Eileen Chong belongs to a new wave of Asian-Australian poets who explore the challenges and richness of their ancestry – in her case, from the perspective of her Chinese and Singaporean background.
On Chong’s website is a blog post with the curious title ‘On Not Really Being Chinese’. Her comments in this post resonate with many writers of mixed heritage:
Cultural identity is very rarely straightforward, especially with diasporic peoples such as myself. There is no one Asian-Australian identity. No two Asian-Australian experiences are completely alike. We are as diverse as all peoples in Australia — be they First Nations people from different parts of Australian country, be they white migrants of Anglo-Celtic heritage, or of Greek, Turkish, Lebanese, South American, be they refugees who were forced to leave their homes behind.
The anthology Burning Rice contains 30 poems, eight of which feature on the NSW HSC English Extension 1 prescribed list for the Literary Homelands elective. This elective explores textual representations of how individuals and communities express connections to the notion of ‘homelands’, place, culture and others. The texts provide opportunities to consider voice, perspective and historical/cultural contexts, with a common feature being the diversity of experience and the meaning of home.
Chong’s poems are very accessible, and some may be appropriate for Years 9 and 10 as they speak so clearly to adolescents. These poems will engage students with an Asian (specifically Chinese) background, hopefully giving them great joy in seeing their culture and heritage represented. For those students from non-Asian backgrounds, the poems provide engaging insights into a different culture whilst also exploring the ideas of home, place, identity and heritage.
Who is Eileen Chong?
Chong was born in Singapore in 1980 and, like many people born there, can trace her roots to several nearby countries. It is worth reading the aforementioned blog post for details about her cultural heritage and the challenges of reconciling her Australian and Asian identities.
Chong was educated in Singapore, where she trained as a teacher and taught in Singaporean schools. She moved to Australia in 2007 and now lives in Sydney. She is a poet and writer of nine published books, many of which have earned significant awards.
Her poetry collections are Burning Rice (2012), Peony (2014), Painting Red Orchids (2016) and Rainforest (2018), all from Pitt Street Poetry. Her latest collection, A Thousand Crimson Blooms, was published in 2021 by the University of Queensland Press.
Australia and cultural diversity
People have long been coming to Australia to make it their home, including people from diverse cultures, heritages and backgrounds. Immigration to Australia has been seen as coming in ‘waves’ often associated with war and international dislocation, and immigrants have not always been welcomed or valued. For more background, students can look at this video graphic of immigration to Australia by country of birth (1901–2019).
The idea of diaspora
One common feature of international immigration is the concept of a diaspora: a Greek word that refers to the scattering of peoples. It has evolved to now refer to any group that has been dispersed outside its traditional homelands. Diasporas are often associated with displacement and a resulting multiplicity of homeland connections, especially in relation to language and culture.
This sense of dislocation, central to many of Chong’s poems, is also evident in the work of writers like Polish-Australian poet Peter Skrzynecki. His poem ‘Postcard’ offers his feeling of being torn between two worlds:
Warsaw, Old Town,
I never knew you
Except in the third person
A newer voice in this fascinating poetic landscape is Miriam Wei Wei Lo, who is of Chinese-Malaysian and Anglo-Australian descent. Her poem ‘Mooncake’ reveals the loss and disconnection felt by this diaspora:
My three year old daughter is sad:
“I am Chinese
But can’t read Chinese”.
Before starting: imaginative task
Students can prepare for the ideas in Chong’s poetry by writing about their own connection to family:
- Choose something special that belonged to your grandparents (or other members of your family) that you might have lost or discarded (e.g. WWI army uniform buttons, an engagement ring from your grandmother, citizenship certificate, photograph album).
- Write a series of 3–4 vignettes that capture the object’s significance and, in time, how its loss affected you. Be sure to include specific details about the object and its owner to evoke emotions of loss, grief, sorrow or pity, or positive feelings of attachment, connection, empathy, love and family.
Responding to Chong’s poetry
Heritage and ancestry meet: ‘My Hakka Grandmother’
One way to engage students and introduce Chong’s ideas is to guide them through a poem like ‘My Hakka Grandmother’. This is the fifth poem in Burning Rice and captures some of Chong’s own heritage, the importance of family and the cherished position of grandparents in Asian culture. Chong creates a connection to family and place through specific features of the village and the house where her grandmother was born and raised. Students may need some contextual information (PDF, KB) before they begin.
In ‘My Hakka Grandmother’, the speaker imagines meeting up with her ancestor (Chong’s paternal grandmother was Hakka and travelled to Malaysia from Guangdong, China). The poem references a very specific heritage: the unique features of Hakka culture with its agrarian life, fascinating round houses, separate language and migration to many different countries around the world. This poem is also published in the impressive collection Contemporary Asian Australian Poets, which includes excellent introductory essays.
Because of their compressed nature, it is important to direct students to the title of any poetic work. ‘My Hakka Grandmother’ captures Chong’s strong personal involvement, which is key to the poem’s subject. Each word positions the reader to focus on the main character: Chong’s ancestor. When the speaker addresses her grandmother, it is as though time has been frozen and the two occupy the same time and physical space:
If time could unwind for you
yet be still for me, we would run
through the fields, feet unbound
and pummelling the ground towards
Time and place
The fusing of time and the opening conditional conjunction (‘If’) creates a wistful tone. This is followed by a delicate image of freedom and joy, capturing a situation where grandmother and grandchild are indeed the same age and enjoying life. The accumulation of their actions adds to this dynamism: ‘run through the fields’, ‘feet unbound’ and ‘pummelling’. These movements carry the reader to one of the most unique features of Hakka culture: their houses.
