Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Slam o'clock

By now feeling right back at home in Auckland after a hectic "weekend" of performance. Last in the lineup was the Poetry Slam @ Poetry Live, which I am again running three monthly this year. The winner was Jess Mariglio who comes from the US of A (and hates having that held against her). Jess is fascinating - she's on a fellowship from her (enlightened) university to travel around the world for a year and make a documentary about performance poetry. And she said the Auckland Poetry scene compares very favourably to other cities... we're friendly, inclusive, there's no diva behaviour (well, very little), and the quality of our best poets is right up there. But she says it so much more gracefully than me - check out her blog, it's wonderful reading for anyone who's feeling the least bit cynical about being a writer (and we all do, don't we, when the little spaces we inhabit in our minds get claustrophobic after so many hours?). Thanks, Jess, for your words. And your generosity in coming to visit us.

Thanks to Gus yet again for the photos....

F.O.B. - Fabulously, Outrageously Beautiful

For more photos of the night, look on the bar to the right....

Wow!! Still recovering from Funky Oriental Beats - we're starting to call it FOB #1 because we're already planning the next one. It's a whirl of colour in my mind - I was so high on adrenaline (and no substances, I might add) that I can't remember exactly how the night ran, only that I was on stage, then talking to people at the bar, then talking to a camera, then minding the door... Suffice to say that we attracted an excellent crowd for a Sunday night (especially given that due to the unpredictable emotional outbrusts of Auckland weather we were competing with both the Lantern Festival and Symphony under the stars). We broke even, and were even able to pay our artists a small token !!

Ed Mecija did most of the photos. Thanks bro!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Hone take two

So I promised a little more on the Hone Tuwhare event in Palmy North. (Hopefully this post will soon be decorated with photos).

Palmy library is unusual in that the ground floor has been built as a stage/theatre - with windows that look out onto the main street, so we were literally performing in a shop window. Before it all started Genny and Philippa (the librarians) enthusiastically moved the heavy CD stands out of the way of the central area and set the stage up with posh couches, a table and even library-branded bottles of water (I didn't drink mine - it's still unopened, as my souvenir). Disappointingly for Genny and Philippa, when the other poets arrived they agreed with me that they preferred to skulk unnoticed in the background until performance, so all the posh stuff got taken off the stage again.

Used as I was to tardy Auckland poets, I was surprised to see most of the 80 or so seats were already taken by ten to two, and more people were coming in, so more seats were put out. The motorbikes were still roaring past at regular intervals and could clearly be heard through the plate glass windows. Poor Glenn had trouble finding a park due to all the motorbike activity and arrived just in the nick of time.

Helen Lehndorf was up first. She was one of the first people to tutor me in poetry in 2005, and I admit we had a rocky start due to my big ego and Helen being overworked, but since then we've fallen into mutual admiration. Helen is one of those multitasking women who juggles husbands, babies, tutoring and writing all at the same time and makes it seem human and natural rather than the realm of superwomen. She is also humblingly humble about her writing, which I think is awesome, and her performance style, which I also think is awesome. My fave one was a little poem she write about editing Hone Tuwhare's poetry when she worked for Steele Roberts (apparently Hone's grammar was shocking).

And then Angela Andrews, about whom I've written about before, quietly blew us away with her work. The thing about Angela is that she's impressive, but she does it so quietly you hardly notice. It's an amazing skill to have: I love the stillness of her poetry, and the way the passion creeps up on you. That's the thing about watching others on stage. I always want to learn from what they do. Of course by this time I was getting nervous because it was getting close to my turn.

After me, Glenn Colquhoun was the person most of us had been waiting to see, of course. He's a veteran performer - one can see that he's absorbed something of the kaumatua stance, the way he can dominate a stage with his voice and command attention. After his short set, someone asked for "No Ordinary Sun" to be read, and he did it far more justice than any of us women could have managed. And I'm saying that without a scrap of irony, for once.

I was really impressed at the way the audience stayed around for what was around two hours of poetry - they really had come to hear the poetry. Lots of people stayed to chat to us afterwards as well. I was a bit bemused by all the attention - a few people wanted their photographs taken with us (well, Glenn) and I even fielded my first autograph hunter which prevented me from helping Genny, Helen and Philippa with the cleanup(ahem).

Afterwards the four of us headed out to a local Indian place (which was excellent, I must say) and I found out what librarians are like after two bottles of wine. It was a hilarious evening and I learnt more gossip about illustrious literary figures than I care to repeat... but I digress. It was wonderful actually to just be in the company of people who loved poetry, and writing, as much as I do. To be honest, everywhere I've travelled in the country over the summer I've found these little pockets of fellowship. It might be that I'm just a naiive beginner, but so far I've found literary circles to be far more willing to open up to a newcomer than, say, the closed ranks of the medical establishment. But maybe that's my old bitterness showing through and I should stop here.

