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BooksSeptember 29, 2022

The Thursday Poem: Bad example


A poem for NZ Chinese Language Week 2022 and Chris Tse.

Chinese Language Week
should change its name to
Mandarin Language Week because
I like Mandarin.

Lucid, clear tones – my favourite

beer is Asahi Super Dry
it tastes of nothing and my favourite perfume
smells just like sweet water, in fact it is called
‘Water’. If I could I would
wear the same black clothes every day.

Haiyaoshuo, Mandarin has only four tones
Yunnanhua alone can beat it with
almost three. You could say I’m a minimalist
(I want a simple life of revolution)
and Yunnan has only one season, springtime
why, I could wear the same black clothes there every day
if I went back to Baoshan

if I could ever go back to China again.
If I hadn’t joined the Blacklist Club.

Some days I try to learn Cantonese, just a few phrases.
Ten minutes later I think I am having an aneurysm.
Cantonese is trying to kill me.


I am a bad example

of what you are trying to say.
When ma first arrived here, the Old Gen Cantos would refuse
to take her order in restaurants
when she tried to speak with them
in Mandarin.


Cantonese tried to starve us.

Who were you to us, us to you?
We weren’t woven into your histories of gold or
poll tax or laundries or racism or fruit-shops or
indenture or sports (good god, so much sports)

While we emerged from the jungle with stethoscopes
chests swelled from kicking out the British
then deflated from the race riots
well-balanced you might say
(smug, you might say)

you laohuaqiao kept your secrets sealed
behind English names and unreal hyphenates,
doors shut so tight, who the fuck knew.

Although my father and my family name

were Cantonese,
that name meant

No, literally.

This is not a poetry thing.

It means not
Absence of.


My Malaysian Canto-dad didn’t teach us any
of the half-dozen languages he spoke so perfectly
like a fucking genius. Languages are too natural for teaching,
he said, you just open your mouth, it falls out

He would mock his own wife, my mother for speaking
her Southwest-accented Mandarin to me when young,
the shame of her open mouth, covered
it all just fell away.

My Language-Loss Story is a bad example,
regional snobberies and patriarchal dickishness to blame,
not colonisation or racism.
It even kept me mad about the Cantonese,
inside their nine-tone fortress,
their Tongrenjie bulldozed before we were here,
and I didn’t even care (I’m sorry I set a bad example)
I never believed in the One Chinatown Principle
the Chinatown Dream

There is no community behind me
just obscure strands of leftover empires, twisting, burning.
My name dug from the razed grounds
of a Tang Dynasty vs Ming Dynasty grudge-match

Tze Ming is ‘bright aspirations’ in
Southwest Mandarin;
joined with the Cantonese ‘not’,
my name means low expectations

just like those I have always had
of ‘NZ Chinese Language Week’.
This is gonna be cringe’, I said to Eda
An instant headline, and a chord struck
with so many Cantos.

And yet, I like Mandarin.
I am always a bad example
of resistance to CCP-enforced putonghua hegemony
other than my Mandarin being bad
and me resisting CCP-enforced every-other-hegemony,
with the power of bad Mandarin


Guangfu Xianggang!
Guangfu Xinjiang!
Guangfu Xizang!
Guangfu Zhongguo!

I want to speak only the banned Mandarin
and badly enough for it to stay free
always badly, pass it badly on.
Empires don’t make oral cultures, so
what can we do but eat knives daily
speaking to our family,
it’s as bad as actual poetry,
that is – the absolute worst –

to fumble feelings out of your face with

halting, self conscious
breaks and silence to
create tension, the tension appropriate
to the feelings, the feelings
to the meaning,
‘What is the use of talking,

and there is no end of talking’
(said the fascist Ezra Pound)
But ma yells the line eternally
yes talk me to death again yes

make it the same,
I’m a bad copy, I am shanzai to fuck
a scanned photo of a scanned photo with
a handwritten date on the edge
‘In the Thirteenth Year of the Republic’
like our lives were the Star Wars Prequels

Let the resolution degrade until
the nothing is the whole
And the no-one is the perimeter, and the
not is the shape of your mother’s hands
and the empire has no power here.

I smooth qi through my boy as I sing him to sleep
under a blank sky-blue banner
he feels the force tickle and lull and pull
him through the half-lives of generations

Lan-lan tian kou yingheli,

All together if you know the words

youzi xiao bai chuan,

in which case you will know these aren’t the right words

Chuan shang you ke guihua shu,

Twinkle twinkle little bat,

bai tu zai you wanr

how I wonder where you’re at

Piao-a piao-a wang qian piao,

Did you journey to the west

piaozi xiao bai chuan

Or south or east, to nowhere’s best

Piao-yaaaa, piaaaao-ya,



My ma sang it wrong to me, I sing it wrong to him, and
he will sing it wrong to his, and eventually some smug spouse will say
while the straits fill with black fire, and our islands fall
and all of us cousins run and run, towards or away
from each other
‘That’s not how it goes, your Mandarin is bad’ and
we will finish this war
that the centuries started.



Keep going!