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 magmapoetry.com to read the full text.

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Interview and a Chinese poem on Urban Diary

Urban Diary, an online journal supported by Oval Partnership, has featured my Chinese poem ‘Turtle Jelly’ from my poetry collection Goldfish and an interview on writing poetry in English.

To read the full text in Chinese, please go to http://www.urbandiarist.com/012

For the benefit of non-Chinese speakers, an English version of the feature article is appended here: Urban Diary article in English

Photo credit: 123rf.com
Photo credit: 123rf.com

CFCCA Curating China conference

Despite the downpour, the trip to Manchester to attend the CFCCA conference on curating china, was highly rewarding. In fact, I wasn’t at all surprised to see that it’s a sold-out event. This is the first time I visited CFCCA after their rebranding campaign. I’m not sure if I like the branding colour (yellow) much, but it works, and it is young and cheerful. I like the modern and clean layout of the place, the addition of a souvenir shop selling artworks, scarves, notepads made by Chinese artists, and the provision of a user-friendly theatre.

Above all, the speakers they invited for the conference are really the kind of experts who should come to the UK more often to share their insights and experiences. Li Ning, curator at the China Art Museum in Shanghai, gave an impressive hour-long presentation on Chinese art history, with a focus on contemporary Chinese art, the diversity of art schools and their reception in China. The artworks she discussed in her presentation are most varied and interesting, from the use of colours and symbolic motifs in early poster art, to the new generation of Chinese artists such as Zhang Xiaogang, Yu Youhan, Yue Mingjun and Liu Ye. What I really like about Li and her attitude as a curator is that she believes in what she does, and comes across as being very sincere in promoting the museum and Chinese art, which don’t always mean the same thing. I wish she could talk more about the relationship between Chinese art and the social demographics, but I suppose one hour is already testing the attention span of the participants.

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Aric Chen, design curator for M+ museum (within the West Kowloon Cultural District in Hong Kong), shared with the audience the latest development of the museum. As Chen humorously pointed out, this museum hasn’t even been built yet, it has – typical of how Hong Kong people work – accumulated over 300 pieces of artwork for its collection. Someone in the audience asked whether Chen has enough funding to invest in a quality, comprehensive museum collection from scratch. Chen replied that they were given, as a start, a 5-year budget of, em, US$200 million. Humbly, he said that this amount might seem a lot to some people and to some it might seem too little as there are always artworks out there that are astronomically-priced. There was a wave of suppressed excitement in the form of whispers: ‘it’s a lot’. Personally, I am convinced that the capital and lead time for planning the museum is more than sufficient. The ongoing buzz of mobile M+ activities is rather instrumental in building up audience and art education. I just hope that it can achieve more synergy and connection with other existing and planned museums in China, and to encourage new artists and collaborators rather than focus on the prize winners and bestsellers, and to aim at diversity and originality rather than formulaic success.

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Jiehong Jiang (Joshua), director of the Centre for Chinese Visual Arts at Birmingham City University, highlighted the importance of art curators (at least those in China) to have the ability to raise funds, in addition to the aesthetic judgment anod creative responsibilities. The Asia Triennial he curates for next year also sounds fascinating, bringing the works by leading and emerging Chinese artists on the international stage. He is also curator of the Fourth Guangzhou Trienial, the Unseen, with Jonathan Watkins of Ikon Gallery, Birmingham.

Catherine McDermott, Professor of Design at Kingston University and Donna Loveday, who heads curatorial design at the Design Museum, shared their insights on the development of design practice over the last decade, tracing its humble beginnings in the pre-Design Museum days, to the current design scene and the rise of design curatorial practice. They also highlighted some innovative collaborations on the diversity of international cuisine.

You can also check out the conference contents online on CFCCA website: http://cfcca.org.uk/index.php/Exhibition/curating-the-contemporary-in-china-conference

West kowloon arts hub in Hong Kong part 1

m plus Hong KongGraham Sheffield, former artistic chief of Barbican Centre in London has decided to quit his role as CEO of Hong Kong’s HK$21.6 billion (£1.8 billion) West Kowloon arts hub project after five months. He has resigned due to health reasons, although many think that there must be more that triggered his abrupt decision to leave. The Wall Street Journal blog highlights that this follows the government’s decision to abandon Norman Foster’s canopy design for the arts project, while the Hong Kong Standard‘s article pinpoints Sheffield’s unfamiliarity with the local arts scene and his willingness to market the city’s arts hub on the world stage.

