Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Spring Rain - draft two

dawn rain washes the dust off the town
so Chinese builders play cards inside
the building they are building

blue metal mountain is rinsed
and a great wall of handmade bricks
leans against the wind

the town's heat has been turned off
admin officers huddle over heaters
as they plan the next semester

a lone student walks in the rain
her new umbrella as yellow as the sun
before the dark grey clouds

Spring Rain

dawn rain washes the dust off the town
so Chinese builders play cards inside
the building they are building

blue metal mountain is rinsed
and a great wall of handmade bricks
leans against the wind

the town's heat has been turned off
so uni officers huddle over heaters
as they plan the semester schedule

a lone student walks in the rain
her new umbrella as yellow as the sun
before the dark grey clouds

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Crows Calling at Midnight by Li Bai

Yellow clouds behind the tower where
a crow returns and calls caw caw on a branch.
Inside, a Qin river girl weaves a brocade
of green yarn like mist, hears a whisper at the window
She stops the shuttle, but it is nobody. She recalls her friend
far away, and herself in tears like rain alone in her room

Hmm, I did this then looked at another translation (by someone who perhaps knows what they're doing!) - and I like mine better (See below for confession of how I translated them.)

Homesickness by Li Gou

Some say the sun sets on the horizon
I see all corners of the sky but I do not see my home
I already hate the blue mountains for keeping us separated
Blue mountains covered in cloud by evening

I'm not an expert in Chinese (that's an understatement!) so I took a short cut. I read the word-by-word transcription of the characters and then wrote them out as I saw it in English syntax and grammar. Too much of a cheat? Perhaps - but fun.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Draft Two ...

a whitehaired busker playing erhu
on my laptop screen obliquely
illustrates Bach’s Cello Suites
on my iPod speakers. Kulchur
Ezra Pound spelt it. No matter
how you spell it, it’s the frisson
between strings that has me
writing here, missing her asleep
with twin hot-waterbottles at her feet
and me pondering imponderables

I've been trying out ten-liners in a form originating from Fannie Howe, and tonight the old Chinese busker whose photo sits on my screen was both in line with and at odds with the Cello Suites coming out of my iPod. It has kept me up with loose thoughts of the similarities and gulfs between cultures and the 'release and tension' of that circumstance echoing the creation of all great art. Draft one was twelve lines so I have had to sacrifice some little thoughts. With Pound also in my thoughts, I hope it coheres.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Jiaozi! Enjoy ...

One of my favourite foods in China is jiaozi - dumplings. Chinese dumplings are very popular during the Chinese New Year season ... (The photo doesn't do them justice They may not look great, but the test is in the tasting!)


Jiaozi dough:
3 cups all-purpose flour
up to 1 1/4 cups cold water
1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup ground pork or beef
1 TB soy sauce
1 teaspoon salt
1 TB Chinese rice wine or dry sherry
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper, or to taste
3 TB sesame oil
1/2 green onion, finely minced
1 1/2 cups finely shredded Napa cabbage
4 tablespoons shredded bamboo shoots
2 slices fresh ginger, finely minced
1 clove garlic, peeled and finely minced


Stir the salt into the flour. Slowly stir in the cold water, adding as much as is necessary to form a smooth dough. Don't add more water than is necessary. Knead the dough into a smooth ball. Cover the dough and let it rest for at least 30 minutes.

While the dough is resting, prepare the filling ingredients.
Add the soy sauce, salt, rice wine and white pepper to the meat, stirring in only one direction. Add the remaining ingredients, stirring in the same direction, and mix well.

To make the dumpling dough: knead the dough until it forms a smooth ball. Divide the dough into 60 pieces. Roll each piece out into a circle about 3-inches in diameter.

Place a small portion (about 1 level tablespoon) of the filling into the middle of each wrapper. Wet the edges of the dumpling with water. Fold the dough over the filling into a half moon shape and pinch the edges to seal. Continue with the remainder of the dumplings.

To cook, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add half the dumplings, giving them a gentle stir so they don't stick together. Bring the water to a boil, and add 1/2 cup of cold water. Cover and repeat. When the dumplings come to a boil for a third time, they are ready. Drain and remove. If desired, they can be pan-fried at this point.

Death of a Red Heroine - great book!

