Swallowing Clouds

Swallowing Clouds
edited by Andy Quan and Jim Wong-Chu
ISBN 1-55152-073-7
Vancouver, B.C.: Arsenal Pulp Press, 1999
Paperback · $CDN 21.95


Work by writers of Chinese-Canadian heritage have achieved international success: books such as those by Wayson Choy, SKY Lee, and Denise Chong, as well as Many Mouthed Birds, the acclaimed anthology of Chinese-Canadian fiction. In the tradition of Many Mouthed Birds, Swallowing Clouds collects the work of some of the most vibrant and exciting Chinese-Canadian poets working today, the first such anthology ever published in book form. These poems evoke the spirit and sentiment of the Chinese-Canadian community, representing a diversity of language and style that speak to issues of ethnicity and culture while forging new and exciting paths of their own.

Swallowing Clouds includes poems by a number of well-known writers as well as fresh new poetic voices. Together, they form an eloquent and fiery portrait of the Chinese-Canadian experience.

WINNER OF A BRITISH COLUMBIA BOOK AWARD 2000. 64 books chosen to help mark the Millenium and “honour some of the best titles published in the province”. School libraries ordered more than 15,000 of these award-winning titles.


(I really enjoyed working with these amazing writers)

Marisa AnLin Alps, Louise Bak, Lien Chao, Ritz Chow, Glenn Deer, Sean Gunn, Jamila Ismail, Gaik Cheng Khoo, Lydia Kwa, Larissa Lai, Laiwan, Fiona Lam, Jen Lam, Evelyn Lau, Pei Hsien Lim, P.K. Leung, Andy Quan, Goh Poh Seng, Thuong Vuong-Riddick, Fred Wah, Rita Wong, Jim Wong-Chu, Kam Sein Yee, Paul Yee


Publisher Brian Lam was awarded a Community Builder Award last night in November 2013 from the Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop as part of the literASIAN festival, as reported in the Georgia Strait. He “deliver[ed] a fact-packed history of his life and book selling in Vancouver” in his acceptance speech, including a mention of Swallowing Clouds and Chinese-Canadian poetry:

He characterized Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop cofounder Jim Wong-Chu’s 1986 Chinatown Ghosts as “the first Asian-themed poetry book ever published in Canada”.

In 1999, Wong-Chu collaborated with Andy Quan on an anthology of Chinese-Canadian poetry called Swallowing Clouds, which was also issued by Arsenal Pulp Press.

“The book is 14 years old now and in addition to including poems by such established writers at the time as Evelyn Lau, Fred Wah, and Paul Yee, it included many who were being published in book form for the first time,” Lam said. “Today, it is astonishing to realize how many of those new young writers have gone on to publish their own books of poetry and fiction.”

Congratulations Brian, and nice reporting, Georgia Strait.


The Calgary Straight, vol 3, #106 (July 6-12, 2000): page 8. Reviewed by Nicole Markotic

It’s difficult, in a short review, to do justice to any anthology, but it is especially difficult to characterize and describe the richly diverse collection of poets, Swallowing Clouds. In his introduction, Andy Quan tells the reader that the title for this collection comes from two simple opposites: swallowing and cloudy heavens, also known as won-ton. Such a title promises simple comfort, as well as a delicate mixture of broth and meat, noodles and vegetables; a mixture, in other words, for a variety of tastes and preferences.

Quan goes on to relate how this is an anthology that comes from a place both real and mythical – Chinese-Canada, and that the poets within its pages come from around the globe, they “are these travellers, and their children, and their grandchildren, and even further down the family tree.” The anthology, he says, is the creation of a “we” rather than an “I.” But it is also so much more – it is a gathering of multiple “we”s, who speak their stories in diverse styles and approaches and language plays and poetic truths.

Included inside Swallowing Clouds, are a range of talented individuals from internationally-known poet Fred Wah to first-time published writer Lien Chao. Although Wah’s Governor General Award is credited to the publication of the fiction anthology, Many-Mouthed Birds (which came out in 1991; Wah’s G.G. was 1986), and each poet’s bio is included in a page a bit too visually precious, the anthology is a wonderful assortment of original and vital poets. They are collected here not because of their homogeneity, but because of their literary appeal and diverse poetic reach.

Rita Wong’s “sunset grocery,” takes on the problematic icon of the corner grocery store as well as foregrounds the narrator’s small-case I, right-justified ragged-left margins, “inscrutable” “fine girl” self – all amid a world of skinny hallways and flamboyant prometheus:

the summer i am afraid of fire i make change in my sleep. the cash register’s metallic rhythm comes quick to my fingers: 59¢ from $1 gets you back one penny, one nickel, one dime, one quarter…

Wong’s poetry absorbs narrative devices at the same time as it rejects these devices – the tension in her lines, each stanza slightly off-kilter yet perfectly balanced, holds the reader waiting for that final cash-register “kachink.”

