NDR reviews and interviews editor Raquel Thorne asks Dorothy Chan, winner of NDR’s 6th Annual Chapbook Contest, about her forthcoming CHINATOWN SONNETS and the processes behind it.
Raquel Thorne: Your sonnet cycle commences, “This isn’t Chinatown from the movies.” Your Chinatown moves through Philly, Japan-themed stores full of “bizarrchitecture,” beauty—oranges “all neat/Florida’s Best still stuck on them” (“VII. Grandfather’s Oranges”). Where does this Chinatown come from? How did it begin?
Dorothy Chan: So, first off, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown is one of my favorite films of all time. It’s known for its perfect screenplay in that no word or scene is out of place. It’s also super sexy—I mean, Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway in their prime—but in the end, the film is about the greed of white men. It’s also a film that romanticizes the idea of Chinatown in its neo-noir genre. And besides Chinatown, the idea of “Chinatown” has been so romanticized in American film. It’s this idea of Chinatown as a place of mystery, filled with red lanterns that guide you through the mysterious night, seductive women with pale skin and red lips wearing cheongsam, and restaurants that play live jazz, serve fortune cookies with milk, and are filled with spies at every corner. I mean, this is Edward Said’s Orientalism. It is fetishization. It is the whitewashing of East Asian culture. And in Chinatown Sonnets, I am saying no to all this. I start with this seductive idea of Chinatown but then flip it, giving you the actual reality—the actual seduction. This isn’t Chinatown from the movies, but my Chinatown, the Chinatown of my childhood, the Chinatown I see, through my lens as a twenty-something Asian American woman.
I was born and raised in the US. I lived in Hong Kong for about a year when I was three. I try to visit my family in Hong Kong as much as possible. For me, Chinatown isn’t just about Philadelphia or New York or San Francisco, etc., but it is about the origination of that culture. It is about my observations of my family and the street market and even mall culture that pervades in Hong Kong. It is the idea of the Chinese family: sitting down for a home-cooked meal, respecting my elders, practicing humility, and visiting the market stalls, picking out cherries, lychee, and longan with my grandmother, while saying hello to the local cats (also known as “mimis” in Cantonese because the sound they make isn’t “meow, meow,” but “mimi, mimi”). I also have fond memories of growing up in Pennsylvania and visiting Philadelphia’s Chinatown: shopping at the Sanrio stores, buying mango cakes, and picking out some tasty duck and crabs for dinner. Chinatown was what I had growing up because my family and I were away from Hong Kong. It was the best we could do and to this day, I love visiting Chinatowns in major cities.
RT: I think it’s safe to assume that most readers of Chinatown Sonnets will not share your particular experiences of growing up in the United States of America while having such a strong connection to Hong Kong. Lynn Huynh recently asked Aziza Barnes a great question in her interview at Adroit Journal about Barnes’s new book, i be, but i ain’t: “Many readers… will inevitably not identify as women of color, and will thus bring different lived experiences to their readings and interpretations of i be, but i ain’t.” What is your hope for these readers as they process the book? What are your desires for these readers?
“This isn’t Chinatown from the movies, but my Chinatown, the Chinatown of my childhood, the Chinatown I see, through my lens as a twenty-something Asian American woman.”
DC: I want those readers to listen to my story. My story is important. My ties to Hong Kong are important. There’s also a huge Chinese immigrant population in the US.
This takes me to the following: the MFA/PhD creative writing community is a very white, cis-gendered, and straight space; the American literary canon is a very white, cis-gendered, and straight space. As an instructor, I always reinforce to my students that it is my job to teach them: 1. What the term “literary canon” means and 2. How to topple down that canon and rewrite that canon to include women, people of color, queer voices, trans writers, disabled bodies, and in summary, intersectionality.
