Cultural compass: the habits of Chinese people

Having read this bullet list on Douban about the characteristics of Chinese people, I cannot resist writing a post on this. After all, I do agree with a lot of the observations, some of which I take the liberty to share here:

52. Enjoy giving mooncakes as presents, as well as eating them.

57. In a restaurant, they always compete to get the bill.

60. They like to live with the parents. Sometimes, even three generations of the family would live together.


These are habits that are so common among my friends and family, that sometimes it’s hard not to take those for granted. Having lived in Hong Kong for so long, I am used to the idea that the best way to show someone your friendship or goodwill is by buying them a gift or a meal. It is perfectly normal to treat a friend or the family to a meal, even if it’s not his or her birthday. It’s simply a way to show your care. When dining with close friends, family or relatives, it’s expected that you should try to get the bill to demonstrate how much you love them. During mid-autumn festival, it is quite common to buy several boxes of mooncakes and give them to your relatives, your in-laws, and business contacts. I remember feeling somewhat disappointed when I came to England to study, and realised that British friends around me kept to paying only for themselves. It felt as if there’s an insurmountable distance between people. That every person remains an island. The other day, a Chinese student that I have taught years before, sent me a very expensive gift (a silver necklace) to congratulate me on the birth of my child. This gesture is heart-warming, not because of the necklace itself, but because it reminded me of the value systems behind the Chinese cultural practices.

The article also mentions how family members, or even generations within the family, like to live together. Surely, it is in part necessitated by the exorbitant property prices in Hong Kong or some other well-developed Chinese cities. How can one ever save up enough to buy a property otherwise? More than that, however, lies the Chinese people’s priority of family life and their take on what happiness means. There is a lot less emphasis on becoming self-sufficient or independent. For a lot of Chinese people, life is not complete if the family members are not living together or within close proximity so that they can visit each other regularly. When a Chinese couple gets married, sometimes they’d also consider buying properties nearer to their parents’ homes so that they can visit the parents regularly and ‘take good care’ of them. The perfect, happy scenario is to have the joy of three or even four generations under the same roof (and ideally in a luxurious, spacious family home). Some children live far away from their parents because they are sent overseas to study, which is a different matter. However, anyone who chooses to live far away from his or her own family (i.e. parents), is thought to be somewhat unfilial and don’t care enough about their parents. It is not uncommon for Chinese couples to return to their home country after their studies or a few years of work overseas, so that they can ‘take good care’ of their parents. Perhaps because I have lived in that society for so long, this kind of cultural values still affects me. For those who decide to pursue their careers or dreams overseas, or have set up their own homes and families overseas, there is almost always a strong sense of emotional ambivalence or guilt that such a decision or situation makes it hard for you to ‘take care’ of the parents or show your filial piety.

In analysing these feelings, I have come to appreciate how salient cultural beliefs are. Despite having lived in Britain for so many years, these Confucian thoughts are still deeply entrenched in me and, to some extent, I am defined by such a hybrid of cultural values.

Carl Randall at Daiwa Foundation House: the artist as outsider

In his conversation with Andrew Stahl from The Slade School of Fine Art, UCL at Daiwa Foundation House on Thursday, Carl Randall explained how his meticulous paintings evolved from a simple sketch. It might originate from some movements or people’s facial expressions that intrigued him, and then he would make a few quick sketches on the move, and consider the composition. Then over time the quick sketches became more serious sketches, and slowly the overall impression deepened. Finally the characters found their ways into the picture. He would consider the light, tone and texture, making one layer after another. He approached his subject as if he were an outsider, so that he could observe and create, make a documentation of the reality, even if his play on the dimension and proportions of figures betray the artificial nature of a painting.

Listening to his talk, one sees that art is never a coincidence. Talent and perceptiveness are key, of course, but the contents and style come from hard work. Randall conceded that he never used photographs to make portraits, even though he had no intention of making a statement against portraits based on photographs. It just did not appeal to him. He would like to be able to meet his model, speak to him or her, and in those three hours he would observe keenly and feel the model’s presence or personality, pin down his impression of him or her, and to adopt the portrait in the larger urban landscape he was working on. Over the ten years he was in Japan, Randall estimated that he had drawn nearly a thousand faces.

image credit Carl Randall
image credit Carl Randall

He mentioned Edward Hopper as an influence. I have always felt a vague hint of Hopper in his work: the distance between individuals in a familiar yet slightly surreal urban landscape, the unflattering palette of reality, the way time seems to have frozen in the poetic moment, the impossibility to know someone or tell what they feel from just gleaning the surface, and how the mood of an individual seems to enter the colours, the lights, the environment. He said he liked Japan and found it a very calm, orderly city, and though the city is incredibly busy, filled with movements and skyscrapers and neon lights, it is a place where lost things are found.