The fusion of past and present continues as the speaker tells her grandmother that she had previously only read about these homes, but now they can explore this unique walled village together. A simile describes the buildings ‘like wedding rings stacked and interlinked’, evoking both their shape and contribution to Hakka culture – as if they are the basis of life, love and longevity.
The use of the auxiliary ‘would’ in ‘You would lead me’ and ‘It would smell of rice husks’ captures the scene of the two young girls and evokes a familiar, almost habitual feeling. The scene has a cinematic quality, as though we are tracking the speaker being led by her ancestor on a tour of the building.
Once students know something about Hakka houses, the preposition ‘through’ in the phrase ‘through the single gate’ takes on more significance, as this is the only entrance to the building and is one of its special features. The reference to the ‘communal granary’ evokes groups of families living in a single building, and the specialness of where the grandmother slept is evoked through the comforting smell of ‘rice husks’.
The next description creates an intimate harmony between the girls that spans time and place, with the familiar smell of rice husks now linked to the grandmother’s hair, which ‘we’d braid … long and sleek’. A delightful image is created here of two young girls braiding each other’s hair.
The next line – ‘I would speak in your tongue’ – forges another connection based on the unique Hakka language, even though we know Chong cannot speak it herself. It is a passing reference to the challenge faced by many immigrants who lose (or may never have learnt) their ancestral language. In this case, however, ‘we would not need words’ suggests that – even if the language is a challenge – the relationship and communication is clear.
The cultural connection then moves to a more personal level, with a beautiful description that extends across two stanzas:
The lines on my palms mirror
yours almost perfectly.
The reader can imagine these two girls holding their hands close to each other and comparing the lines on their palms, which in many cultures are linked to health, wealth, mentality and relationships. The lower modality created by ‘almost perfectly’ prevents the poem from becoming too sentimental.
The tone and narrative change as the shared experience becomes a stepping-off point to a broader reflection on ancestry and heritage, captured with a poignant honesty: ‘I wonder where / our bloodline begins’. This is a question with immense potential, since the origins of ancient Hakka culture are neither clear nor straightforward. The reference to ‘guest people’ is clever, given that ‘Hakka’ is the Cantonese pronunciation of the Mandarin ‘Ko-Chia’ (‘guest people’). It is interesting that the speaker retains the plural ‘we’, linking herself to this ancient heritage. The extensive migration of Hakka people to different countries is captured in ‘moving south and south’, and while the closing line evokes their uniqueness as ‘wild birds’, the present tense ‘seeking a place to call home’ captures the essence of a diaspora and begs the question: what is ‘home’?
When working through this poem in class, make the most of opportunities to stop and discuss aspects that may resonate with students or reflect their own experiences.
1. Critical writing
Family features frequently in Chong’s poetry, grounding her experiences not only in everyday events but also in those moments of illumination that amplify insights and ideas about self, the past and the present. In what ways does ‘My Hakka Grandmother’ explore family? Respond to this question with close reference to the text in about 300–400 words.
2. Imaginative writing
Use one of these lines from the poem to begin your own imaginative piece about an experience with someone special to you:
- If time could unwind for you / yet be still for me
- The lines on my palms mirror / yours almost perfectly
- I wonder where / our bloodline begins
Your piece can be based on either a real or an imagined person. Try to capture distinctive features about them and their relationship with you through experiences and/or place. Write 250–300 words.
In this section, students will explore four poems in detail, alongside some activities and discussion points. The selected poems are:
- ‘Burning Rice’
- ‘Mid-Autumn Mooncakes’
- ‘Chinese Ginseng’
Students may need some contextual information (PDF, KB) prior to reading. Teachers can share the upcoming insights and analyses with their class as they work through each poem, encouraging student contributions and discussion at each stage.
This first poem in the anthology is also the source of its title, which establishes the importance of heritage and ancestry to Chong and all those whose hearts and souls straddle different cultures and continents.
Not only does this poem capture the paradox of inhabiting two cultures, but it also posits the centrality of food to this experience. For many in this new wave of Asian-Australian poets, food is a powerful symbol of culture, heritage, the past and the challenges of living in a different country. Chong frequently writes about food for this very reason.
‘Burning Rice’ captures a seemingly ordinary experience: miscalculating the amount of water needed to cook brown rice, thus resulting in a charred, pungent mess in the saucepan. But the experience goes beyond inconvenience and annoyance and becomes a reverie about ancestors and heritage. In this way, the poem could be seen as a metaphor for diaspora: rice is so fundamental to Chinese cuisine and burning it seems such a terrible error, capturing the struggle between two worlds. It also evokes the importance of food as a link to heritage and culture for those from migrant backgrounds.
‘Burning Rice’ is an interesting title. The present continuous tense in ‘burning’ suggests an omnipresent smell and experience for the speaker. Linking ‘burning’ with ‘rice’ evokes both the smell and the eventual mess, while also suggesting some neglect or distraction during the task. This heightens the emotional connection between the act of cooking rice and the poet’s heritage.
