Wan Chai Grammatica: Past, Present, Future Tense

Studying an acrylic painting of green shrub and concrete, Dewey Punk Pickles knows right away what she’s looking ata pathway in Wan Chai she passes by during her morning runs to Victoria Harbour. Yeung Tong Lung’s brush strokes remind her of Cézanne’s obsessive and repetitive dabbing of paint. However, unlike Cézanne,  who took up to 100 work sessions to complete a still life, Dewey doubts this artist had put in as much effort.

Dewey is at Wan Chai Grammatica: Past, Present, Future Tense, an exhibition celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Wan Chai Arts Center, Hong Kong. Lately, she has attended many shows and openings to enhance her skills as an art writer. For a Hong Kong-based writer who doesn’t want to work in finance or PR; art writing is her best bet.

As a Wan Chai resident of almost seven years, Dewey is interested in how artists see Hong Kong from the past, present, and future. Looking at an acrylic painting by Galylord Chan, she recognizes that this is an image of Vicotria Harbour of Old Hong Kong the low-rise, not-skyscraper buildings, the old-timey clothes hanging to dry, and the airplane flying near the mountains on the Kowloon side where the old Kai Tak airport used to be. Though she wasn’t alive in Hong Kong during that time, she’s seen enough of Fan Ho’s photographs to get a sense of what Hong Kong was like in the past.

Chan’s painting looks as though the viewer is viewing at the harbor from the mountains, and the artist uses child-like lines to render the cityscape, evoking a sense of innocence. However, there is a depth to it too, like the way the artist illustrates the stacking of concrete buildings in Kowloon to show its population density. Also, by placing a ferry in the middle of the painting, the artist highlights the importance of ferries in Old Hong Kongbefore the MTR (the reliable and inexpensive transportation system of Hong Kong), people relied on ferries to get from Hong Kong Island to Kowloon and vice versa. These days, the Star Ferry that takes passengers from Wan Chai to Tsim Sha Tsui has become a relic from the past. Although Dewey thinks it’s romantic to ride the Star Ferry, she only does so when she is not in a hurry.

Harbour (1969) by Gaylord Chan.

Dewey looks at an ink and acrylic painting by Luis Chan that reminds her of classic Chinese ink paintings.  She’s always enjoyed the serene mountain scenes created by the elegant strokes of a calligraphy brush. This one before her is a modern take of an old form, a painting of hilly Hong Kong Island with the sea and Kowloon in the backdrop. There are a few buildings in the picture, but the hills are mostly bare, except for a crazy tree with blue, yellow, and red leaves. In the harbor are junk boats with crimson sails, and at the foot of the hills are some obscured figures they look like they are carrying something.

Other objects that remind Dewey of traditional Chinese landscape paintings are over-the-top dioramas created by MAP Office.  She stops before a snow-capped mountain made of mini plastic palm trees covered in glue. All around the hills are soldiers wearing green uniforms and white helmets who have climbed towards the top using ropes secured by divers down below. The diorama depicts a scene of an invasionthe soldiers are storming around the Godzilla-like monster on the top of the mountain, trying to destroy it. Dewey thinks that this work shows the transition between old Hong Kong moving to a more contemporary Hong Kong.

Dewey’s favorite diorama is the landscape of seashells, fan-like corals, and a sand dollar covered in shiny pink beads, plastic palm trees, faux pearls, and female figures performing lewd acts. Some of them are lifting their skirts to show their asses; some are standing around naked sticking out their tits, others are sitting on the ground, submitting themselves to the male gaze. This glittery, pink world reminds Dewey of the neon lights on Lockhart Road, where young women from southeast Asia in short short skirts holler at Gweilos to entice them to stop for a drink.

Close-up of Wanchai Islands: Wanchai Colonies (2018) by MAP Office.

Dewey stands before Xyza Cruz Bacani’s photographs of street scenes of Wan Chai. They are typical scenes of the neighborhood: Laborers hanging out on the steps of the Southorn Playground, a Gweilo (Cantonese slang for a light-skinned European descent) passed out on the infamous Lockhart Road, (Wan Chai’s red light district), and a couple kissing on the crowded sidewalk off Johnston Road. The image that captured Dewey’s attention shows the closing of an iconic Wing Wah Noodle Shop in Wan Chai. The store sign made up of four Chinese characters were covered carefully with characters printed on white paper, “gloriously finished business.” Wing Wah had been serving tantalizing wontons noodles and mouthwatering braised pork knuckles for the last 68 years. She’ll miss Wing Wah’s wonton noodles, especially after a night out.

Dewey enjoys these images because it’s fun to identify the locations in her neighborhood. They are current, like something she’d see in her day-to-day life. However, in her mind, they lack that unique little details that make her love the photographs. Or, perhaps she’s too fixated on identifying the locations to find the details.

So far, Dewey has explored the past and the present of Wan Chai. However, the only object in the show that reflects any inklings of Wan Chai in the future tense is MAP Office’s aquarium tanks stacked on top of each other. There is nothing special about the tanks, except when she bends down to take a closer look.  Upon seeing at the construction projects outside of the window through the tank, Wan Chai has been turned into an underwater world inhabited by fishes. If the government and corporations don’t stop with the reclamation projects, Dewey thinks, we’d all have fishes as our neighbors.

Close up of Wanchai Islands: Wanchai Island (2018) by MAP Office.

There were a lot of artworks in the three-level exhibition space. There are photographs of Hong Kong skyline floating over a pint of beer by South Ho Siu Nam. There is an installation of leftover Indian food on banana leaves by N.S. Harsha, its realistic qualities grosses her out a little. There are more paintings, installations, and photographs, but after a while, her mind checks out.

Thinking back, Dewey wonders if Wan Chai Grammatica was an exhibition of quality. As a budding art writer, she needs to be analytical of her observations. She likes many of the objects in the show, though she is aware they are the ones she can relate to based on her own experience. She wonders if she would have enjoyed them if she didn’t live in Wan Chai. Also, she is also keenly aware that she hasn’t paid attention to everything in the show—there are just too many damn objects.

