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The Silver Palace Restaurant

In this excerpt from a new anthology, Montreal writer Mark Abley tells the story behind his celebrated poem "The Guangzhou Engineering Student: A Letter."

The Guangzhou Engineering Student: A Letter

Father, I am a little scared to explain
   I will not be travelling home to spend
the New Year festival with you and with my mother.
   Nothing, father, used to give me richer pleasure
than standing beside you as our kite would float
   high above your head toward the hills.
But this year, father, I cannot make
   the winter journey: her name is Lo Chung
and for seven months she has served the public
   in the Silver Palace Restaurant. Father,
you have been young, can you please imagine
   the joy of wandering a city with my friends
on a Saturday night, not discussing metallurgy
   but strolling past the neon signs of Xiajiu Lu,
the bridal parties and the Paris blouses,
   diamonds, leopard coats and golden arches
brighter than a thousand village moons?

No, my father, I do not think you can.
   If you have not already torn this page in two,
then before you read it to my mother
   can I tell you one last thing? On my birthnight
in late November, after we had walked
   down Xiajiu Lu, my friends and I,
we found our bicycles and rode the streets
   to Shamian Island where my love stood working.
We dined on fresh-plucked pigeon and yellow wine
   and Lo Chung, wearing a neat dark skirt
and a jacket the colour of ripe watermelons –
   the sweet inside, I mean – smiled at me with her eyes
till all my laughing friends fell silent.

Father, have I said too much? May the year
   unfurl without me like a swallow kite.

 

In December 1995 I spent about thirty hours in Guangzhou, the largest city in southern China, and took a pair of verbal snapshots. This poem is one. The other is a feature article I wrote for the Montreal Gazette. The mood of the two could scarcely be more different. Fourteen years later I read them from afar and wonder how little, or how much, I saw.

The poem exists thanks to a working visit I made to Hong Kong as the territory approached the end of colonial rule. The journalistic fellowship I'd won, "Dateline Hong Kong," included such perks as a helicopter ride over the territory and a meeting with the last British governor. I was there for a fortnight, with interviews arranged on every weekday. But the weekend in the middle was left free, and, wanting to glimpse what lay beyond the bounds of Hong Kong, I booked a return trip on a hydrofoil craft up the Pearl River Delta to Guangzhou. I had never before set foot in China.

The boat left Hong Kong harbour on a Saturday morning; it returned on Sunday evening.

I knew when I bought the ticket that the vessel would be Chinese, but I was surprised to hear the announcements echoing over the public-address system only in Mandarin or Cantonese. Nor did I realize the captain would make a brief stop just before we reached Guangzhou. So after nearly three hours on the river, when the boat docked in a newly industrial area and dozens of passengers crowded towards the exit, I grabbed my overnight bag and followed them. I remember thinking: "Isn't this port kind of small for Guangzhou?" But then I was on the ramp, with people pressing from behind, and it was too late for second thoughts.

My passport was stamped by one of the three or four immigration officials in a small, hot room. When I stepped out of the room, I found myself not in a town but on the edge of  flat, dusty countryside. By now the boat had pulled away to finish its journey. There were no signs in English or any other Western language. I didn't know (I still don't know) exactly where I was. Trying to stay optimistic, hoping against hope I was on the outskirts of the great city, I began to walk down a two-lane highway – the only road in sight. I remember how bleak and unforgiving the late-morning sunlight appeared.

And then a motorbike screeched to a halt, and the young man riding it motioned for me to climb aboard. He spoke almost no English; I spoke absolutely no Chinese. But I clutched onto him with one arm and clasped my bag with the other as he sped down the road. When we caught up with a bus, the motorbike stopped. Apart from a smile, I had no words or any other form of gratitude for my rescuer. The bus driver selected a few coins from my palm, and we set off through what must recently have been prime farmland and was now beginning to suffer, or enjoy, "development."

I hoped the bus would take me into Guangzhou. It didn't. But after fifteen or twenty minutes, we entered a town. The town contained a bus station. And the station had signs – in the Roman alphabet! – for Guangzhou. Soon I was seated on a second bus, one that would carry its passengers to the centre of the great city. Near the end of the journey, we passed a huge square crammed with migrant workers newly arrived from rural China in hopes of making their fortune. Having found a small hotel amid the historic buildings of Shamian Island, I began to walk around the city, eyes wide.