Chong opens with a simple and direct complete sentence: ‘I did not mean to burn the rice tonight’. Most of the words are monosyllabic, which slows the diction and adds precision to the admission. The speaker moves on to the cultural importance of rice and the arduous effort involved in its production. ‘Planting rice is never fun’ is in inverted commas, suggesting that these are someone else’s words, which adds to the poet’s guilt.
The rest of the stanza describes the important link between rice and heritage. It is not simply that some people spent time and effort picking the rice: the task has been performed by ‘generations / of men, women and children’, which emphasises its longevity as well as the intergenerational link. The physical demands of rice-picking are evoked through the description of people ‘ankle-deep … bent double’ as they perform an ongoing task (‘day after day’). The act of burning rice – which takes so much effort to cultivate – now seems even more impolite, perhaps even offensive.
Chong does not leave the labour at the planting. She paints a very engaging image of a rice harvest, evoking the visuals of ‘sharp scythes glinting / in the afternoon sun’ while also reminding us of the challenges of working the fields (‘baskets strapped onto backs like babies too young / to walk’).
Students should consider:
- Of these two images, which is most evocative for you? Explain your choice.
- What do you notice about Chong’s verbs in this stanza?
The image of the ‘rice huller’ adds reverence to the rice as it ‘churn[s] husks / away from the hearts’. Chong starts describing the next part of the process within the same line and stanza, as if emphasising that rice production is a much longer and more complex process than we might consider when cooking in our modern kitchens. This complexity is captured in the enjambment that extends the process across stanzas:
Then the long hours polishing
each dark grain into pearly white.
Note the alliterative link between ‘polishing’ and ‘pearly’ to emphasise the rice’s special lustre. This delicate imagery brings the speaker back to her misdemeanour, with her colloquial tone seeming to add to her error:
that brown rice needed more than double
the usual measure of water.
A simple lapse that would, of course, never happen to those who planted and harvested the rice.
The final three lines are a powerful reflection on the significance of the burnt rice. Chong represents her experience through the power of the olfactory: ‘I smelt the charring’. This alerts her to an even more poignant acknowledgment through two words: ‘then saw’. What she sees is more than burnt rice: it is the manifestation of her ancestors’ work and labours. The simile that compares the rice to ‘black gold’ evokes the importance of gold in Chinese culture, but the reference to ‘ancestor’s ashes’ adds to the significance of the experience, as if the speaker has done much more than burn rice.
As the first poem in this collection, ‘Burning Rice’ introduces some key ideas that will recur in other poems:
- diasporic emotions
- the past
- Looking at this first poem, list four features of Chong’s writing style that you find engaging. Explain your choices.
- How does this poem use food to explore ideas of heritage, ancestry, diaspora and the past?
This poem, the third in the anthology, references food through traditional Chinese mooncakes as well as the important lunar celebration of mid-autumn. Like Nam Le, Carol Chan and Kim Cheng Boey, Chong uses culinary experiences to explore ancestry, heritage and the past.
‘Mid-Autumn Mooncakes’ appears in another of Chong’s publications, The Uncommon Feast, which is a collection of essays, poems and recipes. Her concluding comments highlight the importance of food and culture:
I think that one acquires recipes and foods through people and experiences in a way one might acquire history and culture. It’s about sharing, assimilation, translation, recreation and nourishment.
– Eileen Chong, The Uncommon Feast (Recent Work Press, 2018), p. 65
Students can hear Chong contextualise and read this poem on the Red Room Poetry website. They can also read about the importance of the Mid-Autumn Festival and mooncakes (refer to the contextual information PDF).
The opening simple sentence, ‘It’s nearly mid-autumn’, not only sets the time of year but also immediately establishes its cultural importance. Students might recall how, as children, they might have said, ‘It’s almost Christmas!’ in anticipation of an event that evokes many special emotions and memories.
The poet takes us to this scene with the intimate first person and present tense: ‘I spy the tins / at the Asian grocer’. The specificness of the grocery store reminds us that these mooncakes are special. The tins are grandly decorated in ‘gaudy red peonies’, flowers evoking the last vestiges of summer. The speaker recalls that these tins have not changed for ‘forty years’, thus linking the past to the present.
The next sentence opens with ‘Of course’, as if the reader will immediately understand the reason for choosing mooncakes ‘with double yolks’. The reference to Australian-made mooncakes costing the same ‘yolk or no-yolk’ seems to criticise their lack of authenticity. This is reminiscent of Carol Chan’s poem ‘Popcorn’, in which soft Australian popcorn makes a poor substitute for the crispy variety sold in Bangkok.
Chong’s movement to ‘I should wait for you’ changes the experience to a reflection: who is ‘you’? The modal verb ‘should’ suggests an obligation on the speaker’s part to honour the festival with more ritual than just greedily devouring the mooncake. The speaker lists these rituals (‘the full moon … lanterns … the lunar rabbit’) but quickly dismisses them with ‘but I don’t [wait]’.
The rest of the third stanza (and half of the fourth) captures the gustatory richness of the mooncake and the long tradition of cutting it into quarters to decipher its secret message. Note the simple but precise detail in Chong’s choice of adjectives: the yolks are ‘deep orange’, the cavities ‘half-round’ and the lotus paste ‘sweet’. In the next stanza the yolks are ‘creamy, almost too salty.’