Stahl asked Randall how he thought about the discipline of the artist. The key, according to Randall, is to treat your work as a job. “You have to get on with it, every single day, otherwise nothing gets done really.”

For more, click here. Exhibition continues at Daiwa Foundation House, 13/14 Cornwall Terrace, Outer Circle, London NW1 4QP until 12 March.

Exhibition at Daiwa Foundation House
Daiwa Foundation House exhibition                           image credit: Carl Randall

Goldfish reviewed in Magma Poetry – Multiple Sides of Everything

Matt Merritt has reviewed Goldfish alongside two other poetry books – Pretty by Ahren Warner (Bloodaxe Books 2013) and Selected Poems by Peter Hughes (Shearsman Books 2013) – in the current issue of Magma Poetry (Issue 57) edited by Ian McEwen and Hannah Lowe.

Below is an excerpt:

It takes a little time in this lengthy second collection by Jennifer Wong before you start to appreciate exactly where her considerable strengths are taking you. That’s because, on first reading of the opening dozen or so poems, her restrained, pared-down style threatens to tip over into the prosaic…and then her delicate, unshowy language begins to feel like her greatest asset. In poems such as Photographs and Itinerary, it’s used to create pictures of a world seen through lenses or in mirrors, which act as boundaries or barriers between different states. So, the latter poem asserts: “In the pivot of glass everything/ is so small and manageable”, but by the end of the poem, reality is far more unsettling to deal with:

It is not easy anymore

to forget or be free of the bear

that roams the place where I come from.

The place referred to there (Wong’s Hong Kong-born) plays a key role. There’s a fine series of English versions of Chinese poets, and more than once Wong makes connections between the bilingualism of her home and the way poetry itself recreates familiar scenes in a different language (not always positively). […] Her ambiguous relationship with Hong Kong itself becomes an extension of that ability to see multiple sides of everything…

*Matt Merritt is the author of The Elephant Tests (Nine Arches Press 2013)

***Buy a copy of the magazine from to read the full text.


‘Give’ by Simon Armitage

homelessI’ve reread this poem and am startled by the building-up of suspense and surprise in it.

It’s aptly entitled ‘Give’ not ‘Giving’, the verb insistent and almost pleading. Beginning with ‘of all the public places, dear / To make a scene, I’ve chosen here’, it makes the reader rather uneasy about what will happen next, and sets up a close relationship between the reader and the homeless which will, later on, become the source of tension.

The voice of the homeless comes across as romantic and confident’. He is ‘under the stars’, and for coppers he ‘can dance or sing’. He can do anything to win what he must. The star motif goes back to Wilde’s saying ‘we are all in the gutters, but some of us are looking at the stars’, a position of surrender and also of hope.

I appreciate the power of the words ‘frankincense’ and ‘myrrh’, and the use of the Christian analogy to persuade the reader that charity has still the same value as it did before, but the two words used in this context have a strangely disturbing effect too. They are strong and glaring, and for a moment I have lost sight of the homeless person and his cause. It might be because it happens at exactly the juncture when the ‘I’ have changed from the homeless to the passer-by who hopes to give. The reader is shocked.

The direct, no-nonsense ending couplet reminds the reader of the imminent need of the homeless and his desperation. Now is not the time for tea or further pretensions. A genuine  giver would offer cash. The poem ends with the disgrace – not of the homeless but the giver, who is stingy enough to offer tea instead of practical help.

Some have compared Armitage with Larkin. There is a striking similarity in that both choose to engage in a more down-to-earth, unaffected, accessible language. Armitage is right to point out that some poems require a certain degree of felt empathy before they can be written.

I found a handful of poems on the working class and poverty from the Poetry Archive, and among them, American poet Ted Kooser’s ‘In the Basement of the Goodwill Store’ is a good comparison with Armitage’s ‘Give’, providing a half-comic take on thrift stores and secondhand shops.

These poems remind me of my conversation months ago with a Chinese student, who said that the busking musicians in the Underground are always so cheerful that he never felt they were asking for money. ‘They are  so happy offering music to the passengers,’ he exclaimed. I grew impatient. I said that even if they are passionate performers, certainly any or some form of giving would be most welcome if not needed.

