Early Chinese Canadian Poem

by setohj

The Western stereotype of the Chinese in North America, during most of my life in Canada, is that the Chinese are good in the hard sciences and lousy in the arts. Even the Chinese themselves, both Old Timers and new immigrants normally nudge their kids in the direction of accountants and engineers. Of course, it is a pleasant surprise and a wonderful revelation to discover that the early Chinese were not all mathematics nerds or uncouth laborers in restaurants and laundries. Poetry played a huge part in the minds and hearts of the literate Chinese in Canada. From at least the late nineteenth century onward, there has been a passion among Chinese Canadians for the literary in the Chinese language. Over the course of about a century, various Chinese periodicals, in particular The Chinese Times newspaper (大漢公報), promoted many literary activities in Canada. Instead of the usual staple of current events, the front page of this newspaper featured from time to time literary or philosophical essays as its lead article. For example, a series on the Tang Poet Li Bai (李白 or Li Po in Wade-Giles phonetics, or Lei Vag in Hoiping phonetics) graced the front-page of The Chinese Times, beginning with the June 9, 1915 issue. A comparative critique of Western and Chinese sages from Socrates to Martin Luther appeared on another occasion as a front-page article. Regular columns on Chinese literature and poetry written by local personalities as well as fellow Chinese from as faraway as India have their own literary section in The Chinese Times. One such example of a column on Chinese literature is called Poetry World (《詩界》). Another example is called the Oceanic Multitude of Clear (or Qing) Recitations 《瀛海清吟》 appeared regularly on page five of the newspaper in the 1950s and continued into the 1960s on various pages. The contributing poets to that column belong to a list of Who’s Who of the Chinese in British Columbia along with contributors often from other regions of the Americas and occasionally from Asia or South East Asia.

Lai Fong Leung, Professor Emerita, University of Alberta has written several papers and recently authored a section of a book on Overseas Chinese Canadian literature, all in the Chinese language. One of her papers that was presented at the fifth conference of the World Confederation of Institutes and Libraries for Chinese Overseas Studies (WCILCOS) brought to my attention a poem by a Chinese Canadian named Lhiu Hong (筱唐, or Xiao Tang in pinyin) which appeared the September 4, 1917 issue of The Chinese Times. The poem is entitled “Emotions Expressed in Writing to Leb Fon of Lawn Village” (《寄懷草坪立寬君》). Prof. Leung sees this poem as representative of the poetry being written in Canada (i.e., during the first two-thirds of the twentieth century) that melds together the personal hear-felt emotions of homesickness for the ancestral home with a strident nationalism for China.

My own observation is that the author of the poem used only first names including that of the person who is the recipient of the poem. A closer investigation into their backgrounds reveals that they share the same surname Lim (林). It is not unusual to see an author published with only his first name in The Chinese Times newspaper. There appears to be a close connection between the published poets and readers. The readership was assumed to be familiar enough with the writings of a poet to recognize him by his first name. Perhaps, the stature of the authors in the relatively small Chinese population in B.C. also promoted a familiarity with the authors among the reading public. Lhiu Hong (筱唐) is the first name of the poet. His surname is Lim (林). His full name then is Lim Lhiu Hong (林筱唐) in the Hoiping dialect. In the poem, he wrote a poem to a clansman named Lim Leb Fon (林立寬). Leb Fon’s village is named To Hen (草坪, meaning “lawn”) in Toisan County (台山). (Note: I use the Hoiping [開平 or Kaiping in pinyin] transliterations in this blog, which is almost identical to the Toisan dialect.)

In a nutshell, the poem is a melancholic lament of his own alienated state, homesickness for his native village, and a restrained but pointed diatribe against the precarious conditions of the world in general and in China in particular. It is as though just by being in this faraway place of Canada, the narrator (poet?) feels he’s allowed to stand at the edge of the universe and observe more clearly the evils of this world than he would have had he been at home.

The poetry of Lim Lhiu Hong appeared in The Chinese Times from 1917 through the 1940s. Invariably in his published pieces, he writes in a traditional and structured style that employs seven-character long verses. In the poem before us from the September 4, 1917 issue, he uses a form that requires eight verses of seven-character length each (七言律詩).  Since each character represents a single syllable then you might say this poem consists of eight Haiku verses, a Japanese poetic form somewhat familiar in the West. Furthermore, this eight-line form calls for rhyming on alternate verses. Lhiu Hong’s most prolific period for his published poems appears to be during 1917-1919.

I have found no poetry written by Lim Leb Fon, but he was a man of some importance in the Chinese community in Vancouver. In 1934, his clan association gave him a big send-off reception before he returned to China for a visit. Guests included members from the Chinese Benevolent Association and the Chinese Nationalist League. He is recognized as a business man with a large share holding in a local emporium (合益公司). As an important board director, he served his community through the Lim clan’s Lim Sai Hor Benevolent Association (林西河總堂). His funeral and burial was held in Vancouver in 1954.

Here is Lhiu Hong’s poem in Chinese, followed by the Romanization in the Hoiping (Kaiping) dialect and finally my rough translation in English:

《寄懷草坪立寬君》     (筱唐)





Kaiping Romanization:

Gei Vai To Hen Leb Fon Gun (Lhiu Hong)

voi xiu zung ngin gei- u teu.
gu hieng ngen lhu lui gao leu.

hin ngai man lei hu lhui lhin.
hoi ngoi gen nin ji du lheu.

lun o gog xieng sen van mung.
hon loi ngen o yed ham yiu.

gung vuo fan fug gun ji fao.
sai gai ngui gem mei lhed xiu.

Here is my draft translation:

Emotions Expressed in Writing to Leb Fon of Lawn Village (Lhiu Hong)

Return to the beginning of the Central Plains, how many autumns?
Old home village human affairs, tears exchanged.

The edge of the world, tens of thousands of miles away there is no need to envy.
Overseas year after year only self-shame.

Discuss until the national war dead become a fantasy.
It seems that the human way is also bleak.

The republic relapses to the monarch, be aware of evil.
The world nowadays has not stopped hatred.