The act of eating these cakes takes the speaker to a reverie that connects her to old customs and rituals. Her family and culture is physically distant (‘a continent away’), but the possessive pronouns in ‘my mother’ and ‘my father’ capture the intimacy of the family unit. The domestic image of her mother in the kitchen is reinforced by simple actions around cooking. Note again how the present tense verbs across the last two stanzas extend the vignette like a short home movie:
I imagine my mother
in her kitchen, slicing through shell
and briny white, remember my father scraping
the duck eggs into rice porridge.
Now the speaker’s parents become ‘they’ as she recalls them saving the yolks for her. These yolks become a wonderful metaphor for joy, cultural richness, the Mid-Autumn Festival and the connection to traditional Chinese culture.
Responding to the poem:
- Explain the effect of the specific word choices of ‘my bowl’, ‘cradle’ and ‘full of gold’.
- Having read the poem and information about the Mid-Autumn Festival and mooncakes, how successful is the title in inviting the reader into this experience?
- For you, which stanza most effectively captures the significance of mooncakes?
- Research another culture’s autumn festival and write a short narrative about it. Try to capture the colour and movement of the festival through strong verbs, evocative imagery and specific features.
- Find an image from one of these festivals and reproduce it in words, via a haiku or five lines of description.
Before you read ‘Chinese Ginseng’, consider these comments by Martin Duwell in his review of Burning Rice for Australian Poetry Review:
And there are a group of poems in the middle of the book which deal with great personal pain and which evolve their own complex strategies for doing this. The best of these is ‘Chinese Ginseng’ which fools us into thinking that it is a ‘memories of Singaporean life’ poem activated by the smell of the ginseng before revealing that it is really about the inadequacies of the poet’s mother’s traditional medical suggestions in the face of an acute problem … That’s a sophisticated poem because its structure is evolved to deal with a personal issue whose pain is increased by the emphasis, in the other poems, on family links.
‘Chinese Ginseng’ opens with an extract from John Donne’s ‘Song’. Chong has made a conscious decision to preface her poem and this immediately positions the reader to consider ginseng with some caution or concern:
Go and catch a falling star,
Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all past years are,
Or who cleft the devil’s foot …
Donne implores the reader to perform some impossible tasks: catch a meteor, impregnate a mandrake root, find the past, and discover why the devil has cloven feet.
So why has Chong included this extract? Could it be that she wants to link two ideas from Donne’s poem to her own: the impossibility of changing her mother’s mind about ginseng, and the potential parallel between ginseng and the reference to poisonous mandrake?
Following Donne’s words, ‘Chinese Ginseng’ opens with a seemingly innocent comment from the poet’s mother: ‘Try ginseng’. She then stipulates that the ginseng ‘must be Chinese, / not Korean or American’. This precision highlights both the heritage value and the medicinal qualities of the plant; according to the poet’s mother, only Chinese ginseng can really work.
This conversation causes the poet to reflect on ginseng’s physical characteristics, describing its ‘bulbous head, its desiccated torso, smaller roots’. She adds more detail to the ginseng being sold in the shop: ‘bound with red string to cardboard backing / displayed in boxes.’ The next sentence comprises only three words – ‘Panacea, tonic, necessity’ – which seem to summarise ginseng’s characteristics as a cure, remedy, stimulant and (in Chinese medicine) something essential.
Chong then recreates the narrative of the ‘medicine man’ preparing the ginseng. The word choices evoke what he would regard as ginseng’s positive features: ‘the virtues of each unique root’. He shaves the ginseng into slices so fine they could almost melt on the tongue. The precision continues with the medicine man weighing these wafers on a ‘brass scale’ and then wrapping them into ‘paper packages’. This exactness contributes to the tension in the poem, building to the intensity of the blunt comment: ‘There is no point / in telling my mother what she doesn’t want to hear’. The mood becomes more brittle, especially with the revelation of the medical problems the speaker is experiencing: ‘Polycystic ovaries, endometriosis, infertility’. These are all serious conditions that would distress her mother. The speaker, while respectful, regrets her inability to talk to her mother about her condition. ‘I just listen’ is bittersweet, like the Chinese ginseng.
The narrative then reverts to another memory in which the speaker can ‘almost taste’ her mother’s soup. Again, the precise detail (and exotic nature) of the ingredients adds colour to this memory: ‘sweet dates and wolfberries, smoky angelica and lilybulb’. These are closely linked to Chinese cooking and medicine. The extra detail in the adjectives ‘sweet’ and ‘smoky’ is important. However, the most memorable taste is the Chinese ginseng, and Chong evokes its paradoxical ‘bitter-sweetness’ to encapsulate the different perspectives on this root.
- Ask students to explain the effect of ‘just’ in ‘I just listen’.
- In what ways does ‘Chinese Ginseng’ explore the tension between past and present, old and new?
‘Singapore’ is the final poem in the anthology, with its closing line expressing so much of Chong’s connection to her culture and ancestry and the complexities of diaspora:
It’s as though I can never leave.
Students might consider: can you ever truly leave your home behind?
Chong was born in Singapore and lived there until she was 26. Students can read this Liminal interview and list three to five points they found interesting about Chong’s life in Singapore. They can then share in groups and discuss how these points relate to Chong’s poetry.
