Goldfish, by Jennifer Wong

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 September, 2013, 5:47pm

by Jennifer Wong
Chameleon Press
3 stars

Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore

Goldfish is a random name for a poetry collection that delves deep into Chinese culture. But perhaps random is the best word to describe this eclectic - and vast - group of poems, written by Hong Kong poet Jennifer Wong.

Wong studied English literature at Oxford University and her debut collection, Summer Cicadas, published in 2006, looked into issues of identity and was largely focused on her experiences in England. (In 2008 her poem Myth was long-listed for the Plough Poetry Prize in Britain).

In Goldfish, Hong Kong dominates a large number of the poems. Many of these take pleasure in everyday rituals, occurrences, and foods that might seem exotic to a Western reader. In Turtle Jelly for example the "black and squishy soup" is described as "best/slurped down with a good dollop of honey".

In other poems, Hong Kong is used as a starting point to explore other issues.

In Intact, a waiter at Ser Wong Fun restaurant "slits open a cobra's belly" and watches as a tourist downs a fresh bile shot. But by the third, and last, stanza of the poem we are in a very different place: a woman is giving birth. Like the cobra she no longer feels intact. Instead, she feels "a train going through her,/an earthquake between her legs".

Politics is also briefly mentioned, although never laboured. In the poem Revelation, the year 1997, when the former colony was handed back to China, is described as a moment which "bloomed quietly:/a new wound".

Despite her roots, Wong's poetry spans the globe. She writes about England, Japan, Shanghai and Beijing. In Nanluoguxiang, named after the hutong or alleyway which is popular among the capital's hip younger crowds, she contrasts the fading of old Beijing with the kids who lap up café culture.

Out on the Quad, which describes a chance meeting between two students at Oxford University, is particularly incisive. Wong manages to show how attraction - brief and perhaps unfulfilled - can be lit on a starless night. It is also refreshingly honest. "So how d'you find Oxford? I asked/Absolute bollocks" comes the reply.

Sadly, the standard of poems in Goldfish varies wildly. Some are fine if a little pedestrian; others verge on cheesy ("In the darkness she hears/the flutters of an owl"). But still others possess a wisdom and an acerbic wit which is beguiling - in Gobbling Down Auspicious Chinese Dishes, for example, abalone is summed up as "fat pockets of prosperity".

One of the best poems is the brilliant What Happened to Miss Chang, in which Wong's dryness is allowed to shine. A parable about the fate of a beauty queen who marries for money and swaps a Choi Hung public estate home for a key to Moon Palace on Robinson Road, it is both whimsical and brutal in the casualness with which it treats its misguided protagonist.

Goldfish is, at the very least, worth picking up for works such as this.