Houhai by Jennifer Wong

By Wasafiri Editor on March 16, 2021 in Poetry


If you ask me about water, this is the water I think about. The glow of myriad colours on the lake at night. Rickshaw drivers practising their English consonants and vowels with tourists as they pedal past the hutongs, earning five yuan each time—not even a pound.

When Kublai Khan first arrived in Beijing, they called this lake hai—sea—for they have lived all their lives in the desert, and would not have seen much of a sea.

A mesmerising stretch of water from Di An Men all the way to Xin Jiekou and Pingan Dajie. And the palace, so far away.

From there you can see Prince Chun Mansion where the father of Emperor Puyi was born.

Its season of lotus flowers and pristine snow.

The smell of Xinjiang style lamb skewers and pork belly, cooked halal tripe, fried sausages, the bicycle bells, the songs from the bars.

And the workers: their tanned faces and broad shoulders. Students who frequent here after their classes. Couples who fall in love.

Those who come here out of a nameless sorrow, who cannot speak, and long to be healed by the sea.

And the photo we took at Silver Ingot Bridge.

What has become of this country?

The dust, even the dust, seems affectionate.

And if someone were to whisper to me, Shíchàhǎi, I can feel the restless breeze of history rippling again in the air.


Watch Jennifer Wong read her poem “Houhai” on our YouTube channel: 

Jennifer Wong was born and grew up in Hong Kong and is the author of several collections including Goldfish (Chameleon Press) and a pamphlet, Diary of a Miu Miu Salesgirl (Bitter Melon Poetry 2019). Her latest collection, 回家Letters Home (Nine Arches Press 2020) – which explores the complexities of history, migration and translation – has been named the PBS Wild Card Choice by Poetry Book Society. She studied in Oxford and has earned a creative writing PhD from Oxford Brookes University where she teaches as Associate Lecturer. Her poems have appeared in World Literature Today, Oxford Poetry, The Rialto, Magma Poetryand others. She also teaches at Poetry School. Her reviews and translations have appeared in a number of magazines including Poetry Review, Poetry London, PN Review and Asian Review of Books.

Photo by zhang kaiyv on Unsplash