ghost records #52

all night the wind
changes its mind

Text by Madeleine Marie Slavick
Photo by Luo Hui

ghost records #51

For two hundred minutes we are waiting, and still, the eleven year old has not come. In ten more minutes, I say I will telephone the hospitals, maybe the police.

One serving stays at the table, and her room as empty as the night road upon which a car is supposed to deliver her home.

And then I think of the times I was late, and the parent waited, alone, afraid. Only now can I know the worry of everything that might have happened, only now the hope that all will turn out well – one as large as the other.

We try one more time. Just as we look in her room again for the misplaced phone number, the headlights come down the gravel driveway.

The daughter as miraculous as the day she was born. Not alone, not afraid, and not yet able to understand us.

Text by Madeleine Marie Slavick
Photo by Luo Hui

ghost records #50

I read a story about a woman and her garden. Potato, tomato, bean, and many greens.

It was made in a place where a silver dollar tree once stood, around which a man’s ashes were scattered.

She says the many vegetables are his peace.

Text by Madeleine Marie Slavick
Photo by Luo Hui

ghost records #49

Dusk, then dark.
Clouds foreground in sky now seem even closer.

Text by Madeleine Marie Slavick
Photo by Luo Hui

ghost records #48

Summer night. Moths come into the lit room. Knock themselves against surfaces. In French, ‘moth’ is ‘butterfly of the night’ and a parking ticket ‘butterfly’, a papery flapping under the windshield wipers.

Text by Madeleine Marie Slavick
Photo by Luo Hui

ghost records #47

My sister once said we are only ever alone when we sleep.

Text by Madeleine Marie Slavick
Photo by Luo Hui

ghost records #46

The passenger beside me says this is her first train trip and she is scared. Too nervous to leave her seat, she stays under her jacket-blanket the whole time. She is missing several teeth, slurs some of her words so I cannot always be clear, and her skin shines as dark as my camera. She grew up in East L.A., and as we come into that part of the town, she looks out our train window and says she knows each street. Graffiti is on almost every vertical surface, and one long wall reads: H-U-R-T-S. ‘Someone from Rehab will pick me up,’ she says, and when we arrive, we walk to Alameda Street, where she waits, holding a small piece of paper with a name and telephone number.

Text by Madeleine Marie Slavick
Photo by Luo Hui

ghost records #45

Let’s go to Creek Two, she says, the summer water ankle- or knee-high, just enough mass and movement to make sound.

She is eleven, and freedom is already a word for this lightness of day, of body.

Text by Madeleine Marie Slavick
Photo by Luo Hui

ghost records #44

She takes her life on Christmas Day. Her child finds the body, uninhabited.

A man tries to revive her, gives forty-five minutes to this, but she has taken the life elsewhere.

And we wonder. Why she removes, why he tells us this story on Christmas night, why we tell others now.

I tell myself, please remember this day, this story, with other stories, of how she loved what she loved, of how she felt she did not love enough.

I say, every story is about love.

Text by Madeleine Marie Slavick
Photo by Luo Hui

ghost records #43

He plays his low bass, and the chair begins to move.
Faster, stronger, sideways, a shaking only he feels.
Evil, he says of the rhythm, and he stays in the chair as long as the song.

Text by Madeleine Marie Slavick
Photo by Luo Hui

ghost records #42

We are heading west. It takes 24 hours to cross Texas by train. A man who calls himself Under The Tree Bob says there is more drinking in this state than in other southern places. He says he has been sober for 31 years, since 1 December 1979, when he sat under a palm tree and made that decision.

Text by Madeleine Marie Slavick
Photo by Luo Hui

ghost records #41

I arrive in a city after twenty-two years. New trains have come, the whistle always ahead. On the other side of trees, I hear a river. It is a freeway of cars.

A resident of this city tells me a story. A woman picks up a homeless hitchhiker, who dies beside her. For weeks, she keeps the body there on the front seat of the car.

Text by Madeleine Marie Slavick
Photo by Luo Hui

ghost records #40

I meet a man of many stories, many women. Maybe hundreds of women, maybe with force.

I bring him flowers as I tell him I have been told these stories. He says, if I want to know the truth to ask the source. I say, I am.

Text by Madeleine Marie Slavick
Photo by Luo Hui

ghost records #39

A bus stop on a main road. The opposite hill, sunlit.

I ask a passenger about the huge brick building across, mid-slope and in the middle of camellia, and he says it used to be a convent and school, St. Madeleine’s.

He has hummed my name, though the girls called it ‘Sacred Heart’.

