May Huang reviews a celebrated debut collection of poetry by the Hong Kong writer Mary Jean Chan.
Mary Jean Chan, Flèche (Faber & Faber), 78pp.
The word “flèche,” after which Mary Jean Chan’s debut poetry collection takes its name, contains multitudes: the “flèche” is an offensive technique used to surprise an opponent in fencing, a sport that Chan competed in as a teenager living in Hong Kong. As a duel between two opponents, fencing is a particularly apt metaphor for the clashing beliefs and languages in Chan’s book. “Flèche” also evokes desire and kinship (one’s “flesh and blood”): two central themes in Chan’s writing about her sexuality, her relationship with her mother and how her and her mother’s narratives are intertwined. In other words, Chan has picked a perfect title, one that is as expansive and evocative as the poems that it encompasses.
An essay that I wrote for the Asymptote blog went viral on Twitter yesterday, gaining over 1.4K retweets and 1.5k likes. Nothing I’ve ever written has elicited such a strong response before, so I’m still processing it all! It’s been especially heartwarming for me to see that the folks responding to the piece on Twitter are largely Hongkongers—the community I am translating for. It means so much to me that my work as a translator touched real people. As a writer, you hope that your work will have an afterlife beyond the relationship you have with it; that it will reach people and move them in some way. The two poems in my essay, written by Hong Kong poet Chung Kwok-keung, were written about the protests currently happening in Hong Kong. I have been sitting on these translations for months and thinking about how to present them (or if I even should). After going back to Hong Kong this December and having the opportunity to meet Chung for the first time, I felt like I was able to understand my role as a Hongkonger and translator in a more defined way. I wanted to get these poems out into the world to show people how remarkably creative Hong Kong poetry, specifically Chung’s poetry, is—and to show them that this creativity is connected to the vivacity of the city’s language and people. I’ve included my full essay below; you can also read it on the Asymptote blog!
On June 9, 2019, more than 1 million people took to the streets to protest an extradition bill proposed by the Hong Kong government. If passed, the bill would make it legal for Hong Kong citizens to be extradited to Mainland China and tried under Chinese law—a legal system that not only threatens Hong Kong’s rule of law, but is also known for repeated human rights violations. Given China’s steady encroachment on Hong Kong since 1997, the “one country, two systems” policy that guarantees Hong Kong’s autonomy until 2047 is undeniably in jeopardy. The city’s concern over its future continually manifests in its local discourse, protests, and literature.
Although I grew up in Hong Kong, my interest in translating Hong Kong literature blossomed in Chicago, where I was studying English. Reading the work of Hong Kong writers allowed me to see my home city in a new light. One of the first Hong Kong poets I came across was Chung Kwok-keung, who writes about Hong Kong people, places, and politics with an attentive and empathetic gaze. In December 2014, he wrote a suite of poems (two of which were translated by Emily Jones and Sophie Smith for Asymptote) titled “Occupy Stories” about the Umbrella Movement—previously the biggest protests in Hong Kong in recent years. Now, with protests taking place again in the city, Chung is writing with an eye towards how the anti-extradition movement has shaped society.
I was not in Hong Kong when the protests began, so Chung’s poems became a unique way for me to connect with what was happening back home aside from relying on family, news, and social media. Since June, I have translated a number of his poems about the protests into English; two in particular, “When Yuen Long’s Main Road has lost its refuge islands” and “Beneviolent Force,” are strong examples that demonstrate how Hong Kong poetry reflects the city’s protests.
In his poem “When Yuen Long’s Main Road has lost its refuge islands,” Chung maps out key sites of conflict during the 2019 Yuen Long attack, an incident that shocked Hong Kong: on July 21, a mob dressed in white attacked protesters and civilians in Yuen Long. The “Main Road” that appears in the title of Chung’s poem is what locals call the Yuen Long section of Hong Kong’s longest road, “Castle Peak Road.” “Refuge islands” are raised platforms placed in the middle of roads to facilitate pedestrian crossing. As Chung explained to me, these refuge islands have been gone since the 1980s. In this way, the notion of safe passage on Hong Kong’s longest road (perhaps even preceding the road from 1997 to 2047) has long been in question. The physical identity of the city is analogous to its political reality.
When Yuen Long’s Main Road has lost its refuge islands
When Peace Road is no longer peaceful When Teaching Road teaches us nothing Thin streets use a broad power To teach police batons, shields, vanished warrant cards How to stand up like people Rotten to the point where Winning Way shuts its door All that could be sold out has been sold out clean What is left in Forever Fragrant When tear gas bullets, rubber bullets, sponge bullets Bloom on the chests and heads of reporters When the officials crawl into their shells When the elderly are at the frontlines When the West Rail Line’s lobbies are welcome Wonderlands for Village dogs and the Raptors True Luck Street feels too long Blood is not so close to freedom Happy Together Street is for the police’s PR speeches White shirts prefer dark nights Flashes don’t come from stray fireflies Now blood enters our vision Heads become specks When Yuen Long’s Main Road has long lost refuge islands
The poem is structured around actual roads in Yuen Long, the official English names of which are transliterations; for instance, 安寧路 is transliterated as “On Ning Road,” while 教育路 is “Kau Yuk Road.” However, the sonic doubling and wordplay in Chung’s poem would not be evident to an English speaker if they did not know what the road names signify: 安寧 means “peace,” and 教育 means “education/teaching.” As such, local street names take on a new life in translation (if you type “Peace Road” into Google Maps, you won’t find the actual street). For similar reasons, I also translated the names of the two iconic bakeries mentioned in the poem, Wing Wah (“Winning Way”) and Hang Heung (“Forever Fragrant”), even though their transliterated names are commonly used in Hong Kong. I was not able to exactly replicate the effect of all of Chung’s wordplay, however; for instance, the line “True Luck Street feels too long” is striking in the original because “True Luck Street” (泰祥 “tai cheung”) and “too long” (太長 “tai cheung”) are homonyms. Multiple puns in the poem reveal a city in crisis, posing the question: what does one do when familiar places no longer live up to their name?
In her essay “The Poetics of Dislocation in Natalia Chan’s Poetry,” the scholar Esther M.K. Cheung argues that “the inclusion of general names and proper names is instrumental in giving verisimilitude to literary texts and establishing a cultural and historic setting…. Chan’s poems typify the close relationship between place-writing and place-naming in an urban context.” Both Chan (better known as “Lok Fung”) and Chung’s place-naming show us that the topography of the city reflects its times. In encountering their work, we are invited to read the city by walking the poem—which one may even do literally by mapping out the poems’ various locations:
Chung’s use of wordplay is even starker in the poem “Beneviolent Force,” in which he alludes to slang words that have taken root since the protests started. The title of the poem, 克警, is a nickname that Hongkongers have given to the Hong Kong Police Force (HKPF). 克 stands for 克制容忍, a phrase that police use to describe themselves; it means to exercise restraint, to be tolerant. At a time when police violence has been so visible in Hong Kong, it is of course deeply ironic that the police would call themselves tolerant or self-aware. 克警 is a homonym of 黑警, which literally translates to “black police,” what we would call a “bad cop” or “dirty cop” in English. I wanted to come up with a similarly oxymoronic title: thus, “Beneviolent Force” (a pun on “benevolent force”).