Let us not forget that we all live on bread.


Simon Armitage

Of all the public places, dear
to make a scene, I’ve chosen here.

Of all the doorways in the world
to choose to sleep, I’ve chosen yours.
I’m on the street, under the stars.

For coppers I can dance or sing.
For silver-swallow swords, eat fire.
For gold-escape from locks and chains.

It’s not as if I’m holding out
for frankincense or myrrh, just change.

You give me tea. That’s big of you.
I’m on my knees. I beg of you.

Check out Armitage’s own version of what the poem is about on BBC2 (click here).

where grows creativity, in wilderness?

Food for thought at the upcoming discussion in Hong Kong Literary Festival on 11 October, 7.30pm, Dr Hari Harilela Lecture Theatre (Shaw Campus) Baptist University. Simon Armitage (author of many collections including Seeing Stars by Faber and Faber), Prof Daniel Chua (Head of School of Humanities, HKU), Prof Lo Kwai Cheung (Professor, Department of English Language and Literature, Baptist University Hong Kong), Prof Hans Lagegaard (Professor, Department of English Language and Literature, Baptist University) and I will be in dialogue on creativity and world cultures. Come along with a question.

Creativity wears its deceptive mask. It looks like thought but resembles athletic exercise, requiring consistent discipline and no-nonsense action.


I have never met a good writer or a good artist who is lazy. No matter where they come from, or what past they have left behind.

There’s no rule nor confine for creativity, but is there a condition that promotes it?

For full event details and other happenings in this year’s festival, check out Register for this free event at

Colm Toibin, author of Brooklyn and Empty Family, will talk about Ireland as land of literature on 13th October, 2.30-3.30pm at Kee Club.

Cauldron by Thomas Heatherwick: catching the power of world talent

Heatherwick has once again shown what imagination is capable of.

Credits: Architects Journal

Each athlete, each matchstick of talent, shines in the dark. A meeting of world talent in the stadium. A glimpse of the energy that fuels the progress of civilisation. This is how we build a cauldron of fire. A spectacular moment to share. To conceal and incorporate the creative process of the cauldron within the stadium gives the audience a chance to participate and interact with the cauldron sculpture.

I have mentioned Heatherwick’s designs in my previous post. His works have a sculptural, sometimes ghostly quality to it. His sculptures are visceral and corporeal. Similar to his London Bus design and the Seed Cathedral, it is easy to understand and difficult to forget. If you are interested in creativity, I highly recommend Alan Yentob’s documentary on Heatherwick’s design. I am a big fan of sculptures, and think they are very poetic, meditative presences that echo the unspeakable inside us. For instance, looking at the sculptures by Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore in different settings give me the shivers.

What came to mind also is the simplicity in Ai Wei Wei’s Serpentine Pavilion at Hyde Park – a quiet, half-concealed pavilion made of stone and cork wood, reminiscent of those airy pavilions in China where old men like to gather and play a game of chess – at the stone chessboard or table.

The designs of these two architects share some affinities in their desire to simplify and embody truths. They both emphasise the manipulation of material, although in my opinion Heatherwick exercises a more managed, thoughtful approach towards the crafted shapes of his works.

A clip on Dezeen shows how Heatherwick, as a boy, used to make his own Christmas cards. As a designer, he plays with the idea of using the stamps in a different way to create surprise. Imagination can start in very small places, in our familiar territories.

Heatherwick Studio: Designing the Extraordinary exhibition at the V&A from now until 30 September.

Poem reprint of Queen’s Pier Central (from Summer Cicadas) on Apple Daily

Queens pier

前 AO與諾獎得主同台 港產女詩人 倫敦詠奧運 2012年04月29日 【本報訊】

200位來自世界各地的詩人,包括 95年的諾貝爾文學獎得主、愛爾蘭詩人 Seamus Heaney,將會在 6月下旬及 7月中在泰晤士河畔的倫敦文化地標「南岸中心」以詩會友,向來自英國及世界各國乘奧運之慶,遠赴倫敦的旅客朗誦自己的作品。這 200名詩人是透過公眾提名、投票及專家評分而選出,當中包括香港土生土長,用英文創作的王詠思。

