High Muck a Muck is an interactive poem which reveals feelings and living conditions of Chinese immigrants in Canada. It creatively combines images, music, videos, texts, and audio files to present the poem. This poem is created by a group of artists. I will do a walk-through of this poem collection (as a Chinese now studying in America :D).
This is the starting page of this poem. In the middle is a block of Chinese characters. In fact, these characters belong to the beginning part of Qianziwen (also known as the Thousand Character Classic). Qianziwen is a classical text covering many disciplines, which was used to teach children. If you are interested in Qianziwen, please go to this website, http://camcc.org/reading-group/qianziwen, to learn more about it. This website provides both Chinese and English versions of Qianziwen. Most of the translation on this website makes sense but I would like to give my own version of translation. Due to limited time, I will only translate the part that appears in High Muck a Muck.
Notes: (1) The following Chinese characters may look different from those in the picture because of the difference between traditional Chinese and simplified Chinese. (2) There’s a beautiful rhyme if you read the text in Chinese.
The Thousand Character Classic (Qianziwen)
The sky is black, the earth is yellow. The universe is vast without boundaries and it has existed since the ancient times.
The sun rises and falls, the moon becomes full and parsed. Stars spread in the vast universe.
Summers and winters come and go, (and years pass). We harvest in autumns and store food in winters.
Extra days form a leap year. We use music to adjust yin and yang.
When clouds rise, they precipitate into raindrops. (When the temperature drops at night), dews condense into frost.
Gold is produced in the Jinsha River, jade is produced in the Kunlun Mountains
The sharpest sword is called “Juque”, the most precious bead is called “Yeguang”
The most precious fruits are plums and apples, the most important vegetables are mustards and gingers.
The sea water is salty, the river water is fresh. Those with scales live in the water, those with feathers fly in the sky
Longshi, Huodi, Niaoguan, Renhuang, (they were officials and kings in the ancient times).
The homepage is a traditional Chinese painting. Mountains and rivers consist parts of the human body. The blue dots are different places. They correspond to acupuncture points in traditional Chinese medicine.
Seven places are involved in this poem, which are Canada, Victoria, Nelson, Vancouver, Richmond, Pacific Rim, Everywhere and Nowhere (you may feel confused before you enter this page, but later you will agree that this title is really a smart choice).
The background music is played by a traditional Chinese instrument called xiao. This piece of music is a little gloomy. At the end of the music, new sounds appear, including people talking, the colliding sound of porcelain, children crying, and erhu playing. On hearing those sounds, you may feel that you are sitting in a traditional restaurant in China or in Chinatown.
Canada is on the arm. Rivers are veins, and the blue acupuncture points are parts of the poem. Click the book on the left side, you can read the whole text. Click the person holding a telescope, the poem will be read in a video. The video combines the history of immigrants with calligraphy.
The poem is titled “The Line (Pak Ah Pu, the Lottery)”. Pak Ah Pu (白鸽票）is a Chinese lottery game popular in the 19th century. The title corresponds to the starting page, “take a gamble and immigrate”. Immigration is kind of a gamble for Chinese because traditionally Chinese do not like to move. China is an agricultural country, which values settling down rather than moving around. There is a Chinese idiom called “安土重迁”, which means “live peacefully in hometown and easily move”. This idiom is used to describe nostalgia.
This poem, “The Line (Pak Ah Pu, the Lottery)”, presents a typical Chinese character: a farmer, who respects the land and food, who values hometown and family, who is humble and may be good at cooking.
However, in the picture, these farmers are standing beside a railway, which represents industry and modernization. In the video, the man hung upside down struggles in pain. These figures present the inner tension of these Chinese immigrants.
Victoria is more lively than Canada. The background music becomes a little playful. The picture shows a Chinese neighborhood full of residents.
Most of the buildings here are in traditional Chinese style. However, if you click the grey house on the top, a narrator called KL says that this neighborhood has nothing to do with modern China. It still sticks to the old Chinese style.
Click the “Chinese Cemetry” on the right corner, KL also states that Chinatown is the only place for Chinese immigrants to make money because they are not allowed to work outside. Also, this is a place where people know and trust one another (they have to because this is the only thing they can do).
Click the cowboy in the middle, CM says that no Chinese women are allowed to enter the club unless they are entertainers (Chinese women are secondary citizens).
Click the person holding a telescope, you can watch an old movie which sets its scene in Chinatown but the main characters are not Asians (they are being racists).
This Chinatown seems to be full of happiness but it is actually isolated from China and from Canada. Except for the old memories of China, the residents can only depend on each other.