Beneviolent Force 1 How gentle And wistful Is the brave man: Reporter my ass, motherfucker
2 All crows are the same shade of Bumping heads ‘til you’re blue and Tracing a darker and darker
3 The dogs have also come out To break ties with those animals
4 Don’t wave your nightstick around Even if you don’t show it We can all see Your withering cards
5 Officers buried in the Gallant Blossoms: Oblivious to the Han Dynasty Let alone the Yi Jin
多溫柔 念舊的 男子漢： 記你老母
天下烏鴉一般 頭頭碰著 越描越
別亂揮警棍了 即使不出示 我們都看見 你的萎荏症
浩園記： 乃不知有漢 無論魏晉
What is striking about “Beneviolent Force” is the way in which it upends our understanding of commonplace phrases. Stanza 1 ends with 記你老母, a derivation of the common Cantonese curse 屌你老母 (“fuck your mom”). 記你老母 went viral when a cop used it against a man who said he was a reporter (記者); the police didn’t believe him and fired back with the curse. In stanza 2 of the poem, which was one of the most challenging parts to translate, the word “black” (黑) is removed from three idioms: 天下烏鴉一般黑 (“every crow under the sky is the same shade of black”), 頭頭碰著黑 (literally “heads bumping into black,” i.e. always running into bad luck), and 越描越黑 (“the more one traces, the blacker the picture becomes”). By absenting the final, crucial word “黑” from the poem, the poem perhaps mimics what the police themselves are doing: removing mentions of their corruption from the narrative. In Stanza 4, 萎荏症 (literally “flaccid/withering disease”) is a homonym of “warrant cards,” which the police have notoriously failed to show on multiple occasions. In Stanza 5, Chung alludes to “Gallant Gardens” (浩園), the cemetery where public officials (including the police) are buried in Hong Kong. 浩園 is phonetically similar to The Peach Blossom Spring (桃花源記), a classic Chinese tale about a secret utopia. The utopia’s villagers sought refuge in the Peach Blossom Spring during the Qin Dynasty and stayed there ever since, oblivious of the Han (漢) dynasty and the Wei and Jin Dynasties (魏晉). The police of the past who are now buried in Gallant Gardens are like the fable’s villagers—blissfully oblivious to the chaos reigning outside, wreaked by their fellow men. Moreover, 魏晉 is phonetically similar to “Yi Jin,” a term that has been used to denigrate police officers (the term derives from the Yi Jin Diploma programme, which is typically pursued by students who do not perform well academically).
Wordplay, and the act of translating it, is meant to be playful, and yet “Beneviolent Force” feels like a lament. Through language that subverts our preconceptions of familiar phrases, Chung shows how the city’s impression of the police has undergone significant change since the protests started. A once-trusting relationship has evolved into deep resentment and fear following demonstrations of police violence; indeed, one of Hong Kong protestors’ “Five Demands” is for there to be an independent inquiry into the HKPF.
What’s significant about both “When Yuen Long’s Main Road has lost its refuge islands” and “Beneviolent Force” is that their puns only exist when the poems are read in Cantonese. One would also have to know some of the slang used by protestors to recognize them in the poems—these words come straight from the streets into the lyric. Today, Hongkongers are inventing new words (journalist Mary Hui unpacks many of these phrases in this illuminating Quartz article) not only to express themselves, but also to survive. By communicating in a secret language, protesters have a better shot at evading police; by communicating in Cantonese, they keep Hong Kong’s local language alive.
As someone whose Cantonese is rusty and who was not in Hong Kong when the protests were at their peak, I did not have an easy time translating Chung’s poems. Understanding all the references involved doing research and communicating with Chung, whose feedback not only informed my understanding of translation, but also of Hong Kong. One of the main reasons I translate is to better understand the place I come from—and that process takes work. The discourse surrounding Hong Kong protests is complicated, as is the effort to translate it to different audiences.
Since the protests began, Hongkongers have taken up a famous quote by Bruce Lee as their motto: “Be water.” The full quote is as follows:
“Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water my friend.”
Aren’t translators also like water? Don’t our voices also adapt to fill the shape of whatever text we’re translating? Translation creates a powerful space for empathy, because you must write out another voice and adapt to it. You become like water, filling a cup and becoming the cup. When I translate a protest poem, I understand more about the real work of protest happening on the ground. So, perhaps it is because of the challenges posed by translation that I find it one of the most productive tools for facilitating understanding. Aside from translating Chung’s poetry, I also contribute to Hong Kong Columns (Translated), which translates local news articles that do not often receive mainstream English coverage. I’ve also translated for Lausan, a collective committed to “sharing decolonial left perspectives on Hong Kong.” Lausan welcomes translators working with multiple languages, and recently shared an article translated into Indonesian. If you are a translator or are interested in translation, you may find both productive platforms for engaging in Hong Kong politics. It is also important to keep an eye out for translations of Hong Kong voices on the protests, such as Andrea Lingenfelter’s recent translation of Hon Lai-chu’s essay “Hong Kong’s Sickness,” or Jacqueline Leung’s translation of Stuart Lau’s fiction in the Fall 2019 issue of Asymptote. The writer and translator Tammy Ho-Lai Ming has also been actively writing poetry about the protests since they began.
In a recent essay for Zihua Magazine, Chung wrote: “Poems should respond to their times. Poems should have humanity. I have always insisted upon this in my work.” The same can be said about translation, which is its own form of activism. Through shining a light on Hong Kong voices, I believe that advocates of Hong Kong literature can show the world that the city is worth fighting—and translating—for.
Blogging about Star Wars is somewhat of a tradition of mine; my previous blog was called “may-theforcebewithyou,” and I reviewed both The Force Awakens (2015) and Rogue One (2016) when they came out (I was on a blogging hiatus when The Last Jedi hit theatres). So, it only seems fitting that I say something about The Rise of Skywalker (henceforth Rise), the final (?) installment of the now 9-part Star Wars saga.
I grew up watching Star Wars, so my love for the saga is rooted in family, my childhood fondness for endearing droids, “the force,” never losing hope, etc., all the classic tropes for which the saga is known. And we like what is familiar and dear to us; the enduring power of Star Wars proves as much. Yet there were moments during the long-awaited Rise when I felt that the film’s evocation of the past, the familiar, and the nostalgic no longer hit the mark. None of the #throwbacks in Rise—Lando, Luke’s X-Wing, least of all Palpatine—really made me feel nostalgic. By dredging up the iconography of its past to define (or salvage) the present, Rise simultaneously advocates for a culture of reuse while flaunting conspicuous waste.
It might seem strange to apply a recycling metaphor to the Star Wars franchise, but let’s face it—the movies have always been about trash. I mean, literal junk. In Episode 4, the genesis of Star Wars, R2-D2 comes to Luke via the Jawas, who sell mechanical scraps. The Millenium Falcon is “a piece of junk.” Of course, there’s also the iconic trash compactor scene. But junk is valuable in the saga. The Falcon is precious. You can fix a broken ship using spare parts, janky as they are, and it’s often in the junkiest/jankiest places that you strike gold: Ochi’s ship on Rise, for example, is where Rey and co. find clues that help them get to where they need to go.
But when franchises like Star Wars start to rely on recycling past content, nostalgia begins to feel like a gimmick. Suddenly, the independent-scavenger mentality of finding value in scraps is replaced by the sameness of conveyer-belt manufacturing. Rise depends so heavily on its predecessors that it no longer feels “new.” Yes, the film introduced a number of new characters, the most memorable of which is Jannah, but in its darkest moments, Rise feels disposable.
What does Rise lose by resuscitating Palpatine and killing off all the main villains (I am not counting Kylo Ren as a villain here) of the first two sequels? It shows us that General Hux and Snoke (or at least, the idea of Snoke having a more interesting backstory) never mattered. Instead, there was a bigger villain lurking in the background and masterminding everything all this time. And frankly, the bigger villain is not Palpatine himself, but (and this is where I go off the rails a little bit) the Star Wars capitalist machine. When Palpatine faces Rey towards the end of the movie, he is almost hanging from a mechanical contraption that looks comically staged. Visually, it looks as if some twisted puppeteering is at work, and indeed it is: just as Snoke was Palpatine’s puppet, Palpatine is the Star Wars franchise’s puppet, dropped into the final film to tie together the saga’s strings. The fact that Palpatine’s dialogue very much resembles his lines from Revenge heightens his puppet-ness; he’s like a doll that repeats trademark lines when you push it. When he said “unnatural” and “do it,” I didn’t know whether to put my head in my hands or to laugh. (J.J. Abrams wrote/”rehashed” the dialogue for that scene, by the way; more on my beef with him later).
