White Rabbit candies (大白兔奶糖), hawthorn slices (山楂片), literary readings and Guzheng tunes – the Uncommon Feast in Ashfield Town Hall, Sydney churned out some serious Lunar New Year vibes to welcome the Year of Dog. Here, the festive meets the poetic. It is a banquet of love for writing and a celebration of commonalities and differences with a very diverse crowd.
The event opened with Eugenia Teng’s beautiful Gu Zheng performance: Liu Yang River and Ying Chun. Moderator and one of the event’s key masterminds, Sheila Ngoc Pham, greeted the audience in four different languages, marking the inclusiveness of the event.
The audience was spurred into a night of discussion on cultural identity, heritage and historical complexities, and how these all impact the tradition of writing. The stellar line-up of the Uncommon Feast included celebrated Asian-Australian writers Lachlan Brown, Wai Chim, Eileen Chong and Isabelle Li.
Creating the uncommon
The idea of the Uncommon Feast was conceived from a Facebook post by Eileen in response to an article about an Asian-fusion restaurant, which promised to string up fairy lights so as to look like “the real Asia”. The restaurant was determined to be “50% Vietnamese, 50% other Asian street food.” Discussions between Eileen and Sheila soon became a project to showcase what a ‘real Asia’ might actually look like. “So here we are,” Eileen said candidly on the evening, gathering instant laughter “ in case you haven’t noticed – we are all Asians.”
Following her Cantonese Lunar New Year greetings, Wai Chim read an excerpt from Freedom Swimmer, a novel inspired by her father’s experience in escaping China’s Great Leap Forward – a traumatic period in Chinese history, which still touches a nerve in the national psyche.
Isabelle Li, on the other hand, cast her gaze through a contemporary prism by discussing her short story collection, A Chinese Affair, which depicts the lives of new Chinese migrants:
“Despite their apparent freedom, the migrant characters are bound by the inevitable strings of their personal history, and they are constantly torn between patriotic commitment, filial piety and their choice to remain abroad.”
Lachlan came to the podium next, wearing a shirt with the text “read” – his wry take on the red dress code red for the Lunar New Year. He started by reading ‘A Capable Range of Answers’, a poem that linked right back to Ashfield.
Although he spoke of being overwhelmed by the marinated meat in ice-cream tubs and the sheer number of rice cookers in the household, Lachlan spoke tenderly about his grandmother’s hoarding routines. He considered his most recent poetry collection, Lunar Inheritance, as a meditation on hoarding, as well as being about memory and his sense of Chineseness as a poet of Chinese and Anglo-Australian background.
The last to come to the stage, Eileen then recapped her experience of being the only Asian person present at the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards with humour. The excerpt she read from her essay ‘The Common Table’, published in Meanjin, vividly captured the intimate relationship between food and family, and how this inspired her as a poet. As part of The Uncommon Feast, Eileen also launched her latest book of recipes, poetry, and essays under the same name, which included Eileen’s mother’s recipe for Hainanese chicken rice.
It was refreshing to see such an event hosted by Asian-Australians, for Asian-Australians, and reaffirming to hear such powerful voices pave the way for such events in the future. And who can resist an evening of xiao long bao and good literature? It is a killer combo.
You can access the live tweets of the event from the link below, thanks to Wendy Chen tweeting on behalf of Pencilled In.