My point is the following: we all have different life experiences. If you are a reader of my chapbook and cannot relate to my experiences, please listen. Do not claim these experiences as your own. You do not have to relate to every single thing you read, but it is your job to take responsibility as you listen. Of course, I want my readers to enjoy my work. I want them to take in the history, the sensuality, the musicality, the food—my Chinatown, but also keep in mind that my experiences are not theirs to claim. Again, enjoy and listen.
RT: Who, both writers and non-writers, most keenly influenced the creation of Chinatown Sonnets? And whose work is Chinatown Sonnets in conversation with?
DC: Chinatown Sonnets is mostly influenced by my family. You know, a lot of the poems are simply about a love of culture. I love spending time with my younger cousin, Janet in Hong Kong. “IX. The Times Square of Asia” is one of my favorite sonnets. It’s all about street food and waiting in line for some classic or crazed snack: egg waffles, curried fish balls, siu mai, stinky tofu, etc. This is life. This is what’s being imitated in NYC: the whitewashing of translating precious Hong Kong street foods into “luxury” snacks, such as the current dessert craze that takes the original Hong Kong waffle (or gai daan jai) and adds ice cream, Fruity Pebbles, Oreos, Pocky, etc. to it. Sure, that sounds delicious. I’d love to eat that right now, in fact. But I also need to acknowledge how in this way, the original street food loses its “grit.” In fact, it’s no longer street food. Food represents culture, and more specifically, it represents family. My mother always reminisces about growing up in Hong Kong and visiting the food vendors at night. My father misses walking down a flight of stairs and chowing down on some good late-night noodles. Family is a beautiful influence.
I’ve also been blessed with some of the best mentorship a girl could ask for. Right now, I’m pursuing my PhD in poetry at Florida State University and working very closely with Barbara Hamby and David Kirby. During my MFA at Arizona State, Norman Dubie served as my committee chair—he’s seen Chinatown Sonnets go through many stages, as has Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, my mentor during my undergraduate years at Cornell. I’ve also received great instruction from Alberto Ríos and Jeannine Savard.
Chinatown Sonnets is in conversation with the world of today. I refuse to be labeled a “poet’s poet.” I want my poetry to appeal to both writers and non-writers. I’m basically telling people through my poetry to open themselves up and observe life around them. Learn about culture. Respect it. Note the ways in which cultures collide.
RT: What constraints did writing a sonnet cycle place on the work? What spaces did it organically open up?
DC: Lyrae describes the sonnet as a “box of tension and release.” Yes, the sonnet constrains the poet to a form, but it’s also the poet’s prerogative to break that form. At the same time, with the constraints and with the excision of unwanted syllables and words, the poet organically “opens” the sonnet up. By figuring out what we don’t need, we treasure what we both have and need.
I view the sonnet as the amuse-bouche of poetic forms. It’s just so perfect and delicate and bite-sized and while it can stand on its own, if it’s delicious, it leaves the reader craving for more. Just as an amuse-bouche whets the appetite of a restaurant-goer or a dinner guest or a food connoisseur, the sonnet whets the appetite of the reader and the sonnet sequence fulfills that appetite. With a quadruple crown of sonnets, it’s like getting served a fancy four-course dinner that just doesn’t stop (just the way I like it). And more specifically, in the way the final chapbook is arranged, the traditional crown of sonnets form is messed with, leaving the reader surprised. That’s the beauty of contemporizing a traditional form.
“Chinatown Sonnets is in conversation with the world of today.”
RT: Chinatown Sonnets often explores a memory, such as in “My Father Looks Back,” where, through her father’s thoughts, the speaker remembers her first hamburger. In what ways do these sonnets also look or refuse to look forward?
DC: You know, the contradiction is that in looking back, these sonnets are also looking forward. It’s that clichéd (but I believe, correct) saying that we can’t move forward without looking back at our history. For instance, in the sonnet you’ve referenced, “XII. My Father Looks Back,” the father may crave the Hong Kong of his 20s, which lies in stark contrast to his current life living in a suburb of Pennsylvania, but then what is he left to do moving forward? What is implied not only in “XII” but also in the rest of the collection?
