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Frances Chung, ‘Crazy Melon and Chinese Apple’ (Wesleyan University Press, 2000)

By Barbara Jane Reyes

we who know that those who are
brave cross Mott Street on a
diagonal.

—Frances Chung, Crazy Melon and Chinese Apple

crazy-melon-and-chinese-apple

Frances Chung’s manuscript of poems, “Crazy Melon,” which was published posthumously as the first half of the book Crazy Melon and Chinese Apple, edited by Walter K. Lew, is a collection of poems written in various forms, including forms which obscure the boundaries between conventional “poetry” and “prose.” This obscuring of form is a “cross on the diagonal,” a defiance of the rules of order, and of conduct, as established by traffic lights, institutions which set up traffic lights, and the laws governing the flow of traffic, across streets, and across ghettoes and ethnic communities. Courage is required to defy these rules, and defying these rules requires a questioning of the soundness of these rules. As a young Chinese American woman wedged in between the worlds of New York City and Chinatown, Chung’s speaker not only engages in this questioning while moving outward from Chinatown into the rest of the world, but she also compels her reader to question what definitions they assume as given along the way. In an effort to understand the multiple exterior and interior worlds she and her speaker inhabit, Chung obscures the boundaries between literary forms, communities, and languages, examining then proactively rearticulating the relationships between names/words, and their corresponding objects/images.

Chung begins “Crazy Melon” expressing her love for the embattled Chinatown community, who are subjected to specious labeling and objectification by outsiders. “For the Chinatown people,” Chung dedicates this poetry collection; with her use of the word “people,” she quite clearly insists upon their humanity. But her first poem ironically begins in Spanish, “Yo vivo en el barrio Chino / de Nueva York”; immediately we readers experience a dissonance, unclear about whom Chung’s speaker addresses. The inhabitants of New York Chinatown most likely do not speak and read Spanish, and so she speaks to a community who does not understand her. Yet she claims belonging to this community because she lives within its geographical borders. Additionally, the issue of belonging is complex; while “el barrio Chino / de Nueva York” simply translates as “New York Chinatown,” it also translates as “the barrio of Chinese / of New York.” The land and the people belong to New York. The land and the people are also a possession of New York. Chung is deliberate in creating this linguistic ambiguity, and this ambiguity establishes the poem’s tone: “Some / call it a ghetto, some call / it a slum, some call it a home.” Chung’s use of “ghetto,” “slum,” and “home” indicate three distinct and overlapping places — respectively, one which is created through social, economic, and/or legal pressures, one which is characterized by substandard housing and squalor, and one which indicates a place where people live. There are many words one person may use to name and describe one place, depending upon the person’s relationship to that place. “Home” is also a central point of origin (indicating movement outward), a place of security, a community, and a family. Still, even though a single word can hold many meanings, each word provides an incomplete description of Chinatown, which Chung emphasizes by obscuring the sources of the naming. By using “some,” she renders their identities incomplete, just as their naming has rendered Chinatown incomplete.

Chung then writes, “the / boundaries have become fluid,” which we already have seen in the multiple meanings her use of Spanish elicits; fluidity is also ambiguity and even ambivalence. The speaker’s own “two Chinatown moods,” are much more complex than love and hate, and these indicate her simultaneous belonging and lack of belonging, as well as her simultaneous agency and lack of agency. If her own community does not understand her, and if it is all ghetto and slum, then Chinatown may be “a terrible place to live.” Chinatown may also be the “only place to live” if the speaker is unable to leave the place for various economic reasons and obligations to family and community. But Chinatown may also be the speaker’s only place worth living, for reasons of belonging, and love for family and community. Here is the context, then, for the rest of “Crazy Melon,” a nest of contradictions and ironies in which oftentimes, one word, statement, or image contains more than one simple meaning.

