Boey Kim Cheng

Boey Kim Cheng has published four collections of poetry: Somewhere-Bound, Another Place, Days of No Name and After the Fire. In 1997 he settled in Australia where he now teaches Creative Writing at the University of Newcastle. A book of personal essays called Between Stations recounting his migrant experiences and memories of the vanished Singapore will be published in 2008 by Giramondo.

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Her Hands

Plum Blossom or Quong Tart at the QVB

Wanton with James

Smoke

Bach In Leipzig

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Her Hands

 I loved her hands, gnarled,

weathered, indefatigable hands

that washed, sewed, cooked,

steered the family through dire straits

and kept the them orbiting around

her kitchen, her apothecary

of herbal and verbal cures.

She kept the children and children-in-law

together like thick sauce cementing

the conflicting ingredients

in a difficult dish.

 

        * * *

Hands that I explored,

each craggy knuckle and crevice

travelled along as I lay beside her

my five-year-old body, my hand

roaming on her slumbering body

on the straw mat, riding the crest

and dip of the gentle mountain,

walking the wrinkled incline of her arms,

tugging the slack flesh at the elbows, reading

the ravines of the callused palms, the weave and cut

of her toil-and-strife-strewn life,

on her mottled skin a broken history

to be gleaned. First husband my grandfather, dead

soon after marriage, a ghost she never

talked about, except he was an educated

man, rare in the colonial days.

My father and aunt in tow, she washed

and cooked for expatriates, then

becoming a third or fourth concubine

to a shipping magnate who went bust

during the Konfrontasi

and abandoned her

with five children to raise.

The hands washed and watched

till the children had children.

 

        * * *

My hand tied to hers, as I found

anchorage in her care.

My fingers travelled around

the jade bangle that she wore,

a wrist of deep green water

veined with milky echoes.

It cooled my hot hand

to twirl it round and round

and shimmy it up and down

the solid stem of her wrist,

a rope of emerald dream.

I tried to slip it off the vein-filigreed hand

but it was part of her, a deep vein

embedded deeper and greener

into her as the hands aged.

I trailed the ridges and the rifts of her sleeping palm,

kneaded the mound like lumpy dough.

The hands that scavenged

for scraps during the Occupation,

foraged for rice grains, sweet potatoes

like buried nuggets, hands that stayed calm

while friends were queued as targets on cliff-edge.

Hands that I clung onto

while she marketed, testing the fish

and weighing the vegetables, navigating

the slimy floor and dripping stalls

with a nose for the best meats

and prices. I loved the Teochew

and Bahasa, the glide between tongues,

the currency of haggle

and the slow passage through the wet

market, pausing,

then weighing anchor to another stall.

 

        * * *

In the kitchen the hands emptied

the rattan basket and fell to work;

a brisk cleaver working a staccato beat

on the solid altar

of the wooden chopping block,

then the percussive stone on mortar stone

as ginger, chillies and cloves

are worked with curry into a potent paste,

the kitchen detonating with a fragrant blast.

The hands disappeared into these deeds

and surfaced with heavenly curries

and soups, and dishes fit for a king.

When the dumpling season came

I watched those hands tuck

the bamboo leaves into cups for the sticky rice

and dollops of chestnut and pork,

seal with more rice and wrap and bind

and string from a pendant bamboo pole

in one seamless move.

Such deftly turned dumplings

you took pleasure peeling and stripping

them to numinous pyramids.

I gazed at their symmetry

and knew the love of the hands

that worked their perfection.

 

        * * *

Then the hands started to quake,

became ghosts of themselves.

I saw little of them in their decline,

far from them in the new country.

Exiled from the kitchen, they lost

sight of the hands they once were, hands

that scrubbed, rinsed, fed and sewed

now retired, slipping away

into the place where no hands are needed.

 

I never made it back.

How did the hands

look in the coffin, were they

plastic as my father¡¦s, and shackled

with rosary?  Did the jade

melt in death¡¦s fire?

 

        * * *

Grandmother, I¡¦ll lay a straw mat

for us both and nestle my hand in yours.

It will sleep as it has not done for a long time

and wake to find the lost country,

the river of emerald dream

just a finger¡¦s walk away.