The irony of Rise is that the film, despite its “recycling” tactics, exposes the privilege (and wastefulness) of capitalist consumerism; you can afford to throw things away or be careless because you know you’ll be able to buy something similar later or even get it back. In some ways, modern technology has made us less afraid of losing things. But it’s also made us wasteful—wasteful of material objects and of ideas. Like, you can say that Rey’s parents were “nobody” in Episode 8 and then backtrack to say that she’s actually Palpatine’s granddaughter in Episode 9. Or, you can wipe C-3PO’s memory and then back it up later safely. It’s like accidentally deleting a photo and then finding it again in a file called “recently deleted” (I’ve done this). It’s like submitting a final draft of a paper via Google Docs and then going back to edit the document even after the deadline (I have not done this). Capitalism makes us apathetic.
Seeing Lando, Han, Luke, the X-Wing, Palpatine, and more in Rise didn’t always make me feel nostalgic; I felt exhausted. Don’t get me wrong; I think attention to history is vital, and I have boundless appreciation for the detail-oriented references in Rise. Show me a trick once, and it’s magic; but use it over and over, and it becomes a gimmick. As my former professor Sianne Ngai argues in her book Theory of the Gimmick, “gimmicks strike us as both working too little (e.g., as labor-saving “tricks”) but also as working too hard (overstrained efforts at getting our attention).” It’s a lot of effort to bring back a cast of old characters for Rise, but it’s also lazy. So many of the major turning points in this film occur because someone from the past makes it happen: Lando brings a massive fleet of rebels to fight the imperial fleet, Han’s memory-ghost has a moment with Ben, Luke stops Rey from chucking her lightsaber into the fire, Palpatine becomes the sequels’ new/old villain, etc. The rehashed lines from previous films, reused tropes, and revived characters feel like labor-saving devices that piece Rise together. This method of reusing and recycling does not promote sustainability; instead, it feels like regression. By having Rey be a Palpatine or a Skywalker, the film doesn’t allow the saga or its new characters to go anywhere new. We are stuck in the lineage of the past, forever lightspeed skipping between different allusions. Perhaps that’s just the fate of a film like Rise, which is tasked with the difficult job of bringing the whole saga to a close (for now). But I do think that Episodes 7-9 have given us the opportunity to see a different side of the galaxy in ways that are more nuanced and contemporary. I love that we get to see behind the mask of stormtroopers. I love that our understanding of the “force” changes with every movie, such as through the force bonding in The Last Jedi. I love that the protagonist is a strong, independent, and complex woman, played by the amazing Daisy Ridley. Episode 9 had the potential, maybe, to be a more daring movie.
But Star Wars is no longer just a movie. It’s a phenomenon. It’s a franchise. It’s Disney. It’s hierarchies of power. It’s a capitalist product that needs audience appeal to succeed (related: Scorsese recently wrote a controversial op-ed about Marvel’s capitalist tendencies). How do you watch a film and get lost in it when you know so much about its production and real-world context? It was difficult for me to watch Han Solo appear in the final movie while knowing that Harrison Ford probably did not want to be there. And it was weird to watch Carrie Fischer’s scenes knowing that Abrams had to build part of the plot around her leftover dialogue from previous movies. It’s also super upsetting to know that Abrams pulled nepotism cards to cast his pals in this film, at the expense of characters like Rose who got brutally sidelined, treated as disposable. Sadly, Palpatine puts it best: there’s something “unnatural” about Rise. The moments I loved most were the ones that felt the most human and original: like Finn (one of my favorite characters) slowly but surely realizing he is force-sensitive. Or Ben slamming his cheek on the Sith tomb and saying “ow.” Now would also be a good time to mention that I have a massive crush on Adam Driver, who brings such tenderness and humanity to Kylo Ren/Ben Solo. Which brings me to the #Reylo kiss, a big and controversial audience-appeal moment in the film. Some might loathe it. But Driver and Ridley are utterly convincing, and the sexual tension that has been building up between them since Episode 7 grows with every scene. At the end of the day, they are fighting the same enemy—Palpatine, the villain of the past who tries to feed off their dyad power, who symbolizes the ghost that haunts any film that follows successful predecessors.
Rise is many things; the end (for now) of a 9-episode saga, a gimmick, a love story, fan service, a box office hit, etc. Despite its flaws (and my harsh-ish review), it is also entertaining, moving, beautifully filmed, and supported by an incredible cast that gave the film the humanity it needed. I laughed, cried, and gasped. What I loved about Star Wars is still what I love about Star Wars—its soundtrack, its optimism, its empathy. It’s been incredible to grow up with the saga and see the characters of the original trilogy mature across different movies. Rise is flawed, but why shouldn’t it be? Perhaps, at the end of this review, I should also embrace the light/dark tension that characterizes every Star Wars movie. After all, what makes Rise problematic is also what makes it an apt representation of the complicated, ever-changing, imperfect world that we live in—one that wants to hold on to the past even as it lightspeeds into the future, one that is often exploitative but also admirably just, one that is effortlessly cynical but also boundlessly hopeful. Rise does a beautiful job of showing (yes, even through its #throwback cameos) that we do not have to be alone… that the force can bring people together, even in the darkest of times. So, on that note… may the force be with you.
To my little sister’s chagrin, I have had “Lost in the Woods” from Frozen II stuck in my head since I watched the film on Saturday. Sung by Kristoff, who is voiced by the amazing Jonathan Groff, “Lost in the Woods” is the movie’s scene-stealer. In a sequel that ventures mostly into familiar territory, despite the titular song (“Into the Unknown”), “Lost in the Woods” is a surprising, charming, and hilarious tangent—one that showcases Groff’s impeccable vocals, is animated like an 80s’ boyband music video, and brings the usually-reticent reindeers to life as background singers. In a movie musical that seems built for the stage, “Lost in the Woods” is a refreshingly relatable ballad that is closer to Queen and Air Supply than Broadway. The song does for Frozen II what “I’ll be Back” did for Hamilton: surprise us with a musical number that isn’t like what we’re hearing in the rest of the musical (note: Groff plays both Kristoff and King George). So: the sweet boyband spot that the song hits, coupled with Groff/Kristoff’s undeniable charm, make “Lost in the Woods” my song of December 2019. And let’s face it: I am certainly feeling a little “lost in the woods” at the end of the decade!
I could go on about other reasons why this song rocks. The electric guitar twang, the multiple chordal shifts, the piano, etc. But what I really want to talk about today is “Lost in the Woods” in translation.
As a global monopoly/enterprise, Disney relies on translation to reach its international audience. It is no surprise that, when Frozen first came out, the 25-language version of “Let It Go” went viral on Youtube. I am a massive fan of “Libérée, délivrée” (the French version), and I find “随它吧” (the Chinese version) hilarious. So, I decided it would be fun to also look up the French and Chinese versions of “Lost in the Woods.” I’ve included all three versions below. The point of this post is to 1) have some fun, 2) discuss music in translation 3) and get to the bottom of what makes me like “Lost in the Woods” so much. Reading a text you like in translation helps you learn about why you like it—you’ll see!
Again, you’re gone, off on a different path than mine I’m left behind, wondering if I should follow
You had to go, and of course it’s always fine I probably could catch up with you tomorrow But is this what it feels like to be growing apart?
When did I become the one who’s always chasing your heart?
