impressions, and Goldfish is a reflection of these poignant musings and curious encounters in a fast-changing China:  feeding a bowl of goldfish; voodoo rituals under Gooseneck Flyover; family reunions in Chinese New Year; and the symbolism of three-legged golden vessels outside a herbal shop In ‘Turtle Jelly’:

Swimming in Two Seas: annotated excerpts from Goldfish
Goldfish, Jennifer Wong (Chameleon Press, April 2013)


Turtle Jelly
Black and squishy soup with the most
beguiling name and secret recipe, best
slurped down with a good dollop of honey.
I went from Jordan to Tsim Sha Tsui
feeling the difference before and after
my herbal shot at Gong Wor Tong,
where the three-legged golden vessels
marked the shop with magic. I touched my face
and was quite certain
I was getting more intelligent
and my skin’s now radiant,
causing all the men in the street
to eye me with a new meaning.


It has been a challenge to amalgamate the experiences, imageries and sounds, to put together the cultural mosaic in an authentic depiction of my unique world—richly textured with multicultural practices, Chinese and western beliefs—so that both the local community and English speakers can enjoy and appreciate it:

They say we don’t know
what’s good anymore,
with old Beijing fading fading,
we‘re losing hold
of our ancestors’ world.


At the foot of the Forbidden City
this lowly alleyway spreads like a dream.
The hutong names conjure a simpler life:
chrysanthemum, rain, hats,
cotton, beans, and black sesame.


In Zha Zha café young heads
hunch over a game of cards,
smoke a fag or two.
In the corner the low table lamp
gilds the eyelashes of a girl
who flips through the evening post,
her black waterfall hair spread
on the red Shanghai Tang sofa.
The backpacker in transit
types an email to his beloved.


Where can we go to find Lao Beijing,
the travelers dream
of a better time, a dynasty
they haven’t seen.
In the hutong an ancient
walks on, drinking douzi,
his granddaughter humming
a song by Adele.


The grocer outside Central Academy of Drama
goes on to sell his fresh plums and apricots,
unwary of the Zhang Ziyis of his time
coming and going
under the radius of light,
that swinging low-wattage bulb of his booth.


Walking along the narrow streets on Hong Kong Island, one cannot help but notice the grunting noises of the tram; quaint colonial-era Chinese buildings with balconies juxtaposed with postmodern skyscrapers; street hawkers selling fishball snacks, beckoning custom in Chinese; adventurous expats with their Lonely Planet guidebooks and hiking maps; and cafes filled with jazz music... For me, there is something gravitational and uniquely Asian about those imageries and sounds:


The more you think of it the less
there is to miss—
and with a steady hand you empty
the jug in your head—multi-storeys
bullet lifts flyovers red taxis impatient
narrow-lane traffic and women
in wet markets haggling.
Bars full of drunken expats and Asian girls.
Tropical rain drums on zinc roofs.
Kids growing up with no gardens or parks
to play in, folding origami frogs and planes
or chasing after house sparrows with air guns.


As if you could.
In the small hours you hear the departure of a train
as your city returns, affectionate and smothering.


Writing did not come naturally to me. Growing up in a city of fast trains, skyscrapers, shopping malls and superstitions, I wasn't sure what I could write about. It later dawned on me that my material has been there all along: multiculturalism so deeply rooted in the city itself and the duality in our imagination, as we flit constantly between the Chinese and English-speaking worlds and rituals:


We owe our imagination to the ancient birds:
their footprints scrawled on the land.


We find fiery symbols on clay pots
in the ruins of Xian.


The jug of meanings poured
into every character.  


To learn to swim
in a sea teeming with images:


four sturdy strokes stand
for the gallops of horses;


loops and spirals
that serve as fish-bodies;


to take three trees
for a forest


and to carve a shell that leans
on the back of a turtle.


You are the one better off, being ignorant.
You don’t see the blade


above my heart; can’t feel
sadness has to do with autumn,


or a character in my name spells
rain cloud over a field;


but our parting’s been told
in the sky-scattering of birds.


Jennifer Wong is a Hong Kong poet now residing in London. Goldfish is her second collection.