Yes, the exhibition makes an effort to show Wan Chai from the past, in the present, and what the future might hold, but, but Dewey’s not sure if the show has cast a new light on how she sees the city she calls home. Many of the objects illustrate Wan Chai’s multi-cultural identity and its colonial past. There are also some reflections on its seedy reputation and over-consumption. Many of objects also evoke a sense of nostalgia while documenting Wan Chai frozen in time. None of this is revealing or challenging though, Dewey thinks to herself. She’s not quite sure what deems revealing or challenging, but she’ll let you know when she comes across it.

 

Dewey Visits Cao Fei’s “A hollow in a world too full” at Tai Kwun, Hong Kong

Dewey Punk Pickles doesn’t understand art. She’s never studied art in school though she was a librarian at an art and design university. She goes to art exhibitions because it seems like the cool thing to do. All the cultured, intellectual, creative types, the type of people she associates with, are all going to drink wine at the art opening.

Dewey goes to the JC Contemporary at Tai Kwun to see Beijing-based artist Cao Fei’s show, A hollow in a world too full. Tai Kwun used to be a prison complex back in the colonial days of Hong Kong. The Jockey Club spent a fortune restoring and renovating the previously abandoned space. Dewey thinks it’s ironic that the institution that makes its bucks luring Hong Kongers with horse racing and gambling is now the city’s peddler of art and culture.

The entrance of JC Contemporary and its lobby is full of pretty, well-dressed people.  They stand in clusters, chatting while sipping on their wines and beer. Dewey stands with her husband, Mean Dean, while drinking a glass of white wine. For free wine, it isn’t bad at all, she thinks to herself. She says hi to some friends, people she knew when she was a librarian. Then, with Mean Dean, she walks up to a grand staircase leading to the exhibition space. The place still smells like fresh paint. She has no idea what to expect.

Rumba (2015-2018). Video capture from the exhibition. 

The first things Dewey encounters are some seemingly mindless yet hyper-aware disc-like robot cleaners roaming on a minimalistic landscape. They navigate the narrow passageways from one island to the next without aim but always swivel at the edge of the raised platform.

“I don’t get it,” Dewey thinks to herself, “what are these Roomba vacuum robots supposed to say?”

She keeps these thoughts to herself as she doesn’t want the people around her to hear her stupidity and ignorance. She clutches her exhibition catalog, hoping to glean some insight from it. But she has trouble reading while walking, and Mean Deans has already moved on to the next room.

The next room is a darkened theater. On the wall outside, it has a sign indicating that only those over the age of 18 are allowed to enter. The film shows a post-apocalyptic fantasy world filled with miniature architectural sets and figurines. Dewey sees the derelict golden arches of MacDonald’s restaurant and abandoned Porsches. There are people in this film too, and they look scared, in pain, or like zombies.  Then, the scene changes and a man and a woman start to have a conversation in French. Dewey feels a little voyeuristic at this point as she stares at a pair of figures fucking on the screen. The woman is on the top riding the man. Dewey can’t help but notice that it looks like the woman is riding a metal rod, the rod is the man’s dick. Riding a rod doesn’t sound like a pleasurable experience.

Dewey is not bashful or anything, but while the film is fascinating on some level, it lacks plot. It doesn’t have a beginning or an end, and things are happening randomly. Sitting there in the dark room, she starts to feel sleepy. She curls up next to Mean Dean and falls asleep.

Prison Architect (2018). This is a close-up of one of the installations.

She wakes up when Mean Dean stands up to go to the next room, which has distressed walls with grey, peeling paint. Close to the back wall is a desk with an old-timey lamp on it. The lamp is on. Dewey sees a black rotary phone, a glass ashtray with two boxes of matches, and a file on a prisoner open for all to see. Behind the desk is a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II hanging crookedly on the wall.

“Ah,” Dewey thinks to herself, “this must be one of the offices when Tai Kwun was still a prison.” This she understands and thinks is interesting. She feels that she understands culture and history better than art.

At this point, the exhibition space has closed. Dewey Punk Pickles and Mean Dean leave the exhibition, having seen only half of it.

A week later, Dewey returns to the JC contemporary. This time, she reads the exhibition catalog before going to the show, so she has some vague idea of what to expect.  After seeing the vacuum robots, the film with the zombies and the fucking couple, and the prison room, she finds herself on the top floor.  There are two screens flashing with animations. She looks at one of them for a while. It looks like a city in China but like a Chinese city on crack. It has a crazy, over-the-top color palette, and the perspective spins as if we are seeing the city from a drone.  At one point,  Dewey sees Tiananmen Square. In the place where Mao’s portrait should have been is a picture of a panda. She chuckles.

She doesn’t bother to look at the other screen in the same room. Instead, she climbs down the grand staircase and continues the exhibition.

Prison Architect (2018). This is the space where the film is shown.

The next exhibition is another film, and according to the catalog, it is called The Prison Architect, a newly commissioned work. The film is only a part of the work, as it also includes installations that span three floors. The film takes place in Tai Kwun in the past as Victoria Prison and in the present as Hong Kong’s hub of art and culture. The protagonists of the film, a female prison architect and a male poet-prisoner, exist in parallel realities–she lives in the present while he stays in the past. Cao creates illusions in the physical space by installing prison-style bunk beds, the same ones from the film, in the theatre, which allows Dewey and the other people watching to immerse themselves in Cao’s imagination.

Dewey recognizes the prison office where the poet-prisoner is getting yelled at by a crude, mango spewing guard. She becomes excited that the exhibition is coming together through this film. The open file she saw during her last visit must belong to this poet-prisoner.

In another scene, she notices that the prison architect is slicing her mango carefully in her modern Hong Kong apartment, and placing them in a bowl. Later on, there was the poet-prisoner, holding a half-peeled mango.