Text by Madeleine Marie Slavick
Photo by Luo Hui

ghost records #38

Samoa, he says, the first vowel longest, the mouth held open for an extra moment, ah.

I have a piece of pumice in my hand, and he says that at home in Samoa, they fight with rocks as hard as their anger. They hold them, ram them against another man.

He says it is taro that makes Samoans strong, the tuber and the leaves. It is land, house, taro.

But it is anger that people live by.

Text by Madeleine Marie Slavick
Photo by Luo Hui

ghost records #37

I meet a beard, from lips to mid-chest.

Silver womb.

Text by Madeleine Marie Slavick
Photo by Luo Hui

ghost records #36

He says he and a woman gave birth with no violence. The cord was not cut. No vaccination needle punctured the child’s body. The placenta not thrown away - it stayed within a cloth for a month - and their daughter stayed within the rooms of their home for the same number of days.

She is named after music, and five years later, she likes to watch the video of her homebirth. She has seen another baby arrive at another home, and she stroked the skin as a way to say, hello, welcome.

Every year, she visits a white orchid tree on a mountain. In the soil is the placenta that once held her.

Text by Madeleine Marie Slavick
Photo by Luo Hui

ghost records #35

I meet a woman at a counter with red in her eyes. She wants something so much, wants to live in another country, wants to bring up her family there, has entered a lottery to win the right to do this, and will know in a few weeks.

I write this as a wish.

Text by Madeleine Marie Slavick
Photo by Luo Hui

ghost records #34

The houses in this country might walk off.
Or maybe a great wind will blow them off their plots.
Only the size they need to be, as if less to defend, less to carry.

Text by Madeleine Marie Slavick
Photo by Luo Hui

ghost records #33

Is that a lighthouse? We walk to the front, but do not understand it there on the inland side of the coastal road. And every lighthouse of my youth was locked behind a picket fence, maybe a night inside could be rented.

One day, we take a ferry to where a green lighthouse arrives, then we arrive: little bodies on a cliff of desire. And any night at the cape, we sit at the steps of the tower and look up: ten rays of a giant white flower mothering the sea.

Text by Madeleine Marie Slavick
Photo by Luo Hui

ghost records #32

We think we are going to hear J C Sturm. We buy a ticket. We take a plane to get there.

We hear her beautiful love poems, her infectious giggle, and a story from her debut collection, ‘The House of the Talking Cat’. We see her in her long coat, with a cup of tea, and by the sea at Paekakariki. Her eyes are certain as she says, ‘I write to the work, for the work.’

J C is dead. The event tonight has been a tribute to the writer, with film, readings, anecdotes. Will there also be a tribute to the literary couple, J C Sturm and James K Baxter? When we are told that she and her late husband, also a poet, only once shared the printed page side by side, I think of the whole book shared by Meg and Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, called ‘It’s Love, Isn’t It?’

Text by Madeleine Marie Slavick
Photo by Luo Hui

ghost records #31

A woman with long grey hair knocks on the door at one in the morning.

Blue and denim all over the body – jeans, matching jacket, hazel eyes, hazel eye shadow. A body hunched over, from wind, from arthritis, from wine, maybe from life as a poet and the daughter of two poets.

She says I am beautiful, says the poet I am with is one of her best friends, and that if ever we need her, to call anytime. I hold her arm to return the warmth.

All day she has been visiting poor people in my neighborhood. I see her as a kind of Jesus, and then she says that Jesus has come, and will come again, in four-and-a-half years.

She says she will only stay five minutes, and she does.

Text by Madeleine Marie Slavick
Photo by Luo Hui

ghost records #30

I walk through my first tunnel, exhilarated by grit and promise.

Walter Charman used to enter one daily and writes, ‘When I began city life, lonely and contending with the metropolis, I lived a while at Hataitai and walked to work every day through that noisy traffic tunnel. Every morning in the tunnel, I prepared against the oppression of office restraint by yelling poetry and songs against the tunnel thunders of trucks and buses. Multiple reverberations snatched up and distorted every sound so that not even the few foot passengers heard my shouting.’

His words come from The White Schooner (1973), Charman’s book in soft brown suede twice held in my hand.

I join him as he closes the passage, ‘If you can read me over today’s turbulent montage of sound – Good luck to you too!’

(Acknowledgements: Janet Charman and the Poetry Archive of New Zealand Aotearoa)

Text by Madeleine Marie Slavick
Photo by Luo Hui

ghost records #29

I meet a man from Montenegro. Large eyes and lashes, and a large cross on his silver chain. He tells me a story. The ghost of his grandmother comes to him, presses his sleeping chest, and he says six prayers before she goes away.

