These thirty-one poems are translations of my original book of poems, Another Gaze (Taipei 2004). They were published from 2002-2004 in journals and major newspaper literary supplements in Taiwan, but many of them were written as early as the year 2000 when I taught at Hong Kong City University. Several poems came to be in 2003 when I gave a series of public lectures at Hong Kong Baptist University during SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) epidemic and had to return to Los Angeles rather hurriedly.
During these four years, I had the opportunity to travel regularly to Malaysia, Taiwan, and Mainland China and many of these poems were written not just to commemorate certain occasions but also in response to my inner quests for emotional-intellectual balance in a de-humanized, de-moralized world. I had served as a judge for a Malaysian Chinese newspaper’s bi-annual literature award for many years, and traveled extensively from the northern Penang region down to Johor Bahru on the southern tip of the peninsula. But Malacca and Selangor River struck me most with their cultural history and abundance of fireflies. I was born in Macau, and found myself completely immersed in a Portuguese-Dutch colonial ambience in Malacca. The canals, deep houses with stairs and inner courtyards open to the sky, alleys, and shops. Even the flora and fauna are much alike. It was in Selangor River that I travelled on a small boat in the dark of night to catch a glimpse of the blinking glow of fireflies in the mangrove. These intermittent blinking lights are optical signals for fireflies to find their potential mates. As I recall, it was quite an epiphany to realize that the human world is not much different from the world of fireflies. How inadvertent and fortunate we are to have met or loved someone among millions of people we know or don’t know? Is that coincidence or karma? Or fate that is pre-destined? Yes, life is short, but fireflies’ lives are even shorter; the average lifespan of fireflies is around two months. What is time? How long is a long life? How short is a life that is not long enough?
I also went to Selangor Hill to feed the monkeys. They were the “old world” monkeys that originated from Asia and Africa and are thought to be quite intelligent. According to trends of primate evolution, they are the early prototypes of humans. When I saw them rushing out of the woods, I had no doubt they were a tribe, a pre-human tribe, so to speak, and I thought of many anthropological counterparts. In a world of hunger and hegemony, it is not the “fittest” who survives, but rather the “strongest” who prevails.
Indian Gooseberry is also known as the Malacca tree though it is more likely to have originated in India. It is a tropical/subtropical fruit indigenous to the Indian subcontinent and South-east Asia. They remind me of my childhood in Macau, where Indian gooseberries were pickled and sold by street hawkers. I fell in love with them simply for their green jadeite hue more than their tastes.
I once visited Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts and browsed some Chinese antique porcelain wares, especially the funerary tri-color earthenware figurines from the Tang dynasty. After returning to Los Angeles, I spent seven days to finish six poems on tri-color figurines. The figurines I describe in my poems may not be the same from the Houston collection, but they are the Chinese tri-color figurines commonly known to the art world. For more than twenty years now, I have moved from the study of comparative literature to a multidisciplinary area of culture and arts, which requires simultaneous foci on art history, archaeology, history, cultural studies and literature. I also started writing poems on “things”, a major sub-genre in Chinese lyric poetry. Consequently, these six poems are not just delineations of tri-color figurines, but are used as “personae” to bring out their central and South Asian significance (camels, musicians, musical instruments), Buddhist influence (Heavenly Kings, monster tomb guards) and Tang culture (Ferghana horses, horseman, ladies in boudoir).
In the translation of modern Chinese poetry, it is rather rare for a poet himself to serve as a translator of his own works. In doing so, I am quite aware not to let myself fall into the trap of abusing my poetic license and fashion “re-creations” as an original creator. On the contrary, I have been quite faithful to my original poems, even to the point of sacrificing English syntactical fluency. I still feel they are Chinese poems translated and presented to an English reading audience.
Dominic Cheung (Chang Ts’o), Summer 2019