She wonders about the mangos.

Dewey has her Eureka moment in the scene that takes place in a starkly white room that looks familiar. There are three ghost-like prisoners with painted faces that are spinning around the poet-prisoner as if trying to suffocate and swallow him.

“Oh! That’s in the same room where the Roomba cleaners are!” She shouts inside her own head, “the robots might be a representation of the prisoners prowling in a random yet cognisant way.”

Dewey feels pleased about making this connection.

The rest of the exhibition doesn’t interest Dewey Punk Pickles as much, now that she feels like she’s figured it out. She walks down the grand staircase and notices fake mangos dangling.

At home, Dewey tells Mean Dean about the exhibition and what she figured out. Then she remembers the mangos.

“What is up with the mangos?” She asks.

Mean Dean tells her that there used to be a massive mango tree in the Victoria Prison complex, and the guards used to eat the sweet, meaty fruit from it.

How does Mean Dean know this? Dewey has no idea.

A Solo Exhibition by Cao Fei, A hollow in a world too full @ Tai Kwun, Central, Hong Kong. On view until December 9, 2018. 

 

New Category: Art Writing and an Introduction to Dewey Punk Pickles

Guy Rose, The Green Mirror (1911). This painting shows my quest for learning to look at art objects, as well as myself, from different angles and perspectives.

Sometimes I feel uncomfortable and threatened at art exhibitions and gallery openings. I feel like a poser, pretending to enjoy something I don’t understand.

“I didn’t study art,” I think to myself, “I don’t know what I am looking at.”

Other times, I feel downright rejected by an object, but don’t know why. I am looking and trying to figure it out, but I always fail. I feel anxious, looking around at other people who seem to know exactly what they are looking at.

“This sculpture doesn’t want me to understand it. It’s an asshole.”

Lately, the works of Lynne Tillman, The Complete Madame Realism and Other Stories inspired me. I have also been reading a lot of other writers, such as Bruno Latour, Kathy Acker, and Chris Kraus.

These writers have challenged the way I look at art objects and how I write about them. As a writer, my instinctive inclination is trying to understand something and to write about it. In my In the Shadow of the Middle Kingdom thread, I explain things through storytelling. However, this strategy doesn’t seem to work with art objects.

Instead of trying to understand them, I decided to do an experiment and just let it be. Instead of asking, what is this supposed to tell me, I pose new questions. What is this making me feel, and why? What’s around it? Who’s looking at it? How is it displayed?

Lynne Tillman, a fiction writer, was asked to review different art exhibitions and cultural events. She created a fictional character, Madame Realism, and sent her to these exhibitions and events. The result is a collection of dazzling, humorous fictional essays that chronicles American culture.

Taking a cue from Tillman, I’ve created a character, Dewey Punk Pickles. For those of you who know me personally, you know that Dewey is the name of my beloved feral cat that I picked up on the streets of Dubai ten years ago. In my stories though, she is a person–she has a part of my history and my sensibilities (she is a writer who used to be a librarian at an art and design university), but she also has feline characteristics, like she curls up and goes to sleep, she purrs, she hisses, she might be bitey with her words.

This thread is an experiment, in my attempt to write about art in a way that is accessible and fun. I would love to hear about what you think. My first post in this thread is where Dewey Punk Pickles goes to see the Cao Fei’s A hollow in a world too full at Tai Kwun, a cultural hub in Central, Hong Kong. Please leave a comment or message me if you want to have a conversation! You can chat with me via my Facebook page.

Death, Mortality and Patriarchy: Ancestor Worship, Part III

Dear Reader, this post is part of a three-part series. Please read Part I  and Part II before proceeding.

After we visited the temple and the columbarium on the first day of the Chinese New Year, my family always visit the Chang mausoleum with offerings and freshly cut white Chrysanthemum. To get there, Baba droves us through the scenic cemetery ground, which has small, winding roads with proper street names. I felt like a tourist visiting the City of the Dead.

Derek’s first visit to the Chang burial grounds in 2015.

The Chang burial plot is marked by a large, black granite plaque with dignified golden Chinese characters. The mausoleum itself is shaped like a stone house, surrounded by an open, paved space. In front of the mausoleum is an altar. To the right of the house-like tomb is the shrine of two gods: the god of Feng Shui, and the god of earth.

In the Abrahamic tradition of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, there is only one god. However, in the Chinese folk religion, there are multiple gods, such as Buddha, the enlightened one, the goddess of the sea, Mazu, and Guan Yin, the Bodhisattva of compassion. When Mama is concerned about my grades or my career prospects, she pays Wenchang Wang a visit, who is the god of culture and literature. Another important deity for the Taiwanese soul is the ancestors, which consists of the older generations, all the people who are responsible for our existence. When an elder passes away, he or she joins the ancestors and become a god. They are vital as they remind the living of our roots while protecting and blessing their decedents.

On the left side of the ground, there is also an imposing plaque made of black granite. With golden Chinese characters, it illustrates the story of my ancestry.  In the year 1721, the first male Chang in my bloodline, from a village just outside of Xiamen, Fujian, crossed the Taiwan Strait and migrated near Taichung, near the west coast of Taiwan. Since then, the Changs have blossomed and spread.  In the early 90’s, Agon and his brothers bought the burial ground and erected the mausoleum in its current location to enable the future generations to honor our ancestors and to remember our origin. Currently, it is the final resting place for at least three generations of Changs, dating back to Agon’s parents.

Mama prays to the ancestors.

To prepare for the worship ritual, Derek helped to unload the rest of the offerings, and we distributed them between the god of Feng Shui the god of earth and the ancestors. We stacked the food offerings neatly in each area, but the fresh flowers are always reserved for the ancestors. Mama lit the incenses and gave each of us three sticks. Then, we went around to the different gods and the ancestors and asked for their blessings. After we finished praying in each area, we put one of the incense sticks in the little pots next to their plaque. We worshipped the ancestors last, and Mama talked to them:

“Dear ancestors, Kayo has brought her husband Derek to see you.  Please bless them and ensure that they are healthy and successful in their careers.”