記者:黎穎詩 AO女詩人 倫奧唱好香港 其他要聞港聞影片

AO女詩人 倫奧唱好香港 這個英國文化界盛會是倫敦 2012奧運會的其中一個重要文化活動,為了慶祝奧運會的來臨,及提醒世人奧運提倡的多元文化。 「我會寫一首關於香港嘅詩,可能會包括大牌檔、天星小輪、皇后碼頭,其實呢啲陪住我大嘅嘢,一直都係我創作嘅靈感,家仲同主辦單位商量緊可唔可以加入音樂。我有一個朋友、亦係香港人,家住喺倫敦,佢係作曲家,我想請佢寫一首音樂,到時可以係一個詩同鋼琴嘅表演。」主辦機構會在活動結束後,把 200位詩人為活動而寫的詩編集出版。 對於大部份香港人,王詠思是個陌生的名字,不過她在香港詩壇一直很活躍。她於 06年出版第一本詩集,這詩集得到藝術發展局資助宣傳。詩的內容包括一個人在英國生活的點滴,及香港人熟悉的場景,如小孩在皇后碼頭旁,吃着從雪糕車買回來的軟雪糕。 王詠思擁有令人羨慕的背景,在女拔萃讀中學、拿獎學金到牛津大學主修英文,畢業後成為政務官( AO)。不過,當了五年 AO後,她決定放棄薪高糧準、優越安逸的生活。「喺政府做,大家覺得派去政策局係最好嘅;我反而鍾意喺地區做嘢,我鍾意有機會接觸唔同巿民,同佢哋交流好開心。」 搬到倫敦 專注創作 放大圖片 王詠思詩集。 王曾在私人機構任職,五年前決重返校園,到英國進修寫作,之後大部份時間住在倫敦,以寫作、編輯及繙譯維生。自搬到倫敦後,王有超過 20多首詩作在不同文學期刊刊登。她正在籌備第二本詩集,這本詩集很可能在倫敦發佈。 王在 Tate藝術館的藝術雜誌當義工,她提議藝術館結合藝術品和詩,邀請詩人用藝術品做藍本創作詩。她的提議成為藝術館一個常規節目,她說嘗試不同的工作,是希望豐富自己的經歷,為文學創作製造多些靈感。 這個學期,嶺南大學英文系邀請她成為駐校作家,她亦教授嶺南的學生用英文寫詩。王詠思會在下月返倫敦。對於她,香港和倫敦都是家。 「喺香港,如果你只做兼職、等自己可以專注藝術創作,啲人會覺得你好怪,你會面對好大嘅社會壓力,因為大家都覺得你應該有份正職,做銀行、做律師,然後買樓、買車。喺倫敦,無人會覺得我怪,因為呢度用呢種方式生活嘅群體有幾萬、甚至幾十萬人。我都想生活穩定啲,搵多啲錢,但我想繼續目前嘅生活方式,可以有機會學習西方文化、多啲經歷、機會去嘗試不同嘅創作方法。」 「喺香港買本詩集都難」 放大圖片 倫敦文化地標「南岸中心」。 「除咗社會壓力外,英國真係好重視文化,搞個奧運都有各種文化活動。喺英國啲機會又真係多好多:有超過 300本專門講詩嘅雜誌,南岸中心有一個收集咗所有同詩有關嘅宣傳品、書同雜誌,我唔知香港有咗西九文娛藝術區之後,文學藝術創作嘅環境會唔會好啲,不過家喺書店要買一本詩集都唔易。」王補充,要有良好創作環境,每個人都有責任,父母鼓勵及支持更不可少。 對王詠思而言,獲邀參加為奧運而辦的文學活動,除了是個肯定,及與來自世界各地詩人交流的機會外,最珍貴是可以通過詩向其他人介紹香港:「用人哋嘅語言表達自己嘅文化係種釋放,亦可以令多啲人明白我哋嘅文化。」 這文化包括香港、亦包括中國文化:「雖然我哋覺得自己同大陸好唔同,但其他人睇起上嚟我哋嘅飲食習慣、生活方式同文化分別其實唔大。我覺得做港人好好,可以有兩個文化根源,就係香港嘅根同中國文化嘅根。」

Queen’s Pier Central



Outside Queen’s Pier Central

Floated a merry rhyme.

A little boy stood in front of

The ice-cream parlour van.

His eyes feasted on the range of flavours open to him

As he waited to be served.

There was nothing complicated

About his wants: he loved vanilla

And he would ask The man in the van for it.

Nothing else but vanilla was on his mind.

It just didn’t occur to him that Vanilla might have sold out.

Or that praline with chocolate chips

Might just be as attractive.

