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March 20, 2010

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Poet of mixed race and hybrids

FRED Wah -- who is one-quarter Chinese -- grew up in Canada surrounded by a lot of Chinese men, without any Chinese women, until he was in his teens.

The 71-year-old poet, whose father is half Chinese, attributes much of his interest in the nature of hybrids and cultural differences to his mixed race and background. He learned some Cantonese when he was little, but doesn't speak much anymore.

Wah is attending the Shanghai International Literary Festival and will give a speech today, "Messing Around with Mister In-Between." He was invited by the Canadian Consulate General in Shanghai.

This is Wah's fourth trip to China and he has been surprised by the rapid development each time. He first visited in 1981 to discover where his father grew up. He visited again 15 years later in 1996 as an artist. His third visit was last year to attend an international poetry festival in Qinghai Province.

Wah's second visit in 1996 was especially interesting. At that time he was one of six artists sponsored by the Canadian government to conduct projects in China. He was also the only writer.

"During that time, Chinese poets and poems were framed as 'revolutionary' in North America. Most translations of contemporary Chinese poems were in that context too," recalls Wah. "I didn't believe it because my other Chinese friends in Canada told me it was not true. I wanted to find out how it really was."

He interviewed a dozen of contemporary Chinese poets in Beijing, and Nanjing and Suzhou in Jiangsu Province, and other places. Wah found them "rather conventional," in contrast to the stereotypical image at the time.

Wah has documented his interviews and findings in his book of criticism, "Faking It: Poetics and Hybridity" (2000).

Huang Fan, one of the poets Wah interviewed, also translated Wah's poems into Chinese for publication in a Chinese literature magazine.

Wah's paternal grandfather was one of the Chinese railroad workers who went to Canada in the early 20th century. He had to leave his Chinese family behind since Chinese women were not allowed into Canada at the time.

The man got married again in Canada like many of his Chinese peers, but Wah's half-blood father was sent back to the grandfather's Chinese wife's family when he was four years old. He was then raised in Guangdong Province in the 1920s and 1930s. The small landlord Chinese family needed a son to work and inherit the household and the land. In his 20s, he returned to Canada without knowing any English.

"It was hard for my father. He had a difficult time in China because he was half white. And when he came back to Canada, he couldn't fit in right away because he was half Chinese," recalls Wah.

The retired English literature and linguistics professor considers this background a big reason behind his own interest in poetry over music. Wah studied music and played the trumpet in university in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

"I was interested in the new wave at the time and the possibility of writing something different, and I chose poetry over music because it was more accessible. And you can finish a poem by yourself," says Wah.

Wah says he is much more concerned with the sound and rhythm of poems than the literal meaning. He will read selections from several of his books of poetry and prose at the talk today.

Date: Today, 3pm

Address: Glamour Bar, M on the Bund, 6/F, 20 Guangdong Rd

Tel: 6329-3751


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