 

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Plum Blossom or Quong Tart at the QVB

 Stroke by labored stroke my daughter

is discovering the sound of her name,

the new old country revealed under

her tiny preschool tentative hand.

She prints the pictogram mu,

a solid vertical stroke like a tree trunk,

a horizontal across for the arms, and a sinuous

downward branch on either side. That is

the radical for wood or tree. And on its right

she prints mei, meaning every, made up from a roof

over the pictogram for mother, mu,

with its nourishing embrace. Grafted on

the tree, it adds up to the talismanic

plum, tree and blossom.

It has been years since I have written

my true name. Watching

it appear in my daughter¡¦s wavery hand

I am rooted, the calligraphy

performing strange magic.

No longer emigrant, foreign

but recalled home, and not to the country

left behind, but further back

beyond the South Sea.

Vague lost connections

somewhere south of the Yangtze.

Karst country, paddies

and mountains the color of jade

 

My daughter asks why the English

transliteration is Boey and not

Mei. I am stumped.

Many Chinese names

became strange or lost

in the crossing.

How did the first Mei, arriving

with his mother tongue in the colony,

find himself rechristened

Boey? How long did it take

him to grow into the name?

Did he shed it like his queue?

Did he roll it in his mouth, taste

its foreign plosive, swallow it

whole like a ball of rice,

and spit it out Boey,

the pig-tailed coolie in the new colony?

 

In a few years my daughter will press

for her family history and tree

and I will have nothing more to show

than the withered branch that is

her dead grandfather. So much

buried, irretrievable. It is too late

to ask my father about his father and the father

before. Broken branches. So little history

to go on. One of the homonyms

for mei is nothing. Mei as predicate

to another character erases

that character. The same rising tone

spells bad luck

which runs in the family, it seems.

 

Perhaps the plum will flourish

on this soil, like the white plum

in our yard, and transplanted,

my daughter can recover

what is lost in translation.

Perhaps she already has.

Last week, at the Queen Victoria Building,

we stumbled on an exhibition

of the life of Quong Tart, the Chinese

pioneer who made it good in White

Australia. A tea merchant,

he married a Scotswoman, sang

Border ballads and wore tartan kilts;

he fed the Aborigines

and played cricket with the whites.

The catalogue printed his original

name Mei, our clan. His face,

a replica of my father¡¦s,

high cheekbones and well-shaped jaw,

had the same charming look. It was my father

made Mandarin of the Fifth Order,

costumed in silk tunic and plumed hat.

 

Somewhere in south-east China

the clan lived in the same village,

and broadcast rice seed

into paddies of broken skies.

Straw-hatted, they bowed

over plough and mattock,

planted in their reflections

like their name. Then news

came of richer harvests over

the South Sea, the white devils

and their burgeoning empire.

Perhaps great-grandfather sallied forth

with Quong Tart on the same junk,

and disembarked in Malaya, while Quong Tart

continued south. Perhaps they were brothers.

 

I see the other life my father could have had

staring out from the sepia shots,

if our forbear had travelled on

down-under. I could not explain

to my daughter the déjà vu, but her hand

was already pointing out the Mei

below Quong Tart¡¦s portrait,

the tap of the finger

wiring us, connecting us

in a tremble of recognition.

She has finally learned

the character of her name.

 

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Wanton with James

 Jackhammer pangs of hunger stabbing

at the mind, we drag our depleted bellies through

late-night Chinatown, sniffing out meals

fit for gods but going for a song, no longer

confident of weathering the night

on an afternoon¡¦s meager meal.

 

Fowls, all preened and shellacked, beckon

like centrefolds, and the lipstick red of roasted pork

smells almost like sex. Only the prices

give our purse the pause. Reasoning our bellies

down to humbler fare, we settle on

wanton noodles, exotic to you

at a reasonable three-fifty.

 

While we wait, the talk of things

spiritual, of Hesse and Hamsun, of the meaning

of hunger. Then my descant on the wanton,

an exegesis on the symbolic contours

of a dumpling. You look happy

with how the word means ¡§cloud swallow¡¨

or ¡§swallowing clouds,¡¨ your last dollars spent

on something so exalted and filling

as the wanton. Then the arrival of the clouds

and we are enveloped, the talk dispersed

in the wanton heaven. Voluptuous meat wrapped

in thin veils of flour. Nothing spiritual.

