Chinatown Sonnets is a sonnet sequence that updates the age-old idea of East meets West in which West fetishizes East, Hong Kong emulates Paris, Mong Kok is the “Times Square of Asia”, and primetime television in Hong Kong rivals American soap operas in upper class drama.
For me, Hong Kong is the modern city. I was born in the United States, but both of my parents are from Hong Kong. When I think of the “metropolis” as visualized in anime, I think of Hong Kong. I’m attracted to the endless architecture (think photographer Michael Wolf’s “Architecture of Density”), the unique shopping experiences (“Malls and Malls and Malls”), and of course, the food (dim sum in the mornings, fish balls on a skewer for an afternoon snack, and Honeymoon Dessert for something sweet).
Living in America, a huge part of my growing up was visiting Chinatowns in Philadelphia and New York City. On special Saturdays, my parents and I would drive from Allentown, Pennsylvania to Chinatown to shop for groceries, dessert, and books. Chinatown played a significant role in how I was raised—because Hong Kong and family was an ocean away, this was the best we could do.
Chinatown Sonnets begins with something classically American: an homage to Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), which is still one of my favorite films. The opening sonnet gives us the “heartbreaking mess of Hollywood”, while the following sonnets deliver a postmodern reality of Hong Kong culture.
Hong Kong Seafood Restaurant
Holiday to holiday, family friends
from my dad’s Macau boarding school childhood
eat dinner with us in Las Vegas.
At Hong Kong Seafood Restaurant, re-runs
of old Chinese shows: my mom’s teenage years,
followed by coffee commercials: the day’s
only started across the ocean.
We spin our holiday lazy Susan,
watching the Madonna of Asia sing
on TV—she’s known for her Nike brow.
My dad tells the waiter it’s my birthday
just so I can eat the lotus buns—
America’s best take on Hong Kong:
sculpted peaches, pasty leaves atop.
Malls and Malls and Malls
My cousin’s favorite mall has claw machines.
In Tsim Sha Tsui, it’s malls and malls and malls
of Happy Shopping non-stop—really
by now, it should be Hong Kong’s national sport.
Grandma thinks we only spend five dollars
to win, but it’s really more like thirty.
And we go to a bookfair to pick up
my aunt’s favorite romance novels—
she doesn’t want any period dramas—
they’re called “small books” in Chinese for a reason.
What weird romances. Back at my cousin’s
family home, I find my uncle’s pics
of his teen idol in the cramped closet.
My aunt says nothing. Different folks. Different strokes.
Mother’s Wish List of Glass
When my mom was a teen, all she wanted:
Levi’s jeans, red stockings, yogurt in glass
cups displayed in the bakery window
which Grandpa passed every day on his way
to work, and work he did, even bringing back
some goodies for the four children:
European dolls with glass eyes, trinket
watches and trinket rings, and then of course
pocket money for my mom and sisters
to buy chocolates at the stand next door.
My uncle was always a homebody.
One day, Grandpa saved up enough for yogurt,
yellow and pink and iridescent,
which Mom realized was nothing like ice cream.