Mama closed her eyes as she prayed, her palms in front of her chest. Then, she tossed a couple of coins on the ground. If the coins came up with different faces, this meant that the ancestors were happy. If they come up with the same faces, Mama would have to pray again and toss the coins until the ancestors indicate that they were satisfied. After that, we stand around the stone fireplace and burn joss papers.

“Burn those first,” Mama said pointing to a stack of joss paper wrapped in red rubber bands. There are many stacks, but the ones we burn first are the special ones with Sanskrit verses in Chinese characters written inside a large circle shaped like an old Chinese coin.

Joss papers are money for the dead, and we burn them to ensure that our ancestors have the means to live comfortably in the afterlife. Mama said we should touch every piece of the paper, which guarantees their validity in the heavens. I took off the rubber band and carefully folded the first piece of the rough yellow paper. I made a bundle of five or so pieces and fed them into the vibrant flames. Derek followed suit. We repeated the process until the whole stack was gone, and I reached for another one. After the first stack, the rest of the joss paper is less fancythey are smaller and decorated with a tiny gold or silver foil paper glued in the center. Derek and I continued to toss the joss paper, and we watched as they fluttered in the fire, consumed by flames, turned black and reduced to ashes.

After we burn all the joss papers, we headed home. While driving through the City of the Dead, we drove by Mama’s younger brother, my Uncle Freddie and his wife, my Aunt Christine. Baba stopped the car as Freddie rolled down his window, and exchanged pleasantries. Mama and Aunt Christine spoke over their husbands in their respective passenger seats. Before we drove away, Aunt Christine said, “see you at our place tomorrow.”

Even though Mama’s family’s burial plot is in the same cemetery, only a few blocks from ours, she was never invited to worship there on the first day of the New Year. Superstition dictates that a married daughter would bring ill fortune to her maiden home on the first day of the New Year’s. The family tomb, which houses the ashes and the spirits of the ancestors, is also considered “home.” We always saw Mama’s family on the second day of the New Year, which is reserved for married daughters to return home with her husband and children.

Ironically, as a married daughter, with an American, Christian husband, I have been going home and worshiping the Chang ancestors on the first day of the Chinese New Year’s. My parents’ desire to see me and Derek is stronger than superstitionI like knowing that their love for us is stronger than their beliefs in ill fortunes. I like that Mama and Baba are a little rebellious in defying tradition. I also like to partake in this defiant act. 

Mama typically frets this time of the year. While we were burning joss papers, she looks anxious, “You are going to come back and visit us after we die, aren’t you?”

When I was younger and lived far away, I never even considered it. I also thought ancestor worship reeked of patriarchy and superstition. Also, I hated being reminded of Mama’s morality. Logically, we all know that our parents will die one day, but I hate it when she forces me to think about it on an annual basis.

Lately, my perspectives on ancestor workship have been shifting. Based in Hong Kong, I am barely two hours away by flight. I also start to appreciate many aspects of the tradition. I love spending time with my parents, and I like feeling connected to my ancestry and knowing that I came from somewhere. Yes, it’s patriarchal and superstitious, but it seems that my parents are more fixated on the positive aspects of the traditions. Even Derek is interested in the rituals and has been prompting me to explore. Although looking after the ancestor’s is supposed to be my brother Davis’ job, it’s more likely that Derek and I will remain in Asia and will take over the duty. Like Ama, I will be in charge of a role traditionally assigned to a man, which is something I think is another defiant act I could partake.

Looking at Mama’s anxious face, I said, “of course I will, Mama,” I reassured her by giving her shoulder a little squeeze.

 

 

Do Not Say We Have Nothing: Chinese Modern History Spanning Over Three Generations

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien.

For a while, I got tired of reading Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing. The novel spans so many generations, and I became confused about who is related to who, how they are related, and why any of it matters. When I got to the part about Sparrow, Kai, and Zhuli during the cultural revolution, I thought their characters were so subdued and bland; I was almost bored to tears. However, I soldiered on, because as a Taiwanese Canadian living in Hong Kong,  modern Chinese history fascinates and horrifies me at the same time. Slowly and unknowingly as I continued to read, the book engrossed me as I became more and more attached to specific characters, especially Sparrow, the Quiet Bird.

The book starts in 1991 when Marie met Ai-Ming in Vancouver. Marie is the daughter of Kai, an accomplished pianist and an old friend of Sparrow, a talented composer who is A-Ming’s father.  When the reader first meets Ai-Ming, she had just fled China due to her activities during the Tiananmen Square protests. She found refuge in Marie’s home and was planning to seek political asylum in the United States. Through Ai-Ming’s storytelling, the reader, along with Marie, discovers the tragedies of the Great Leap Forward, the Culture Revolution, and the Tiananmen Square massacre presented themselves through a story that spans three generations.

Threaded through the whole book is the story from the Book of Records, a collection of hand-written manuscripts passed from husband to wife, from parent to child and from friends to friends, a novel within a novel that was amended and updated each time it was passed to a new steward. At time confusing, the Book of Records blurs the line between fantasy and reality. However, it is a book with no ending. As an unfinished book, it provides hope for the characters in the book, and in turn, enables the reader to imagine multiple, alternative, and perhaps more positive outcomes.

How many of us, Chinese or Taiwanese or Hong Kongese descendants in North America, understand the horrors of the Communist Party of China (CPC) inflicted on its citizen for the latter half of the 20th century? How many of us know about the starvation and death millions of people during the Great Leap Forward, the purging of the members of the intelligentsia class during the Cultural Revolution and the massacre of thousands of civilians in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square protests? Through Thien’s powerful and direct narrative, we learned the horrors of living under Mao and Deng in China–through modern history, the CPC dictated where people lived and worked, suppressed desires and aspirations, tore families apart and murdered their citizens.

