Translation: Hong Kong Poet Chung Kwok-keung

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.

 

Translator’s Note

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)

卡位直背而我總是
直不起背來
一個慵慵的下午
工作在遠方喊著寂寞
曾是午餐肉和煎蛋盤踞的飯丘
只剩幾顆油粒各自黯然
凍奶茶如常沿著吸管攀升
侍應飽溢頭油的稀髮卻頹塌下來
偶然的笑語,更多是望向門外
細聽小匙與瓷杯輕碰
光管如花奶瀉在茶裡的漩渦
早熟的餐牌為今晚的來客出神
牙簽的挑撥,不礙鹽在時間裡凝結
牆上的錢眼,對望一紙薄薄的早餐
糯米雞與咖啡,或茶
地拖橫掃時,零星的腳都習慣抬起
重回地面,還有一種踏實的感覺嗎?
感覺,像微涼的氤氳回歸冷氣槽
還是隨升騰的輕煙沒入
霍霍然廚房那具抽油煙機呢?
我捏著賬單邁向門口,想著
踏出門外是否還會想起
這個曾經那麼真實,那麼瑣碎的世界?

 

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?

 

家不存在的茶餐廳 (A Cha Chaan Teng That Does not Exist)

我努力在記憶裡尋找你的位置
地磚上的花紋越來越模糊
腳影在還未熄滅的煙蒂間晃蕩
細碎的咀嚼聲音已在轉角消逝
我當如何確認某年某月
遺留在玻璃桌面上的茶迹呢
爐壁上關雲長的面頰
本是紅色,還是燭台的投影
或者根本就沒有關雲長
只有一些堆疊起來的壽星公
俯視微黃的單據浸入新沖的茶裡
我喜歡那種舊式瓷杯的厚度
邊沿一道道凹紋
彷彿藏著不同的故事
翻開肚皮串在一起的賬單
那迷惘的侍者已不知
從何說起
故事在他衣袋的上方
一印印厚子筆迹上延續
化開來的地方
還有一些筆劃在堅持
玻璃門外有修路的標誌
欄杆漸漸圍攏過來
一日又忽然全部拆去
茶熱了涼,涼了用雙手溫著
話語隨腳步聲在門口推拉
沒有離去的選擇隱匿
在不為人注意的地方
就像你不響亮的名字
這麼多年以後
我應該不會
在混淆不清的連鎖名字中
記得你,如果你
並非跟那長生店同名

 

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.

Translation: Hong Kong Poet Chung Kwok-keung

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