Chinatown, like “Crazy Melon,” is a place of multiplicity. In the second poem, beginning with, “The echoes of the night trucks,” Chung writes of Canal Street’s cobblestones, off which the night trucks echo; here, we see images of an old generation of cobblestone and a modern generation of trucks in contrast to and in interaction with one another. The echo of their interaction is invisible but not unfelt, and it is disconcerting as it “play[s] on the / silences in [the speaker’s] bones,” penetrating her so deeply, and calling attention to her very body being filled with silences. She has inherited these silences from her family, and from her ancestors, these past and present inhabitants of Chinatown. But this previous generation, who have built this place have also enabled her and her generation to “[play] / games with the red and green / light on the corner of Mott and / Canal,” gathering courage and beginning to challenge the institutions which maintain the current order.

Rather than romanticizing the struggles of the previous generation, Chung sees they have made sacrifices in order to make their lives in America. In the poem which begins “No one uses words such as,” we see the “faded photographs / of families in China and the / calendar of nude redheads / on the wall,” as relics of comfort for the loneliness of the previous generation of Chinatown bachelors and men separated from their loved ones. Her line breaks create a sense of fragmentation, and emphasizes the separation of families. Despite this fragmentation, there is continuity in Chinatown between generations, as seen in the younger generations’ games with the red and green lights, and as evidenced by the poem’s incense trails in hallways and Buddhist altars, which have been set up on kitchen tables. In the home’s gathering places, families come together for meals and for worship.

The world outside of Chinatown threatens this continuity. In a three-line prose poem comprised entirely of fragments, Chung writes:

References to your home as a ghetto. Ancient
tenements. Sociological labels. A Chinese
wonderland.

These fragments, incomplete sentences, indicate incomplete images of a Chinatown that is coldly oversimplified. These fragments also indicate a speaker who, because her home is so oversimplified, is subsequently rendered incomplete. In order to underscore this feeling of incompleteness, Chung uses “your” in order to place us readers in her speaker’s position, challenging and asking us, “how would you feel if this were your home?” Chung names her previous poem’s implicated “some,” in her use of “Sociological labels”; the scholars of academic institutions study the Chinatown community, and create rigid categories, “Ancient tenements,” fixing Chinatown in time, and disallowing its natural evolution and growth which occur with time. Chung implicates these academics as guilty of orientalism, as evidenced by her use of “Chinese wonderland.” Academics reduce this very real place, which is a home to a population of very real people, into an imaginary, fantastical otherworld, robbing the Chinatown people of their humanity.

This academic orientalism is not much different than the tourist industry which shuttles the curious through Chinatown to gawk at all things exotic; these tourists see nothing of real families’ lives, no private homes’ Buddhist altars on kitchen tables, no lonely old men finding solace in pictures of nude redheads. Like the academics, the tourists do not see human beings; in the poem that begins, “welcome to Chinatown ladies and gentlemen,” a tour guide directs the tourists to gaze at strange, less than human objects, “slant eyes yellow skin scaling fish / roast duck in the windows.” The tourists make no distinction between humans, animals, and food; all are consumed. Even the Chinatown residents engaged in the unremarkable, such as “the cute Chinese children with their schoolbags,” and an object as mundane as a telephone booth topped with a pagoda, become spectacles worthy of being photographed. Chung takes on the voice of the tour guide who goads the tourists to “ooh” and “oh” rabidly at these curiosities, as if it were so strange that Chinese children go to school like everybody else’s children do. Here is the fantastical “Chinese wonderland” to which the academics refer.

Because Chung has strategically lured these tourists in with exotic images and curiosities in the first half of this poem, she holds captive their attention, and she can now shift her speaker’s voice to criticize and indict the tourists’ objectifying gaze and an industry that affirms and profits from the objectifying gaze. In sharp contrast to the exotic and curious images, she challenges the tourists photographing themselves standing next to the pagoda-topped telephone booth as she opens a line of questioning; “does anyone know the number / who owns the list of dreams wives and families / left behind somewhere far across an ocean.” Here, she draws the tourists’ attention away from the telephone’s pagoda and directs their attention towards the telephone, an object the tourists would otherwise take for granted if not for its pagoda. But the telephone is significant, not for its pagoda, but because it is a device which connects human beings across geographical distances. Chung’s questions are unanswerable questions, and answers are not the point. Rather, she means to emphasize the disconnect between the objects, the Chinatown people, and the tourists who have no knowledge base with which to read and understand the people and their history properly. Again, in her use of “you,” she addresses us readers, for we are also tourists visiting her text and fixating on its foreign elements. This disconnect is the central point of the poem, which she reinforces by placing her questions at the very midpoint of the poem, such that all preceding leads directly into the questioning, and all that follows are a direct result of the questioning.

