they sailed into some savage country in 1926 on the ss victoria, incarcerated
by a map of ideal drawings, dim in the hold.
tea in the great depression was surreptitiously sipped. the spoons moved slowly.
work involved a great deal of manual labour, oftentimes harsh. the promise
of foreplay a gaunt outline through diminished interior windows.
when the cook landed from canton, world war 2 arrived in a box of deferred losses.
winter was soon upon them, her black mittens vaporous in the gloaming. refuge.
by the time the marrow in their bones dewed, chinatown had become a significant social
site. even when the weather broke, the chow mein in charlie’s café was imperishable.
the quiet hours: a gum tree, a bench. glimpse of sea between two rocks, the rising/setting
sun/moon. botanical companions: pressed flowers, pencilled leaves, timid aspen poems.
fridays are plain rice and oyster sauce with mother. she has the jaw of a warrior, the eyes
of a myocardial infarction, and parotid glands incapable of salivating english sentences.
for love we play the piano, stand up for our elders, sweep the kitchen, scrub the bathroom
floor. both rooms have garden views and bolts to conceal the baggage in our overheads.
ornamental pears are tough to prune this year. the winds are wild, the branches ungainly,
and there are possum innards trodden and slipped on the ground. fox fur.
let me tell you about my forebears. their dialect was distinctive, their tongues unvarnished.
all they needed to know at any given gong was which knife to sharpen next.
being confucian, the women expected to go hungry at the far end of the room. to receive
an exemption, grandmother purchased the palm prints of another woman in the village.
facing west with neither shade nor awning, she grew bean sprouts on the verges
of sweeping changes, cut cauliflowers, birthed eleven babies (three dead), played mah-jong.
her last words hung from a poppy seed rope: life is longer than you think. take breaks.
seek orchards, shelter.1
- Italicised phrases borrowed and adapted from Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre, Oxford University Press, London (1933); Sally Pang, ‘Modern China Cafe’ and Doreen Cheong, ‘A Richly Embroidered Tapestry of Life’, in Sybil Jack et al, eds, Chinese Australian Women’s Stories, Jessie Street National Women’s Library in conjunction with The Chinese Heritage Association of Australia Inc, Sydney (2012).
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