With the urgency to complete the 40-hectare cultural district before 2015, the Hong Kong government is now on an immediate global hunt for a new arts director. Words have gone round that Stephan Spurr, GM/director of Swire Properties with substantial arts background especially in theatre education and artistic direction, is tipped to be one of the candidates.

Mastermind behind the thriving Island East district in Hong Kong, a distinct strip of land where art and commerce meets, Spurr has demonstrated much creativity in transforming the landscapes in this skyscraper city. Born in Japan, educated in the UK and Canada, and having worked in Hong Kong’s competitive property development sector for several decades, he has international vision and is strongly supportive of arts development, especially theatre. Over the last few years, he was the volunteer artistic director for Shakespeare4All, directing plays and inspiring local schoolchildren to master Shakespearean drama/literature. He was also involved in advising the strategy of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, which has seen considerable expansion in recent years and attracted many new patrons on board. (Read more from SCMP‘s article)

Hong Kong is a heavily built-up city, and the project land area reserved for the arts hub is a rare piece of land for new architecture, property developments and museums. With a first high speed rail soon to be built across this region, it is a great location that will soon be connected directly with the Beijing capital. Many interests are involved. Many. In my opinion, this factor calls for leaders with vision as well as diplomacy.

We are yet to discover what top-notch candidates may register their interest in this artistic director role, and the jury’s still out as to how far this arts hub project will transform the arts scene in Hong Kong or even Greater China. Yet one thing is for certain: it is time for Hong Kong to address the need for a workforce of diverse talent, to create opportunities to fuel the long term growth and development of the city’s arts and culture. It is high time to cut back bureaucracy that will poison arts development and the retention of human capital.

Much work needs to be done.

Good morning Hong Kong towel

I am thinking of an artpiece I did a while ago – Good Morning Hong Kong. This is the most traditional towel you can find in Hong Kong, with the Chinese words in red: ‘Wish you a good morning’. Although it is more associated with working classes, I like its down-to-earth character.

good morning hong kong art

Decorated with the shiny marble beads – another classic of Hong Kong culture – it reminds you of the possibilities and happiness waking up to a good morning.

Hong Kong’s favourite: Instant noodles

I was always teased for my love of instant noodles. The midnight cravings for the unhealthy food. The other day I took a close examination at it and manipulate the perspective, with some fascinating findings.

The first image shows cooked instant noodles in its original, pure state. The choice of wooden chopsticks is used intentionally.

instant noodles art

The following image gives the instant noodles and the food consumer a context. The hint of an intellectual magazine immediately alters your idea of the person and quite possibly, towards the meal itself.

instant noodles art 2

This is what that underlies many of our prejudices. Try to pare down and evaluate people or events in their true light.

Time management: the art of juggling

Lately I have been reflecting on the art of juggling – the ways and implications of good time management.

One interesting finding is that, most people I know are very busy. They give up going to places or trying out things on the grounds that they are busy. There isn’t enough time.

You would think that if the average person has a hard time juggling everything in life, those more senior business executives or entrepreneurs – taking more flights than we take the cab or train – will be much busier than the average office worker and have a tough time fitting things in.

Apparently not.

I remember years ago I discussed the same issue with a reporter from ELLE magazine. She told me that, having interviewed so many celebrities and business leaders, she realised those people who are top in their fields tend to be more hardworking than anyone, getting up very early and going to bed very late at night. You would have wondered why they need to be so hardworking now that they have reached such a peak in their lives, but hardworking they remain.

I have had the luck to meet a handful of highly successful business, government and artistic leaders in the past, and from their life stories I realised that they approach time and priorities in a very different way than most people. To put it more simply, they are very aware of the need to prioritise. They are very keen to spend their time wisely and productively. Yet they are much less likely to stop doing things simply because of a lack of time. In other words, they are much more ferocious in getting what they want in life.