Following these unanswerable questions are Chung’s pleas to outsiders to deepen their gaze, to understand there are economic and historical factors which have created the Chinatown community. She implores us to “see what you can behind the dragon lights”; the tourist trap’s façade conceals this history, and the deep loss experienced by the community of past and present generations who have come as immigrants and have made their lives in Chinatown. If we readers and tourists are unable or unwilling to see with a sympathetic eye the difficult lives and the hard work of these immigrants, she then directs us away from Chinatown, towards the Statue of Liberty. There, the institutionally visible and unquestioned historical difficulties experienced by white immigrants from Europe are commemorated by the massive statue which imposes upon the city skyline, and which all gaze up at in awe. The welcoming personification of American Liberty holds her never ending gaze towards Europe, whose immigrants are historically admired and honored for their plight, and for their work which created this nation, and which made them Americans. The hard irony Chung communicates here is that American academics, tourists, and institutions, view immigrants from China, who have worked hard to build their lives and to build this nation, as perpetual foreigners and not Americans. Chinatown’s residents, immigrants and descendants of immigrants remain institutionally invisible, receiving no imposing American monument, but an imposed upon tourist trap and a ghetto.

Not all of Chinatown’s residents participate in redirecting visitors elsewhere away from Chinatown; some of its residents actively participate in accentuating Chinatown’s exotic image in order to earn revenue from outsiders. In the poem beginning, “Neon lights that warm no one,” we must understand those neon lights have been placed there in order to attract outsiders in search of a Saturday nightlife destination. The restaurant to which the visitors all flock is most likely a Chinese American owned business which earns much of its revenue from these many visitors. The shop that sells Buddha statues and other gifts is also most likely a Chinese American owned business. These business owners compete with such New York attractions as “Coney Island,” and hence, the attractive neon lights. But these neon lights, while drawing crowds and their dollars into Chinatown, marginalize its residents. Chung’s speaker tells us that in order “to walk freely I have to walk in / the gutter.” “There is a deficiency / of Chinese couples,” because the Chinese couples are not attracted to these neon lights; they understand the neon lights are not for them. They gather in less glamorous places elsewhere, or they simply do not have the time or money to indulge in a glitzy Saturday nightlife.

Like visitors to Coney Island sideshows and roller coasters, the curious come to Chinatown in order to be amused and entertained, and the community’s sacred objects, the Buddha statues, for example, become objects disconnected from their meanings. Chinese American women also become objects disconnected from their humanity, as some of the visitors to this Chinese wonderland are “men … looking for / Asian chicks.” Human beings and their sacred objects then, are relegated to the same roles as “windchimes,” “bells,” and “paperweights,” all of which are decorative objects. Windchimes and bells make noise but speak no words, which may be how the visitors hear the Chinese language. Paperweights are simply dead weight. And all three of these objects may be purchased in Chinatown curio shops and taken home as souvenirs.

Indeed, these boundaries between Chinatown and the rest of New York City do appear fluid, though the flow of traffic is unequal between “American” bodies, Chinese bodies, and commodities. In the poem which begins, “On Saturday, it is 14th Street for shopping,” Chung writes of the Chinese garment workers, “The women who work in the clothing factories / find the clothes that they sew in the department stores / selling at a much higher price than what they received for / their labor.” Contractors and raw materials enter Chinatown, and finished products leave Chinatown destined for classier locales; the rest of New York City views Chinatown as its Third World labor supply. The young Chinese American woman and her mother who leave Chinatown for a shopping excursion are told by a street jewelry peddler, “to go back to Chinatown,” and so it is clear that while products made by underpaid Chinese women may flow out of Chinatown for profit and mass consumption, these same Chinese women’s bodies are not free to move beyond boundaries. These boundaries then, are not so fluid if the traffic can only flow in one direction, and if even those who do not represent the institutions — a street jewelry peddler is no powerful entity — readily participate in policing this flow. Those who cross on the diagonal encounter fervent resistance, and are forced back into the conformity of boundaries. New York Chinatown’s residents are corralled within these boundaries and are utilized for their labor and production.