Now I turn around and find I am lost in the woods North is south, right is left, when you’re gone I’m the one who sees you home, but now I’m lost in the woods And I don’t know what path you are on I’m lost in the woods
Up ’til now the next step was a question of how I never thought it was a question of whether Who am I, if I’m not your guy? Where am I, if we’re not together forever? Now I know you’re my true north, ’cause I am lost in the woods Up is down, day is night, when you’re not there
Oh, you’re my only landmark, so I’m lost in the woods Wondering if you still care But I’ll wait for a sign that I’m on your path ‘Cause you are mine (you are mine) Until then, I’m lost in the woods I’m lost in the woods I’m lost in the woods
Quand tu t’en vas Que tu prends un nouveau chemin Je ne suis plus rien Je ressens comme un grand frisson
Je pense à nous Je me dis que tout va bien Peut-être que je me fais des illusions
Je ne sais plus quoi faire Lorsque la vie nous sépare Je suis comme un vieux bateau Qui guette la lumière du phare
Je suis comme une boussole Qui a perdu le nord, et le sud L’est et l’ouest Quand tu pars Je savais lire dans le ciel Mais là j’ai perdu le nord Et bientôt l’espoir de te revoir J’ai perdu le nord
Autrefois, notre amour était une évidence Le doute n’avait jamais montré tant de ferveur Je suis là, si tu veux de moi Je suis là, pour t’offrir le meilleur Pas des fleurs
C’était toi ma vraie boussole Parce que j’ai perdu le nord Je ne sais plus où je suis Quand tu t’en vas
Plus rien ne me console Et j’ai perdu le nord Est-ce qu’un jour Tu reviendras J’attendrai tu verras Ton vrai chemin C’est avec moi Car sans toi J’ai perdu le nord J’ai perdu le nord J’ai perdu le nord J’ai perdu le nord
Note: I could not find the names of the lyricists who translated the French and Chinese versions. #NameTheTranslator. I also chose to use the Mainland Chinese version of this song mostly because the audio was more HD.
The first thing to note about “Lost in the Woods” is that the song is situated in the actual forest, i.e. Kristoff sings it when he is literally lost in the woods. And yet, the phrase “lost in the woods” mostly carries figurative significance; the idiom “out of the woods” (the title of a Taylor Swift song, by the way, did you think I wasn’t going to point that out?) means that one is no longer in a dangerous predicament. The rest of the song is deeply figurative, too; lines such as “you’re my only landmark” and “you’re my true north” suggest that Kristoff is lost in the woods because he has literally and figuratively lost Anna, his compass (“ma vraie boussole” in the French). So, the woods are merely the setting, and not the reason, why he is “lost.” Given the figurative function of the woods, how important are they, anyway, to the song?
It is fascinating to observe that “woods” do not appear a single time in the French translation of the song. Here’s a simple transliteration of the French version that I found online (note: “a big thrill” in the first stanza is more like “a great shiver”). Seriously—not even a tree. Instead, the song is titled after the idiom “perdre le nord” (to lose the North), which means to lose direction. So, the French translation takes after the original by adopting its idiomatic, figurative quality. In fact, most of the french translation is full of metaphors that don’t exist in the original. Instead of “is this what it feels like to be growing apart….” we get “when life separates us, I am like an old boat watching for the lighthouse’s glow.” The idea of watching for the lighthouse’s light is like “chasing your heart.” That’s actually beautiful. All in all, I find “Perdu le nord” quite a genius translation, given that North-ness is inherent in the original song—lines such as “North is South,” “you’re my true North” make “North” an important part of the woods anyway.
Compare what the French translators have done to the Chinese version, which keeps the “woods” in the song. “I’m lost in the woods” translates literally to “我在森林迷路“ （wo zai sen lin mi lu）, which is quite fortuitous since “woods” and “路” (lu) share a vowel rhyme (ish). Interestingly, whereas the English and French versions repeat the same refrain, be it “lost in the woods” or “perdu le nord”, the Chinese version switches it up a little bit. It alternates between “在森林迷路” (lost in the woods) and “找不到出路” (zhao bu dao chu lu / cannot find the way out). Both end with the same character, “路”, so it works. The variation sonically/musically works in the Chinese, too—something about repeating “lost in the woods” over and over in Chinese feels odd (maybe because it isn’t an idiom?). Fun fact: the Taiwanese/Mandarin version of “Lost in the Woods” is titled 森林迷途, which also means “lost in the woods,”but uses 迷途（mi tu） instead of 迷路 (mi lu). The difference between both is negligible, but I personally think the “l” sound of “lu” works better when you’re singing that lllllong note…
Something I like to do when comparing works in translation is to see how my favorite line translates into different languages. I am obsessed with “up ’til now the next step was a question of how / I never thought it was a question of whether.” Listening to the French (Autrefois, notre amour était une évidence / Le doute n’avait jamais montré) and the Chinese (到現在 / 我想問如何找到未來 / 我從未想過這到底應不應該), I have a more nuanced idea of why I like that line so much. It’s not just the way it begins the second verse, musically; it has to do with the rhymes/diction itself. The rhyme between “now” and “how” hits a sweet spot for me, and I get that in the Chinese with 在 (zai) and 來 (lai). There’s even a third rhyme in the Chinese at the end with 該 (gai). The French version doesn’t quite hit these rhymes, but that’s okay. I personally also think the multi-syllabic nature of “évidence” in the French throws me off a bit, whereas the English and Chinese remain nicely monosyllabic at the end of the first line: “how” and “ 來 .” I think my ear is also looking for the repetition of “question,” which stands out because it’s a nice, crunchy word. There’s no crunchy repetition of any word in the French version of this lyric. In Chinese, the special character that is repeated is 未，which means “future” in the first instance (未來）and “have yet” (從未）in the second. This is super clever, but I almost feel as if it gets lost amid the other monosyllabic words repeated in the lines: “我想問如何找到未來 / 我從未想過這到底應不應該.” Nonetheless, maybe I’ll appreciate the doubling more when I listen to it again later. Finally, I think another reason why I like line so much in English is that I just think the word “whether,” especially in contrast with “how,” is so great. I also like how “ferveur” in in the French rhymes with “whether.” So, all this is to say: comparing how a line you love lives in different translations is a productive way to get to the bottom of what makes it shine; and to appreciate how it transforms in other iterations.
As someone who loves to translate form and rhyme, I find song translations a work of art. It’s fascinating to compare how “Lost in the Woods” takes on a highly figurative life in French, and to see how the song operates in Chinese, which is a language that makes rhyming effortless.
Ultimately, regardless of the language we’re reading, we can agree that the feeling of being “lost in the woods” is universal. There’s a reason why Dante’s 14th-century Inferno still mesmerizes us with its opening lines: “In the middle of the journey of our life / I found myself astray in a dark wood” (tr. Seamus Heaney). And, just as Dante’s Inferno has captivated translators and translation scholars worldwide, perhaps the many translations of Disney songs are what help the franchise hold on to its magic today.
I’ve been wearing the same blue Bossini pants as my winter pajamas for the past ~13 years. It used to be so long that the pant legs went past my ankles, and I had to tie the drawstring extra tight to keep them from falling off. Now, over a decade later, the pants fit perfectly (although the drawstring, weakened from years of use, still requires extra fastening). And, believe it or not, the pants are still “fuzzy.”
Last winter, while remarking on the fuzziness of my pants, Kevin broke into rhyme:
Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear, Fuzzy Wuzzy had no hair, Fuzzy Wuzzy wasn’t fuzzy was he?
It was the first time I’d ever heard the tongue twister, and I soon committed it to memory. Whenever Kevin uttered the word “fuzzy,” I’d dutifully follow up with my well-memorized lines: “wuzzy was a bear…”
Now, a year later, winter is descending on Chicago and my fuzzy pants are back. Yesterday, Kevin asked me how I’d render the “fuzzy wuzzy” rhyme in Chinese. Now, I’m not someone who typically feels most creative at night, but the translation almost seemed to create itself:
Above is draft 1 of the translation. As you can tell from the transliteration, I immediately prioritized alliteration. Chinese is a reduplicative-generous language, especially with adjectives (e.g. 小小 = “small small”), so 毛毛 (“furry furry”) felt like a good way to translate “fuzzy” (毛毛蟲 is caterpillar, and they’re certainly fuzzy creatures).
Now, what is a “wuzzy” anyway? In my understanding of the rhyme, it’s basically a marker of cuteness, so 寶寶 (“baby”) seemed appropriate. 毛毛寶寶 has the catchy, alliterative ring to it that “fuzzy wuzzy” has. Although, to be fair, there’s something extra-cute about the “zz” sound in English that I’m not sure I’ve totally replicated in the Chinese.