I once received a one-to-one coaching/lecture by a business entrepreneur for hours. He is one of the richest persons from my home city (if not globally), and one of the most intelligent guys I have come across. When he finished talking to me, he asked me if I was aware he could have easily earned millions of dollars in those hours he just spent. Looking back, I always felt that I learnt much more from what he said than from years spent working away in a given role in any typical office.

That business entrepreneur taught me the need to value time more passionately than anything else. He sees the urgency in accomplishing even the most minute task. If he says he wants a thermos flask, he doesn’t mean he want a thermos flask tomorrow, but today, in an hour or less if that is possible. If he wants to have a chat with you, he doesn’t mean let’s schedule a time to talk next week or next month, but today, as soon as you can. That probably means you should get dressed right away and hail a cab to go to wherever he or his office is. Even during lunch time and you haven’t had any food yet.

Do you know how much my time is worth?

It sounds a crazy and unreasonable way to live. It sounds unreasonable, but it has also opened up a new way of thinking for me. Nothing is too unreasonable, if justified by your own priorities.

Most of us like to postpone things. There are a million things that we want to do or places we want to go or people that we want to see, and we put off the meetings or ideas or thoughts to ‘when we’ll have more time’. But the time ‘when we have more time’ will never come unless we make it happen. There is never enough time and there never will be. All we have is today.

The same applies to writers. Especially to writers. A lot of good books are borne out of an urgent, burning desire to write, not out of necessity. They are written not because the writers feel they are talented and lucky or have the time to do so, but because they realise they have only so much time left on their hands and that they should give it all they have.

For a long period in his life, Murakami used to run a jazz bar until the small hours in the morning. Every night when he closes the bar he has to do the cleaning and finish the accounting, before he can sit down at his desk and write. By then it will be 3am, and he can almost hear the birds start singing. For most people, it will be unreasonable to write in that small space of time. There is just not enough time to do this. But he did. And oh he did well.

Thomas Heatherwick and his super-sculptures

Thomas Heatherwick and his art intrigue me.

Years ago, my boss at Swire gave me an interview clip on Heatherwick’s childhood. I find out that Heatherwick, born into a family of artists, harbours a questioning mind since he was a child. He likes to find out new ways of doing things. It’s fascinating how the curious, geeky child who makes strange greeting cards and craft for his mom becomes the man that he is today.

The man behind these ideas

When I was working in Hong Kong, I remember seeing the British artist for the first time, the creative mind behind the £120m Pacific Place Contemporarisation project, a visionary attempt to redesign one of the best malls in Hong Kong. He has a very intense look about him and doesn’t seem to give a damn what the world thinks of him. There he was, artist behind B of the Bang, in a press conference and media tour that promoted his creative work, oblivious to all that publicity surrounding him. He looked as if he was thinking of his next big idea. Nowadays, Pacific Place has a much more dramatic look about it, with the lighter shades, rippling wooden facade of toilets, musical capsule lifts, airy piazzas, a greenhouse Italian restaurant, and a dazzlingly luxurious hotel with a most modest stony facade (For more, click here).

The living coral sculpture he did for Shanghai Expo’s UK Pavilion this year is equally startling. I love the subtle, quivering silhouette of the sculpture (video).

London Mayor Boris Johnson has announced Heatherwick’s design for all Londoners: a new, low-emissions Routemaster bus which, in my opinion, looks like a red cake of soap. The new bus will roam London’s streets from 2012 onwards.

The new Heatherwick bus that looks like a cake of soap

Have a look at his medium- and large-scale projects on his studio if you have the time. They seem to assume a life of their own. (Heatherwick studio)

I am still planning to go to the Beach Cafe in Sussex he designed one warm sunny day.

Racial equality in UK and Hong Kong

I find The Guardian’s politically correct way of describing ethnic races most fascinating. It is almost funny to me how much attention they pay to the linguistic terms. This is how it goes:

Do not use ethnic to mean black or Asian people. In a British sense, they are an ethnic minority; in a world sense, of course, white people are an ethnic minority.

Just as in the Balkans or anywhere else, internal African peoples should, where possible, be called ethnic groups or communities rather than ‘tribes’.

Avoid the world ‘immigrant’, which is very offensive to many black and Asian people, not only because it is often incorrectly used to describe people who were born in Britain, but also because it has been used negatively for so many years that it carries imagery of ‘flooding’, ‘swamping’, ‘bogus’, ‘scroungers’, etc.