Yes, I’ll admit I remember the first time I ate a cheeseburger. It was not a pleasant experience. I was four, and on the plane from Hong Kong to America. You might say this was my first real “American” experience. Looking back, the burger probably tasted bad because it was plane food and not because I didn’t like the taste of cheeseburgers. But you get the point: I was shocked. Four-year-old me might have been disappointed in my first American meal, but I could only move forward. I grew up in America. I learned to embrace my Chinese heritage. I continue to embrace my heritage more and more as I grow older. I come at things with this mixed perspective—this dual identity. These sonnets represent my dual identity. In Hong Kong, I am an observer.
RT: Japan, not just Hong Kong, is peppered throughout the manuscript as a destination, an idea, and as a conversation point for diaspora. But there is much tension between these two spaces, both between themselves, and with America/America’s Chinatown. This tension hovers over the question of authenticity, as it does in “XIX. The Thai Place.” In fact, most of the titles themselves observe consumerism, which often grinds against authenticity. How did you navigate authenticity as you worked through the nexus of these topics?
DC: We live in a world of global consumerism. My mom will reminisce about the days when Kowloon was filled with mom and pop shops, like medicine stores, hole-in-the-wall places to buy imitation shark’s fin soup, and vendors that fixed everything from designer handbags to watches. Sure, a lot of that culture still exists in Kowloon, but in addition to that, there’s also The Body Shop and McDonald’s at almost every corner. My cousins gush over Abercrombie and Fitch, Hollister, and other brands I refuse to wear. In fact, t-shirts and hoodies from these American brands are always at the top of their wishlists. It’s this age of consumerism that they’ve grown up with. Good-looking boys and girls wait in a line a mile long just to “audition” to work at Hollister in Hong Kong. It’s crazy the way American culture has influenced Hong Kong and other East Asian countries.
Yes, consumerism can grind against authenticity. But at the same time, we must think about what’s authentic to an individual. For example, “XIX. The Thai Palace” paints a scene of the speaker and her family eating at a crowded and authentic Thai restaurant in Hong Kong. My aunt, Janet’s mother, actually introduced us to that restaurant. It’s one of her favorites. When I ask Janet what her dream meal is though, she’ll always name something western, like the American style of chicken wings or food with lots of cheese or even KFC and Pizza Hut. But keep in mind that with that consumerism she’s indicating, that desire is still authentic to her. She wants those American things because she’s bored of the traditional food of Hong Kong and wants to try something new—she wants novelty. So yes, I navigate this territory of consumerism vs. authenticity by looking at what is authentic to the individual. The collection is very human in this way. Desiring novelty is also very human.
But of course, I miss the old Hong Kong. It might have been before my generation, but I sure miss it. The way that consumerism continues to take over Hong Kong is also scary—that is why I really value experiences like “The Thai Palace.” And that is why in every city, in every town, in every place, we need to keep those authentic traditions alive. That is real beauty.
Dorothy Chan was a 2014 finalist for the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship and a 2017 finalist for the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Prize for Poetry from Pleiades Press. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Blackbird, Plume, The Journal, Spillway, Little Patuxent Review, and The McNeese Review. She is the Assistant Editor of The Southeast Review. Visit her online at dorothypoetry.com.
*Winner of New Delta Review’s 6th Annual Chapbook Contest judged by Douglas Kearney, her chapbook Chinatown Sonnets is now available through NDR.
Raquel Thorne is an MFA candidate at LSU where she works as the Interviews/Reviews Editor for NDR. Additionally, she works as the managing editor of cahoodaloodaling, as an associate interviewer for Up the Staircase Quarterly, and as the president of Tandem Reader Awards. A 2016 BinderCon LA Scholarship recipient, Raquel’s work has appeared in journals such as Black Warrior Review, Manchester Review, The Pedestal Magazine, and The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, among others.