I wandered down a fashionable shopping street, Xiajiu Lu, marvelling at the riches on display. People's Liberation Army soldiers were devouring hamburgers and shakes at McDonald's. That evening I ate dinner in the Silver Palace Restaurant, where a waitress was flirting with one of several young men at a nearby table. The yellow wine was harsh, but I didn't care. I looked at the laughing men and thought I understood something. Being half a planet removed from the people I love, I was perhaps attuned to recognize love in others.

An hour later, perched on the edge of my narrow bed, I grabbed a sheet of hotel stationery and wrote the first draft of this poem. Ezra Pound, whose "River Merchant's Wife: A Letter" seems an obvious model, was nowhere in my conscious mind. I began with an image, not of the restaurant that had just fed me, but of the relationship between a waitress and her boyfriend. Who was he? What was his story? There was no-one I could ask. All I could do was imagine.

Mine is a poem, I think now, of innocence. Not only the innocence of the young speaker – who can speak without irony about serving the public, and who battles to find the right words to show his parents how drastically his life has changed – but also my own. I knew very little about Guangzhou; I had not exchanged meaningful words with anyone there. But I had been given a tremendous gift that morning: a gift of wordless, anonymous kindness. The poem may be an effort to repay that debt.    

It is also, I now suspect, a reckoning of another kind. My father had died of cancer in December 1994, almost exactly a year before my trip to Guangzhou. There was much between us left unsaid. He was a professional musician, troubled and gentle, who preferred not to talk about the past, and I don’t recall him ever flying a kite. But I remembered how difficult it was, the first time I lived abroad, not to go back home for the holidays. One thing my upbringing instilled in me was a sense of responsibility for my parents’ happiness. I wondered then – I wonder now – how much about my life my father understood. I know there were things I chose to hide.

But that was Saturday.

On Sunday morning, still tingling with exhilaration, I took a second walk through the city. Eventually I found myself at the Qingping Market in the heart of Guangzhou, a market famous – or notorious – for the number and variety of wild animals sold there as living meat. "Wet markets" like Qingping are a prime source of infectious human diseases, and maybe one day an epidemic will force the place to be shut down. For me, it couldn't happen too soon.

That day, as I wandered through the market's narrow lanes, I passed between tall ranks of caged animals. I watched a merchant pick up a wooden rod about a metre long and jab a creature through the wire mesh. The animal – a masked palm civet – recoiled in pain. A customer wanted to see how its flesh would rebound. The merchant jabbed the animal again. I moved on through the lines of cages, almost overcome by the musky stench of otters and kittens, wild boar and bamboo rats, dogs and badgers, toads and salamanders. The stench of urine, feces and fear. Standing beside a pair of small deer, their limbs contorted inside a deep basket, I watched a man toss a living hare into a white plastic bag, weigh the bag on a pair of outdoor scales, and step away – beyond my view – for the killing.

I was off duty that weekend. I never expected to use the Guangzhou trip for the purpose of committing journalism. But what I saw horrified me so much that in my free hours on the following days, I managed to interview the head of the Hong Kong Buddhist Association and the local director of Traffic, an organization that monitors the wild animal trade. When the article appeared in print, it ended like this:

"Back in Qingping, a doomed civet is lying on its side in a tiny cage. There are two layers of mammals above it, four below. The civet cannot move; it cannot stand. Its fate is a plastic bag and a butcher's knife. But the animal's dark eyes are open. Looking out into the clamorous market, it meets the gaze of a passerby."

That was Sunday, all prose and fury.

Now, when I recall my thirty hours in Guangzhou, I find the Silver Palace has faded. No visual image remains of the young waitress and her proud boyfriend. What I remember most clearly is the silent appeal of that civet in the wet market – that, and my helpless, despairing outrage. I couldn't have written poetry about Qingping Market.

The day before, my experience had been entirely different, and "The Guangzhou Engineering Student: A Letter" is the proof. A biker whose name I will never know had been tremendously generous to me. I hope it’s fair to say that in the poem, I passed a little of the generosity on. Which is among the reasons I made this the title poem of my last collection.

In the article, for better or worse, I was not content to describe what I'd seen. The conventions of journalism require some context, some explanation. And so I quoted a Chinese philosopher named Xun Zi, who called for nature to be tamed, regulated, used and controlled. I mentioned the thousands of bears who are kept in tiny cages in southern China, with steel catheters permanently inserted in their gallbladders to drain away the bile. I quoted a Hong Kong expert who talked about the desperate need for environmental education at the elementary-school level.

But in the poem, I didn't want to editorialize. I simply described what I had seen and imagined in Guangzhou. If the article came as a burden, a moral duty, the poem came as a gift.


(From Approaches to Poetry: The Pre-Poem Moment, published by Frog Hollow Press, 2009)