“Cloth Birds” by Dorothy Tse, translated from Chinese by Natascha Bruce, was one of four winners of WWB’s poetry in translation contest, presented in partnership with the Academy of American Poets. The winning selections will be published in Poem-a-Day and in Words Without Borders every Saturday this September. Join WWB and AAP on September 17 for “World in Verse: A Multilingual Poetry Reading,” a celebration of the contest winners at Word Up Community Bookshop in New York City.
WWB: Dorothy, in your work, do you find that you return to particular ideas or themes? What was the catalyst/inspiration for your poem “Cloth Birds”?
Dorothy Tse: This poem was written to record my memory of the disappearing Yen Chow Street Hawker Bazaar (Pang Jai, 棚仔) in Sham Shui Po, a neighborhood in Hong Kong. I was invited to compose the poem by the artist Michael Leung and the calligrapher Jonathan Yu, who plan to collaborate with Yen Chow fabric sellers to print it onto handkerchiefs made from Yen Chow fabric. The project brings together fabric sellers and artists, aiming to raise awareness of the market's vulnerability in an economically sustainable way. The semi-indoor bazaar is a rather dark maze, packed with colorful rolls of cloth, where fashion design students can find a wide variety of cheap fabric as well as inspiration for their work. The Hong Kong government has long wanted to demolish this unique space and repurpose it for residential use. I spoke to the remaining fabric sellers in the bazaar and realized that most of them shared the family name “Ho” and had migrated to Hong Kong from Shunde, southern China, which is famous for its fish dishes. Some of the fabric sellers can prepare the most complicated dishes, like stuffed mud carp, in which the fish meat is decomposed, deboned, and stuffed back into the fish skin for frying. The sellers like to chitchat and play mahjong in the bazaar. Before an intervention from the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department, they would even set up their provisional kitchens in the space and share meals together.
WWB: Do you feel that you’re writing within (or against) a specific cultural or linguistic tradition? What authors or works have influenced you?
Dorothy Tse: I regard myself primarily as a fiction writer, and I think I maintain a narrative sense even when I am writing poetry. On the other hand, I believe experimenting with language brings insight to any type of writing. I enjoy both Bruno Schulz and Walter Benjamin’s writing in the same way.
WWB: Natascha, what drew you to Dorothy Tse’s work? What were the challenges and pleasures of translating “Cloth Birds”?
Natascha Bruce: I came to Dorothy’s poetry through her fiction, first reading her short story collection Snow and Shadow in Nicky Harman’s excellent translation, then working on some of her short stories myself. One of the first pieces I translated was “The Ghost in the Umbrella,” a prose poem about an umbrella haunted by the voice of a woman traumatized by police violence during protests; another, “Fish Tank Creatures,” was a story set in a city where businessmen are kidnapped on their way to work, stored naked in tanks in shopping mall basements, and then sold to bored housewives as pets. There is usually a playful element to Dorothy’s work, coexisting with—or perhaps contributing to—a deeply sinister one, and it’s a contrast that I like a lot. This is equally true of her poetry: in “Cloth Birds,” the health inspector and the city official are ominous presences, but there’s a defiance that runs through it even so, humor in the idea of “a routine inspection / into the cleanliness of laughter” or of cloth hawkers refusing to make “dirty deals” with the hygiene department.
The four lines that appear as an aside were challenging—starting from “Lo a sage appeared.” They’re taken from a chapter called “Five Vermin” (about the kinds of people who must be eliminated for a state to flourish) in the ancient Chinese philosophical text the Han Feizi. Classical Chinese is so succinct! Succinct and incredibly rich in possible interpretations. In Chinese, the whole quotation fits on one line, just four neat four-character statements, and I found it difficult to keep the English from becoming unwieldy, particularly as I was trying to make it sound somewhat archaic. I debated for a long time over whether the “lo” was excessive and whether to cut the “and” from “and the people were happy.” In the end, though, of course I’d also call this wrestling a pleasure—and I learned more about the Han Feizi as a result.