I wanted the syllables to all match up, which is where the final line was a challenge. A trochee is a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one (e.g. fuzzy), and the third line is entirely in trochaic meter. So:
fuzzy | wuzzy | wasn’t | fuzzy | was he?
Side note: to my delight, the Wikipedia page on trochees cites Taylor Swift:
The Taylor Swift song “Blank Space” contains examples of trochaic metre in its chorus, which is responsible for many listeners mishearing part of the lyric as the line “Got a long list of ex-lovers” is forced into an unnatural shape to fit the stress pattern:Got a long list of ex-lovers
Where the stress would, in spoken English, naturally fall on the ‘ex’ of ‘ex-lovers’, it instead falls on ‘of’ and the first syllable of ‘lovers’, which can confuse on first hearing and cause the mind to try to fit an alternative two-syllable word into the ‘of ex-‘ foot.Supposedly, the line is misheard as “All the lonely Starbucks lovers”.
Anyway, back to “Fuzzy Wuzzy.” My initial attempt achieves the trochaic meter:
毛毛 | 寶寶 | 並不 |毛毛 | 對吧?
But, alas, metrical translation is not enough. What makes the final line sublime in English is its impeccable wordplay:
Fuzzy WuzzyWasn’t Fuzzy Was-he?
Aside from the alternating F / W words, “Wuzzy” and “Was he” are also homonyms! The creator of this nursery rhyme has taken a nonsensical word, “wuzzy,” and transformed it into a perfectly poised rhetorical interrogative: “was he?”
The problem with my current Chinese translation is that I don’t quite hit that sweet spot.
Fuzzy WuzzyWasn’t Fuzzy Was-he? = F W W F W máomao bǎobǎo bìng bù máomao duì ba? = M B B M D
The final 對吧, which gives the poem its rhetorical effect, doesn’t quite give the poem a triumphant sonic finish when it introduces a new consonant into the line (“d”). I’ve been racking my brains, and here are some alternate endings:
毛毛寶寶名叫毛毛好嗎 ? Máomao bǎobǎo míng jiào máomao hǎo ma? ~Is it right to name wuzzy “fuzzy”? 毛毛寶寶面貌並不毛毛! Máomao bǎobǎo miànmào bìng bù máomao! ~Fuzzy wuzzy’s appearance ( 面貌 ) is indeed not fuzzy! 毛毛寶寶明明並不毛毛！ Máomao bǎobǎo míngmíng bìng bù máomao! ~Fuzzy wuzzy is clearly (明明 ) not fuzzy!
Sound-wise, I prefer the last one, although only the first one has the rhetorical effect that matches the English original. But seriously, how cute is:
This morning, I finally thought to Google the origins of “fuzzy wuzzy,” and ended up on a Reddit thread about the unfortunately racist origins of the phrase; during the Mahdist War, “fuzzy wuzzy” was a pejorative name that British troops gave to the Hadendoa people because of their hairstyles. Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem about it (bleh). Honestly, there’s something quite dark about this poem. If you search up “fuzzy wuzzy” in Google Images, you also get sad photos of a hair-less bear. What a buzzkill! (or fuzzkill, wuzzkill).
Thankfully, none of those connotations are translated into the Chinese. And that, dear readers, is what is gained — not lost — in translation.
It was Thursday, October 31, but the Halloween Hype was enveloped by a thickening blanket of snow all day. The weather forecast predicted it would snow and lo and behold, the weather did not flake on us (well, it did, depending on how you interpret that joke).
Since childhood, I’ve been obsessed with snow. Hong Kong kids don’t grow up with snow, and it becomes emblematic of the magic that “going abroad” promises: picture-perfectness, Christmas wonderland, new clothes.
I think I was destined to love snow because the last character of my Chinese name, 霙, means snowflake or sleet (I prefer snowflake). It comes from the poem “雪夜獨宿柏仙庵” / “Staying in the Bai Xian Temple on a Snowy Night” by the Song Dynasty poet Su Shi. The character “霙” isn’t found in certain dictionaries, which is a fun fact I’ve always treasured. My English name, May, comes from the Chinese word 妹 (mèi), “little sister.” Having been named after a Chinese character found in a poem and a homophone translation, I like to think (somewhat vainly) that I was ‘born’ to write and translate poetry.
Night rain becomes fine jade sleet While pure winds blow on temples above Mid-dream, my window is pierced Yet the only sound in the quiet dark Is the bamboo leaves’ quick cascade. Barely past a winter cold myself, How will fields recover from the autumn drought? We can hardly foresee heaven’s intents, For soon again a warm breeze will blow Bright crisp color into fine spring days.
The above is a translation I did for an advanced workshop around 2 years ago, and what you’re about to read is part of the translator’s note I wrote to accompany the translation. As is typical of Su Shi’s work, contrasts and surprises are abound in this poem. The abruptness (yet nothingness) of the commotion in the window disrupts the delicate image of the jade-like sleet, and this disruption is accentuated by how line 3 begins suddenly with “夢驚,” (dream-surprised). I’ve replicated the original syntax in my translation, beginning line 3 with “mid-dream.” Moreover, the description of the bamboo ‘cascading’ is also strange; 瀉 means to flow rapidly, and is not a word that one would typically use to describe bamboo. The array of emotions (tranquility, concern, hope, etc.) in the poem also adds to its internal juxtapositions.
My first attempts to translate the poem involved trying to preserve the rhyme scheme and meter, and I experimented with the first and last lines as such:
“The night rain swiftly turns to snow, while cool winds on high temples blow Heaven’s intents are hard to guess, for soon again the spring breeze blows”
A merit of this approach is that I echo the pun in the original with “清” and “晴” (qīng/line 1 and qíng/line 4); the former signifies clearness and purity, while the latter denotes the sunshine of spring (fun fact: the last character of my sister’s name is 晴). The identical rhymes that begin and conclude the poem make it come full circle. However, I felt that being constrained to a rhyme scheme wouldn’t allow other elements of the Chinese poem to shine in English, so I revised to forgo meter but incorporate internal rhymes. Even without the doubling of 清 / 晴 in my second draft, I’ve attempted to retain the poem’s ‘full circle’ effect by concluding lines 1 and 4 with “fine jade sleet” and “fine spring days,” respectively.
The last three characters of the original, 爛漫晴, succinctly convey the bright colors ( 爛漫) and crisp clearness (晴) of a sunny spring day, but it is challenging to be as tersely communicative in English. Thinking of how Pound kept the radical of Chinese characters in mind while translating, I used the word “warm” in my translation because the character for “fire” (火) appears in “爛.” Finally, although Su Shi was not in any way inspired by Robert Frost, and vice-versa, I couldn’t help but draw a connection between this poem and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” one of my favorite English poems. The sound of “easy wind and downy flake” in Frost’s poem reminds me of the bamboo sounds that Su Shi hears. So, there is some cross-pollination between:
The only other sound’s the sweep Of easy wind and downy flake.
Yet the only sound in the quiet dark Is the bamboo leaves’ quick cascade.
Su Shi’s poem is about the unpredictability of the weather, and as such of life. It snowed all day on Thursday, but on Friday the autumn colors reasserted themselves again. Today, which is Saturday, only the highest rooftops still carry the powder of our Halloween snow. We can hardly foresee heaven’s intents, indeed.
Because I can’t resist a revision, here’s my 2019-updated translation of Su Shi’s poem, which in some ways is my namesake. With this revision, I’ve again attempted a return to form; 8 lines with 7 syllables each (to match the Chinese). With this revision, I’ve abandoned some of the choices I described in depth above, but I suppose that’s all part of the process. Until the next revision…
Baixian Lodge on a Snowy Night
Night rain turns to fine jade sleet Pure winds blow on temples high Mid-dream, my window’s pierced By nothing but the leaves’ cascade. Barely past my winter cold, Will fields brave the autumn drought? Who can know heaven’s intents For soon we’ll see fine spring days.
