Two Poems

by  Eddie Tay
A hand-lettered sign in Chinese with English words that read “To Yuen Long / Please Ring Bell”
Press Doorbell Please. PHOTO: Eddie Tay

How I Impress Others with My Cantonese

At a dim sum restaurant
you’ll need to ask for la jiu jeong (chili sauce),
la jiu yeow (chili oil), or dao ban jeong (bean paste sauce)
depending on your preference.

Try not to use Cantonese
after saying hi
if you’re paranoid and unsure
because that’s a rude word
in Cantonese.

Siu mei is not siu mai.

San fu (priest),
san fu (new pants),
san fu (uncomfortable/difficult).

If you’re not sure just
ask for har gow, siu mai,
and char siu bao
and certainly not phoenix claws
unless you like unmanicured chicken feet
(which I do, actually).

I’m usually given a Chinese menu
because I’m visibly Chinese,
because I speak Mandarin
(though it’s called Putonghua in Hong Kong)
better than Cantonese
I may be mistaken for a mainland Chinese person
but because I took Chinese as a second language
in school and scraped by to get into university,
I can barely recognize the traditional Chinese characters
because in Singapore we use the simplified script.

It’s too complicated to explain all these
to the confused/irritated waiter in Cantonese or Putonghua
so I usually go with har gow, siu mai, and char siu bao.

Siu mei is not siu mai.

San fu (priest),
san fu (new pants),
san fu (uncomfortable/difficult).



I remember spring onions 
and a colleague from Hampshire 
who was strictly vegetarian 
till he came to Hong Kong 
and smelled char siu and siu yuk on my rice. 

I remember there were times 
I can’t be bothered 
and simply told the waiter 
I’ll have what my son was having. 

I remember an all-day breakfast 
on a Monday evening in an Irish pub 
at Tsim Sha Tsui with a friend who’s 
chasing the bacon, sausages 
and potatoes around on his plate, 
worried about his job at a bank. 

I remember at a generic mall in a generic restaurant 
my impatience and sighs when my son, daughter, 
wife, and mother-in-law took too long to decide, 
whether to go à la carte or have shared dishes with rice, 
and if it’s shared dishes whether to go with double-cooked pork 
not too spicy with less salt or chicken with pine nuts 
plus a vegetable dish or actually 
there’s no need to have a vegetable dish 
since the meat dishes come with vegetables 
plus a few dim sum items or maybe 
we should go à la carte after all, 
with my son choosing wonton noodles, 
my daughter wanting shredded chicken noodles 
my wife saying she’ll have double-cooked pork 
and chicken with pine nuts and a bowl of rice to share with me 
and my mother-in-law wanting just a basket of siu long bao. 

I remember how we could never go wrong with food 
in Hong Kong, till it was whispered that lunch 
the other day was really an interview. 

I remember a dinner with some Guinness 
at that above-mentioned Irish pub 
with a new colleague 
who was trying to be polite. 

And an extra sneaky Guinness 
and having to wait an hour before I leave 
simply because there were hardworking policemen 
pointing their speed guns on Friday evenings. 

Eddie Tay is a street photographer and poet. He teaches in the Department of English, Chinese University of Hong Kong. He has written four volumes of poetry. His recent book, Anything You Can Get Away With: Creative Practices, plays with the language of poetry, street photography, and creative-writing scholarship.