In contrast to New York Chinatown’s corral of exploited labor, the deep sadness of its lonely old men, and the unrelenting invasions of rabid tourists, Chung’s speaker finds quite a different Chinatown in Lima, Peru, in which the historically subjugated populations of native Peruvians and Chinese laborers appear to have come together to form a community. In the poem that begins, “En busca del barrio chino de Lima,” the arch erected at this Chinatown’s entryway is reminiscent of the traffic light on the corner of Mott and Canal Streets in New York, but Lima Chinatown’s arch, while also an institutional imposition, does not appear to have historically impeded the population from living their lives in a way Chung’s speaker perceives as naturally. Here in Lima, “There are old lean Chinese men with young looks on their / faces,” contrasting the sad old bachelors in New York, and indicating something of the more relaxed quality of life in Lima Chinatown. Whereas the fluidity of boundaries in New York Chinatown is more an ideal than it is a reality, Chung’s speaker finds evidence of this fluidity in Lima’s people; she tells us, “There is a beautiful mixture of races,” and “The Chinese intermarry with the Indians.” She perceives the boundaries in Lima Chinatown as so fluid that mothers happily breastfeed their babies in the public markets, an indication that they are completely comfortable in this place, and that it is clearly their home. This contrasts New York Chinatown, where kitchens of private residences are the Chinatown people’s gathering places, and where they avoid the public places which are no longer their own because they are so overrun by tourists.

As an outsider to Lima Chinatown, Chung’s speaker perceives language, food, and names as also fluid, though she is conscious of her flawed perception. The people speak both Cantonese and Spanish, and Chinese vegetables are used in Peruvian tamales. And then there are “The Incan names — Chimu, Chancay, / Chan-Chan, Chunga … Chan Chung,” which are very similar sounding to Chinese names. Chung’s speaker has found herself and her own name within an ideal Chinatown, in which she may say, “yo vivo en el barrio chino” to a population that would understand her. But this is not her Chinatown, and we must consider that she comes to the Third World city of Lima as a First World tourist, similar to the way tourists come to her New York Chinatown, unable to process the community’s history and people with complete depth and substance. Her conflation of the tamales, vegetables, and names is similar to the New York Chinatown tourists’ conflation of the “slant eyes yellow skin scaling fish / roast duck in the windows.” Her gaze upon the breastfeeding women in Lima is similar to the New York Chinatown tourists’ gaze upon the “cute Chinese children with their schoolbags.” One clue that Chung acknowledges the incompleteness of this picture of Lima Chinatown is in her use of fragments:

…Chinese
restaurants called ‘chifas.’ Chinese vegetables, bean
sprouts, tamales wrapped in dark green leaves bound
with string. The Incan names — Chimu, Chancay,
Chan-Chan, Chunga … Chan Chung.

These fragments, which end the Lima poem, are reminiscent of a previous poem filled with fragments, the naming of New York Chinatown by academics who are outsiders, and who are afflicted with orientalism. In Chung’s attempt to undo physical and geographical boundaries, she ultimately implicates herself as one who gazes upon “others” as exotic curiosities. By attempting to claim her space, she has objectified others, thus effectively displacing them.

As Chung changes her strategy of claiming space, she changes her poetic form, de-emphasizing geographical space and centering instead on linguistic space. Chung’s poems tighten significantly in form after her visit to Lima Chinatown. In the five-line, minimalist, and efficiently organized “of three minds,” Chung presents the five objects of “forest,” “flower,” “moon,” “rain,” and “bamboo.” In each line, the object appears in the three languages of English, Spanish, and Chinese, respectively. While it is unclear whether the order of languages in each line indicates the order in which she accesses language in her mind, to begin with English appeals to us readers of English. Additionally, to end with the Chinese character for each object, and to include the Chinese at all, appeals to us non-readers of Chinese for its visual qualities. The character which stands for “forest,” actually resembles a group of trees. The same is true for each of the objects; the relationship between the signifier and the signified is very much based in the physical world. The Chinese characters also appeal to us non-readers of Chinese for their exotic, mysterious appearance; Chung appears to be tempting us readers, challenging our orientalism while simultaneously claiming ownership over her native language.

