Lessons in Cantonese Slang


Lesson 1: Sun Hun- Body Itchy
I am restless and impatient
like the child who is sun hun
desiring to be naughty
Meaning: body itchy
For happenings to happen
I want you to graze on my skin
ever so slightly
moistening every inch
exasperating my body itch

Lesson 2: Dzum Gwoh Hahm Seui- Soaked in salt water
Under duress
You crossed the narrow stretch of ocean
carrying my father on your back
wrapped tight against you
a large toddler who’d rarely encountered sea
his feet irritably kicked your bruising hips
soaking up salt water
the young mind imbibing lived experience

Lesson 3: Foh Gayng- Fire neck
Anger is said to be revealed in the neck
where the voice throttles
and arteries bulge
the reddening of taught skin
encasing mounting fury
Aptly described as foh gayng (meaning: fire neck)
Basically ‘really pissed off’

Lesson 4: Fut Hau Sei Sum – Buddha’s mouth snake’s heart
Fut hau sei sum
signifies buddha’s mouth, snake’s heart
Encapsulating this situation perfectly
I am listening to you bah lee bah lah
endlessly of your rabid interest and work
with migrants and refugees
somehow you talked for the entire meeting
without wondering the reason why
I didn’t say a single word

Lesson 5: Mau do fou- Grinding tofu
Meticulously, attentively
sliding against…then apart
through our delicious mess
I fantasize how outrageously slimy
our final product can get
Grinding tofu!











Finding time for creative expression – interview with Loretta Miauw

The first time I saw Loretta perform was at a Melbourne Fringe Festival show a few years ago with the anti-racist, queer, feminist cabaret troupe she co-founded called the Ladies of Colour Agency (LOCA). In one skit, she played a seductive but dangerous character in a tight leather outfit.  She’s a dominatrix disciplining the misbehaved racist anthropologist John Thompson who wrote a book Illustrations of China and its People (1873-4) which depicted the “barbarity” and “moral laxity” of the “yellow race”.  Thompson was the bust of a doll tied to a chair in her dragon lair.  In revenge for his racist attitudes, she rubbed wasabi into his eyes, smeared soy sauce on his face and stabbed incense sticks into his head, and she ended the skit sinisterly by ripping off his head.  I invited Loretta to submit a text of this performance piece for Peril’s “Food” Peril # 11 “Torturing John Thompson – an evening’s entertainment at the dragon lair” because I loved how she engaged critically with Thompson’s racism through a comedic skit – by using typically “Asian foods” as objects of torture and revenge.

Nowadays, it’s hard to catch Loretta because she works full-time and volunteers for a variety of arts and social justice projects.  However, I’m really happy that she did email through a contribution and took some time out to answer my questions.  I wonder about her creative expression, to which Loretta replies:

“I like auto-biographical, slightly absurdist performance.  I think of stand -up comedy like Margaret Cho’s work, Slanty-eyed Mama, poetry from slam poet traditions. Inspiration comes from the people around me, I feel really lucky at this time of my life I am finding more and more so a sense of community with people of colour in Melbourne.”

While Loretta uses comedy and burlesque to subvert stereotypes and racist attitudes about Asian-heritage people, the question of her own identity and how she identifies with it is quite complex.

“This is a question I have struggled with quite a bit over the years, not necessarily in the professional/poetic space, but in my personal life. At this time of my life I feel my relationship with my heritage is quite ambivalent. That’s come about from my experience of growing up in Australia and often perceived as an outsider both in the dominant culture as well as the Cantonese community here in Melbourne.  One of the things that have come from this experience has been the learning that oppression, especially that of racial oppression is an effective strategy in isolating and dividing communities; has communities police their own borders of membership and belonging.  I guess some of this plays out in my work; to be honest I haven’t thought about it so deeply, but I would say it has inspired me to make art that opens up spaces, that questions static understandings of identity.”

Poetry was something that Loretta didn’t feel very connected to when she learnt it at high school.  “The language was so impenetrable. I wasn’t interested in studying some poet for years before I could read their poems!”, says Loretta.  However,  the poetry that spoke to her was not from the page, but from performance.

“When I was introduced to slam poetry my mind and body was elated, I was hearing and experiencing so much from  these words and messages poets were sharing.  It occurred to me that spoken word could be such a powerful medium to express many of the frustrations I was experiencing in my life. The context behind all this was that at the time I was involved with student politics, but hugely dissatisfied. There wasn’t really a space to discuss anti-racism and the way different oppressions intersected and affected people.”

For the Peril Map, Loretta has contributed, “Lessons in Cantonese Slang”, which she has performed publicly a few times.  In the poem, Loretta acts as translator, playing with the cheeky and bawdy meanings.  I love how Cantonese and English are interwoven, enabling a bicultural-speaking voice, however, as she explains below, the use of slang can be a double-edged sword.

“’Lessons in Cantonese Slang’ was immensely fun to write and perform. I wanted to create a poem that made a space for me to reclaim and reinterpret Cantonese slang in the ways it could interplay with my own life experience.  I think slang is a really interesting signifier of belonging and sense of identity with a group.  On the flip side, it can be destructive and negative for a lot of people who are on the receiving end of harmful language. So I wanted to investigate how I could use Cantonese slang in an empowering way…I think humour really helps to communicate this too.”

When I asked her where she would pin her work or biography, Loretta chooses to pin the work to a Chinese restaurant.  “I don’t want this to be an ad, but Taipan restaurant in Doncaster east. That’s where I learnt a lot of the slang I know,” she says.

Nowadays, despite working full-time and joking about procrastination, Loretta still makes time to pursue her artistic and creative interests, which are also inextricably interwoven with her sense of social justice.  She’s currently working on a theatre/storytelling project called ReDefiant with RISE, Australia’s first not-for-profit refugee and asylum seeker welfare and advocacy organization run by refugees, asylum seekers, and ex-detainees.  The group is hoping to put some show on this year with the Melbourne Fringe Festival.  Besides that she is also one of the team of broadcasters on 3CR 855AM’s queer show – Queering the Air which airs Sunday afternoons.  Together with Lia Incognita, she was one of the presenters and interviewers on their  “Gaysia” special which focussed on LGBTIQ Asia and its connections with queer communities in Australia.

Privately in her spare time, Loretta is having fun delving deeper into the world of radio through an exploration of words and sounds –  “a radio play my housemate and I have started called Lyn’s Adventures into the Electronic Unconscious.”

~ Interviewed by Lian Low

Author: Loretta Miauw

Loretta Miauw is a Melbourne based performance artist working in the mediums of spoken word, comedy and anti-oppressive burlesque. She helped to co-found the Ladies of Colour Agency (LOCA) which has seen her perform at the Melbourne Fringe Festival (2009), Adelaide Fringe Festival (2009), Hot Brown Bitch Burlesque (2012) and most recently at the Famous Speigeltent (2012) in the Shanghai Club. As part of LOCA, Loretta has presented workshops and spoken on the panel for ' Critical young artist's practice' at CMY's pARTicipation Forum (2012). Since 2012, Loretta has also been a presenter on 3CR's Queering the Air, critically exploring body politics, race, and sexuality in our day to day lives. Currently Loretta is engaged in a forum theatre/storytelling exchange through RISE (Refugee Survivors and Ex-Detainees) organisation's 'Redefiant' theatre project.

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