One of the most vivid imagery in the book was how the residents of Beijing collectively gathered in the city, physically blocking the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to reach the Tiananmen Square, where thousands of university students were protesting. Thousands if not millions of people lost their lives on the night of June 3, doing what they thought was right. In the end, all was futile: “Street by street, no matter how many Beijing residents stood on the road, the People’s Liberation Army was forcing its way into the centre.”

Sparrow witnessed a the PLA soldier thrust a bayonet into a teenager on the street. He went to comfort the boy as he lay dying. “What had any of them done that was criminal?” He asked, “hadn’t they done their best to listen and to believe?” I imagine his question captured millions of Chinese people’s sentiment during the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square protests. So many lives lost and destroyed, and for what?

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is an epic novel is intricate and touching. It’s a heartbreaking read, a portrait of the struggle of millions of Chinese people who have suffered, physically, emotionally, and psychologically under a regime. Perhaps it will provide a glimpse of why someone like me is terrified of China’s growing power and influence in the year 2018. If they could be cruel and ruthless to their citizens, what would they do to the rest of the world as they gain more control of the world’s economy and wield their influence across the globe?

Death, Mortality and Patriarchy: Ancestor Worship, Part II

Dear Reader, this post is part of a three-part series. Please read Part I before proceeding.

Once Baba parked the car on the unpaved gravel lot, we got off and started to unload the offerings. Derek emptied a basket of fruit and candies and passed them to Mama. He then tried to give her more but Mama, in her rudimentary English said, “Okay, enough. No more.”

Derek looked at me, puzzled.

“Sweetie, the rest is for the cemetery,” I explained.

“Why do we need to have different offerings for the cemetery?” He asked.

His question made me pause. I’d never thought about why. It has always been the way it is: Ama’s family get their offerings, the Chang ancestors get their own, plus the flowers, and the gods also get their set of offerings.

“Mama,” I asked in Mandarin, “Why do we have different offerings for everybody?”

“Well, you wouldn’t offer leftovers to your guest when they come to your house for dinner, right?” She stated, matter-of-fact, “it’s the same with the gods and ancestors.”

Ironically, Derek, my American, Midwestern husband who grew up in a Christian household, was the person who got me thinking about the traditions I always took for granted.

Baba led the way to a little shack next to the make-shift temple. He approached the two smiling nuns with clean-shaven heads at the counter and pass them two 1,000 NTD notes. One of them gave him a donor form. He filled it out using his mother, Ama’s name as the head of the household. He wrote down everybody’s names,  including his older sister and younger brother, along with their spouses and children. This year, he also added a new name on the form: Derek’s.

We placed the offering on a table in a large room. A gigantic, golden Buddha took up most of the front of the room. There are numerous round tables with little lotus shaped signs with the names of the donors written on them. By donating to the temple, our names sit in a room with Buddha all year long, bring us peace and prosperity. Mama gave me, Derek, and Baba each two lit incenses. We first worshipped the Jade Emperor in the sky. Then we turned around to worshipped the Buddha.

In the last few years, Baba had moved Ama’s family ashes to a new temple.

After the temple,  we headed to the columbarium.

Mama forbade Derek and me to enter the columbarium the first time we visited because she wanted us to avoid ghostly spirits close to our wedding day.  Despite Mama’s best effort to avoid entanglements with the afterlife, Derek and I got married on Halloween, my favorite holiday, later that year. We had a costume party, and my wedding dress was black.

When we revisited the following year, we went inside. As we entered, there was a faint waft of incense and I shivered—the temperature dropped slightly as if appeasing to the dead who no longer needed warmth. Baba guided us through a narrow hallway that had rows and rows of wooden urns stacked on top of one another.  Following behind Dad, I made mental notes of the almost identical containers labeled with the deceased person’s name, and sometimes it might also include a headshot. Some of the urns were new and shiny, while others looked dusty and faded.  Walking around in the columbarium was like traveling in a packed subway train during rush hour, surrounded by a bunch of strangers in a tight and intimate space. Imagine feeling squished and cramped but not able to see the other passengers. Though their spirits were invisible, their lack of manifestation still had a presence.

As I walk, I could feel the spirits of the people inside the urns brushing up against me, as if pleading with me to stop and visit them. I paused before a box to study a black and white photograph of a stern looking old man in a suit. His urn looked as though it’d seen the changes of seasons, and yet it was clean, and the picture on the box was fresh, indicating a regular visit from his family.  At one point, I came across a photograph of a young girl smiling in her pigtails. However, her urn was dusty and the features of her face blurred. Studying her young face, I wondered what misfortune had fallen on her, and why her family had not been visiting.  When we got to the front of the urns that contained the ashes of Ama’s family, Mom gently tapped on each of them to let them know that we had arrived. There weren’t headshots, but the urns had their names printed in black characters. I look at my adopted great-grandmother’s name and contemplated about this person who raised Ama. I have no recollection of her as I had only met as a baby before she died. We merely stopped for a minute or two to say hello. Then we took the same route out of the columbarium, leaving all the spirits behind.

Derek and I only went into this columbarium once. The following year, Baba moved Ama’s family’s ashes in a brand new temple on a hilltop with a pretty garden. It took a lot of research for Baba to choose this place because this is where Ama will be after she passes. Typically, when the matriarch of the family passes away, she goes into her husband’s family’s tomb. However, since Ama was not Agon’s legitimate wife, other arrangements need to be made. I think Baba has always felt sad about his mother’s situation; this is why he always makes sure that we get up early every Chinese New Year’s Day to worship Ama’s family, to show her that when she joins them one day, we will be visiting her every year.

In the next post, we visit the Chang mausoleum in the cemetery, and I will tell you all about my ancestors.

Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win: The Story of a Strong Women in the Trump Era

Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win by Jo Piazza.

Charlotte Walsh Likes To Win by Jo Piazza is particularly poignant in the age of Trump and the #MeToo Movement. It’s a story of Charlotte Walsh, an ambitious and capable woman, and her quest to achieve her agenda: to run for Senate while maintaining her marriage and raising her children. It asks an important question that’s on the back of our minds when we see someone like Charlotte, or in real life, Hilary Clinton running for political office, “Do men want ambitious women in their lives as their partners and their government representative?”

Charlotte Walsh was a COO of Humanity, one of the fastest growing companies in the world. She implemented a progressive family planning package, allowing employees the flexibility of having and raising children. Furthermore, Charlotte also had an aspiration to serve the public as a Senator. She believed “that politicians were failing Americans. Corporations were failing Americans. She hated the hate she saw every time she read the news. She felt terror and anger when she scrolled through Twitter. Americans were at each other’s throats and it was disgusting. She was scared to death of raising her daughter in this country.” Her reasons to run for office echo what many of us are thinking as we witness mass shootings, police brutality, and racist, inflammatory rhetoric on a daily basis.

Charlotte took a leave from her lucrative career in Silicon Valley. She moved back to her hometown in rural Pennsylvania along with her husband Max, their three young daughters, and her trusty and feisty assistant Leila. She hired Josh Pratt, a brash albeit competent campaign manager to ensure her victory.

Throughout the campaign, she worked insane hours and lost all sense of privacy. Her Trump-like opponent, Ted Slaughter, threw misogynistic insults from all directions in trying to sway the election. Instead of paying attention to Charlotte’s campaign speech, the media was more captivated by the shoes she was wearing. Instead of paying attention to issues she had brought forth, her personal life, the ugly mistake she had buried from the past was threatening to resurface, potentially obliterating everything she had worked for: her campaign, her marriage, and her perfect life.

Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win is an engaging and gripping read. Piazza’s prose is accessible and witty. The characters, though flawed, are likable. As a reader, I couldn’t help but cheer for Charlotte, though she had made some unforgivable decisions that impacted the lives of many.  I love the scrappy and loyal Leila, who also committed a betrayal during the campaign that almost cost her relationship with Charlotte, who was her mentor and best friend.

One of the elements I enjoyed the most about the book is how accurate Piazza depicted how our society treats powerful women. Josh, the campaign manager, played the role of preparing Charlotte for the brutal campaign ahead of her. In doing so, he represented the voice of men who fear powerful women:

“You can be a strong female candidate, but not a feminist candidate. There’s a difference. The subtle path is the surer one. It’s all in the nuance. And the hair… Thank God you didn’t chop off your hair when you had kids.”

Powerful women are often accused of emasculating men. They are often put in a position where they have to choose between a happy marriage and a successful career. Early on in the book, Josh commented on the power dynamic between Charlotte and her husband Max, who also worked at Humanity:

“I’ll bet that was though on Max, having his wife as a boss, the big dog at one of the most powerful companies in the world.”

Her reply to Josh: “My husband is a very evolved man, not a dinosaur.”

Charlotte’s statement was telling, especially for the final chapter of the book. What would Max do, in the midst of Charlotte’s quest to the Senate while their marriage and lives are under scrutiny?

For many millennial women, we have been raised with the idea that as girls, we can do anything we wanted, as long as we work hard for it. However, there is a definite gap between what our mothers taught us and the reality in the technology-obsessed, consumer-driven, and still-patriarchal 21st century. It saddens me, that despite all that women had fought for in the last hundred years, from women’s suffrage to sexual liberation to the #MeToo movement, many of us still believe: “only let the world see half of your ambition. Half of the world can’t handle seeing it at all.”

 

Though I Get Home: Interconnected Short Stories From Malaysia

Though I Get Home by YZ Chin.

Though I Get Home is YZ Chin’s debut book, a collection of interconnected short stories that illustrate the Malaysian post-colonial experience and modern-day political dissidence. I picked it up because as a writer, I am interested in post-colonialism, diaspora communities, and activism.  Furthermore, I would like to experiment with Chin’s use of interconnected narrative with my current project, In the Shadow of the Middle Kingdom.

The book centers around Isabella Sin, known as Isa, an aspiring writer-activist who was imprisoned for writing obscene poetry. The government arrested her he along with others who participated in a protest in Kuala Lumpur. Her grandfather, Gong Gong, had worked as a butler and a nanny for a British family during colonial times, had told her stories that ignited Isa’s fascination with England. After his death, Isa spent a year in London, which led her mother to blame her lack of marital prospects on her Anglophone speech and attitude. There is also the story about her friend K, who at the opening of Starbucks in Taiping, pondered whether or not to leave her ex-boyfriend who had already broken up with her.

There are other characters in the book who aren’t directly related to her, like Howie Ho, a Chinese Malaysian studying in New York, who dated an American girl who was sympathetic to Malaysian activists and had a penchant for writing poetry. There’s also Ibrahim, a member of the RD, who acted as the moral police. His job was to make sure that their fellow Malays, who are all technically Muslims, are preserving their purity and not engaging in sexually deviant behaviors, such as sex before marriage and cross-dressing. They knocked on the windows of parked cars and broke into hotels to make sure that everybody was behaving themselves.

Initially, I didn’t care for the book. I didn’t connect with the storytelling and felt that the book was messy overall. I didn’t always understand how each story related to one another. There was a story about a concubine that seemed out of place. Furthermore, while reading  “A Malaysian Man in Mayor Bloomberg’s Silicon Alley,” I was frustrated reading about this Howie Ho, a seemingly unrelated character who went away to the US for college, dated an American girl, and went back to Malaysia to vote for an election. It is the longest story in the book, and at first, I didn’t understand why he even mattered. Chin does reveal the relevance of this character at the end, but I wish there was some foreshadowing in the earlier stories. Also, there is a thread in the story where Howie Ho witnessed an incident of abuse and violence in his college dorm room but chose to do nothing. That annoyed me—not only because I thought he was a coward, but I also didn’t understand how the incident added to his character.  I just felt appalled and disliked him.