Another man has told me this story. In the middle of the night, someone he did not recognize was sitting on his tightened chest. He first thought it was the cat.

Text by Madeleine Marie Slavick
Photo by Luo Hui

ghost records #28

Yesterday, a piece of driftwood. A deep reddish brown, maybe the color of hair, or very late afternoon.

Today, inland, I look up. Seven hills, their bushes, bare winter trees, and long grass, all golden.

In between, the moon comes from behind a mountain of sleeping sheep, lights each living or dying thing. It leaves its last brightness in the sea, then disappears at the horizon, that line we still believe in.

Text by Madeleine Marie Slavick
Photo by Luo Hui

ghost records #27

Why do you want to remember, he asks. He sees me write down the nouns of the evening: sixty-two people in the u-shaped room, the flowers at the front table leucadendron, the curtain blue satin, her beer black, and four spotlights, not three.

In another room, crowded with people and books, a man holding a small piece of paper chooses the word ‘tunnel’ for me to say aloud. Why does this bring happiness.

Twice, on the same afternoon of the month, in the same room, I meet a man who sees, and I don't want to know why.

And in these rooms called home, he says, let us make an ordinary day.

Text by Madeleine Marie Slavick
Photo by Luo Hui

ghost records #26

Poetry is naming, says Sam Hunt.

A lake on Peking University campus is named Wei ming hu — Unnamed lake, Lake-yet-to-be-named.

On Ozu’s grave, in Kita-Kamakura, a single word: emptiness.

And the “Stele without Words” on Mount Taishan? Just a polished, bare rock surface. Empty.

When Su Dongpo, our beloved Song Dynasty poet, visited Pingdu Mountain in Fengdu County, known for its 27 temples and countless ghosts, he wrote: Pingdu, we all know — an old, famous mountain.

No one calls the mountain Pingdu anymore. It is now simply known as: Famous Mountain.

Text by Luo Hui
Photo by Madeleine Marie Slavick

ghost records #25

A statue of Snow White sent by a certain Mrs. Thomson from New Zealand is placed outside a shop in Hong Kong, in the village of Tai O, along with six dwarfs and a sign that says: “Snow White Spouse Wanted”. The shop itself seems to be in the matchmaking business.

New Zealand is apparently the only “Western” country that has a full free trade agreement with China. In spite of the notoriously finicky NZ Bio-security, curious objects do get slipped through, creating unexpected cultural puzzles and moral dilemmas.

An artist friend of mine in Wellington owns a rambling old house filled with collectibles of all kinds. Among her prized collection are two Chinese figurines, each about 50cm tall, made of glazed pottery. They wear traditional robes of red and gold, official belts and headgear, with amiable, bearded faces. I was told they are two of three legendary brothers, but the third one is missing. I was given the task of finding the missing brother and bringing him back on my next trip to China.

It didn’t take me long to find the three brothers in the antique shops in Wuhan, appearing ubiquitously not only in pottery, but also in wood and stone carvings, paintings and embroideries. They are indeed legendary gods that are fondly worshiped by the Chinese. The three brothers—Fu (Happiness), Lu (Fortune), and Shou (Longevity)—represent three of the most desirable things obtainable in this life. The missing brother, as it turned out, was Shou, the Longevity Star.

Yet it proved difficult to find a Shou that exactly matched my friend’s Fu and Lu. I finally stumbled into one in Hong Kong, part of a set for sale in a plant shop, perhaps intended more as garden accessory than living-room deity. The workmanship was fine, and the price seemed right. The only catch was I would have to buy the whole set.

After a few email exchanges with my friend in Wellington, she decided that the price was a bit over her budget, and she wouldn’t know what to do with the two other brothers that she didn’t want. “I would hate to break up their brotherhood just to complete my own set,” she wrote.

In Cantonese, the missing brother’s name is Sau. He is often portrayed as a smiling old man carrying a small child in his arms, and for that reason, he is also the most popular.

Text by Luo Hui
Photo by Madeleine Marie Slavick

ghost records #24

When Shi Zhecun was asked to contribute to a special “ghost story” edition of the magazine, Lunyu, in 1936, he declined. Instead he wrote an essay entitled “Guihua” (ghost talk/nonsense), in which he dismissed the vast store of Chinese ghostlore (Pu Songling’s tales and Luo Pin’s paintings included) as thinly disguised attempts to use ghosts as a device to talk about human affairs. He challenged writers to create works that are truly about ghosts. Ghost for ghost’s sake.

