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Eileen Chong - Rice Dumplings and My Hakka Grandmother

Eileen Chong’s distinctive voice is essential in showcasing how she privileges familial
relations and cultural history in profiling her identity. Explore this thematic concern in
two of her poems.
Eileen Chong’s anthologies contain a unique perspective of intimate familial relations,
and how they have greatly reinforced her identity and the importance of culture and
tradition in her life. This is especially achieved through her poems ‘Rice Dumplings’ and
‘My Hakka Grandmother’ — two reasonably disparate texts — while still maintaining
the thematic concern consistently throughout both poems.

In ‘Rice Dumplings’, Chong deeply delves into her personal culture and heritage,
utilising her love of food and family as vessels to convey her culture and heritage
through her familiarity towards them. In the poem, Chong’s use of family related
anecdotes evoke a sense of nostalgia in the audience, while also constantly making
connections to her heritage, emphasising its importance to her. Furthermore, Chong
makes various stylistic choices to convey this, such as constant enjambment to drive
the conversational and familiar tone and voice of the poem. This is explored as she
writes “You make cups of tea / and I cut you a slice of old fashioned lemon drizzle
cake. What are we, if not old fashioned?” The enjambment after “You make cups of
tea” is used to maintain the poem as one long strand of thought and reflection from
Chong’s culture-centric upbringing. The prospect of the art of making rice dumplings
becomes a whirlwind of specific memories in the form of a recount, which is reflected
through the enjambment and almost colloquial tone of the poem.

Similarly, in her poem ‘My Hakka Grandmother’, Chong explores her


Grandmother’s upbringing as a Hakka peasant back in China, at an attempt to connect
more intimately with her culture as seen through the use of the personal pronoun ‘we’
toward the end of the poem: “I read about it once: architecture unique to the Hakka
people in Fujian.” Reinforcing the notion of Chong’s cultural upbringing, the audience is
again able to discern how much of an impact Chong’s upbringing and cultural
background maintained in her life, for her to have conducted auxiliary research by
herself in order to further understand her heritage, as suggested by the use of the
singular personal pronoun ‘I’. Chong thus explores her ancestry by attempting to make
personal connections to her cultural past.

Additionally, in ‘My Hakka Grandmother’, Chong delves past the jovial and
ornamented aspect of her heritage, and explores the reality her ancestors endured,
serving as a reinforcement of the connection she holds to her Chinese-Singaporean
background. Chong writes “We are guest people without land or name, moving south

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and south, wild birds seeking a place to call home” The only use of the personal
pronoun ‘we’ highlights how Chong genuinely and solidly identifies with her culture,
transcending generational barriers, and blurring the lines between past and present,
providing a sense of finality and assuredness that this is her identity, while providing a
visual key to the reality of the Hakka nomad community, juxtaposing the content,
nostalgic voice of ‘Rice Dumplings’.

This is again mirrored in ‘Rice Dumplings’, as it divulges the true nature of


her connection to her culture, and is able to draw contemporary connections and
provide a fresh standpoint on an ancient culture: “Reviving the art of rice dumplings in
an inner-city apartment in Sydney five minutes’ walk from Chinatown.” The
personification of the “art of rice dumplings” emphasises the impact this experience
has made on her life and distinctive voice when portraying her culture. That something
as mundane as a dumpling can have such a monumental, long lasting impression on
Chong. Even though the central, physical connection to her culture is absent, she is
essentially reviving it in a present day context.

To conclude, Chong explores a unique and original perspective on intimate


familial relations, and how her cultural identity has served to shape her by utilising
personal experiences and stance, as well as various poetic techniques to ultimately
share with the audience a glimpse into her own world by means of her distinctive voice.