Plum Blossom or Quong Tart at the QVB

Stroke by labored stroke my daughter
is discovering the sound of her name,
the new old country revealed under
her tiny preschool tentative hand.
She prints the pictogram mu,
a solid vertical stroke like a tree trunk,
a horizontal across for the arms, and a sinuous
downward branch on either side. That is
the radical for wood or tree. And on its right
she prints mei, meaning every, made up from a roof
over the pictogram for mother, mu,
with its nourishing embrace. Grafted on
the tree, it adds up to the talismanic
plum, tree and blossom.
It has been years since I have written
my true name. Watching
it appear in my daughter’s wavery hand
I am rooted, the calligraphy
performing strange magic.
No longer emigrant, foreign
but recalled home, and not to the country
left behind, but further back
beyond the South Sea.
Vague lost connections
somewhere south of the Yangtze.
Karst country, paddies
and mountains the color of jade.

My daughter asks why the English
transliteration is Boey and not
Mei. I am stumped.
Many Chinese names
became strange or lost
in the crossing.
How did the first Mei, arriving
with his mother tongue in the colony,
find himself rechristened
Boey? How long did it take
him to grow into the name?
Did he shed it like his queue?
Did he roll it in his mouth, taste
its foreign plosive, swallow it
whole like a ball of rice,
and spit it out Boey,
the pig-tailed coolie in the new colony?

In a few years my daughter will press
for her family history and tree
and I will have nothing more to show
than the withered branch that is
her dead grandfather. So much
buried, irretrievable. It is too late
to ask my father about his father and the father
before. Broken branches. So little history
to go on. One of the homonyms
for mei is nothing. Mei as predicate
to another character erases
that character. The same rising tone
spells bad luck
which runs in the family, it seems.

Perhaps the plum will flourish
on this soil, like the white plum
in our yard, and transplanted,
my daughter can recover
what is lost in translation.
Perhaps she already has.
Last week, at the Queen Victoria Building,
we stumbled on an exhibition
of the life of Quong Tart, the Chinese
pioneer who made it good in White
Australia. A tea merchant,
he married a Scotswoman, sang
Border ballads and wore tartan kilts;
he fed the Aborigines
and played cricket with the whites.
The catalogue printed his original
name Mei, our clan. His face,
a replica of my father’s,
high cheekbones and well-shaped jaw,
had the same charming look. It was my father
made Mandarin of the Fifth Order,
costumed in silk tunic and plumed hat.

Somewhere in south-east China
the clan lived in the same village,
and broadcast rice seed
into paddies of broken skies.
Straw-hatted, they bowed
over plough and mattock,
planted in their reflections
like their name. Then news
came of richer harvests over
the South Sea, the white devils
and their burgeoning empire.
Perhaps great-grandfather sallied forth
with Quong Tart on the same junk,
and disembarked in Malaya, while Quong Tart
continued south. Perhaps they were brothers.

I see the other life my father could have had
staring out from the sepia shots,
if our forbear had travelled on
down-under. I could not explain
to my daughter the déjà vu, but her hand
was already pointing out the Mei
below Quong Tart’s portrait,
the tap of the finger
wiring us, connecting us
in a tremble of recognition.
She has finally learned
the character of her name.

by Boey Kim Cheng
from After the Fire: New and Selected Poems (2006)