I've praised this book elsewhere, and I was rather worrying that it was just an accumulation of my interests coinciding with the themes of the novel that had me so pleased, but now I have found an objective review which said all I'd like to say, only better than I would have (in my constant haste), so I quote from it here:

New York: Soho Press, 2000. 464 pages, $25

Andrea Kempf

China has enjoyed a long tradition of crime fiction, dating back to at least the Tang dynasty, when tales of jurists who often solved their mysteries with the aid of ghosts rather than detection or common sense were popular. However, almost none of the genre has been available in the West, with the exception of The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee, an eighteenth-century novel based on the exploits of a seventh-century judge, which was translated into English by the Dutch scholar and diplomat Robert van Gulik. Better known than his translation is the series of popular novels that van Gulik went on to write in English based on the character of Judge Dee. The twentieth-century detective novels set in China available to Western readers have been written either by visitors to the country or by Western authors inventing an imaginary China. Finally, with Death of a Red Heroine, English-language readers have a genuine Chinese novel of detection, written by Shanghai-born Qui Xiaolong, who came to the United States on a Ford Foundation fellowship in 1988 and stayed on after the pro-democracy debacle in Tiananmen Square.

(Well expressed paragraphs deleted here, mainly for copyright reasons - I don't want to quote the whole thing in case I'm stepping on toes.)

What raises the novel well above a typical police procedural is the quirky, erudite inspector. Chen is able to quote a Tang-dynasty poem appropriate to every situation; and when Chinese poetry fails, he quotes T. S. Eliot or Matthew Arnold. He delights in eating a good meal, and the many that he consumes are described along the way to the murder's solution. He is an earnestly good man, picking his way through the political minefield represented by the case, trying to see that justice is served, and that the demands of the state are met. The supporting characters are equally engaging: ... All of these very real people, moving through a very real Shanghai, trying to decide what is appropriate behavior for China in the 1990s, are part of a mosaic that creates an authentic picture of the country as it charges into the twenty-first century with a new economy but an old political structure. Death of a Red Heroine is much more than a detective story. It is an elegant, true-to-life portrait of China today.

Andrea Kempf is a professor and librarian at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kansas. In 1993, she participated in a teaching exchange at the Northwestern Polytechnical University in Xian, China. She is a regular reviewer of fiction for Library Journal and was recently named Library Journal Fiction Reviewer of the Year 2000.

The review can be found at

Thursday, February 22, 2007

'40 Under 40' award winner, Miles Burke

My eldest son, Miles Burke, is Managing Director and Founder of Bam Creative, a design shop specialising in the development of corporate identities on the Internet and elsewhere. Years ago I said to him, Don't do it son, it'll never work! Now he has won a '40 Under 40' years award as a business leader in our community, an award run by WA Business News. Fathers can underestimate their offspring, can't they. So, congratulations to Miles. You can find his company website at

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Happy New Year, China-style

And a third draft of Tootle Lingo, which I may rename later:

thirteen floors below us
contrapuntal traffic flows
in eight directions at once
(at least!) and bells on bikes tinkle
pitched above the beeping of scooters
beside the horns of impatient taxis
and bullying bellicose trucks
challenging long-winded baritone buses
as the bullfrog-bassoon police wagon
pulls the Kunming Sinfonia into line
with a hooonk-hooonk
and a mega-megaphonic order ...

traffic flows across
and up and down
like two rivers
crossing each other
and the sounds of their
tootle lingo
lulls the townspeople
- and me -
into a stupor

Friday, February 16, 2007

tootle lingo (draft two)

thirteen floors below us
contrapuntal traffic flows
in eight directions at once
(at least!) and bells on bikes ring
pitched above the honking of scooters
beside the horns of impatient taxis
and bullying bellicose trucks
challenging long baritone buses
as the bullfrog-bassoon police wagon
pulls the orchestra into line
with a hooonk-hooonk
and a mega-megaphonic order
(in Chinese which is
all Greek to me …)

traffic flows across
up and down
like two rivers
crossing each other
and the sounds of their
tootle lingo
lulls the town
- and me -
into a stupor

Thursday, February 15, 2007

If computers be the spice of life ...

... play on!

Today we visited a friend, Charles, who is a composer here in Kunming. He is American and has run-up 82 years on the clock so far. After a healthy and delicious lunch with his wife Hillary - English - we retired to the study to listen to some compositions by Charles. First, the composer played a 'Saraband' on the piano. A little googling tells us that a saraband was an erotic dance for two that was very popular at royal courts in the 17th and 18th centuries. The eroticism was kept at bay by our surroundings

Then Charles introduced the next piece as too 'difficult' for him to play, so - the computer did. The sheet music was up on the screen, and the computer indicated where it was at with a moving horizontal line.

It's the first time I have seen such a system and I was hypnotised. The music was not hideously difficult, and the machine did its job faithfully. We liked the piece, but Hillary complained the computer never obeyed the score in the middle when the tempo was meant to increase for a while, then return to its original tempo. The music was all played at the same tempo.