This poem not only evokes Singapore with clarity and precision, but it also captures the changes that have occurred in this vibrant, bustling city in the time between Chong leaving and subsequently revisiting her homeland.
The one-word title ‘Singapore’ immediately establishes the physical location as the key to this poem. Other references to specific parts of the city ground the work in reality: Change Alley, Clifford Pier, Tanjong Rhu. The first half of the poem focuses on these places as if Chong is setting the scene with a vignette of her homeland, before taking us to meet her grandmother. The poem concludes in another popular spot (the Singapore Botanic Gardens), and the speaker reflects on past visits and the call of home in all those who have left their birthplace behind.
‘Singapore’ opens with an epigraph, which is actually the last line of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby:
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
When a writer references another work, it is often to make a thematic connection (as we have seen with ‘Chinese Ginseng’). Students should read the SparkNotes commentary on Chapter 9: The Green Light and highlight three phrases they think may be relevant to ‘Singapore’. They will revisit these phrases at the end of the close reading.
The first line of the poem is a single sentence that suggests the driver (who is also the speaker’s friend) is not familiar with Singapore. The way she ‘squints into the rain’ implies that it is difficult to see, adding to the confusion of being in a new city. The speaker reassures her friend that, despite taking the ‘wrong turn […] Singapore / is so small it doesn’t matter where you go’. This is an important point, as mainland Singapore measures just 50kms east to west and 27kms north to south. Although this is small for a country, it is a significant increase on the size of colonial Singapore as waterways have been reclaimed and land created.
The friend’s lack of familiarity is reinforced in the next stanza: ‘She doesn’t know Change Alley’. The area that they are driving around is a combination of colonial buildings and new shopping malls. Change Alley (now a modern mall as well) is only a short distance from Clifford Pier, but it has been divided by a busy multi-lane road. From about the 1850s it was a bustling commercial area known for its markets, merchants, money changers and money lenders. It was very close to the sea in those times, but it is now linked to Collyer Quay via a shopping mall. Clifford Pier (on Collyer Quay) was the original docking point for visitors arriving by ship and is now the home of the elegant Fullerton Bay Hotel. Both locations are part of Singapore’s colonial past and are much different now. The harbour is still dynamic, but less active in terms of trade and migration. It is a vibrant and light-filled destination that evokes memories for the speaker: ‘I see the ghosts of red lights / at the harbour’.
As with ‘squints’, Chong uses simple present tense verbs to capture the immediacy of the experience in Singapore: ‘the new hotel / lies over Clifford Pier’, ‘I see the ghosts’, ‘I hear’ and ‘stamp and pull’. These verbs capture scenes where the past and present blend, reinforced by the ‘ghosts of red lights’ and ‘long-dead horses’. The precision of the horses’ actions paints a very clear image of these old, now-discarded methods of transport in colonial Singapore.
The bustle of colonial Singapore is further captured by the specificness of what is being loaded onto wagons: sacks ‘swollen with rice, sugar and spices’. The verb ‘swollen’ evokes the plentiful supplies of these important ingredients, which were part of the colonial mercantile world. The reference to Tanjong Rhu is significant; like many parts of Singapore, this was once part of the main waterway that has been reclaimed and filled in to expand the land mass. In the 1800s it was a bustling ship-building area containing docks for fleets of ships coming to Singapore for trade. Today, Tanjong Rhu is a residential area consisting of several condominium complexes alongside sports fields, shopping malls and restaurants. It could be seen as a metaphor for how Singapore has changed physically and commercially; there are many areas where ‘the water’s edge has shifted’, but only those who have visited in the past (or who knew it in earlier days) would know that.
The changing face of Singapore is the segue for Chong to reveal the reason for her visit: her grandmother’s impending eightieth birthday. Grandparents are significant in many cultures, and in China the reverence, respect and adoration for them runs very deep and rich. A memory leads the speaker to her great-grandmother, deepening the ancestral connection and reverence. There is a gentleness in the poet’s description: ‘benevolent, sepia face’ evokes both the great-grandmother’s goodness and her age, as if viewing an old sepia photograph. But the present tense ‘swimming’ positions the memory as being current, with the great-grandmother’s face ‘swimming out between jars at her shop remains’. The image here is that of an exotic shop.
The narrative then identifies the speaker’s prized ‘jade earrings’, which are evocatively described as ‘deep green cabochons / gripped by gold teeth’. Here Chong captures the intensity of the old jade (she later tells us how difficult it is to find both good and old jade in Australia). Its striking colour is revealed through the long vowel sounds that create assonance in ‘deep’ and ‘green.’ These sounds slow the diction of the two words and add emphasis to their meaning. By using the word ‘cabochon’ Chong is precisely describing the way the jade has been shaped and polished. The stones are held in place by ‘gold teeth’ – the connection between the gold and the jade reinforces their importance. The earrings are a link between the present and the past, physically uniting the speaker with her great-grandmother: ‘stems that pass through my flesh and hers at once’. To celebrate her grandmother’s longevity (and the importance of grandparents), the speaker has chosen a beautiful ring. Although it does not bear the precious jade of the earrings, it is certainly special: ‘a bezel-set sapphire surrounded / by diamonds’.