7 years ago today, Taylor Swift’s best album—RED—was released. RED is a masterpiece, and it seems like critics are only realizing that now; on the recent best-songs-of-the-century listicles that have cropped up, RED has certainly been having a moment. In particular, “All Too Well” is finally getting the recognition it deserves (#57 on Pitchfork, #29 on Rolling Stones). I believe the reputation stadium tour had something to do with this glow-up, too; the song’s acoustic performances truly shed light on its exemplary songwriting and emotional magnitude. And as autumn turns leaves burning red all around us, RED is the perfect seasonal album to listen to on repeat.
When RED first came out, I didn’t give it enough love. But in recent years, the album has grown to become one of my favorites. So, on the 7-year anniversary of RED, I’d like to write this track-by-track appreciation post for the album—and suggest some new ways to think about/listen to the songs today, especially in light of Lover.
Here we go!
State of Grace– A lyrical masterpiece and pop/rock/country hybrid, “State of Grace” is the perfect opening track. I personally think it’s her best opening track ever (maybe tied with “Fearless”). Listening to the song post-Lover, certain words jump out at me more: traffic lights, blue, golden. Notice how these are all color-related terms? On an album titled after a color, this opening track also asks us to think about “shades of wrong,” a “mosaic [of] broken hearts.” The affinities between RED and Lover are strong and certainly intentional, given how Taylor has also been performing songs from RED in recent live performances (“All Too Well” on NPR, “Holy Ground” on BBC Live Lounge, and she totally name-dropped “Treacherous” on Jimmy Fallon). * Listen to the acoustic version of this song!
Red – Who doesn’t love a good TITLE TRACK? On “Red,” we go to simile/metaphor land and it’s amazing. “Loving him is like driving a new Maserati down a dead end street…” It’s amazing how the color red permeates the first verse without even appearing in it. Taylor saves the word “red” for the last line of the chorus, where it counts: “Loving him was red.” The song is beautifully synesthetic, in that all the emotions Taylor describes in words (eloquent as the are) are eventually best described through splashes of color. The pop/country crossover feeling on this song is also especially strong. * In this song, “losing him was blue” and love is “burning red.” On Lover, however, Taylor often associates blue with love instead (in Paper Rings). Also, she directly references “Red” in “Daylight:” “I once believed love would be (burning red) / But it’s golden / Like daylight.” Talk about a glow-up!!
Treacherous – I think of “Treacherous” as the spiritual predecessor to “I Did Something Bad” from reputation, and the fact that both songs are Track 3 might confirm this theory…it’s the first ballad on the album, and its lyrics are haunting: “all we are is skin and bone / trained to get along.” Wow. *The secret message in this song (hidden in the lyric booklet) alludes to The Temper Trap’s “Sweet Disposition.” Perhaps listen to both songs side by side and see what you find?
I Knew You Were Trouble– This is Taylor’s first song with a bass drop, and that fact in and of itself already makes the song pretty legendary. IKYWT was a major milestone for Taylor, both in terms of genre cross-pollination and audience reach. Taylor x Dubstep is a combination that not many realized they needed…until this song dropped. The music video very much leans into this feeling, too. When Taylor debuted pink hair in the Lover area, many also immediately thought of her pink hair in the video. IKYWT is one of a kind in Taylor’s early discography. This is not to say, however, that nothing else on the album sounds like IKYWT; the “me-e-e-e-e” rhythm in the song echoes the “re-e-e-e-d” vocal patterning in Track 2. *You’ve heard the “goat” remix of this song, but have you seen Tom Holland’s take??
All Too Well– where do I begin with this song, Taylor’s chef d’oeuvre? The longest song in Taylor’s discography (it would have been longer if she hadn’t cut the 10-min version), “All Too Well” is treasured, beloved, worshipped among Swifties. Lately, I can’t stop listening to it on repeat when I’m running. The song boasts Taylor’s best musical arc, arguably best lyrics, and most moving narrative. It all starts with a scarf that is introduced in the first verse and returns at the end: “you keep my old scarf / from that very first week.” Like a scarf, the song is composed of similar patterns and loops in a way that makes the song stronger with each iteration. Taylor wrote the song to get over a bad, bad breakup, the way you’d reach for a scarf to warm you. There are lyrics in this song that are among my all-time favorite lines, one of them being: “we’re dancing round the kitchen in the refrigerator light.” I mean, WOW. Also: “autumn leaves falling down like pieces into place / And I can picture it after all these days.” The parallel between pieces and picture?? Also, the way “red” appears in this song is sublime; “you almost ran the red ’cause you were looking over at me,” “your cheeks were turning red.” Also, the bridge in this song is just unbelievable. “Maybe we got lost in translation / Maybe I asked for too much / But maybe this thing was a masterpiece / ‘Til you tore it all up.” Well, one thing is clear. “All Too Well” is a masterpiece, and no one is tearing it up!!
22– Earlier this year, I wrote a longer essay about turning 22 vis à vis this song. “15” and “22” are the two age-songs in Taylor’s oeuvre, so “22” has always held a special place in my heart. It’s one of the poppiest songs on the album and, like IKYWT, has a “viral” charm. “I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling twenty two-oo” is a line that sticks both melodically and lyrically. You can count on the song being blasted at 22-year-old birthday parties. It’s also one of the songs on this album that is deliberately self-deprecatory; in one of the verses, you hear a voice in the background going, “Who’s Taylor Swift, anyway? Ew.” Taylor’s knack for poking fun at herself will reemerge two songs later, and is also the kind of energy that made “Shake it Off” from her next album one of her biggest hits ever. “22” is a song that embraces the ups and downs—”We’re happy, free, confused, and lonely at the same time”—and is thus a timeless hit, whether you are 22 or not. *Did you know? The girls in the “22” music video are Taylor’s real-life best friends.
I Almost Do – An underrated song on the album, “I Almost Do” is about the difficulty of getting over someone, the instinctual reaching for the phone. Sandwiched between two songs that sound pretty defiant, “I Almost Do” is one of the most vulnerable, honest songs on RED. *I think of “I Almost Do,” Treacherous,” and “The Moment I Knew” as being part of the same trio.
We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together – More commonly referred to as “WANEGBT” in the Swiftie fandom, this song was the first single to be released—and, in some ways, also the “odd one out” in the album. WANEGBT doesn’t really sound like anything else on the album; a single-release strategy that Taylor is known for (see: the release of “ME!” as her debut for the Lover era). But “WANEGBT” is a powerful blast of pop, which does foreground the pop influence in this album. “You would hide away and find your peace of mind / with some indie record that’s much cooler than mine,” she sings to her ex in this song, as if noting the genre characterization of her album. The shake-it-off energy in this song also carries much powerful-woman energy, which Taylor completely exuded in the RED era—from her outfits to her red lipstick to her skyrocketing fame. * “WANEGBT” is a power move. Listen to it alongside “The Man” for some perspective!
Stay Stay Stay – Here’s the cutest song on the album, and for some people, it’s a little too cute—but I love the quick lyrics and iteration in the song. It’s a perfect ukulele jam. Taylor didn’t write this song about a relationship she was in, but about relationships she observed—the kind of love she hoped to find, the kind of love she sings about in “Lover.” My favorite line is probably, “you came in wearing a football helmet and said ‘okay, let’s talk.'” *If you liked this song, you’ll also like “Paper Rings,” and vice versa!
The Last Time (ft. Gary Lightbody) – Without a doubt, this is Taylor’s most heartbreaking ballad, and one of the most emotional songs on this album. I find the harmonies in this track amazing, and something about Gary’s voice lends this song an indie quality. I particularly like how the word “me” quavers leading up to the chorus. *If you haven’t seen this song performed live yet, head over here!
Holy Ground – Another lyrical showstopper, “Holy Ground” has some of the best lines on the album: “back when you fit in my poems like a perfect rhyme,” “spinning like a girl in a brand new dress”… the drumbeat that propels this song makes it soar. It’s a song that forgoes regret and instead thinks of the territory of a past relationship as being holy. A number of Tay’s songs draw upon religious imagery, and I love how we get it in subtle ways in this album, with “State of Grace” and this track. *Listen to Taylor’s 2019 update of the song here, as performed on BBC Live Lounge.