Having said that, I enjoyed some of the stories, such as “The Butler Opens the Door.” After the daughter of the British family he was working for had gone missing, Gong Gong staged a funeral to help his employer grieve properly. The British people who attended the funeral were appalled and fascinated at the same time, which reminded me of my own grandfather’s funeral that I attended as an eight-year-old. It was an open casket funeral, and Mama had led me to see him, despite my unwillingness. I saw him through a glass sheet over a fridge-like thing— I jolted at how cold it felt when I touched the surface. He looked like he was sleeping, but he also seemed strangely hollow and weird. I didn’t like it. On the same day, I also got yelled at for playing with the joss papers, the money for the dead, by folding them into cranes and other origami animals before feeding them to the fire. There is a lot of burning at a Chinese funeral: I watched in awe as flames engulfed an entire paper home that looked like a dollhouse and a paper car. All these memories came rolling through my mind as I read about this funeral with no corpse.

Initially, I didn’t like the book. However, after reading parts of it a few times to write this review, I grew to appreciate it. It’s like a bottle of good, vintage wine that takes time and patience to enjoy. I learned a great deal about Malaysian history, politics, and how similar Chinese folk religion is wherever people practice it.

 

Death, Mortality and Patriarchy: Ancestor Worship, Part I

Hello my dear readers, this is a new series about the Chinese observance and ritual of death: ancestor worship. I hope you enjoy it.

In 2015, Derek and I went to Taiwan for his first Chinese New Year’s celebration with my family. We arrived just before supper time, and Mama was running around in the kitchen, getting our feast ready. Since the gods and ancestors must eat before we do, as she finished preparing the food, I would bring each dish to a large round table in the altar room where Buddha, Guanyin, and our ancestors live. In the center of the room is a picture of Buddha wearing a yellow robe under the Banyan tree, a golden statue of Guanyin, and our ancestors are next to them, represented by a wooden plaque in a glass case. 

While Mama was cooking up a storm in the kitchen, I sat in the bone-crushingly hard cherry wood sofa in the living room, mindlessly tapping on my phone. Derek walked into the living room, his nose crinkling, “Oh man, that food smells amazing!” He exclaimed. After a moment of pause, he asked, “why aren’t you in the kitchen helping Mama?”

“Oh, she’ll holler when she needs help carrying the dishes to the altar,” I said without looking up.

“But don’t you want to learn what she’s making?” He asked.

I turned my attention to Derek, this handsome man with twinkling blue eyes I was about to marry. Honestly, the thought of cooking with Mama had never crossed my mind. What business do I have in the kitchen? I would only get in her way. Besides, he was the cook in our family. But then again—if I don’t learn what Mama knows now, her knowledge will go when she goes. I pushed away this morbid thought. It’s not that I didn’t want to learn, but by learning, I am acknowledging her mortality.

The first time I was reminded of my mother’s mortality was at the funeral of my maternal grandmother. During the service, I sat next to Mama in the front row, my nose twitched at the sharp sting of the formaldehyde. While the monk chanted, Mama was heartbroken and bawling her eyes out. I gave her my hand to comfort her. She clutched it so hard my knuckles turned white. At that moment, I thought about the day I would have to cremate my mother—who is going to offer me their hand when that day comes? I hate having to think about the day when Mama will no longer be with us. But, I stood up anyway and walked towards the kitchen. 

“You are right. I should learn so I can cook for you.” I smiled at him. 

By the time I got there, Mama had finished cooking. “Okay, start bringing the dishes to the altar,” she instructed as she wiped her hands on a towel.

I was too late to learn anything.

Before we eat, we say our prayers with three burning incenses. First, out the window, praying to the Jade Emperor, the Zeus-like deity in the Chinese folk religion. Then, we pray to Buddha and Guanyin, and finally, the ancestors. After the prayer, we place each incense in their respective pots, one of the Jade Emperor, one for Buddha and Guanyin and the final one for the ancestors. When the incenses are burnt about halfway, Mama tosses two moon-shaped wooden blocks while asking if the ancestors were happy with their meal. If the blocks land in two opposite directions, it meant they were satisfied.  We could then bring the dishes to the dining room and start eating.

This is a typical Chinese New Year’s Eve feast prepared by Mama. Some of the items are store bought, like the bird.

In the Taiwanese tradition, like many Chinese speaking communities in southern China, the veneration of ancestors, or ancestor worship, is a significant ritual in the Chinese folk religion. It is how Chinese people understand and deal with death. When our parents pass away, they join the older generations of the family and become gods. It is the responsibility of the younger generation to remember our parents, our roots while asking for their blessings. The values of ancestor worship can be traced back to the Confucius concept of filial piety, the virtue of respecting one’s parents and elders by submitting to them. Not only do we love and obey our parents while they are with us, but we also continue to honor them in the afterlife with daily prayers and offerings. On special occasions, such as Chinese New Year’s, the offerings are more elaborate.  

On the first day of the New Year, my family always continue to worship our ancestors. First thing in the morning, we would visit the temple to worship Ama’s family. Then we head to the cemetery, where my parental grandfather, my Agon, had purchased the mausoleum for his family and descendants.  Derek and I got up early to help my parents load up the car with offerings, which consisted of fresh fruit, candies, and bottled tea. Then, we would stop by a flower stall and pick up freshly cut white Chrysanthemum, a gift to our ancestors.