The narrative draws to a conclusion ‘outside the botanical gardens’, a popular location for family gatherings with large, lush expanses of trees, shrubs and exotic plants. Chong reflects on this location in an interview with Red Room Poetry:
As a child, I spent hours on end in the Singapore Botanic Gardens. The Science Museum ran a Young Scientist program for primary school students, and I was enrolled in one for young botanists. I had to complete a series of tasks in order to attain my badge, including making flower pressings, sketching botanical drawings, gathering spores from ferns, and writing poetry about plants.
The image of rain is gentler now than it was at the beginning of the poem; the addition of the adjective ‘fine’, the precision of the verb ‘mists’, and the focusing of mist around the ‘crowns of trees’ evokes a serenity and peace in the landscape. The speaker continues with the first person and present tense: ‘I watch … and see’.
The streets are ‘glossy’, which not only suggests rain but also the lights and sophistication that characterise modern Singapore. The speaker recalls previous visits and how old she was during each trip: ‘three, seven, twenty’. This captures both her age and the changes that have occurred in Singapore over the years. The final line summarises her emotions, attitudes and connection to her homeland: ‘It’s as though I can never leave’.
Students return to their notes on the earlier Gatsby reference. The following phrases offer possibilities for expanding the connection from The Great Gatsby to Chong’s poem:
- ‘transcending and re-creating the past’
- ‘unable to move beyond the past’
- ‘respectful melancholy’
– SparkNotes Editors. (2005). SparkNotes: The Great Gatsby: Quotes. Retrieved from https://www.sparknotes.com/lit/gatsby/quotes/
Students can critically respond to the statement:
- With close reference to ‘Singapore’ and one other poem, discuss how Eileen Chong captures a ‘respectful melancholy’ in her exploration of heritage, culture and family.
‘Style’ refers to the distinctive characteristics of a work or an author (see the first paragraph of this English Textual Concepts explanation). Chong has her own style but she is not limited by it; she plays with the styles of other writers, finding different ways to convey her ideas. Exploring the concept of style is important in literary studies, as it offers direction in what we value and in how students can develop their own writing.
Students can work in groups on this task. The anthology’s poems can be distributed across the class. Give students a blank table listing all the poems – they will only fill in the rows that they have been allocated. They can then share their findings with the whole class.
Two poems have been modelled below:
|Form and structure
|Significant language features
|Three stanzas of five lines each
Free verse verging on prose
Separation from the past
|Enjambment with sentences across lines, separated but connected – shows the paradox of present versus past experiences (also the individual versus the collective)
Descriptions of rice harvesting to show the effort required to produce this staple
Time words (deixis) – ‘tonight’, ‘day after day’, ‘finally’, ‘next’ – to show the process of rice growing, but also the separation of the present
The burning rice acts as a metaphor for loss of respect for elders and their toil
The first person pronoun emphasises the personal connection
|‘Lady Fu Hao’
|Six stanzas, each a quatrain
|Historical figure of a woman warrior
|Enjambment across lines and stanzas suggests a changing character – from a defeated woman to one in control
Focus on experiences to show a woman of action
Tri-colon – ‘to unbuckle armour, to polish bronze, to unlace leather boots’ – to emphasise the transformation into the warrior
Contrast between the experiences of sex and war indicates the dichotomy of feminine and masculine and the expectations of each gender
|An extract about Bronze Age China from the National Gallery of Art (USA)
Once students have shared their answers, they return to their groups to discuss any common features they have located across the poems.
- Can they see an emerging style?
- Which poems can they connect?
They will easily be able to connect the poems on family and history, but these are not elements of style. They need to look at what forms Chong uses. Are there any common stylistic elements or forms that characterise her writing? Students are to discuss in their groups and come to a conclusion about the style she employs in her work.
They will then write a summary of how Chong’s style engages the reader, referring to at least four poems examined in their group discussions.
It’s as though I can never leave.
Using this line from ‘Singapore’, write a short imaginative piece (about 300 words) about a place that is special to you.
In your planning, ask yourself: where is the place you love to be? Think about the place that gives you pleasure, warmth and comfort – that is, a sense that it is your place.
- Think about the language you want to use to evoke the sights, sounds and textures of this place.
- Include specific and concrete detail to add interest and colour to your writing.
- Experiment with text structures, including aural techniques like alliteration and onomatopoeia.
- Choose strong verbs and a range of images to establish a sense of landscape.
- Edit your writing; consider removing repetition, refine your images and ideas, and add or substitute different words for impact.
After writing, share your work in pairs or small groups. Discuss the effectiveness of each piece in capturing the special qualities of their respective places.
Then choose a freely available Creative Commons licensed image to accompany your writing. Alternatively, use a photograph, illustration or collage of your own creation.
Chong is part of a growing and exciting cohort of Asian-Australian voices within Australia’s poetic landscape. Well-educated, insightful and clever, these poets are bold and confident. In fact, this movement is not just isolated to poetry but is sweeping through the arts, especially prose fiction. As Australia reflects its diverse cultural heritage, so too does its artistic fabric.
The cross-curriculum priority of Asia and Australia’s Engagement with Asia has given a pleasing legitimacy to the study of texts written about and from Asian perspectives. There are many engaging novels to help students explore Asia and Australia: Vivian Pham’s The Coconut Children and Wai Chim’s The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling are fresh new voices in young adult literature.