One might say that, by writing “Guihua,” Shi Zhecun also made the inevitable mistake of using ghosts to talk about something else.

Text by Luo Hui
Image from an exhibition by anothermountainman
(photographed by Madeleine Marie Slavick)

ghost records #23

Several ghosts appeared at the film festival this year, each with a grievance or desire, named or nameless. Each spelling out a task for the living.

A young man’s ghost returns to his lover, a fisherman living in a small Peruvian seaside village, while his body remains in limbo on the ocean floor. (Undertow, Javier Fuentes-León, 2010) The fisherman is faced with the task of performing a burial ritual for his clandestine lover: he must dive in to find the young man’s body, publicly claim it (and risk losing his wife and newborn son), only to return the body to the ocean again.

The screening that night was twice disrupted by an unreliable projector. When the screen went blank just before the film ended, the ghost left a task to the audience: we must quickly collect our emotional pieces, and decide whether to continue grieving, to civilly joke about the failure of modern technology, or to turn on our cell-phones again.

Text by Luo Hui
Photo by Madeleine Marie Slavick

ghost records #22

Root-seeking literature (xungen wenxue), written in the wake of the Cultural Revolution, asked big questions: What are the origins of our culture? Why are we the way we are? What went wrong? Wang Zengqi, often mistaken for a “root-seeker,” asked none of these questions. He had a different relationship with the past:

“I write about old subjects because I am familiar with the ways of old society, and I have deeper feelings for life in my old neighborhood. I would like to write about new life and new people. But fiction is reminiscence. I must wait until I can treat fresh life as familiarly as I remember my childhood.”

Wang Zengqi wrote his first short stories in the 40s while still a university student in wartime Kunming. When he resumed writing in 1980, more than thirty years had gone by. How did he do it?

Waiting. Then, remembering.

Text by Luo Hui
Photo by Madeleine Marie Slavick

ghost records #21

The night before the school term began, I dreamed of the campus where I had been working for the last one and half years. It was deserted. Dark clouds scurried across the sky, the ground was broken, potholes bubbling heat like giant mud eyes. Three, four foreign students, all Chinese, scampered around, looking for shelter. The earthquake was coming.

Airfares skyrocketed in advent of the Quake. An unfortunate few who lacked resources, or resolve, failed to get on the last flight home. I stayed behind. As I stood watching my compatriots from the seventh-floor of an unremarkable red office building, I felt camaraderie. I felt the concrete crumbling, gently going down, landing softly, taking me to safe ground.

Text by Luo Hui
Photo by Madeleine Marie Slavick

ghost records #20

Qiu Xiaolong was already an established literary translator in China before moving to the United States. He did a fine translation of T.S. Eliot’s modern classic, The Wasteland, in the 1980s. Having settled in St. Louis, Missouri, Eliot’s hometown, Qiu now makes his living teaching and writing crime fiction in English. In a series of murder mysteries set in Shanghai, his own hometown, Qiu creates the character, Inspector Chen, a police chief at the Shanghai Police Bureau who is also a modernist poet.

Inspector Chen, who frequently quotes and draws inspiration from Wang Wei, Li Bai, Du Fu, and Li Shangyin, still manages to write poetry and attend writers’ conferences in spite of his demanding police work. Qiu Xiaolong, too, manages to keep his poetic passion alive, though vicariously, at a slight remove, through the creation of his alter ego.

Text by Luo Hui
Photo by Madeleine Marie Slavick

ghost records #19

Xinjiang, “New Frontier” in Chinese, is in fact very old. That Xinjiang is not new is evident from what Madeleine saw and heard on a recent trip there.

We never find the night moon

See stars, guitar, road, sand

Urümqi and Turpan, Kashgar and Amanisa

Amanisa, the 16th-century poet, musician, and imperial concubine of the Yarkant Kingdom, devoted her life to collecting and compiling muqam – ancient folk music from the Uygur-speaking regions around the Tianshan Mountains.

Amanisa is thirteen when she finds verse

And the man who will be King finds love in her sense

Her muqam, four thousand four hundred and ninety two lines long

The muqam is performed by a small ensemble of singers, accompanied by dutars (plucked lute), satars (bowed lute) and daps (frame drum). It may also be performed in instrumental form, with kettle drums and double-reed shawms.