Patiently the ice-cream man rolled out the cone

With concentrated precision. It came out perfectly.

Counting what he had, the little boy

Doled out his coins.

It was a significant occasion.

Our first happiness stands unrivalled:

That first fat, round scoop of frozen sweetness

Touching our tongue, the first chill

Melting at our jaws.

Vikram Seth’s Three Chinese Poets

v seth three poets

I’ve been reading Vikram Seth’s Three Chinese Poets (1992) by HarperPerennial, which includes poems by Li Bai, Du Fu and Wang Wei. His translation of these Tang verse is superior to other versions I’ve read: there is more clarity in rendering the imagery, and more attention to the rhythm of lines.

However, as in the poem on Lady Xi, I still cannot connect with the abruptness between the lines:

Lady Xi

by Wang Wei

No present royal favour could efface

the memory of the love that once she knew.

Seeing a flower filled her eyes with tears.

She did not speak a word to the King of Chu.

The last two lines might even make the reader think that the disjointed lines are part of what makes it a Chinese poem!

In another poem, ‘Birdsong Brook’

I do not understand why he translated the second line into ’empty the hill in Spring’. After all, it doesn’t really bear semblance to the syntax in the Chinese poem. Empty is the right image, yet ‘hollow’ might give it a better sound and emotional depth than the more straightforward observation (empty).



What I do like is his translation of what must be one of the most popular Chinese poems of all times, at least for the Chinese community:

In the Quiet Night

by Li Bai

The floor before my bed is bright:

Moonlight – like hoarfrost – in my room.

I lift my head and watch the moon.

I drop my head and think of home.


Hoarfrost’ sounds contrived.

The ending couplet is effective in evoking the original rhythm. Yet ‘drop my head’ is hardly the poetic phrase for bending down his head and remembering home. Perhaps Bending down, I think of home.” But then one loses the symmetry of it that is inherent in the Chinese couplet.

Is something necessarily lost in translation? When you try to share your culture with a foreign audience, is it still the same thing?

The image of the moon in Chinese poetry is very worth thinking about. It is not only in itself a legend (of the jade rabbit and Chang Er), but because it resembles so many things, and for Chinese people in particular, it symbolises family reunion.

There’s a crudeness in Chinese poetry however that I don’t enjoy. That is the lean description of objects (especially flowers and landscapes) and the little attention given to depicting the emotions. Perhaps, they consider that metaphors and similes are far more interesting in language play?

Anton Chekov’s short stories in audio

Recently I came across a set of audio CDs on Anton Chekov’s short stories translated by Constance Garnett. It’s a pleasure to listen to these Russian classics in the cosy home environment.

Read by Russian-born Max Bollinger – who pioneered the audio book collection and a former actor and producer – they form part of the Urban Romantics series. You can find books by Turgenev and other language learning series under Interactive Media’s imprint.

I find Chekov’s works are dark, profound and rewarding. His brevity of words reminds one of the stories by Guy de Maupassant. The fallible human condition – such as in ‘The Tragic Actor’ – is so disturbing yet strangely pitiable. The glamour of the stage and the illusion of the young lover.

The other ‘Truth, Freedom and Love’ series is also worth checking out.

Arts in Richmond – Part 1

28196-640x360-media_centre_tate_modern_lI have newly become member of the Arts Richmond Society. Impressed by the range of cultural activities they organise – book picnic with Colin Thurbron, the President of the Royal Literature Society, or a talk by David Attenborough, as examples – I filled in my membership form, sent it in by post, and in a week’s time I received the first newsletter and set of flyers. All for a mere £18.

I’m surprised to find is that, despite the blockbuster contents — talks, workshops, art events, arts and music performances — they are making do with very basic publicity materials, relying on the use of DIY A4 paper printing and a functional website. However I have no doubt they can attract regular goers, with those big names in their patrons list.

The area has its strong mileage and a powerful claim to culture and heritage, with a great deal of attractive event venues and places of cultural interest, including Orange Tree Theatre, Rose Theatre, Richmond Park, Kew Garden, and countless galleries… The census statistics indicate that, in addition to 10% of the residents working in managerial roles or in large corporations, the borough has over 28% professionals and managers, compared to 22% across London. Over 24% of the residents live in semi-detached houses. 33% are married couples, which is 10% more than the city’s average. The demographics are highly favourable for the appreciation and sharing of arts and culture.

I don’t live in the immediate borough, but just a fifteen minutes ride. Given the appeal of their events, I am sure I’ll find time to check out the events.