Sad Beautiful Tragic– Another slow ballad on the album, this song is a trio-of-adjectives and feels like the melancholy parallel of “22.” Instead of the bop that is “happy/free/confused/lonely,” we’re in the nostalgic realm of sad/beautiful/tragic. The heartbreak in the following line is palpable: “time is taking its sweet time erasing you.” The ukulele/riff in this song really shapes its entire emotional arc. *Try listening to this song with earphones in, paying attention only to the riff. I promise it will hit different.
The Lucky One – In this song, Taylor gets incredibly candid about fortune and fame. What’s it like to be so luckily loved by so many fans, and yet have a “lover in the foyer” who “doesn’t even know you”? It’s a song that gets real: ” you don’t feel pretty, you just feel used / And all the young things line up to take your place.” And yet, it’s also a song that recognizes the double sides of being “lucky;” it’s both lucky to have your name up in lights, and also lucky to be someone who can get out unscathed, dignity intact. Thinking about the way Taylor values her privacy now, I think she’s figuring it out what it means to be truly “the lucky one.” *The word “lover,” apart from appearing in “Lover,” also appears in this song!
Everything Has Changed (ft. Ed Sheeran) – The collaboration that gave rise to the Ed/Taylor friendship, this song is one of my favorite duets that Taylor has ever done. It’s lovely and sweeping, and the chorus is triumphant. The collab also feels totally natural; it makes complete sense that two of our generation’s best songwriters would put their guitar-plucking skills together to make something happen. It’s also a triumph to go from a song like “Sad Beautiful Tragic” to “Everything Has Changed,” a narrative about the tables turning. Fall is a time of change and this song highlights the particularly beautiful, falling-headfirst kind. *If you’re already familiar with this song, you’ll certainly want to visit its original lyrics, which are more wordy but also delightfully detailed.
Starlight– Taylor wrote this song about Ethel Kennedy (and she liked it), which I think is pretty cool. It’s another track on the record that feels distinctly poppy and sparkly, which befits its title. I love songs that Taylor writes based on other people’s stories; she does something similar in Lover with “Death by a Thousand Cuts,” but in “Starlight” you get the most exquisite details. *Listen to her cover of “Untouchable,” another starry song.
Begin Again – What a perfect way to close the album; by suggesting a return to form, a renewal of love. Taylor’s most narratively-cohesive songs master the “loop” structure: see “All Too Well,” “Tim McGraw,” Our Song,” Love Story,” etc. They end the way they begin. The idea of new beginnings seems to always come at the end of a Taylor album—the final tracks, such as “New Year’s Day” and “Daylight,” all suggest revival. Perhaps the prettiest and most delicate song on the album, “Begin Again” is what autumn feels like: crisp air, a new start, revisited memories. *Fun fact: Katy Perry loves this song and added it to her playlist recently. In the year 2019, Katy and Taylor are friends again.
The three tracks on the Deluxe version of RED are “The Moment I Knew,” “Come Back…Be Here,” and “Girl At Home.” Each of them could have belonged naturally on the album, and in many ways, all of them have become canonical (I particularly like “Come Back…Be Here”).
But that’s all I’ll say for now. Happy listening to RED. ❤️
On Thursday night, I had the surreal experience of seeing the Jonas Brothers live in concert for the first time. (!!!) The JoBros are the first band I ever stanned, before I knew what stanning was. Joe was my #1 celeb crush, and little did I know I’d end up dating a Kevin (lolol). I’ve been wearing an H&M kids top with Joe’s face on it for the past 10 years (one of my best birthday presents), and I’m pleased to say that the shirt is still as good as new. The Jonas Brothers were, and this is no exaggeration, essential to my teenage years. As the title of this review suggests, this essay is first and foremost a review of the JoBros’ Happiness Begins Tour. And yet, like almost everything else of significance in the year 2019, this essay will also be a reflection on what it means to make a comeback, to feel nostalgic, to sing along to “Burnin’ Up” in an age of global warming…
…but first, the concert. The JoBros have been hyping up their return since early 2019 (some might argue since December 2018, with Nick and Priyanka’s highly publicized marriage). The brothers debuted their most acclaimed single yet, “Sucker”; took over the James Corden show for a week; released a documentary on Amazon. Each promo move reinforced how much they have grown up and glown-up. A decade ago, they were stereotyped as Disney’s pet boyband. Few critics took them seriously, and media outlets refused to let go of their “purity rings.” Now, the JoBros are married men who could each easily grace the cover of GQ. They’ve gone on to pursue successful solo careers, which include Kevin’s ventures into real estate. But, after 10+ years, are they able to find the space to relive their past? Their Happiness Begins Tour answers that question with a resounding yes. The tour (and album’s) opening song, “Rollercoaster,” is a heartfelt promise to the value of bygone days: “It was fun when we were young and now we’re older / Those days that are the worst, they seem to glow now / We were up-and-down and barely made it over / But I’d go back and ride that roller coaster with you.” Full disclosure: the moment the brothers stepped out in sync to perform this song, I immediately WEPT.
Throughout the night, the JoBros performed a selection of songs from their new album. Highlights included the snazzy “Only Human,” smooth “I Believe,” and poignant “Hesitate,” which was probably the most moving musical moment of the night. The brothers got up on the B stage (close to where I was!!) which rose in the air as large glowing balloons levitated around the room. It. Was. Magical.
Unsurprisingly, however, it was the brothers’ old hits that carried the concert. In one of the JoBros’ first interviews with James Corden, he had said, “Lovebug still slaps.” And guess what? It totally does. It’s remarkable how well these songs have aged. If “Lovebug” came out in the year 2019, I believe it would be a massive hit. The guitar riff has a Jason Mraz catchiness to it, and its transition from acoustic to electric rock is golden. The song itself achieves what the JoBros have with their return: soared from youthful territory to mature ground. In the original (and lovely) music video, you see the brothers all dressed up in vintage clothing, looking awkwardly older than they really are. But listen to the song in 2019, and you’ll realize that the tune is now timeless. And we’ve all caught the Jonas bug again.
In interviews, the chemistry between the brothers is infectious, and they’re naturally humorous. And yet, I found myself wishing for more brother-brother banter during the live show. For most of the night, each brother seemed to command their own stage presence. But they do so incredibly well, in a way that would not have been possible in the early 2000s, when they were presented as if they were triplets joined at the hip. Solo-brother moments were outstanding during the concert. Nick’s rendition of “Jealous” (Joe joined for the second verse) and Joe’s delivery of “Cake By the Ocean” were among the top performances of the night. I mean, giant inflatable slinkies shot up into the air for the latter song. The crazy-crazy and smooth personas that Joe and Nick have respectively adopted during the solo careers shone in both performances. And Kevin got his moment, too; throughout the night, a big screen showed clips of the grown-up brothers interacting with versions of their younger selves (played by other kids). The best scene was of a young Kevin running into adult Kevin with his two daughters in a forest (I think the entire audience went “AWWWW” at the same time). That scene then transitioned into Kevin playing the piano live for “When You Look Me in the Eyes,” another perfect ballad. Although there wasn’t much intersibling dialogue, at least on Thursday night in Chicago, the JoBros find a way to belong on stage together while each harnessing a unique rockstar confidence.
Moreover, to the JoBros’ credit, they were trying to fit a ton of songs into two hours. I’m not sure there was much time for chatter. Even cute surprises for the audience felt rushed; it was Danielle’s birthday recently, and she was invited onto the B stage to be serenaded and blow out candles. And yet, the intermission lasted probably around one minute; I don’t think the cake was even cut! It was a cute and sweet moment, nonetheless. Another moment that felt rushed was the multi-song mashup towards the end of the show; the JoBros played a smorgasbord of deep cuts, ranging from “Mandy” to “World War III” to “Hold On.” But the medley felt slightly forced, at least to my ear.