WWB: Were you in conversation about the translation? If so, what was the process of working together like and were there particular issues you ended up discussing?
Natascha Bruce: I still lived in Hong Kong when I translated the poem and we met to discuss it. Dorothy hadn’t told me any backstory when she first sent it, and I asked her whether it was about a particular fabric market. This was instructive for choosing the word “bazaar” in the first line; it’s not a word I usually associate with Hong Kong markets, but it is the word used for Yen Chow in Hong Kong English. We also discussed the line that became “tile cities built up and pulled down.” In the Chinese they are “square cities,” or more literally, “four-sided cities,” which is an echo of the “four in the afternoon” that comes on the following line. It’s a reference to mahjong, another clandestine activity in the hawker bazaar, and in the end we thought “tile” would be better for preserving the image and the rhythm of the line, even if it meant sacrificing the repeated “four.”
WWB: Are there contemporary Chinese poets who you wish more people were reading?
Dorothy Tse: There are lines by the Taiwanese poet Hsia Yü (夏宇) that strike me in a visceral way; reading Shang Qin (商禽), another poet from Taiwan, is like looking into a well of deep and mysterious water. I am working on a project now to cotranslate the contemporary Hong Kong poet Yam Gong (飲江), whose works are philosophical and quiet but at the same time so worldly and funny—I believe it’s something to do with his combination of Cantonese slang and classical Chinese diction. I would like to see more people reading poetry in different types of “Chinese(s),” from different Chinese-speaking places.
Natascha Bruce: Everyone should read Jennifer Feeley’s translation of Xi Xi’s Not Written Words, because Xi Xi is a master of wordplay and Jennifer is a genius at translating it. She found a way to translate a concrete poem in which Chinese characters are arranged to look like a tiger hiding in long grass! This month I have been reading Yu Yoyo’s poems online in anticipation of reading her new collection in English, My Tenantless Body, translated by Dave Haysom and A. K. Blakemore (it’s been out since July but my order has not yet reached me; I wish I could read more of Yu Yoyo). I love the pacing. You slide easily through the lines and yet they stay around to haunt you. I can’t shake “in the dream your ears drowned / you travel by boat to rescue them / but all you scoop from the water is / a distant voice” from “Sleepwalking.”
Dorothy Tse 謝曉虹 is a fiction writer who was born in Chaozhou, a city in China’s eastern Guangdong province, and grew up in Hong Kong. She has published four short story collections in Chinese, So Black (2003 and 2005), Monthly Matters (2010), A Dictionary of Two Cities (co-authored with Hon Lai Chu, 2012), which was awarded the 2013 Hong Kong Book Prize, and Snow and Shadow (2017). She is also the editor of A Compendium of Hong Kong Fiction from 1919–1941 (2015). Her literary prizes include the Hong Kong Biennial Award for Chinese Literature and Taiwan’s Unitas New Fiction Writers’ Award. Tse’s first English-language short story collection, Snow and Shadow (translated by Nicky Harman), was longlisted for the 2015 Best Translated Book Award. Tse is also a cofounder of the Hong Kong literary magazine Fleurs des lettres. She currently teaches literature and creative writing at Hong Kong Baptist University.
Natascha Bruce translates from Chinese. She has collaborated with Dorothy Tse on pieces for BBC Radio 3, Denver Quarterly, Nashville Review, Words Without Borders, Wasafiri, and elsewhere. Her book-length translations include Lonely Face by Yeng Pway Ngon (Balestier, 2019), A Classic Tragedy by Xu Xiaobin (co-translated with Nicky Harman, forthcoming from Balestier), and Lake Like a Mirror by Ho Sok Fong (forthcoming from Granta), which received a 2017 PEN Presents award and 2019 PEN Translates award. She lives in Santiago, Chile.
Read Dorothy Tse’s “Cloth Birds,” translated by Natascha Bruce