Poems by CHUNG KWOK-KEUNG 鍾國強
Translated from the Chinese by MAY HUANG 黃鴻霙
Poems appear in both Chinese and English.
Cha chaan tengs, local diners that serve comfort food all day, are a cornerstone of Hong Kong culture. At a cha chaan teng, you can order beef satay noodles for breakfast, a cup of milk tea stronger than any Starbucks coffee, lo mai gai (glutinous rice and chicken wrapped in a lotus leaf), and more. To many Hongkongers, cha chaan tengs evoke a sense of familiarity and nostalgia. Indeed, it was precisely these feelings that drew me, a Hongkonger living in America, to translate Chung Kwok-keung’s remarkable poems.
Chung wrote “The Cha Chaan Teng on Fortune Street” in 1996 about a Cha Chaan Teng he visited in Sham Shui Po while running an errand. He no longer remembers what the errand was for, he writes in a blog post, but “words have helped [him] remember concrete details of that cha chaan teng.” At the same time, he also wonders whether there is something about a place that is lost forever once it no longer exists, no matter what we write down. As evocative as the details in this poem are, from the “soft clink” of utensils to the “grease-soaked hair” of a waiter, the poem ends on a note of uncertainty, unsure of whether words can safeguard memory.
“A Cha Chaan Teng That Does Not Exist,” written in 2000 about a different Cha Chaan Teng that Chung frequented in the 80s, further leans into this doubt. The poem is permeated by a sense of rapid transformation and loss; sounds vanish, words dissolve, railings are “suddenly all torn down.” The fact that he remembers the diner at all, Chung muses, is because it shared a name with a coffin store—an image that heightens the poem’s sense of loss. In the aforementioned blog post, Chung wonders whether names are what give credibility to memory. What about things that are nameless, he asks, such as details? What happens to them after they disappear?
I think about disappearance in my work as a translator, too. Translation allows me to reimagine details of a place and time I have never visited, and I hope that my translation of a poem may allow the memories in it to live on in another language. And yet, I also wonder: what do I lose in the original when I translate it? Can the naming of something always save it from disappearance?
Since 1997, the year of the handover, “disappearance” has become a crucial concept—and reality—in the discourse surrounding Hong Kong. So much has changed in this city that things that remain the same feel even more precious. There is a cha chaan teng across the street from where I grew up, and every time I return home, I am relieved to see it still standing. Its unchanging menu and familiar staff reassure me that there may still be a “sense of sureness” in Hong Kong.
In recent years, however, Hong Kong has lost more than just a few cha chaan tengs, and these disappearances are always heartbreaking to name. Yet as imperfect as language may be, I am nonetheless grateful that words and names give us a chance to write against disappearance, protect a collective memory, and give shape to the places we love.
—May Huang 黃鴻霙
福華街茶餐廳 (The Cha Chaan Teng on Fortune Street)
The Cha Chaan Teng on Fortune Street
Booth seats are straight-backed
But I can never sit up straight
On a lazy afternoon
Work cries loneliness from afar
What was once a mound of rice
Flanked by spam and a fried egg
Is now a few greasy, dejected grains
Milk tea climbs up the straw as always
But the waiter’s grease-soaked hair falls flat
Making occasional jokes, more often looking out the door
Listening for the soft clink of spoon and cup
Fluorescent light streams
Into the tea’s whirlpool like Carnation Milk
The familiar menu charms tonight’s guests
Battling toothpicks don’t delay the congealing of salt
The coin on the wall faces a thin sheet of breakfast
Lo mai gai and coffee, or tea
When the mop sweeps, scattered feet lift out of habit
And return to the ground. Is there still a sense of sureness?
Is this sense like a cool mist returning to the air conditioner
Or does it follow the rising smoke and disappear
Into the kitchen’s ventilation hood?
I pinch the bill and stride to the door, wondering
After I step outside, will I still think of
This once so real, so trivial world?
一家不存在的茶餐廳 (A Cha Chaan Teng That Does not Exist)
Cha Chaan Teng That Does not Exist
I scour my memories for your place
Patterns on the tiles blur more and more
Shadows of feet sway between unextinguished cigarette butts
Discrete chewing sounds have vanished around the corner
How do I verify the month and year
Of the tea stains that remain on the glass table
Was the cheek of Emperor Guan on the furnace
Always red, or was that the candle’s reflection
Or maybe there was never an Emperor
Only a few Gods of Longevity piled together
Overlooking yellow receipts seeping into freshly brewed tea
I like the thickness of old-style porcelain cups
With indents lining the rims
As if concealing different stories
The confused waiter no longer knows
Where to begin
The stories sit above his apron pocket
As his handwriting spreads
And dissolves into his notebook
Still a few strokes persist
Road construction signs are outside the glass door
Railings slowly circle around
Then one day are suddenly all torn down
Tea is hot then cool, cool tea is warmed by our hands
Words and footsteps come and go at the door
Those who don’t leave choose to lie low
In unnoticed places
Just like your unlit name
After so many years
I don’t suppose
That among the innumerable chain stores
I would have remembered you, if you
And that coffin store didn’t share a name
Chung Kwok-keung is a Hong Kong poet, essayist, and critic. A graduate of the University of Hong Kong, Chung is the recipient of numerous Hong Kong Biennial Awards for Chinese Literature, among other accolades. His poetry collections include The Growing House, Umbrellas that Blossom on the Road, and A Bright House Standing in Light Rain.
May Huang is a writer from Hong Kong and Taiwan. She graduated from the University of Chicago in 2019 and her translations have appeared in Circumference, InTranslation, Asymptote, Pathlight, and elsewhere. She was a mentee in ALTA’s 2020 Emerging Translators Mentorship Program and received an Honorable Mention in the 2020 Gulf Coast Prize in Translation.