What We Owe Each Other

Anxiety of influence in writing from the diaspora Jane Shi 

I am afraid of ancestral debt. The debt that does not come in the form of money, though it is often steeped in it. The debt that is not knowing – of how to ask and where or why exactly it hurts. An inheritance that cannot be thrown out, a thing more ceaseless than ocean and more anguished than birds swallowing plastic. 

What is ancestral debt? To whom are we indebted, and how? Over time, as I come into my voice as a Chinese Canadian writer and poet, I learn that the central questions of diaspora are best attended to through metaphor. The movement of a vehicle (ocean, birds) as it reimagines a tenor (inheritance of debt) is much like what happens when bodies migrate across land and water to reimagine belonging. If a poet’s job is to bear witness and reassemble everything that gets tugged away and lost through displacement, what happens when the poet herself houses the memories, stories, and hauntings of that loss? What does she do with images that keep coming back and refuse to let go? 


Queer Finds Family

Cantonese opera ignites LGBTQ voices in Vancouver’s Chinatown – Kimberley Wong 

Editor’s note: To celebrate Pride Month and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, this column brings you three stories from queer and LGBT+ diasporic communities over the next three days, beginning with Kimberely Wong’s route back to the art of her grandfather, a master of Cantonese opera. – Rebecca Choong Wilkins

As I stood at the bottom of the stairs at the Wong’s Benevolent Association, I held a plant in one hand, my hand gripped tight to the grainy bottom of the pot, eyes interrogating the leaves, ensuring they were glossy and auspicious-looking. I wanted to make a good impression on the folks I would be meeting today. I had my notebook, with ‘Wong’ written on the front, in the other hand. I had asked my Dad and my Grandma, both born Wongs, to tell me the names of our ancestors and fellow Wong Chinese-Canadians, so that I could look them up in the manifestos and so that I could tell Uncle Tim Wong, the elder Wong historian, to whom I was related. In the scurry of looking through photos of my Yeh-Yeh, my paternal grandfather, we figured that he and Tim Wong must have been in Chinatown at around the same time, in the same social circles.


The Past is a Foreign Country

Finding a vanished Chinese home in Vietnam – Connie Mei Pickart

With children at least, balloons are still popular here. A little girl has a big red one tethered to her wrist. When I was seven I had one like it on Chinese New Year. I recall the bang when my father burst it with his lit cigarette. A boy nibbles on a dripping popsicle that looks and tastes like watermelon. I know the taste because it was one of my summertime favorites. Nearby, a woman stirs a bucket of gooey maltose with a pair of wooden sticks. The old man outside my primary school sold these for 10 cents a stick. “Maiyatang!” The woman hawks at me in Chinese, as if she knows.

It all seems familiar. For a moment, I feel like I am transmitted back in time, to the heartland of China where I grew up.

Diaspora, Q&A

Singapore with a Republican Accent

Rebecca Choong Wilkins interviews Jannis Jizhou Chen about the Sinophonic voice

Jannis Jizhou Chen was born in Chengdu and left China in his teens. Since then he has sojourned in Singapore, Germany and the United States. His publishing debut is a collection of short stories in Chinese, The Stories of Eng Watt Street (永發街事), released in January. Rebecca Choong Wilkins sat down with him as part of her Diaspora column for the China Channel to talk about the controversies of the Sinophonic voice, in all of its varieties.

Can you tell me about your debut work?

It is a collection of 12 short stories taking place in Singapore on Eng Watt Street. I had lived there for six years and got to know many lovely neighbors. I started writing some of the stories while there, and turned many of my dear neighbors into fictional characters. Each story focuses on one household, but when read together, they form certain connections with each other.


Who Are the Peranakan Chinese?

Deep roots and many routes – Rebecca Choong Wilkins

Between 1850 and 1940, almost 20 million people journeyed from mainland China to Southeast Asia across the South Seas, known in China as the Nanyang or “Southern Ocean.” Mostly hailing from coastal cities and villages in southern China – including Amoy (now Xiamen), Swatow (Shantou), Hainan and Hong Kong, over ten million of these migrants travelled to Malaya (now Malaysia), and roughly three million headed to the islands of the Dutch East Indies in modern-day Indonesia.

When they arrived in Southeast Asia, they were called sinkeh (xīn kè 新客) – “new guests” – or the more derogatory cheena gerk (“low-class Chinaman” in Baba Malay) by Chinese settlers with much deeper roots in the region. These earlier Chinese communities formed in the 15th century, when Chinese merchants emigrated to Southeast Asia and married into indigenous families. Forming sui generis cultures that embraced Chinese and Southeast Asian traditions as well as contemporary colonial trends, they developed their own distinctive clothing, cuisines and languages.