Leung Ping-Kwan offers a medley of styles and voices, ranging from a poem that celebrates imperial architecture at the same moment it examines a bitter colonial history that old buildings represent. His poems introduce the reader to foods and smells and sounds “that challenge your blueprints’ rectangles” and “melt on your tongue.”

Famous mostly for her narratives, Evelyn Lau, in these poems, brings about an equally engaging narrative voice, but with added emphasis on the twisted image or the torn metaphor. “I am a pale scar around your neck,” her persona says to listener/reader/lover, as she babbles a truth made up of polished stones and marbles.

I’ll end with one of my fave’s, in which language-centred poet Fred Wah mixes fast-food imagery, punning rhythms, and ridiculous rhymes to drive the reader, again and again, to the end of the line and back again, to the construct of race and then further:

What’s yr race
and she said
what’s yr hurry
how ’bout it cock
asian man
I’m just going for curry.

You every been to ethni-city?
How ’bout multi-culti?

Read this anthology for the wonderful poets I have mentioned and for the fabulous poets I have had to leave unquoted. Read it for the diversity of voice and language and context and ideals. Read it because it is new and fresh and necessary. Most of all, read these delectable won-tons for the sheer pleasure.

The Loop Magazine – May 2000 – Review by Akiko Ito

Swallowing Clouds is hot. The anthology sings with the works of twenty-five Chinese Canadian poets. It informs us with their sensitive takes on today’s socio-political issues. More than that, it unfolds the varied layers of humans relating from their culturally-diverse, sharp perspectives. For instance, Glenn Deer’s “Eurasian Album” foregrounds the complex racism which comes from the difference in human discourses. Deer’s great sense of humour imbues the reader with a world complicated by inherent realities when these matters mix: race, love, space, time and difference lived under the shallow ideas of being human. The poets write incredibly dynamic poems; for example, Rita Wong with her keen descriptive sense of smell, Larissa Lai with h er lively intellect and Fiona Lam with her aching sensitivity. I like the fact that the poets deal deeply with being situated in a complex world. After all, respecting difference is the key to reducing the world’s problems. Deep in my heart, the poems remain.

This Magazine, 1 March 2000. 

Foodculture: tasting identities and geographies in art.

SWALLOWING CLOUDS: AN ANTHOLOGY OF CHINESE-CANADIAN POETRY (Arsenal Pulp Press) will do more to dispel the myth of a monolithic “Chinese community” than any number of municipal Lion Dance parades or high-end Asian fusion restaurants. Expertly edited by Andy Quan and Jim Wong-Chu, Swallowing Clouds offers the reader everything from confessional story poems to experimental language games, and even the occasional formal quatrain. Well-known writers such as Louise Bak, Fred Wah, and Evelyn Lau rub shoulders and styles with newcomers like Jen Lam and Ritz Chow; I searched in vain for a poem I truly disliked. Neo-Orientalist Louise Bak is one of my favourite poets–her sexy, forthright erotica plays with and against Asian Sex Kitten stereotypes with unabashed glamour and wit. Her poetry is the beating heart of the book. While Fred Wah speaks of more kitchen-sinkish concerns, he is a welcome anchor here, as perhaps a taste of the kind of accomplished, assured writing we can expect from the brasher, greener contributors. An important and timely book, Swallowing Clouds should get some curriculum time next to those timeless plaid and porridge anthologies we all know and love.

“Swallowing Clouds” by Paolo V. Poletto, broken pencil, spring 2000.

Co-editor Andy Quan’s introduction to this introduction hits all the essential marks… I just didn’t believe the quality would be so high, so engrossing … Swallowing Clouds has surely swallowed clouds.

Poetry Reviews, Quill and Quire, January 2000

Along with “a particular spark and life to this writing,” as Quan suggests, there’s also a political awareness, a questioning intelligence, and an audacity with language that should be more widely known.

Ottawa Citizen Online, 31 Dec 2000, “Canadian Poetry on a roll” – Douglas Fetherling

Recently I was reading a splendid new anthology edited by Andy Quan and Jim Wong-Chu, Swallowing Clouds, trying hard to pinpoint what qualities these first-, second-, third- and umpteenth-generation Chinese-Canadians have in common. Then it became clear reading Pain Not Bread’s Introduction to Wang Wei… Pain Not Bread is a writing collective consisting of Roo Borson, Kim Maltman and Andy Patton, three Canadians not of Asian heritage who are looking to classical Chinese poetry for models they can adapt to their own present needs. Things like that don’t happen elsewhere. At least not routinely, the way they seem to here.

The Book Mine Set: Reader’s Diary by John Mutford

“…the poetry escapes its confines… As with any anthology, some poems were better than others, but fortunately I enjoyed most.” Click on the link to read the whole review, which focuses on poems by Louise Bak, Kam Sein Yee and Goh Poh Seng.

How to get it

You can get your copy of Swallowing Clouds directly from the wonderful folks at Arsenal Pulp Press.

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