Hone and motorbikes

Another weekend on a writerly high, this time in the gentle literary fields of Palmerston North. Started yesterday off buying chalk at Warehouse Stationery, followed by solo attack on Palmy pavements. This had the blessing of Genny and Philippa, local librarians, closet bohemians and co-plotters who said (and I quote)"Palmy needs something a little wild!" Chalking Hone Tuwhare poetry next to The Square proved an interesting experience with the wind playing havoc with my chalk and interested shoppers and tourists passing comment(one of whom took a photo of me, hopefully not to pass onto the police). Leather-topped motorbikes kept roaring past and we found out later that Palmy was hosting the national biker's association gathering that weekend, sponsored by Harley Davidson I think. It was an interesting juxtaposition, poetry and motorbikes, and one I feel Hone would have seen the humour in. Even better, bunches of teenagers - most of them Maori - stopped to read the poems out loud, and one of them even said I had a word wrong. Good on him - maybe he was right.

The Palmy library is a gorgeous building, with stairs and ramps and pipes going everywhere and books and posters springing out from unlikely corners. The librarians (well, Genny at least) like to call it the Magic Castle and quite a few local writers seem to use it as a second studio. anyway, more on the Tribute to Hone later, but suffice to say it went off well and mustered an audience of >100 - something for Auckland poets to envy!!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Creative Cool Chinese

Here's the text of my talk on Saturday at Te Papa. Most of these poems have appeared already on these pages, apologies for the double up but they were an integral part of my presentation.


a shop lady smiled at me
and said,
“Your English is very good”

her eyes crinkled
in a let’s-be-nice-to-aliens way.

I wanted to say

-of course it bloody is,
-I was born here,
-how about you?

But of course I said nothing.
hardly her fault
we Asians all look the same

Maybe I should have
tattooed on my forehead
except then
I’d be told off by my mother.

My mother.

When I was born
I slept in Chinese
I fed in Chinese
I cried in Chinese

pooed in Chinese even.

Mother and father
left their English
lying around the house
like lollies

they knew I wouldn’t touch
I was good then.

We kids built houses
with wooden blocks
painted with Chinese characters.
We fought over
longer characters
on bigger blocks,

better for building walls.

My mother used to say,
“No talking English at home!”

I’d brought it home like a disease
from kindy
and infected my sisters.

By the time we were teenagers
my mother was getting tired
from yelling
“No English!”

Once my sister and I decided to start speaking French.
We thought we were being smart.
Even though we weren’t too good at French.

English was my camouflage.
As long as I wore it
talked in English
dreamt in English
ate in English

even shit in English
I couldn’t be too Chinese

could I?

In Hong Kong
I am swept along the pavement
by a torrent of Cantonese
and shop ladies crinkle their eyes
in a let’s-be-nice-to-aliens way.

“Your Chinese is good,”
they say,
“for a foreigner”.

That poem was written out of a frustration to be seen and heard for who I really am.

I’m Renee Wen-Wei Liang, Liang Win Wei, and when my mother is annoyed with me, Mun Wai! I’m a poet, writer, arts facilitator and also (being a good Chinese kid), a doctor.

My parents immigrated to NZ in the 1960s from Hong Kong via China, the Japanese invasion and the Communist takeover.
There’s a story in that somewhere. And if you ask what it is that drives me to be a writer, it is the fact that there are so many stories out there to be told.

So, apparently, I’m standing here today as a member of a unique new breed, “Creative Cool Chinese.”

I’d like to interrogate that a little bit. I mean, since when have Chinese ever been “cool”, let alone “creative”? I certainly wasn’t. I was the kid who thought sharing around the contents of my highly dubious lunchbox would make me more popular. Who thought that choosing to wear fluorescent white-rimmed coke bottle glasses would make me stand out. (I was right). And who has recently committed the crime of eating half a kilo of prawns, heads included, during a very full plane flight. And then stashed the shells in the seat pocket in front of me.

But amazingly, after years of being on the cultural fringes, Chinese are indeed part of the new creative “cool”. As you have already seen, we’re even defining ‘cool’. There’s Asian styling everywhere, and it’s being designed and made by Chinese. There’s a new wave of interest in Asian writing, from inside and outside of China. Suddenly everyone wants to be like us, to dress like us, talk like us, eat like us. It’s an exciting time to be Chinese right now.

Is it because Chinese are on the rise economically, that we are finally finding a voice, or maybe, that it might now be more acceptable for Chinese kids to enter creative professions? All I can say is that I’m delighted to be standing here today as the epitome of Asian funkiness. And I’d like to share another poem with you.

Motherly Advice

you should know
never to trust
a gwei lo boy.

gwei lo boys
lack the good genes
poor things,
they can’t cook
can’t study
and their mothers
let them wear all kinds of funny clothes.

Apart from that,
they’re ugly.
All hairy chests
and heavy brows,
I’m not saying they’re cavemen exactly,
but they lack the good genes.

Never trust a gwei lo boy.
after all
they only want you for your money
and your body.

