Summer Cicadas

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 October, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 October, 2006, 12:00am

Summer Cicadas

by Jennifer Wong

Chameleon Press, HK$99

This first collection of Jennifer Wong's poetry gives insight into being a young, sensitive, Hong Kong Chinese girl who wins an undergraduate scholarship to read English literature at Oxford.

There's the excitement of opening the letter of award, with its hopes for the future; then the adaptation to the special culture of Oxford with its 'reading men', Bodleian Library, Radcliffe Camera, college gardens and quads. There's the hope that, with application, reading English books can become the same for her as it is for locals, who do it as 'a native leisure'. There's the burden of getting tenses right, so that people will understand her meaning, and the comfort of speaking to her mother on the phone, in her mother tongue, which has no tenses at all.

She comes to like Chinese food adapted to British tastes, visits London's Chinatown, and suggests that these opportunities mean one need not lose one's Chineseness when living in Britain. Balanced with this are her Hong Kong places, thoughts and experiences before, during and after her permanent change in personality - the result of living overseas.

The elements of a novel can be gathered from these poems. A young girl is romantically involved with a young western man, in Hong Kong as a private tutor of English to schoolgirls; she has coffee with an intimate in Oxford; an unhappy phone call from an airport pay-phone; married in Hong Kong to a husband who frequently travels without her, she's disappointed and left to herself.

Putting herself in the other's shoes, she speculates on why he first found her attractive: 'Could it be the places she took me to -/ Fortune tellers auguring our long-lasting love?' 'Difficult for me/ To separate my knowledge of her/ From that of the city'. The break-up of the relationship is not all loss, however. It may be true that she has lost the 'song' this man had given her. But in its place is the different song uttered in these poems, the result of intense stimulation, of which sadness is one part.

Wong has some excellent wordplay and images. Her growing biculturality leads her to echo Huxley, Larkin, Wordsworth and Shakespeare, and to offer responses to work by Su Shi and Shu Zhimuo. Her observation is keen, for example in this coffee shop description: 'The old gentleman .../ Alternated between The Guardian and his espresso'. She sees everyday events and objects in an unusual way. For example, she imagines her mirror's point of view: 'I reciprocate too eagerly as she smiles,/ Can hardly stifle my grief when she weeps.' For Wong, there's a close relationship between life and literature. A new intimate is 'a long novel to read'. She herself is a 'fresh page waiting for a story'.

Don't be misled by the cover photo. The poems Life Drawing and The Masseuse show a quite different personality than is suggested by the half portrait, with its modest, downcast eyes.

A collection of short stories or a novel from Wong would be interesting to read.