That being said, if you’re an OG JoBro fan who wants to relive your childhood and feel revived at the same time, the Happiness Begins tour absolutely delivers. I particularly love how the brothers saved “Burnin’ Up” and “Sucker” for the encore, ending with both an iconic blast from the past and a confident delivery of their best-ever hit from just this year. The message they convey with their performance is that yes, they would ride their childhood rollercoaster again, but now they’re on a whole new high.
Alas, time is everyone’s best frenemy. The JoBros’ powers have doubled since we last met. They’ve made a veritable comeback, and the songs they abandoned for years seem unscathed by age. But the best perspective is often retrospective, and it’s inevitable that songs like “Burnin’ Up” and “Year 3000” rub us differently today than they did 10+ years ago. Today, the world is burnin’ up, baby. The song is more relatable as an unintentional and unwitting climate change anthem than just another pop song about a crush. As the Jonas Brothers sang “Year 3000,” I seriously also found myself wondering whether we as a planet will even make it to then. In the Year 3000, the song predicts, we’ll be living underwater. And “your great-great-great-granddaughter” shall be “doin’ fine.” Not much will have changed. Except, we’re watching the effects of climate change take a toll on our planet every day. When the JoBros ask, “baby who turned the temperature hotter,” we must unironically ask the same question about the earth. Even “Cool” from their new album, with the line “I’m feelin’ so cool,” seems relevant through a climate perspective; it’s lyrically the temperature antithetical to “Burnin’ Up.”
The Jonas Brothers are a perfect example of how saving underrated moments of our past is possible. They show that taking a decade off to work on self-care and betterment is essential for enabling togetherness. They suggest that there’s no time like the present to fight for what we really want. 10 years since their split, the JoBros are still doin’ fine. By all means, their show is teenage May’s dream come true, and I had the best time singing along to their songs at the top of my lungs. But I can’t help but wonder: In the year 3000, if we get there, will we still be boppin’ along to “Burnin’ Up”?
I cut my own hair for the first time last week. I did so while listening to Lana Del Rey’s newest album so you can imagine that the experience was a real “mood.”
Have I always wanted to cut my own hair? Well, no. In fact, I generally don’t super-enjoy getting my hair cut; it costs money, can go wrong, and I often prefer long hair. But there will always come a time in the summer when my hair will suddenly feel heavy, especially when I’m in the shower. I’ll start shedding long strands of my hair everywhere, in the bathroom and on the floor of my room. My hair will hang, tangled and weighty, like a burden I must carry, comb, and condition. I always know I’m ready for a haircut when I start to poeticize a haircut. And hair, as Fleabag says so rightly, “is everything.”
I have been cutting Kevin’s hair for months, so the idea of cutting hair at home isn’t new to me. I’ll fully admit that cutting short hair is hard; you usually need not only scissors, but also an electric trimmer with different “clipping guard sizes” and a certain battery life. After the haircut, tiny clumps of hair will get everywhere, like the patches of turf that stay on your clothes after a soccer game. But cutting Kevin’s hair has been a wonderful part of our relationship; there’s a lot of trust and love built into giving someone a haircut.
So because I already had haircutting equipment at home, because I was feeling heavy, and maybe because I wanted to give myself an opportunity to fully trust and love myself, I decided to cut my own hair. Kevin was in Shanghai on a family vacation, and I felt strongly about cutting my own hair, anyway. I decided on breezy Friday night that I was ready.
Although I waited until September to cut my hair, this gesture has truly been part of my summer-long project of becoming lighter: materially, physically, and mentally. In that order. In July, I moved out of my previous three-person apartment and into a five-person apartment, so much of my packing-up process included a mass purging of my personal possessions. I said goodbye to many T-Shirts. I sold or gave away numerous random things, from a pair of Bluetooth earphones to a ring adorned with a large metallic beetle. I recycled most of the paper waste I had accumulated over the past four academic years (but kept nearly all the poems I wrote during creative writing workshops). I shed my possessions like hair, and swept them into the dustbin.
as so many women do throughout their lives—particularly during the summer, when
we wear shorts again and remember what our legs look like—I wanted to be lighter,
physically. I had a one-month gym membership and tried out Pilates, yoga, and Zumba.
I ran on the treadmill and went for a handful of delicious swims. Then I bought
a Fitbit, and became obsessed with my daily step count, my resting heartrate,
my sleep schedule. I started running outdoors again (every summer of my life, I
pick up running for a spell). I think I’ll keep running, to be honest. I actually—and
I’m shocked to be saying this—have been enjoying it. And finally, without
realizing it, I became mentally lighter. I shed the stress of being a full-time
student and practiced settling into a routine where I didn’t hit the books
after dinner. I started watching TV, first the delightful Kim’s Convenience and
then the life-changingly-great Fleabag. I allowed myself time to indulge
in all-things Taylor Swift. I baked oatmeal raisin cookies and tiny bite-size brownies.
But of course, the process of becoming lighter is heavy in and of itself. Life
isn’t as simple as cutting hair. “If you want to change your life, change your
life,” says Anthony, the hairdresser from Fleabag. “It won’t happen in here.”
summer has been heavy. It’s impossible to read about what’s happening in
Hong Kong and not feel a sense of heaviness. The distance between Chicago and
Hong Kong is heavy. The disparity between protestors and policemen is heavy. You
can’t step onto a scale and measure the burden of the world’s problems. And, of
course, cutting my hair was not a way to shed any of these concerns. But it’s remarkable
how one haircut can give you hope—like a weight lifted off your shoulders.
I watched a slew of how-to videos on YouTube and marveled at the different ways in which one can cut one’s own long hair. You can tie all your hair in front of your face like a ponytail, divide it with an elastic or scrunchy, and cut above the hair tie. Or, you can fluff out your hair in front of you so that you can cut according to how your hair will fall in front of your face. I chose the latter option, and placed my hairdresser’s cloak in my lap to catch strands of falling hair.
Like writing an essay, a haircut is about layering and trimming. The first snip is a magical moment that opens the floodgates for the rest of the cut. Then, the rest of the haircut is about getting your hair to the right length, making little edits here and there. You’ll want to cut not only lengthwise, but upwards in little snips so that the hair doesn’t fall completely straight. It’ll look more natural. A haircut is about procedure and patience, about writing your new self into existence.
An inch of my hair is now gone, along with some objects I’ve been hoarding for years and a few decimals on my bathroom scale. But I know they’ll come back, in some way or another. Weight will always be a part of life on a planet that depends on gravity to stay grounded. Nonetheless, as Aria Aber says in her lovely poem “Ode to My Hair, weight is also beautiful: “may you glow with the weight of love.”
When I cut my hair, I used a small, blue spray bottle to spritz my hair and keep it moist. This morning, I realized almost absent-mindedly that I use the same bottle to water my succulents, which I’m in the process of propagating. Did you know that you can propagate succulents by planting their cuttings? It’s magical: the leaves you remove from a stretched-out succulent not only make the original plant lighter, but also beget new life. Sometimes, I think cutting hair isn’t so much about removing dead split ends as it is about growth. When I’m older, I’ll remember that the first time I cut my own hair was in my 20s. I’m still at an age where I’m learning how to be more generous, kinder to myself, and lighter in meaningful ways. Yes, hair is everything, and a haircut can often make you think about everything. So, here’s to hair: the strands we shed, the split ends we trim, and the new locks that grow back.
May Huang reviews a stunning debut collection of poems.
Hai-Dang Phan, Reenactments: Poems and Translations (Sarabande Books, 2019), 88pp.
To “reenact” is to repeat an event that took place in the past, often through performance. Reenactments, Hai-Dang Phan’s stunning debut collection of poems and translations, is a platform for a series of reenactments that explore the legacy of the Vietnam War. Like a stage production, the poems often blur the boundary between truth and fiction as they retell different versions of the past. The poem that begins the collection, “Small Wars,” starts with a line that may appear harmless when lifted out of context: “it was my turn to play dead.” And yet, over the course of the poem, the speaker’s pretend death begins to feel too real: “black smoke seeped into my eyes and blood rushed to my head.” Throughout the collection, Phan shows how the trauma of…