Canton, 1836

by Gord Sellar

John Dewey, arriving in Canton after a long stay in North China, noted with some surprise the cultural contrast and a temperamental similarity to the Latin peoples.
— Jen Yu-wen, The Taiping Revolutionary Movement

The esplanade is the most exotic region
in the city. You can find there strange peoples:
Dutch, English, French, black Indiamen, Manilamen,
even Italians . . . though of course they are all just fan kuei.
Some Cantonese come here just to watch the foreigners.

It looks as if all the trees in Guangdong
were hacked down to make these ramshackle stands
from which small, singularly ambitious men
hawk silks, and soy, and sweet cakes, soup and meat
and offers, dark and splendid, constantly circulating
in their yells, but only at the white men, in their pidgin.
Nobody from Canton would want to bring
a nonsensical dead chicken home to eat.

Pidgin: business. Pidginess. This city is full
of pidgin: war-pidgin, lof-pidgin (of countless girls),
joss-pidgin (for joss is deus, their foreign God);
chin-chin when you gather in ten and talk,
and everyone wants to be your numba one
olo flen, when the goodee chop come.

Fortunes! Prophecies? They cost you only silver,
if you go on that way, yes, just down this aisle.
Past the Taoist quacks and the Buddhist priests,
and a proud catcher of rats, his victims strung
to bamboo poles, dangling massive vermin,
warrior crickets, smiling maids with bright silks
tying their hair back — Portugese-styled working girls —
tinkers meddling with the delicate guts of locks,
cages of birds, for admiration or the table,
and drab old wrinkly hens — widows — with needles
ready to darn your every little tear.

Everything in Canton seems to be for sale.

In some of the shops, you can find things
that even smell like another country:
strange pictures sketched too full, too colorful,
not the twig-and-branch-lined work of local artists,
framed in wood. Battle scenes filled with white men’s
blood, surprisingly crimson as any Han’s.

The foreigners puzzle, marvel constantly
at quotidian things, ceaselessly amazing:
a dead baby girl abandoned in the street —
nearby two rag-clothed girls hand in hand,
clutching wooden begging bowls, giggle together,
walk with white-hazed, sightless eyes that defy
the city to harm them, their laughter itself a ward;
in the undergrowth of their filthy scalps, hidden
lice engage in secret, gentle crucial maneuvers,
as if it were they who were the city’s linguists,
bridging the gap between locals and the outsiders,
delivering secret their messages quietly,
like opium-smugglers moving through the night.

June 12, 2012

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