Nelson is a more desolate place. The background music is a little bit scary. This is not a nice place. Chinese immigrants are isolated from the local people. Anyone here can bully a Chinese. Click the telescope person, you can watch a video which includes many Chinese elements, abacus, smiling Chinese, mahjong, Chinese music, a doll with a coolie hat, Chinese opera, radio, screen, fingerprint. This video is a combination of modern and traditional elements.
The background music can be divided into four parts. The first part is the whistle of the train, the second part is a Chinese song (might be a 70s style popular song), the third part is xiao playing, the fourth part is a combination of traffic and people’s steps.
What happens here in Chinatown is globalization but other people do not understand Chinese culture. They simply do not care.
Click the telescope person, you can watch an interesting video. The main characters in this video are a person wearing a coolie hat, and a doll wearing a coolie hat. They dress in ancient style and walk on modern streets. Tradition is being challenged by technology.
The background music is very futuristic. The stories here are about new immigrants. Unlike the old immigrants who came here a long time ago (most of them are Cantonese speakers), the new immigrants come from PRC (which we consider the “new” China, which has a communist government). These new immigrants speak Mandarin. Many of them come here because they want their children to have a better education (This is true. Some of my middle school and high school classmates have come to North America for a better education. Now I am here, too). Many of them do not feel they belong to the Chinese society here.
The telescope person here brings us a video about a dream. This is a dream of a new immigrant. He feels he belongs to nowhere. Only in his dream is there a place where he truly considers it a home (this home may come from his memory and will only survive in his memory).
Three ships carry different stories.
The ship on the left corner reminds me of a famous poem by Yu Guangzhong (余光中） called Xiangchou (Nostalgia). The following translation is done by me. My translation is simpler than that on the website. If you want to read a more literary and poetic translation, click the hyperlink above to learn more.
When I was young,
Nostalgia was a little stamp,
I was on this side,
My mother was on the other.
When I grew up,
Nostalgia was a tiny steamer ticket,
I was on this side,
My bride was on the other.
Nostalgia was a small tomb,
I was outside,
My mother was inside.
Nostalgia is a shallow channel,
I am on this side,
The mainland is on the other.
Yu Guangzhong immigrated from the mainland to Taiwan, yet he still had nostalgia, especially when his mother passed away. You can imagine how Chinese immigrants in Canada miss their hometowns. In Nelson, Chinese immigrants have their own grave area (because the locals do not want to share the cemetery with Chinese). But, even though they have graves, it is not enough. There is a Chinese idiom called “叶落归根”, literally means “the fallen leaves always return to the root”, the metaphoric meaning is “travelers always return to their hometown at last”. If a Chinese dies outside, his body will be carried to his hometown and buried. However, it was very difficult for an immigrant to carry the body back to China. Therefore, their nostalgia would last to their death.
The ship in the middle carries a video. Sentences like “Made in China”, “Made in Japan”, “Made in Korea” form waves and national flags, meaning Asian commodities are sold to North America countries. Then Chinese music and western music combine with each other. At the end of the video, a group of people is sitting in the space, the earth is outside the window. The background music becomes something like electromagnetic interference wave in the space.
The ship on the right side carries a poem about “mouthless anger”.
We all know “Chinglish”, but do you know “Engliese”? It is true that once you stay abroad for too long, you carry weird accents or foreign words when you speak your mother language. (My Chinese classmates always say “presentation” instead of Chinese. We do not know the proper translation in Chinese.)
Everywhere and Nowhere
This part is a combination of Taoism and Buddhism. In the middle is a taiji figure. Click it and then you will watch a video. At first, the video shows the eye of an old man. Finally, it becomes the eye of a baby. Chinese believe that humans have spirits. Their spirits can reincarnate. After one dies, he/she will cross a bridge in the underworld and drink Five Flavored Tea of Forgetfulness so that he/she will forget everything. Once one is reborn, he/she will not remember his/her former life and will live as a new person.
Back to the Canada page, there is a corresponding part.
Chinese worship ancestors and pray for help from their spirits. But what happens when their ancestors are reborn as new babies who have forgotten everything?
What happens if their ancestors immigrated and never returned to their hometown?
Something to say at the end…
High Muck a Muck is an impressive work. It contains strong emotions and compelling facts. It is a work written for all Chinese immigrants around the world. It evokes both love for homeland and nostalgia. China is not only a geographic place, but also culture and memories. China is so far away on the other side of the Pacific Ocean; China is so close in the bottom of our hearts.