Next, Charles introduced a cello piece, with a repetitive 'ground bass'. In this piece the computer sound could only approximate the sound of strings, but not fully reproduce their roundness or vary the tone as a performer with an instrument can. I had trouble getting past this to listen to the composition. Charles then played an orchestral arrangement of the piece, and I was amazed at the difference. It certainly gained life from this extension, but the volume variations and light'n'shade of a 'real' orchestra just wasn't there.

I have heard my poems read by a computer with a range of voices, and they suffered from the same dehumanising element. But just yesterday I saw an old Victor record player with the trumpet horn as its speaker and the old needle arm loaded and ready to play. On top were six 78 rpm records with Chinese covers. Dust covered everything. The Victor had been made in America, and I daydreamed through celluloid images how it came to China and how it has survived so much topsy-turvy history to end-up parked in an 'antique' shop in the Bird and Flower Market on Old Kunming Road in 2007. And now, today, we listened to a computer play fresh compositions of Western music in timbres and epths of a full orchestra.

Thanks, Charles, for sharing your music and your system with us today. We should train your little dog JoJo to sit like Nipper, the dog of His Master's Voice fame

Valentine's Day calls for a Poem!

looking down on Kunming
from the eighteenth floor
in the eleventh month
of our marriage
we dine Thai in China
full of contradictions ourselves
besides the cross-dictions
of our lingo and the world
around us
our favourite music
an old traditional string player
between the two best bookshops
our favourite book
a Shanghai who-done-it
with the chief detective a poet
our favourite shops
the Flower & Bird Market
with fierce dragons
and ancient crazed vases
a new restaurant around
every corner hold the chillies!
even here a rose means
I Love You and so today
young men carried red bouquets
to their wives and lovers.

We say this is a day we will always remember
then laugh when we can't remember
our first Valentine's Day last year.
'Live In The Present' we chorus,
looking out at the rose-red neon signs
of Kunming at night.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Today's diary entry

Famous Australian saying: Life wasn’t meant to be easy (John Fraser, PM, 197?) That’s the theme for today’s missive

Jeanette is still ill, even with the lack of food and the Chinese little medicine pills from yesterday’s adventure to the pharmacist. So this morning, after my wonderful breakfast of muesli, yoghurt, toast, tomato and fried eggs, I went hunting for bananas, bottled water, and more medicine.
The bananas I found, up a side street at a stall. He wanted 9 yuan, so I expostulated that that was too much. I offered him 3. I even enlisted the help of a Chinese woman shopping nearby – but she sided with him and said that was the usual price. Okay, I gave him the money with a smile. He laughed when I left and I doubted I had done the right thing. (Checked it out later, in my obsessive way, and it was a fair price for current market conditions. Damn.)
I continued up the street on a hunch and found the pharmacist I was at yesterday – but different staff. Luckily I had brought the sheet of paper identifying the anti-diarrhoea medicine and bought 20 small phials of the pills for 20 yuan. A bargain, if it works.
Water – that’s easy. We have a little corner store across the octopus walkway where we buy two bottle of water for 6 yuan.
Now came the real test of the day, and of my patience and ‘serenity’ : toast. A simple thing, you say. After all, I’d already eaten it for breakfast by toasting my own selection of bread downstairs at the Marco Polo Restaurant. But ‘life wasn’t meant to be easy’.
The hunt: tally-ho and off I went, down in the lift to the Marco Polo Restaurant on the second floor (their first floor would be our ground floor). I explained to my favourite, button-nosed cute waitress, that my wife was ill upstairs and that she could only have dry toast for lunch. ‘Toast?’ she enquired, and shook her head. I explained, with suitable gestures, the slicing of bread, the slipping it in a toaster (which she saw every morning at breakfast time as hotel guests burnt their own with an antiquated multiple-slice electronic toaster), the popping up and the spreading of butter and jam which, I hastened to add, I wasn’t looking for. ‘Ah,’ she nodded thoughtfully, ‘just a-wait a moment, plees’ and took off . I waited optimistically. She returned, shaking her head. ‘Not toast. Toast ble’kfast.’ ‘But,’ I said, oozing Western charm, ‘your kitchen has bread and a toaster. It is easy to do …’ But, no, sorry and all that, warm smile, but toast is ble’kfast: there is no changing the order of the day. (Confucius probably said something about it somewhere.)
Downstairs further to the first floor (our ground floor) where the duty manager usually sits, only she’s not there but the assistant-to-the-assistant-chief is there, so I tell her my tale of toast woe. She makes a phone-call and returns to suggest, ‘You go to second floor Western restaurant, they have toast-a.’ No, I shake my forlorn head, I’ve tried that, they say only ‘Ble’kfast’.
‘Wait a moment plees.’ She disappears into the manager’s office.
Then she returns to say, ‘Sorry, no toast-a. You try delicate shop-a’ and points vigorously to the street.
‘What?’ I am confused.
She stammers over the English word, ‘Day-lay-kay, deli-key, delect-a’ and I suddenly have an illumination, ‘Delicatessen! You mean ‘delicatessen.’
She struggles, ‘Yes, delicate shop-a, out-street …’
Ah, bugger it, I think, I’m off to hunt further a-field. I walk out and over the octopus walkway to Mamma Fu’s ‘as seen in the Lonely Planet’.
They offer me a menu, no thanks, and indicate a seat, no thanks – I want a special order, take-away. The smallest of the small waitresses appears and listens carefully, then says, ‘We have. Toast. Yes.’ And ducks off to start the process.
The sweet cashier, a larger girl than normal here, sweetly says, ‘Sit down’, and indicates a table. I try to pay. ‘No-no,’ she says and points at the chair. ‘We make toast – French toast …’
Panic. ‘No, no, mayo, mayo,’ I almost yell, ‘I want straight toast – just slices brown on two sides.’
A waitress scurries off to tell Miss Tiny in the kitchen.
I relax and sit and read China Daily. The Chinese government is attacking pollution. The ex-Malaysian prime minister applauds Iraqi militants and encourages them to make the Americans pay. England has bird flu.
Miss Tiny returns with toast – four pieces struggling to fit in a single thick cardboard container. She sees my pleasure and tells the cashier how much. The tiny waitress disappears again and I pay with a 100 yuan bill. The cashier laughs ironically as another waitress also appears with a bill and a 100 yuan to pay for it. Change – it’s the cashier’s constant headache. The tiny waitress returns with two sealed containers and wraps them in a plastic bag. So much trouble for so little – my 92 yuan change comes in the biggest bills she has. Smiles all around.
‘Thanks, thank you very much .. shie-shie, shie-shie,’ and I rush over the octopus to deliver my prize: dry toast for lunch, with a banana. True love’s banquet.



