Canada is a big country, a very big country. It would be easy for a small girl to get lost in it. Vancouver's Hu Yen Li has been finding a way through the redwoods with her salty verses.
Her poetry weaves her neighbourhood, experiences, and history into a slinky dress that she sets of with a bulky pair of Nikes. The presence and rub of the old and new, punk rock and traditional Chinese values are the label of a Yen Li poem. Her works, such as 'Why I Won't Eat Chinese Food in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan' and 'Slapshot' are vibrant, piquant slices of a live lived in a jumble of who you are mixing it with who you want to be.
Q: How did you start to write Poetry?
A: I work in a mah jong school. It's my uncle's place. I deal tiles all day to old folks and gamblers. It's pretty boring to be honest. I read a lot and some of the old people started to bring in things for me to read to them. Li Po is always popular. From there I started to write myself.
Q: Being Chinese is often at the heart of your writing ...
A: Wherever I am, I am Chinese. My heart, thoughts, and the forms of those thoughts are all inside me. Culture is inherited; we carry it inside of ourselves. There've been Chinese families in Canada for a long, long now. Vancouver is 50% Chinese even. The world changes for everyone, that's constant. I am lucky that I can go to see punk rock bands, ice hockey, get drunk in the Marble Arch, and still have a 5000 year culture to embrace me.
Q: Some of your work, like 'Moose Jaw', seems to be about the tensions ...
A: Ha ha, that's just a true story. I went to the bathroom and on the way back some Joe Diddley wanted me to get him noodles. The only people I feel weird about being Chinese with are poetry people really. People in bars, everyday people, they either like you or they don't. No big deal. In poetry I get annoyed at being 'the cute Chinese girl'. That's not me, it's like boys who hit on you. It's not you they see; it's what they want you to be in their own heads. You know, that China doll thing. My poem 'Heavenly' is about that. White people get drawn to my 'otherness' then it freaks them out when I'm not like them. Q: One of the best known Chinese poets in English is Evelyn Lau, also from Vancouver. Do you get compared to her?
A: Poor Evelyn. I love her work, 'You Are Not Who You Claim' I waited weeks for that book. Of course, most Canadian kids see 'Runaway' too, it was televised. She's always moaning though. She's had a much harder life than I have. Evelyn uses English much better than me. I write in English because I'm trying to make sense of the culture but most of my writing has all of Li Po's drinking behind it!
Q: Which writers float your boat?
A: Li Po, "Peach petals float their streams away in secret, To other skies and earths than those of mortals." I love that, that's from a poem celebrating imagination. Imagination, an internal thing, you see? I love Wu Ch'eng-En, 'Monkey' has all of humanity in it. Shen Fu I like, and Lao Tzu of course. Lots of classical works. I love Frances Chung. She wrote in English, and in Spanish too. She was a writer from New York City's Chinatown. That 'same but different' thing again. Beth Lisick is always fun to read, and I can't get enough of Cheryl B. I'm in Rising magazine lots and I always enjoy her writing. There's a lot of love there. Annie Proulx is a real treasure too; she writes with a pen dipped in heart blood.
Q: Punk rears its head in several of your poems, and you've read at several festivals, yet seem quite disparaging of it.
A: Punk rock's so funny. You've got all these molly-coddled kids spitting in the faces of their parents. Grenville Street (in Vancouver) is full of these losers. You can only get something like punk from an affluent liberal society. Can you imagine something like punk rock during the Cultural Revolution in China? I imagine the Red Guards would have had something to say to all these layabout punk rockers. Punks claim to be 'alternative' but it's a joke. They're nothing without 'daddy' society holding their hand. I like some of the music, it's loud and offensive, that's a good thing for young people. But these punk rockers! They're obsessed with advertising! They whine on and on about anti-capitalism but they're like walking billboards advertising their fag bands and lame brain politics. I don't need to have the name of some dick weed band slapped across my chest to establish my personality. I am Yen Li, I'm happy with that. Really it's just music for well to do kids whose parents spoilt them.
Q: You do dress too kind of sassy to be a punk.
A: You're damn tooting. Working people, they like to look good. It's always well off kids who dress down, you know, like students. I wear a cheongsam most times at work, they're pretty cool, they drive men crazy. I like that whole Anna May Wong style. I couldn't look like one of those scruffs, oh the shame of it!
Q: So how'd you get to do these punk shows?
A: I've not done any for a while, and probably won't get asked again after this! It's just that punk rockers are so desperate to be liberal. They think 'cos I'm a Chinese girl I'll agree with them. I'm a clean girl; I've got more in common with someone who works for a living and washes. I did a few shows in BC and around Seattle. They were fun. I have a strange fascination with the whole thing to be honest. I like the Beltones, the Reducers SF, and some of those tougher bands, the 4 Skins from England, that kind of thing. It's the 'otherness', you see?
Q: So how does your poetry go down at these events?
A: Well, 'Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan' always goes down well. People like that poem, I don't know why. Apparently it says something 'about changing relations in Canada today' but really it's just a throwaway poem. It's funny, the punk rock guys in my poems, they're losers. I get guys after shows identifying with me! "Oh yeah, that guy was a jerk", "Let me show you a real punk guy" blah bla blah, but every punk guy I've met is the same loser with the same Flogging Molly asswipe.
Q: Is there much girl on girl action in poetry?
A: I don't wear that stripe of pyjama. Lots of the teen slammers hear some lesbian record and get into that whole thing. But like their poetry it's essentially dishonest. There wear their sexuality like a t-shirt. Their 'sexuality' becomes something to cause a rumpus rather than part of who they are. There're a lot of unnecessarily hirsute girls in the coffee shops. There're really good lesbian writers, like all good writers they're the human ones, ones with a real personality.
Q: What's next for you?
A: I'm currently putting a collection of my poetry together, tentatively called 'Chinese Rocks'. But a date with Chow Yun Fat would be nice ...
APE Magazine, London.