Rather than a simple or random list of objects, “of three minds” is a narrative of two simultaneous and overlapping journeys. The speaker has moved through the opacity of a forest, through and past notions of beauty as it resides on surfaces, as symbolized by the flower, and through the darkness of night, during which the moon has lit her path. The moon is also feminine, which is significant for this young woman’s journey. She has also persevered through other obstacles as symbolized by the rain, and at the end of her journey, she has found the bamboo, a plant which is specific to Asia. The bamboo is indicative of strength and resiliency, as many Asian cultures believe, for one who bends but does not break is admired for her persistence and integrity. The simultaneous journey is the one that has transpired within her. With the bamboo as her model, she has negotiated a way for these three languages and their corresponding worldviews to coexist, rather than one forcing out the others. It is ironic this quiet and fragrant poem can be such a shout of defiance against the rigidity of boundaries; she has successfully crossed on a diagonal here.

Chung crosses on another linguistic diagonal by rejecting the dictionary’s absolute authority; she continues to rearticulate her relationship with language in the following poem which begins, “scenes gathered from a Chinese-English dictionary.” Though she omits the very Chinese characters she reinterprets, she is most likely working with the visual qualities of the characters, as apparent in “of three minds.” The act of reinterpreting is also the act of naming, which is an act of self-empowerment and self-determination, and in doing so here, she experiences a gradual clarity, “clouds clearing away,” as she moves through beautiful images. Again, she tempts us readers with exotic and mysterious images though she does not grant us access to these Chinese characters. We do not know if the character in the dictionary, which she reinterprets as, “to gaze at the ocean and sigh,” truly means what she tells us it means. We non-readers of Chinese do not know if such a character really exists which means, “to gaze at the ocean and sigh.” Additionally, we who are unfamiliar with Chinese customs may question what to “throw an embroidered ball in choosing a husband” really means, and if it means anything at all. The specific meanings of each image are not as significant as her own process of naming the image, creating her own personal language, a more appropriate reflection of her own world. And while there appears to be no clear narrative relationship between the images she presents us, there is a narrative of Chung’s speaker beginning where the “clouds [clear] away,” reinterpreting various words into her new personal language based upon her own rules (which she has not established with us readers), until her “dull mind is suddenly opened.” The poem’s form, in which each line is a complete and contained image and thought, reflects this clarity of her newly opened mind.

From this position of power, Chung engages in something of a deception against us readers, for “scenes gathered from a Chinese-English dictionary,” appears to be the final poem of “Crazy Melon.” Certainly, the opening of her once “dull mind” is an apt ending to a journey which began in a linguistically jarring and geographically oppressive place. But the final page of “Crazy Melon” contains a heading which reads, “Glossary,” whose entries include “a piece of rice,” “cold rice,” “old bean,” “goldfish eyes,” “little mosquitoes,” and “duck shit green.” Each entry begins with the Chinese characters for each term, followed by the English term, and ending with Chung’s definition or explication for each. Formalistically, this “Glossary” is reminiscent of “of three minds,” which clues us in to the possibility that this “Glossary” is not a simple glossary, but an actual poem entitled, “Glossary.” To contradict her own deceptive presentation, Chung demonstrates openly the work of translation, as she takes the term from its original Chinese context and brings it into a new American English context. And though we non-readers of Chinese must take it on faith that Chung’s literal translation is “correct,” we see evidence that she is correct in the identical second character of each of the terms “a piece of rice,” and “cold rice.” While previously rejecting the authority of the dictionary, Chung has ironically also assumed the authority of the dictionary.