Wanton is a wanton word. Still the clouds

dissolve like enlightenment¡¦s flash, flushed

down to the lower regions, leaving the bowls

looking like immaculate blue skies.

 

Gracing the bill are two cookies.

Yours reads: ¡§You are analytic, calm, able to reason

through the night of confusion.¡¨ All of which

we are decidedly not. Mine: ¡§Long-absent friends

are soon coming back to you.¡¨ I am happy

with that, satisfied with the belated truth

of the forecast, thankful that a friend

whom I¡¦d thought lost, held out her hand of peace

this morning. I am satisfied that the truth

will wait for us, James, in some Chinatown

ahead, that the clouds of some design

will gather us again for a wanton meal.

 

No better words said, no better

resolution made, than this tiny truth sealed

in flour to crown our last meal in Frisco,

before you go broke, and I head back east.

 

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Smoke

 We were together

hunched in the rain,

bivouacked on a hill,

lifetimes away from home,

from what we wanted to be.

Our helmets, houseful of sores,

were poor proof against

the lashing rain. Below

a Taiwanese village drowsed

fitfully while over the ridges

and the troubled sea

the other China waited.

 

You took your helmet off,

inverted it and gingerly shook

the last cigarette out

from a waterproof pouch.

The dark flinched for a spell;

our hearts warmed to see

the trick work.

It was a solitary joy

in our damp universe,

miracle we drew on,

taking turns, prolonging

each tendril of peace.

 

Marched out of the cold

down separate ways, we wear

different headaches now, wear

out new weathers. These days,

when I tire, I sit and wait,

listening for the strike

of a match, when evening falls,

and feel between my lips

a proffered cigarette.

 

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Bach In Leipzig

In the exhibition poster stands J.S. Bach,

dusty and grimed, but unbroken, unscathed,

in a poise graceful, his air baroque,

as if the bombardiers wanted him saved

and sound, his lofty airs singing in their heads

as they unleashed the bombs to severe life¡¦s frail threads.

 

Alone he stands, lord of the rubble world

unperturbed, his heart the stone his body

is, his wig secure, his vision unblurred,

but oblivious to the century¡¦s cacophony,

to music assembled out of broken things,

to sounds made with hands on barbed strings.

 

Intrigued by the poster¡¦s jarring notes,

wondering who, the day after, with steady hands

could hold a camera with unshattered lens

to record how Bach survived the shots

while Leipzig toppled like a house of cards

in God¡¦s unerring sights, I join the weihnachtmarkt¡¦s

 

jovial throng. Another Christmas, post-Berlin Wall.

A season of forgetting and remembering

marked in the east by signs of renewal,

as sunken monuments rise again, and those standing

now look respectable and clean. But Bach still wears a smear,

though the cathedral behind has a new veneer.

 

Verwendungen is the exhibition¡¦s stark title

staring from the new town hall. On the balcony

four old men grind sad tunes, a reminder

in the festive air of  Leipzig¡¦s past agony.

Turning from the carnival I climb the winding stair

eager to learn the history written there.

 

Scenes of before and after lead the tourist¡¦s walk

from Leipzig¡¦s baroque bloom to the Weimar¡¦s cabaret days,

coming round slowly to the hour of shock

when truth and beauty crumbled in the blaze.

Whole streets lost their names in the eye¡¦s  wink.

A charred child and doll make even post-Auschwitz men think.

 

After the Nazi parades on the wide screens

and the Führer¡¦s tempestuous speech,

I read an account of a girl in late teens,

how on her birthday she went to teach

and came home to four corpses in their seats

ready to spring on her the birthday treats.

 

Then a battered door on which is etched

the silent screams of one who lived it bomb by bomb;

each day of rage, each siren cry  in detached

cuts in wood. A door whose house is now gone,

preserved like the shells for public eyes,

tells the tale better than art which often lies.

 

A little shell-shocked I rejoin the Christmas throng.

Seeing Bach there I understand the faith

of one who said Music is beyond bombs after a Grieg song

performed while the rounds on Sarajevo rained, though in truth

trumpets have also brought walls tumbling down

and at the world¡¦s end again shall be blown.

 

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