Left leg folded over right, he plays the drum there

A twelve-year-old man dances, ready

A similar style of music, known as the “Great Western Region Melody”, flourished during the Han (206BC-220AD) and Tang (618-907) dynasties and enjoyed great popularity in central China. But it would be erroneous to claim, as some scholars do, that the origin of muqam can be traced back to the “Great Western Region Melody.”

It would also be inaccurate to call Amanisa’s muqam, as we do now, the “Mother of Uygur music.” Her sources went much farther.

We see her grave

Poem and child at her side

Cloth and sky…

Photo and poem by Madeleine Marie Slavick

Annotations by Luo Hui

ghost records #18

The golden carp leaping over the dragon gate is a Chinese metaphor for academic success, an elegant, effortless image that belies years of hard work. A few years ago in Hong Kong I witnessed a true demonstration of this metaphorical leap, by a neighbourhood carp.

It was the Christmas when I visited Madeleine at her new flat on Wun Sha Street, on the top floor of a five-story walkup. Her roof garden, now an oasis of orchids, willows and oranges, had just been started. Her sparrow-sized home had all of its vital organs, including a study converted from what must have been intended as a balcony. But Madeleine lived mostly on the roof, reading, writing, daydreaming, surrounded by her plants, and three or four good friends who lived a few rooftops away.

The carp lived in a pond at the end of Wun Sha Street, which started out busy, but quickly tapered off and stopped at the foot of a slope. It was a perfect spot for a school, with the quiet and seclusion provided by the slope and flowering trees. And a school there was. Also a narrow pond made to resemble a flowing creek. Green wire netting was visible in the middle of the pond, presumably put in to catch leaves and petals fallen from the trees. So designed, the schoolyard pond, most aptly, became the domain of the resident carp. It diligently swam from one end to the other, and, as it approached the wire netting halfway, its graceful body came to a slight pause – dive, turn, flip – the golden carp was over the dragon gate!

The leaping carp of Wun Sha that daily displayed its grace and agility must have caught the eyes of many absent-minded school kids in the classrooms above. Some would have, surely, become scholars or officials. Some would have become artists, or daydreamers. None would have grasped the hidden meaning of the carp (and were all the better for it), but many would still remember the joy of watching their favourite carp in action.

Text by Luo Hui
Photo by Madeleine Marie Slavick

ghost records #17

The King of Qi had a retainer who was good at painting. The King asked him: “What is the most difficult to paint?” “Dogs and horses are the most difficult,” was the reply. “What is the easiest to paint?” “Ghosts are the easiest.” Dogs and horses are commonly known, and they appear in front of our eyes day in and day out. One cannot simply approximate them. Therefore they are difficult to paint. Ghosts are formless. They are not visible to us. That’s why they are easy to paint.
– Hanfeizi

When I mentioned this theory to a friend in Toronto, he said it reminded him of a Japanese master of painting, Yoshihide, in Akutagawa’s story, Hell Screen. Yoshihide insists that he can only paint what he has seen. When commissioned by the Lord of Horikawa to create a screen depicting Hell, Yoshihide proceeds by inflicting torture upon his apprentices. He then asks the lord to have a beautiful lady burned in a carriage so he can finish the screen. The lord concedes, but without telling him the name of the woman that would be sacrificed for his art. The story ends terribly with the magnificent screen completed, and Yoshihide’s suicide.

No one has seen Yoshihide’s Hell Screen, except as described in Akutagawa’s words. The painting exists as an idea, making impossible demands on the artist. Edgar Allan Poe would have made similar demands.

Chinese art is more forgiving. Not that it lacks discipline. Great discipline is applied to things of this world – dogs, horses, people. Ghosts, however, have suffered long enough. Why not let them have an easier time and set them free?

Text by Luo Hui
Photo by Madeleine Marie Slavick

ghost records #16

Cai Yi didn’t fare well in the Han court, so he went into self-exile in the south. He had an ear for music. Once he saw a man burning a piece of wood for cooking. Yi listened to the crackling fire and said: “Fine wood.” He asked for the wood and had it made into to a zither. It had a most beautiful tone. As one end of the zither was singed, it was named ‘the Black-tail’.

It is also said that when Yi visited Huiji and stayed at an inn built with bamboo, he told the owner that the sixteenth beam from the east end would make a fine flute. They took it down and had the instrument made. It sounded extraordinary.