Exploring other Asian-Australian poetry
The excellent anthology Contemporary Asian Australian Poets, edited by Adam Aitken, Kim Cheng Boey and Michelle Cahill (2017), features poets such as Merlinda Bobis, Kim Cheng Boey, Carol Chan, Miriam Wei Wei Lo and, of course, Chong herself. In Burning Rice Chong dedicates a poem to Boey, whose poem ‘Stamp Collecting’ is prescribed on the NSW HSC English Advanced Module C: The Craft of Writing (2018 syllabus).
Like Chong, Boey comes from a Chinese-Singaporean background. He published his first collection of poems, Somewhere-bound, at 24 and won numerous awards for his writing in Singapore. He immigrated to Australia in 1997, where he completed his PhD and where he remains as a poet, writer and academic.
As one of the editors of Contemporary Asian Australian Poets, Boey contributed an insightful essay to the introductory section (‘Perspectives’). He comments:
Migration is not a simple act of complete uprooting and swapping one home and culture for another, abandoning one’s past life and starting a fresh slate in a new environment … Despite their avowal not to return and their determination to settle in the adoptive home, the impulses among migrant writers to look back is irrepressively strong (p.19).
‘Stamp Collecting’ raises interesting ideas about how the world map has changed and which countries used to be part of different empires or international groupings. Being of Singaporean heritage, Boey has firsthand experience of growing up in a country that had been a colony prior to its independence in 1965 (the same year he was born).
In Boey’s poem, the simple act of a father gifting a stamp collection to his daughter elicits emotions around heritage, memories, history, loss and nostalgia. The gift of the now-fragmented album provokes a stream of intelligent, difficult questions that remain unanswered.
Activity: ‘Stamp Collecting’
Students read the poem ‘Stamp Collecting’ in small groups.
- What is a stamp collection?
- Consider how stamps represent or symbolise:
- a declining collective and individual experience
- past national boundaries
- changes in geography
- changing national identities
- What first strikes you about this poem’s ideas and language? Did you consider:
- the way it captures the simplicity of an observation and re-creates the scene
- the movement between first and third person
- the present tense evoking present action
- the girl’s innocence and her wonder at the stamps and what they represent
- the power of images to evoke and create different experiences
- the capturing of different ideas of place and home
- the role of the verbs, nouns and adjectives
What similarities and differences do you see between Chong’s ideas and Boey’s poem?
Locate some other poems by Asian-Australian writers and compare them to Chong to see if there is a common thread.
Chong dedicates the penultimate poem in Burning Rice, ‘Winter Meeting’, to her friend and fellow poet Boey. By addressing him as Boey Kim Cheng, the poet is respecting the traditions and conventions of Chinese-Singaporean culture.
Writing about Chong’s anthology Painting Red Orchids for Sydney Review of Books, Boey reflects on their first meeting, which is the narrative basis for ‘Winter Meeting’. This reflection is worth reading in full as it captures the warmth and intimacy of their shared culture, with the strong motif of food once again uniting their pasts.
Boey explains that he and Chong had just met at the Sydney Writers’ Festival and decided to escape the wet winter’s day with lunch in Chinatown. Their meeting, lunch and shared heritage become the focus of Chong’s delightful narrative poem. The title ‘Winter Meeting’ not only establishes the time of year but alludes to Boey’s own poem, ‘La Mian in Melbourne’:
On Little Bourke Street it’s the bewitching hour
of winter dusk’s last riffs playing
long mauve shadows down the blocks
In ‘Winter Meeting’ Chong links food, winter and the two poets’ work in her narrative. She immediately establishes the setting with ‘the tepid winter sun’ as the two poets walk ‘briskly’ to catch a bus to Chinatown. This is a popular precinct in Sydney’s CBD, with its many Asian restaurants attracting a wide diversity of people. Chong references both her and Boey’s age difference in ‘my footfall / ten years behind yours’, as well as the fact that Boey is already an established poet.
Although the poem is structured in separate four-line stanzas, this is the only nod to traditional poetry, as the enjambment and lack of rhyme creates a relaxed, accessible narrative. Chong and Boey’s connection is established through food, with ‘you spoke of la mian / in Melbourne that made you homesick’ again referencing Boey’s poem ‘La Mian in Melbourne’.
Together they venture to a restaurant: Mamak on Goulburn Street. It is renowned for its Malaysian food, especially mee goreng, a popular noodle dish with a sticky, savoury-sweet sauce. Chong’s reference to ‘Newton’ is the Newton Food Centre (also called Newton Circus), a bustling Singaporean hawker centre reminiscent of street stalls. Here Chong captures the nostalgia not only for Singapore, but for traditional mee goreng through her keen but simple imagery: ‘of oil-sheened woks at Newton, / of flames in rings the size of giant plates’. The exotic flavours are captured in ‘this Malay-named marriage / of Chinese noodle and Indian spice’.
Describing Sydney’s rain as ‘like the monsoon’ not only evokes that day’s heavy rain, but also links to monsoon season in Singapore and much of Southeast Asia. Chong details the ‘tin awnings’ and being ‘peppered by spray’ from passing cars. Her next simile is interesting, as she compares the ‘creeks’ from overflown drains to ‘poetry escaping the page’. This metatextual reference unites the two people (both poets) in the narrative.