Beggars everywhere some days – the broken, the homeless, some with chalk-written screeds in front of them on the pavement, some use chalk calligraphy as their
‘talent’. They break my heart. We can’t pay them all, so we sometimes put money in the hat for people who perform – even the children who do acrobatics in the street. The parents are so poor they can’t afford their children to go to school. The Chinese government is now cracking down on such situations of child labour. But here is a man, well-dressed, who plays a most melancholic melody between Mandarin Books and the new one, Wheatfield Books. His music reminded me of Li Bai’s lines:

Plucking the strings, he played for me.
I heard murmuring pines in many valleys.
Like flowing water, the music cleansed my heart,
leaving its echo in the frosty bell.

(from Listening to the Lyre of a Monk Named Jun by Li Bai, Tang dynasty,
trans. 2005 Gladys Yang, Panda Books: Beijing)

When we put money in his hat and thanked him, he smiled broadly and said, clear as a bell, in cultured English, Thank you …


Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

Every civilisation has a past, and a present and a future, so it is no different here in China. It is just that as a stranger I notice the old character of the architecture thrown into relief by the present-day skyline which is rapidly being taken over by the skyline-in-progress. It shows in the architecture, in their dancing, in their everyday fashion, and in their cuisine. As a stranger, I admire the ancient aspects which the urban avant-garde artists, composers and writers probably scoff at - just as I feel the Jindyworobaks held Oz lit back, and Banjo and Henry Lawson take space on bookstore shelves which should be showcasing contemporary poets and writers. (BTW, in a rare English bookstore in Kunming, called Mandarin Books ironically, I found an old A&R paperback of Christopher Brennan's poetry. I already own it, so I bought Du Fu and and a collection of Tang & Song literature instead.)

In business, in the dim distant past, I tried to live by the principal that what you did today influenced your business tomorrow, so I had better stop rambling here and write a poem in the hope of influencing my published output tomorrow ...

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Kunming in pictures and words

Sakura Hotel in February
looking out our 13th floor window
see Kunming shining to the misty hills
rooftops speckled with solar panels
dusty cactus in pots on window sills
glittery glass buildings
wet black bitumen ribbons
Dong Feng Dong Lu
advertising signs six storeys high
white chalk characters on pavement slabs
before broken beggars
thin bent woman balancing a pole of
two bamboo baskets of bright red strawberries
as the book-keeper balances his books

Cathay yesterday
People’s Republic of China today
tomorrow …

Monday, February 05, 2007

The asshole song

Please, be my guest and visit Maybe someone will write an Aussie version with you-know-who as the hero ...