Text by Luo Hui, after Soushenji
Photo by Madeleine Marie Slavick

ghost records #15

If, disappointed with the giant squid on display at the Te Papa Museum, you step outside and walk toward the harbour, you’ll see that the museum itself is partly surrounded by water. The building suddenly becomes more interesting. You see a stone slab submerged in the shallows, with carved letters fixed atop. It is a poem by James K. Baxter:

I saw the Maori Jesus
Walking on Wellington Harbour.
He wore blue dungarees.
His beard and hair were long.
His breath smelt of mussels and paraoa.
When he smiled it looked like the dawn.

It is important for the poet’s words to be outside, not inside, the museum. It meant that birds would perch on them, and every now and then, one or two letters would be dislodged and gone, and then replaced. The quote is only the first six lines of the poem.

It continues:

When he broke wind the little fishes trembled.
When he frowned the ground shook.
When he laughed everybody got drunk.

Yes, this is Wellington, where it’s always a bit windy, where the tremors wake you at night, where the squid makes no sense, but the poet does.

Text by Luo Hui
Photo by Madeleine Marie Slavick

ghost records #14

bubble tea
bubble tease
bubble tears

Beyond the South China Sea, people lived in water like fish. But they did not forget mulberry, hemp, and weaving. When they cried they cried pearls.

Text by Luo Hui
Photo by Madeleine Marie Slavick

ghost records #13

Several of my friends have asked me to join Facebook. Not in person, but discreetly via the Internet. “Kenji invited you...” the message would begin, “to be their friend...” It imploringly continues. I have not yet complied. The reason I give is this: It’s just another computer-generated email. Kenji, who taught me Japanese when we lived in the same rooming house in Toronto years ago, has probably long forgotten that he had invited me (and all his other friends) on a whim.

My daily commute is a bus ride through a studenty part of town, where Tui bottles are weekly recycled and graffiti adorn the retaining walls. One morning the bus came to a stop in front of a rather dilapidated section of a wall. Two lines jumped out at me:

we fought for our city space can we
fight for Francis to go to facebook

There was eloquence in those words. My complacency about not joining Facebook shattered, and all prior prejudices against Facebook evaporated. I wondered if Francis had already joined.

No, Kenji hasn’t forgotten his invitation.

Text by Luo Hui
Photo by Madeleine Marie Slavick

ghost records #12

Wellington International Airport ran a Facebook forum for suggestions on what it should place on its hillside to greet visitors as they descend into the nation’s capital. Among the top ten ideas so far are “Wetawood,” “Frodo’s Land,” and “Middle-earth.” The original idea, a 3.5-meter high by 28-meter wide “Wellywood” sign, was shot down for being a tad derivative.

Massive signs, directly inscribed on naked cliffs, can be found in the ancient mountains of China, particularly Mount Taishan in Shandong Province. These were works of calligraphy written in monumental size by emperors or scholar-officials, then printed onto rock surfaces, and painstakingly chiselled in by craftsmen. The words would be poetic or scriptural. It is said that the administrators who were assigned posts in Shandong had to be good calligraphers, for they might be called upon to perform the task of setting words in stone.

I prefer Air New Zealand’s current motto: Wild at Heart.

Text by Luo Hui
Photo by Madeleine Marie Slavick

ghost records #11

The four-piece band that I am with is only three months old. We self-consciously call ourselves OrientXpress, although our bandleader is a kiwi. Of the handful of songs that we practice in order to build a repertoire, three are moon songs. And it was a moon song that we sang during our debut performance on the first of May, in a retirement village just north of Wellington.

You ask me how much I love you
How deeply I love you
Go take a look in the sky
And think it over
The moon represents my heart

There are clichés that we cannot easily dismiss, like this song first made popular by Deng Lijun, a Taiwanese songstress. Thirty years ago in China, people listened to it at night under heavy blankets, risking being called decadent or bourgeois. In Hong Kong people also loved it, covertly, because the song’s association with the Mainland made it sound “backwater” and unfashionable.

No moon was in sight when we stepped out of the retirement village that night, only a sky full of stars, but moon was on my mind… A friend from Australia said he does not go out at night when the moon is full. Our singer, who recently arrived from China, said she could no longer see the moon in her city.

Wellington can still be proud of its bright, gorgeous moon. To see it one has to contend with the clouds (another NZ specialty), and one has to be patient. There are guidebooks for amateur astronomers that detail the phases of the moon within a given period of time. Our bandleader bought one such book some years ago and followed the moon with a telescope for a whole season. When not long ago we tried to use the book again to figure out the craters and the seas, the charts and images no longer applied.

The moon is indifferent to our song, I thought.