In this same stanza, Chong evokes the poets’ tentativeness in not wanting to splash, as ‘We are still strangers: under my small umbrella’. She recalls an old song: ‘Wa neng nang’. But once inside the restaurant they begin to feel more comfortable together, as indicated by the speaker admitting to ‘cadences of Singlish’. In this more familiar lexicon she shares family stories involving food – in this case, ‘sambal belachan’. This specific food reminds Boey of his life in Singapore too.
Boey recommends, as an ‘antidote for sadness’, reciting words from ancient Chinese poets: Wang Wei, Du Fu and Meng Haoran. But Chong cannot, as she does not speak Chinese. The poem comes to an abrupt but not unpleasant end, as if Chong’s linguistic deficiency has a wider significance. The penultimate sentence opens with a preposition that takes both the poets and the reader ‘outside’, where ‘the rain has stopped’. The poem concludes simply, with the pair finishing their tea and splitting the bill.
Responding to ‘Winter Meeting’
- Which three phrases from ‘Winter Meeting’ best capture Chong and Boey’s shared heritage?
- Using your preferred search engine, search for Mamak in Sydney and read their menu.
- Using ‘Winter Meeting’ as a model, write another four-line stanza that includes two to three other dishes from this restaurant that the poets could have ordered.
- Swap your stanza with two other students and ask for feedback on how successfully you modelled Chong’s style, and also how effectively you depicted the food from Mamak’s menu.
Synthesising core ideas
Chong: a world poet, an Australian poet or a Chinese poet?
As we have seen with her intertextuality (Significance), one of the features of Chong’s poetry is her references to other poets and writers. We see her acknowledgements in many poems:
- ‘After Pintauro’ – referring to American poet and playwright Joseph Pintauro
- ‘The Flower of Forgetting’ – for Maxine Hong Kingston
- ‘Chinese Ginseng’ – with four lines from John Donne’s ‘Song’
- ‘Clockwork’ – after Clare Shaw
- ‘Onsen, Winter’ – for Hiro-san of Osaka
- ‘Lunch’ – for Andy Kissane
- ‘Pearl Shell Earrings’ – for Judith Beveridge
- ‘Winter Meeting’ – for Kim Cheng Boey
- ‘Singapore’ – with lines from F. Scott Fitzgerald
She also refers to historical Chinese figures in ‘Lady Fu Hao’, ‘Lady Lu Zhi’ and ‘Lady Yang, Imperial Consort’; and to the famous modern Chinese writer Lu Xun in ‘Lu Xun, Your Hands’, ‘Lu Xun’s Wife’, and ‘Child of the Ocean’ (dedicated to Lu Xun’s son, photographer and broadcaster Zhou Haiying [1929–2011]).
In so doing, Chong is acknowledging that her connections and identity go beyond a label of ‘Asian’ or just ‘Chinese’. She is part of a continuum of poets and writers whose influence she feels as keenly as her own biographical background. These writers transcend national borders and time. Poetry becomes a universal force and creates a world literature, not just a national literature.
Students can explore the poems with epigraphs or dedications and trace their source and context. They need to consider why each person or text was acknowledged. How did this affect the content and ideas in the poem?
The word ‘after’ in the title for ‘After Pintauro’ and the dedication for ‘Clockwork’ (‘after Clare Shaw’) suggests that these poems are imitations in some way. They are very different to Chong’s usual approach; ‘After Pintauro’ has strong surrealist imagery, while ‘Clockwork’ is sparse and direct.
- Students should locate poetry by the acknowledged writers and compare their work to Chong’s dedicated poems to see what is being imitated.
- For discussion: is a text original if it is inspired by another text?
‘Lady Fu Hao’, ‘Lady Lu Zhi’, ‘Lady Yang, Imperial Consort’ and ‘Lu Xun’s Wife’ are monologues that give a voice to historical Chinese women, and are therefore feminist in their focus.
- Students can read these monologues aloud to capture the voice. What kinds of women is Chong portraying and what relationships do they share in these monologues?
- Would we call Chong a feminist?
Rich assessment tasks (responding and creating)
1. A digital presentation
Reread Chong’s comments on cultural identity from the start of this unit (Initial Response).
You have been asked to curate a digital presentation for the National Museum of Australia in Canberra, to celebrate the way identity and the concept of diaspora shapes artistic expression. Create a 10-minute multimodal presentation to explore Chong’s comments, considering these ideas:
- How is poetry relevant to contemporary Australian culture?
- How can literature and the arts best represent the diversity of voices in Australia?
Include two poems from Burning Rice and two examples from other texts in different modes and genres.
For your presentation, consider such forms as:
2. A biographical poem: monologue and reflection
Chong has drawn inspiration from historical events to create monologues for three important Chinese women (Lady Fu Hao, Lady Lu Zhi and Lady Zhang). She has also written three poems about the famous Chinese writer Lu Xun, his wife and his son, so we can assume that she finds these people fascinating. Students should research the people in these poems and discuss why they were inspirational to Chong. They should also consider the voice of each of the poems, with most presented as a monologue except for ‘Lu Xun, Your Hands’.
Students should read aloud from some of the monologues in Carol Ann Duffey’s anthology, The World’s Wife. This collection takes a feminist stance and gives voice to the wives of famous men, who are usually overlooked and silenced in history.
- Having enjoyed the experience of reciting these poems, students may select their own historical figure and compose a probable monologue for her.
- They can then compose a justification for their writing process, including how they used research to represent their historical figure.