Chung follows each literal translation with her definition or explication, the Chinatown people’s metaphor, a culturally determined link between a Chinese-language signifier and non-literal, English-language signified. A “piece of rice,” to an American English speaker, for example, would not elicit the image of “a lazy person, especially husbands; an idler, sitting there.” Chung creates these metaphors which, in addition to being culturally determined, also appear to be economically determined; “cold rice,” the “rice left in the pot” is “placed in the refrigerator to be / cooked tomorrow; principle ingredient of / fried rice.” And though Americans who consume at neon-lit Chinese restaurants may believe that fried rice is an exotic treat, in the Chinatown people’s context, nothing is to be wasted when resources are not abundant, when there are many children, “little mosquitoes” to be fed, and especially when one’s husband is “a piece of rice.”

Chung’s final metaphor is that of “olive green,” though her literal translation from the Chinese is “duck shit green.” Here, Chung tells us something of metaphor as it exists in the real world, as opposed to the poetic page, where it is subject to abstraction. Metaphor, Chung demonstrates, is not only euphemism, nor is it a one-sided exoticizing of the mundane, as in “olive green,” which elicits the beautiful olive groves of faraway and fragrant places, luxurious Mediterranean villas accessible only to the few who can afford access. But the olive is also a very old and resilient plant, contrasting the green of youth and freshness, and paralleling the historical continuity of her Chinatown community. “Olive” also calls to mind, “olive branch,” a common gesture of peace. Because of the continuity of community, and because she is able to rearticulate language, Chung has found some resolution.

Additionally, for those of us who will not or cannot see the “duck shit” in the “olive green,” Chung challenges us not to understand “duck shit” as ugly and dysphemistic. She challenges our willingness see metaphor’s purpose as not simply creating surface-beautiful images, but also creating practical images as “cold rice,” in order to portray truthfully the world which we inhabit, hence claiming proactively our connection with this world. “Duck shit” for example, is practical, as it may be used as a fertilizer. Though malodorous, “duck shit” can be beautiful because it aids in the growth of plants, trees, and crops. Here, she challenges all of us to cross on the diagonal as she has repeatedly done. In other words, she challenges us to open our dull minds and see what beauty resides in shit, just as the New York Chinatown people survive despite academics’ orientalism, tourism, institutional invisibility, and labor exploitation. Finally, Chung demonstrates that metaphor does not belong only to those who may access the high art of poetry; metaphor belongs to all people who use language. That is to say, metaphor belongs to all people. Because from excrement comes new life, Chung extends her olive branch of “duck shit,” thus ending “Crazy Melon.”

Comments (5)

  • On September 11, 2009 at 12:59 pm Oscar wrote:

    Wonderful write-up. I’m definitely going to revisit (my fourth reading) Chung’s work with all this in mind.

    The focus on the telephone booth makes me recall the Telephone Booth poems of el Reverendo Pedro Pietri, another 70s era Lower NYC poeta. Pietri’s poems had the same directness of language and situation intermingled with deeper layers of global connectivity, local directories and urban palimpsest.

    Thanks again for this.

  • On September 11, 2009 at 1:04 pm Joel Brouwer wrote:

    Tremendously illuminating account of a poet and a tradition I’m woefully ignorant about, Barbara Jane. I’m grateful to you for dropping the knowledge.

  • On September 11, 2009 at 1:10 pm Barbara Jane Reyes wrote:

    Thanks for your comment Joel. I was fortunate to study this book with a Chinese American professor who could actually read Chinese. When he told me that the “duck shit green” really did read as “duck shit green” I don’t know why I was so elated. Anyway, Chung has a poem entitled “For Li Po,” in which she actually addresses the “translator,” of Li Po, Ezra Pound. So I think there are many ways for us into Chung’s work.

  • On September 11, 2009 at 1:13 pm Barbara Jane Reyes wrote:

    You know, even after watching Pietri perform his poem in the telephone booth in United States of Poetry, and even after hearing Faye Chiang talk about that connection with the Nuyoricans in the Lower East Side, I still wasn’t making the explicit connection between Chung and the Nuyoricans. Duh. And thank you!

  • On September 13, 2009 at 6:29 pm Terreson wrote:

    once again, Barbara Jane Reyes, thank you.

    Terreson

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Posted in Uncategorized on Friday, September 11th, 2009 by Barbara Jane Reyes.