Text by Luo Hui
Photo by Madeleine Marie Slavick

ghost records #10

Wang Zengqi (1920-1997) wrote some of the most un-story-like stories. They read like essays, poetry, or portraits, landscapes, arcane history. His own life history, appended to The Collected Writings of Wang Zengqi, also does not follow the format of the typical author’s biography.

There I found out that his father painted, played music, and raised birds; that both his mother and stepmother died of pneumonia, and a long-suffering second stepmother raised him. He was a doted child. The family was so afraid of losing him (to banditry, war, disease) that, in keeping with local custom, they found him several godmothers, and had him registered in both the Buddhist and Daoist temples around his hometown in Jiangsu. His Buddhist name was Hai Ao — Sea Turtle.

Text by Luo Hui
Photo by Madeleine Marie Slavick

ghost records #9

The grandmother of a friend of mine in Toronto told me this story, which her mother told her when she was a child:

In 1925, northern China had become the battleground of powerful warlords. Not long after I was born, my family fled to Hangzhou, a southern city near where my father was stationed. While in Hangzhou, we lived in a rented house that was over a hundred years old. The neighbour told my mother that the house was haunted, and fox spirits were reportedly seen. To which my mother replied, “If the conscience is clear during the day, one need not fear the knocking of a ghost at night.” But one day, something strange happened. My mother woke up in the morning, but found me missing from her bed. She got up and searched for me everywhere, and finally found me under her bed, still fast asleep. I was only a few months old, and could hardly move around on my own, let alone climbing down a bed and crawling underneath it. The whole affair was rather inexplicable. Then my mother thought, maybe the fox spirits played a trick on her, because she refused to believe that they existed. Indeed, while ghosts and spirits have been the stuff of legend since ancient times, their existence has yet to be proven by science.

Are there kinder ways of persuasion? Gentle is the fox spirit who hid the sleeping baby under the bed. And gentler still is the mother who took heed, gave in a little, but remained skeptical.

Text by Luo Hui
Photo by Madeleine Marie Slavick

ghost records #8

The existential problem for ghosts is to prove that they exist. When all rhetorical devices fail, death becomes their last resort. It is not clear if Gan Bao (?-336) was vindictive or sympathetic when he recorded this story:

Ruan Zhan (281-310), courtesy name Qian Li, was an adherent of the “no-ghost theory.” No amount of physical evidence could dissuade him of this belief. One day, a visitor arrived and requested to see Zhan. After a few exchanges of courtesies, they began to chat about metaphysics. The visitor was a talented debater, and Zhan engaged him in a long discussion. Their talk became especially heated when it came to the subject of ghosts and spirits. Finally the visitor gave in, and said angrily: “The saints and worthy gentlemen of today and yore have all passed on stories of ghosts and spirits. Why is it that you alone deny their existence? Look, I am a ghost myself.” Upon saying these words, he transformed into an alien shape and disappeared. Zhan fell silent; his face turned ghastly. By the end of the year, he fell sick and died.

Text by Luo Hui
Photo by Madeleine Marie Slavick

ghost records #7

TradeMe is a popular New Zealand auction website, a great place to look for bargains, oddities, and to dream your way up the property ladder. I became a TradeMe user shortly after I arrived in Wellington, and immediately got hooked. I found my first flat on TradeMe—a drafty little place perched on a slope, but with lovely views of the Botanical Gardens and the distant hills. I also befriended my current landlord through TradeMe—They were selling one of their properties on the web (not the one that I am renting), and I went to their Sunday “Open Home” (a favorite national pastime). Although I don’t spend quite as much time looking at houses on TradeMe now as I did in my honeymoon phase, I am still in danger of a relapse now and then.

What recently brought me back to TradeMe was entirely of academic interest. Sometime in February, two vials, which the owner claimed contain the spirits of two ghosts that had haunted their house, were put up for sale. The seller, a certain Mervin S. based in Christchurch, the largest city on the South Island, said that the ghosts were captured by an exorcist from a local spiritualist church.

The two spirits – an ‘old man’ thought to have lived in the house during the 1920s, and a powerful and disruptive ‘little girl’ – were now put to sleep in two vials of blue-colored holy water. “We have had no activity since they were bottled on July 15, 2009,” said the seller. “I just want to get rid of them as they scare me.” The seller also gave instructions on how to revive the spirits – the buyer would need to pour the contents into a dish and let it “evaporate into your house.”

The auction generated vigorous bidding. A Christchurch buyer, with the profile name of Cddriver, eventually won out with a top bid of NZ$2830.