The temple where we keep Ama’s family’s ashes is a short distance from Taichung. Most families only worship one set of ancestors, as the responsibility gets passed down by the oldest son in the household. However, my family is unique. Based on what I gathered, Ama’s family moved to Vietnam to pursue wealth and fortune when she was an infant. They only took the older boys with them, leaving Ama and her two older sisters behind in Taiwan. It seemed unthinkable for people nowadays to leave their children. But back then, the journey on a boat to Vietnam would be treacherous with young children.  Ama’s parents decided to keep the boys, who carry the family name and gave their three daughters away. A childless widow adopted Ama who raised her with love and kindness. Ama claimed that the reason she chose to be with Agon, a married, wealthy doctor, was to have the means to take care of her aging adopted mother. 

When her adopted mother passed away, Ama, as her only child, took on the responsibility to worship her. Ama also worshipped her adopted grandmother, who doted on her, as well as her ancestors. Their ashes are kept at the columbarium next to the temple. Now that Ama is getting older and less mobile, it’s Baba and Mama who make the trip to venerate Ama’s ancestors. Since 2012, when I moved to Hong Kong, I would join them on every Chinese New Year’s. And now, Derek also participates in the ritual. 

The temple was destroyed by the “921 Earthquake” in 1999, and in its place are some temporary structures. Before the earthquake, it was a beautiful place a broad, concrete staircase led to the grand temple,  the railings on both sides are in the shape of dragons. One dragon was blue, and the other was red. As I walked down the stairs with my hand trailing down the back of the dragon, I felt the grooves of its scales. The sculptor painstaking painted each scale of the dragon in the hue of vivid sapphire. At the bottom of the stairs, the dragons had their mouths wide open, revealing their sharp teeth and blood-red tongue. There was also a garden on the grounds where my brother Davis and I used to play with our cousins, chasing each other around near the pond where koi fish swam in lazy circles, surrounded by luscious tropical plants.

In the year 2018, there are no remnants of its former beauty and magnificence. The temple raised funds to rebuild it, but somehow it never got finished. On the top of the hill where the temple once stood is a half-built structure, an abandoned construction project. Currently, the temple and columbarium are housed in flimsy, make-shift structures, though the earthquake took place almost twenty years ago.

The next post will illustrate the rest of the ancestor worship process. Have you been to a columbarium before? It’s super creepy but cool at the same time.

 

Telltale Signs that China is Slowly Taking Over the World

My first experience with censorship was when I first moved to Dubai. When I first moved there, I tried to log into my OkCupid account. Instead of the blue and pink login page, I was directed to a grey and red warning sign that told me that this site was restricted. I was stunned. Growing up in Canada, I had never had an experience where I couldn’t access a website due to government censorship. I eventually got a VPN and accessed whatever I wanted. However, I vehemently disagree with censorship in any form, personally and professionally.

When I was working as a librarian, I made a pledge to provide equal access to information and to fight censorship. China, with its great firewall, blocks thousands of websites and services, most of them from the West. Obviously, the Chinese policies regarding the internet and the dissemination of information have never sat well with me. However, now living in Hong Kong, reading about how the Communist Party of China (CPC) is controlling their populace and using their wealth to control other countries’ foreign policies and economies brings a chill down my spine.

On August 6, I read an article in The New York Times, A Generation Grows Up in China Without Google, Facebook or Twitter. It describes a group of Chinese millennials who grew up with social media sanctioned by the CPC. Unlike the rest of the world, they didn’t use Google, Facebook or Twitter. Except for one student who studied in Australia, the young people interviewed for the article either don’t know about western social media or don’t see the need for them. They basically trust whatever is fed to them through Baidu, WeChat, Tik Tok, and Weibo:

Accustomed to the homegrown apps and online services, many appear uninterested in knowing what has been censored online, allowing Beijing to build an alternative value system that competes with Western liberal democracy.”

What worries me is that these young people have zero curiosity over other ways of thinking and a lack critical thinking skills. They will not question or hold their government accountable.

It gets worse:

“These trends are set to spread. China is now exporting its model of a censored internet to other countries, including Vietnam, Tanzania, and Ethiopia.”

This is a digital colonialism.

Back in April, I wrote “China’s New Silk Road” where I talked about the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) and how it’s changing political and economic policies in Central Asia, West Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. In some ways, BRI is a form of Chinese colonialism, where the CCP can exert control over and gain strategic advantages by investing in foreign countries. This in itself is scary enough, but now, they are entering another realm importing their internet to African countries.

 

Original illustration for “China’s New Silk Road.” Illustrated by Ahmara Smith.

Am I being paranoid, or is China trying to take over the world through their version of the internet?

I am sitting here trying to grapple with my fear. Why am I so freaked out? Other people who read The New York Times article might pick up on the fact that this article is not legitimate—it is merely Chinese propaganda on the New York Times—after all, no sensible Chinese citizen would speak out against the CPC and its policies, especially to a foreign newspaper. To me, just the fact that the New York Times printed the views of these young people shows that they want to normalize this alternative, Chinese approach to the internet. It’s like they are saying, “Look, censorship is working. We’ve just brainwashed a population of young people who aren’t curious or critical and would not defy the government.”

Remember the man who stood in front of the tanks during the Tiananmen Square Protest? He wouldn’t have existed in the year 2018.

Tank Man by Jeff Widener,
1989.

Using the power of technologies and harnessing the wide reach of the internet, the CPC has bred the perfect citizens under a dictatorship. And, it only took less than a generation. We should be worried, very very worried.

For the last month or so, I have been writing personal stories, such as lessons on love and my first marriage. I almost forgot that this quest to tell my story and discover my Taiwanese culture came from a deep-seeded fear of China’s influence. I don’t want to live in a world where the government restricts our access to information. I don’t want to live in a world where people are passive and uncritical of their surroundings. I don’t want to live in a world where activists, writers and artists and jailed for speaking up against the government and challenging the status quo.

I can feel the chill as the shadow of the Middle Kingdom creeps closer. I don’t really know what to do about it. I don’t know if I can do anything about it. All I do is read news about the growing influence of CPC around the world, be horrified by it and write about it.