Love? Pah!
Oh he’s charming
to be sure,
but will he be interested
in your culture?
will your children
speak Chinese?

Find a good Chinese boy.
No, he doesn’t have to be a doctor,
though that would be nice,
he just has to be a good Chinese.
Your culture. Remember?

A Chinese boy
will treat you right.
A boy has to know
how to buy you dinner,
open car doors, look after you.
He has to know how to be the man of the house
The one who earns all the money
while you make sure the children are brought up right.
Your culture. Remember?

Don’t get me angry,
All this talk of love.
You girls are all the same,
think you’re so modern
don’t want to listen.

Everyone knows
that gwei lo boys
should not be trusted.

So it’s not easy being Chinese, or rather, Kiwi-Chinese. Although I’ve found it’s much harder to deny my Chinese heritage or to avoid listening to my parents. My culture has become a lot more important to me as I’ve gotten older.

Being Kiwi- Chinese.
It’s part of any emergent “culture” to start by defining itself quite stereotypically. As a writer, I’m seeing the change right now – we’re moving from the old stories, involving legends, ghosts, age-old guilt, and highly improbable martial arts feats, to more contemporary stories exploring what it means to be a Chinese, in our world, today. And as a NZ-born Chinese writer I see my role as contributing to that dialogue. We’re trying to shape a new ‘culture’ here, as Kiwi-Chinese, and like any big endeavour it will involve its share of pain, disagreements, negotiation and compromise. The more voices that take part in that dialogue, the better.

Before I move onto my last poem I’d like to tell you about an event I’m organising in two weekends’ time, in Auckland. It’s called Funky Oriental Beats or FOB for short and it’s the first time we’ve had an all-Asian lineup for a poetry show in Auckland. I think that even being able to assemble 12 accomplished Asian poets, rappers and musicians shows that we now have a “critical mass” of Asian artists and I’m very excited and proud to be part of it. If you’re in Auckland, come along, if not, well I hope this is just the start of many more exciting Kiwi-Chinese arts events.


They call me a banana
A heung-jew
Yellow on the outside,
White on the inside.

So, I’m being compared
to a curvy piece of fruit
grown from a palm
somewhere in Ecuador
a heung-jew,
a fragrant fruit.

I don’t think I’m all that fruity
But I could be wrong.

you’re calling me a banana
with my yellow skin
prone to a little freckling
in my riper moments
and slanted eyes,
ching-chong they called me at school
straight black hair
that could never hold a spiral perm
and a propensity for being the teacher’s pet.

I suppose I could call you back
a coconut or gook or honkey
or nigger or wog or curry-eater
but it wouldn’t tell me anything more about you
though it may tell you about me.

Banana is a term
flung by Asians at other Asians,
it’s a reproach,
a squish in the face,
a comment that we have abandoned our culture.

It’s a subtle knife in the back during yum-cha
By my mother’s friends,
Those I have to call “Aunty” and “Uncle”

but it tells you nothing about me.

It may be true
That some of us bananas
hang around in bunches
and discuss our marks,
drink pearl milk tea
complain about our parents
bring disgusting things to eat for lunch,
and the rebels among us
have gwei lo boyfriends

But it still tells you nothing about me.

Peel me
go on
crack my top
and strip me
layer by layer
and underneath
this blubbery skin
is white, yes.

There’s white,
the Kiwi part of me,

but there’s a core
of seed-yellow
all the way though.

Go on. Take a bite.
it may surprise you,
who I am.

©Renee Liang 2008

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Visiting Norm

Last night, in a fit of insomnia, dredged up one of my old drafts and got to work chopping and changing.

On Sunday
Tim drives me
past panting
bag-eyed hills
crevices alive
with white lice

into the drip
of wandering sun. Off
the declining Bombays
we stop for a latte
and a bag of overripe plums
near a roadside café

talk about the weather
and the upcoming election
with a dog outside.
“Smells like rain,”
he says, nose to the blue sky,
tail like the wind.

The gorge is a cool box
slung with glittering webs.
Dead miners shout
along the canyon
after young men
in armoured kayaks
trucks rattle their cargo
of slaughtered
lambs. Past safe

we emerge
into the murals
of Katikati, tractors
crawling their flaky way
along bricked walls,
stiff-armed pioneers smiling.

The kiwifruit maze
is the last block. Everywhere
flowers hung like embryos
from vines, sipping
warm liquid light.
Which way to turn?

It doesn’t seem to matter. Everywhere
it seems, a rutted road
to the sun. But finally
we ease along gravel path
past a man on a tractor
who waves us on,

to find an old man
with his dog

Friday, February 1, 2008

Hone Tuwhare Tribute

If anyone's around in Palmy, here's an event which should be good.

With Glenn Colquhoun, Angela Andrews, Helen Lehndorf, Renee Liang
Date: Saturday 16th February
Time: 2 pm - 4 pm
Place: Palmerston North City Library
Cost: free
members of public are invited to share poems/personal recollections of Hone
coffee, tea and cake and chat with poets afterwards