“Chinese Fish” by Grace Yee

Grace Yee (photo: Zachary RM Wong) Grace Yee (photo: Zachary RM Wong)

When Ping arrives to live in New Zealand in the 1960s, the young mother from Hong Kong is expecting “paradise”. On her first night, Ping compares her new home with her homeland. Poet Grace Yee writes:


Ping steps out into a million-starred hush – not traffic horns sizzling woks banging cleaves clacking mahjong tiles no hoicking squabbling squawking singing – seven-thirty in the evening, her kitten heels sinking in the dew-soaked law, the whole word asleep.


But of course, it isn’t paradise. The family settles in their new home (house number 18, “8 is the lucky number fat number mean good luck and plenty”, writes Yee); there are people who are not welcoming. Using and adapting phrases from a letter to the editor published in 1964, Yee writes:


If we must have immigrants
let them come from Britain.
I have no ill feeling whatsoever against
the colour of man’s skin,
but we must face facts. Most
New Zealanders do not
want foreigners.


Chinese Fish, Grace Yee (Giramondo, June 2023)
Chinese Fish, Grace Yee (Giramondo, June 2023)

Chinese Fish is Yee’s debut collection, a novel in verse that tells the story of a family—Ping, her wayward husband and their four children—from the 1960s through the 1980s. The book emerged from the creative component of Yee’s PhD on settler Chinese women’s storytelling in Aotearoa New Zealand, while phrases from the critical component of her doctoral thesis also weaved into the text. Earlier this year, Yee won both the Victorian Prize for Literature 2024 and the poetry award at the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards.

Told from multiple perspectives, including Ping and her eldest daughter Cherry, Yee tells a moving family saga full of rich detail and vivid imagery. She begins in Hong Kong, in Happy Valley, setting up the family saga:


The temperature was in the Fahrenheit 90s when the 算命先生 on Hollywood Road, who had the entire history of China etched into his face, told Ping that she would marry a wealthy young 靚仔, that her firstborn would be a girl and that she would live a life of unimaginable prosperity on the 新金山 at the bottom of the earth.


In New Zealand, the family opens a fish fry shop that Ping works in daily, while eldest daughter Cherry helps raise her younger siblings, who are all born in New Zealand. Yee’s rich and detailed observations about the family’s daily life are revealing, the voices and personalities clear.


I drinking
tea with
milk now
to it


Moving and intimate, Chinese Fish is complex and powerful with Yee’s words lingering long after the final page.

Melanie Ho is the author of Journey to the West: He Hui, a Chinese Soprano in the World of Italian Opera.