The words black and Asian should not be used as nouns, but as adjectives: black people rather than ‘blacks’, an Asian woman rather than ‘an Asian’, etc.

Say African-Carribean rather than Afro-Carribean.

I remember one of my friends made fun of my ‘international’ student status when I came to England. That’s true, you cannot brand yourself international in Hong Kong: I’m a local in that city. Ethnic minorities in Hong Kong account for a mere 5 per cent, with over half of them coming from the Philippines or Indonesia, whereas in London, ethnic minorities  account for around 30 to 40 per cent of the population, and they speak 300 different languages. Whenever you call a utility company in London, you often find yourself having a dialogue with a non-native English language speaker.

Whatever application forms you need to complete here, they usually come with an ethnicity questionnaire to monitor how institutions/companies/employers evaluate your application, whether racial discrimination has influenced decisions and approvals in the process. The form is optional. On the form, I am interested to see that ‘Chinese’ has a separate category, i.e. you do not declare yourself an Asian, you have to say you are a Chinese. Probably this is because China deserves a separate category. On a global level, as China has a staggering population of 1.3 billion, which amounts to 20 per cent of the world’s population.

It is a good idea to have monitoring systems in place, and questionnaires are helpful in tracing . I am not sure how in-depth or rigourous the post-questionnaire assessment is like, but at least it gives you an impression that you will be fairly treated. I am not sure exactly how fair or unbiased it can be though, as the immigration laws are strict about immigration entry prerequisites for non-EU workers, and employers also have to justify why a native cannot be hired in lieu of an immigrant for the job. By the Guardian rule, I noticed that it is much less likely an immigrant be called an immigrant in England, however, in reality, immigration rules and declarations often remind people of their citizenship/legal status. This is quite a different way of life as compared to my home city, where cash and qualifications are used much more often as a social differentiating criteria than one’s immigration status.

In Hong Kong, people seem to worry less about racial differences. But at the same time they can be very careless in describing people in a politically correct way. There are many widespread slangs for immigrants like ‘gwai lo’ (foreign ghosts), ‘cha’ (people of Pakistani and Indian origins, for example), even the somewhat offensive ‘bun mui’ (Filipino maids). The better educated tend to be more equality-conscious and avoid these terms.

But there are many dimensions to look at racial equality. I will discuss more next time.

Chinese language: the imagery in slangs

I have been thinking about the fascinating gaps in meaning for English-Chinese translations and vice versa. Meanings hidden, those creeping up your side unawares and words  paradoxical.

Some of these slangs or catch-phrases commonly used in Cantonese are highly telling, and a plain translation of its meaning is almost impossible. Yet the mere attempt of it trawls up highly creative and in some cases cryptic imageries.

Here is a selected sample and attempts to give a simplified picture of their hidden meanings.

‘Jib Mai’ – (literal translation:  folded-up / real meaning: antisocial behaviors or attitude; reclusive)

‘Sai’ – (literal translation: sun-dried or sun-dry/ real meaning: show off)

‘Gwai’ – (literal translation: ghost / real meaning: sometimes it refers to a ghost, sometimes a foreigner – you have to check the context!)

‘Ju Par’ – (literal translation: pork chop / real meaning: sometimes it refers to the pork chop that you can eat, sometimes it refers to an ugly and chubby girl / more commonly used by a guy.)

‘Qim’ – (literal translation: submarine, or to duck under the water / real meaning: antisocial behavior or attitude; reclusive; non-communicative)

‘Bak Gu’ – (literal translation: ‘Northern Chinese mushrooms’ / real meaning: can mean either those black Chinese mushrooms you use for making claypot rice with Chinese mushrooms and steamed chicken pieces, or it may refer to a prostitute from Northern China. Depends on context. Derog. However, it is becoming less used)

‘Um Chun’ – (literal translation: pheasant / real meaning: can refer to a pheasant, or to a timid person. Derog.)

‘Chau Yau Yu’ – (literal translation: stir-fried squid / real meaning: can mean stir-fried squid, or gets fired by the boss.)

‘Gum yu lo’ – (literal translation: goldfish man / real meaning: a middle aged man who seduces girls)