Property values in Christchurch are significantly lower than those in Wellington. The city is, as the Wellingtonians like to say, “very flat.” Which means most properties have large lots with good garden spots. It is also much less windy. My friend Fujio, who recently retired from teaching in Wellington, is going to look for a house there.

Text by Luo Hui
Photo by Madeleine Marie Slavick

ghost records #6

One morning in early March, I received four or five emails from a friend in Hong Kong. The messages, full of exclamations and barely legible, were written in a state of shock and inebriation: The poet Zhang Zao passed away in a hospital in Germany.

My friend, also a poet, was close to Zhang Zao when they started out as China’s promising new generation of poets, back in the early 1980s. They soon parted ways, and each went on to write some of the most memorable lines in the modern vernacular. But they rarely saw each other except in print. My friend mentioned that for a few days in a row in early March, he found himself writing Zhang Zao’s name, repeatedly, during his calligraphy practice. He said it was his old friend coming to say goodbye.

Two years ago I translated one of Zhang Zao’s poems, among several other poems by other Chinese poets, for an American literary magazine. I was surprised, and disappointed, that Zhang Zao’s poem was not selected for publication. It is a love poem, one that my friend said he would like to have written himself—

think of things you regret in this life
and plum blossoms will fall
like watching her swim to the other shore
like climbing a pinewood ladder
dangerous things are beautiful
but you’d rather watch her return, on horseback
cheeks warm
bashful, head lowered, answering the emperor
a mirror would always be waiting for her
let her sit in her usual place, in the mirror
look outside the window, think of things she regrets in this life
and plum blossoms will fall all over the south mountain

(Zhang Zao, In the Mirror)

Text by Luo Hui
Photo by Madeleine Marie Slavick

ghost records #5

In Strange Tales of the Northern Song Capital, Li Lian of the Ming Dynasty recorded a conversation between Su Dongpo, the great Song Dynasty poet, and a wet-nurse in his household who, one day, became possessed by a ghost. The ghost, speaking through the wet-nurse, expressed his wish to take the woman away as his own witchdoctor:

“I’d sooner let her die than let her leave my house,” said Su.
“If you won’t let her go, it can’t be helped,” said the ghost. “But will you have some prayers said for my soul?”
“Certainly not,” replied Su.
“Can I have a little wine and food then?” asked the ghost.
“Certainly not,” replied Su.
“How about some paper coins?”
“Certainly not.”
“Just a cup of water, please!”
“Give it to her,” said Su.
After drinking the water the wet-nurse fell to the ground and came to herself again.

Su Dongpo is known for his poetry and calligraphy, and personifies a no-nonsense, carefree attitude toward life. I suppose this conversation, which may or may not be apocryphal, could be considered “in-character.” Yet I would rather see a Su Dongpo who is less stern with his ghost intruder, like the Su Dongpo who wrote:

It was evening. I had already undressed and was about to go to sleep when suddenly I saw moonlight coming in through the window. Delighted, I got up and went out. As there was no one to spend time with, I promptly went to the Chengtian Temple to look up Zhang Huaimin. He, too, had not yet gone to bed. Together we took a stroll in the middle courtyard. Down below we saw a puddle, freshly accumulated, the water clear and bright, with a tangle of waterweeds crisscrossing inside—but that was probably the shadows of the bamboo and pines. What night has no moon? What temple has no bamboo or pine? What’s missing are the wanderers, like the two of us tonight.

Text by Luo Hui
Photo by Madeleine Marie Slavick

ghost records #4

In the part of the countryside where I grew up, children were taught to be mindful of the dead. We had daily encounters with them. The graves were right inside the vegetable gardens. You’d see them, little houses for other people’s ancestors and your own, on the way to school. Simple shrines with incense burner occupy the main room of every house. Behind them are black-and-white photographs of old people, always pale and hungry looking.

Not long after we moved back to the city, my father died. In the first few years, my mother always put an extra pair of chopsticks on the table when we gathered to eat. We had a few photographs of him in a frame, above an armoire, without the shrine and incense burner. He was pale-looking, but young and handsome.

Text by Luo Hui
Photo by Madeleine Marie Slavick

ghost records #3

In fact children can be cruel little creatures. A child can feel embarrassed by many things in the grown-up world. Sex is one. Death another.

In A Summer Day in the Beautiful South, Can Xue writes:

Grandma died, but I was not at all mournful. I still didn’t know the meaning of death. In my mind, death was something black and disgusting. The best way to deal with it was to forget.

Text by Luo Hui
Photo by Madeleine Marie Slavick