Silent Firecrackers

See below for a discussion of this shot ...

Kunming photos

Here I am in Kunming, where the people are proud of their city and its environment, and it shows in their tidy streets and flower-bordered walkways. As usual there is a great contrast between ancient and modern, and between the haves and have-nots. In one side street, a mosque stood out among the modern buildings, and around the corner from a tall modern fashion building stood an ancient building with its colourful facade. Up that end of town is the Weis restaurant, where we ate thin crusty pizza in sunshine. As we walked home, we veered off the main drag to walk around a park. In an old long stone pergola, with vines asleep for the season, music came from a traditional string instrument and a middle-aged man singing with his microphone ... Before them, in amidst a crowd of working people and unemployed (it seemed to me) a lady in traditional costume danced slowly, holding out her hands to a young fan out for a walk with her dad. Up and down the old edifice, people - mainly mature males - sat and listened, or smoked and stared off into the municipal garden. But free lunchtime entertainment, with the occasional game of cards, is a good respite from a hard life, scrunging to make a buck or living on the low state pension. When we returned to the hotel, I noticed again the long strings of 'fake' firecrackers used to decorate the entrance when there are weddings afoot - and there are plenty at this popular hotel. I took a photo just to remind me of the difference between sophisticated Kunming where the symbol will ward the 'bad spirits' off, and Linfen where the air is alive with the noise and smell and loud bangs of fireworks all day everyday! (Couldn't post that photo - I've overloaded the system. I'll post it separately.)

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Reading and Relaxing

Today, I started reading Death of a Red Heroine by Qiu Xiaolong, a mystery novel set in Shanghai in 1990. I could relate to this paragraph:

A glimpse of a veiled face at the entrance of Beijing subway, a waft of the jasmine blossom fragrance from a blue teacup, or a particular rhythm in an attic with a train rumbling into the distant night, and he would have the feeling that he was on the verge of producing a wonderful poem. All this could turn out, however, to be a false lead, and he would end up crossing out fragments of unsatisfactory lines. (p.47, Soho Press Inc., 2000)

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Hanging your washing out to dry

Right next door to a classy fashion store, Dunhill's in Kunming, the residents of this block of apartments take advantage of a sunny day to dry their washing. It's the same throughout the China that I have seen. No salesman from Hills Hoist has been through this market yet ...

Lingo Bingo

Recently I read some ten line verses by Fanny Howe, and was taken with them, so I tried my hand at similar, but used it to my own purposes:

Lingo Bingo

the air here is thick with shibboleth
he comes down for da shui not just
to drink but to feel the temperature
expatriot ghettos breed insecurity
it is shortly after the reason to be jolly
now in the season of promise I pause
with a China Post pen in the air
she points at the page to indicate
press harder to be read push down
to give it all birth to give it all berth


Those born on the last day will have no name
and come swimming out of one language
into the rocky mouth of the next out of
some lingua franca of muttered remnants of
father’s post-coital snore and mother’s desire
amphibious tongues licking wet wombs
'Feel that! did you feel that? he moved!'
shouting out at the first fresh breeze
the art of Mandarin is in pronouncing it tonally
‘Israeli PM to visit China on heels of Iran official’

quote from Fanny Howe


It’s lingo bingo. Let’s nuke it, Dad.
‘Mullah Omar says hasn’t seen bin Laden
for years.’ In the Sakura Hotel restaurant,
a Zimbabwean’s young son wants to
try them all—Chinese, English, Japanese …
breakfasts without borders. Let’s nuke it, Dad.
‘Twin car bombs kill 75 in Baghdad market.’
It’s gene-pool polo with Bush and Hussein: clans,
castes and religions. Lingo bingo, chatting over
the borderline fence(s). Let’s nuke it, Dad.


I was a salmon once and look at me now
with a gouty foot and drenched in thought
pulling petals off roses as I think of Blake
fears and the guilty side of testicles
down among bushes of memory
which ring the alarm at half past midnight
and I stay awake pondering
my wilful heart unnerves me till dawn
then rows me out to the middle of a lake
and (slowly) fades to black

quote from Robert Kelly


In the Sakura Hotel, Kunming,
I transfer my wet Beckett T-shirt from
bathroom to lounge. He’s inside out, so
I remember Christ’s image reversed on
a kindly parishioner’s towel. Imagination
is the one weapon against reality.
wonder which woman and what city,
but time will end one day and
the bo-tree will have leaves or not
and it will not matter.

quote from Jules de Gaultier

The headline quotes are from Reuters.

I may continue this 'series', using quotes from poets and Reuters as they come to my notice.