“The Paranormal Minibus Driver” by Wong Leung Wo, translated by Audrey Heijns


minibus two

Please scroll down for the Chinese text!

While I was walking to the bus stop from my place, a minibus 28K sped by like the wind from behind. When I got to the stop, I was wondering how long I would have to wait for the next one. To my surprise, there was another one, no two more minibuses approaching. The first one was 28K and so I immediately waved at it. The female driver did not stop, probably because the minibus was full. I felt disappointed, until I realized that the next minibus was another 28K. It was not full and it opened its doors right in front of me. I got on the bus, and a man wearing a mask also got on. I only just sat down, when he swiped his octopus card and the driver said: “Sir, you with the mask, I recognize you! There’s no need to call out, I know where you want to get off.” My heart beat loudly when I heard the driver’s voice, surprised that I got on his minibus.

The man who just got on the bus, took his seat right behind the driver. He pulled off his mask and laughed: “You’re amazing!” Then he made a remark about the fact that the minibus in front of us did not stop.

“The lady driver in front is my “apprentice”, she knows I am right behind her, so of course she lets the “master” pick you up,” replied the driver.

“Of course: you’re the True Master of the Road!” The man who had removed his mask imitated the tone of Jacky Chan reminding drivers to drive carefully in the government ad shown on TV.

“No, not “True Master”! In our profession we’re called “senior apprentice”, when my apprentice greets me they call me “Senior Apprentice”. Nowadays the meaning of words change all the time and you have to be careful. In the past in mainland China everyone was Comrade this, Comrade that, but that’s no longer used. Those guys in Lan Kwai Fong who fancy men are now called comrades!”

That was the first time I caught his bus in the direction of Tai Po. In the past I had only been on his bus from the market in Tai Po to go back home. The first time I took his minibus, he abused me; the second time, he and a passenger were shouting at each other; the third time, I wanted to file a complaint about him; the fourth time, I wanted to get off early; the fifth time….

The first time I was on his minibus, we had just set off when I suspected something was wrong. The driver was constantly talking, mumbling to himself, swearing at passengers who had called out twice where to get off. In the past, it happened to me, that I had told the driver where to get off, and the driver had forgotten where to stop, thereafter I made it habit to remind the driver when we were approaching the place where I had to get off. Then he told me off: “You have already told me where you want to get off, there is no need to repeat yourself. You eighteen people just tell me once where to get off, and I will remember!” By the time I got off, I was still annoyed by his swearing in public. To my surprise, not long after this incident, another passenger who told him his destination “Care Village” when getting on, also got told off when he repeated it when we almost arrived at “Care Village”. The passenger reacted: “There’s no reason to get angry, when I remind you.” The driver said: “Why do you have to repeat it? You already said “Care Village” when you got on, didn’t you? I remember all of your destinations. Hey, the young lady there with the long hair has to go Deerhill Bay. Ask her if that’s right? How could I forget? Anyway, once is enough!” The young lady in the back stared pokerfaced without making a sound. He insisted that passengers tell him only once. It was an offense to say it twice.

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Notes on Thick Brown Paper: In Tibet • Yu Jian (1994)

L1080735_Yu JIn TIBET

Photograph by Yu Jian

The etymological root of the Tibetan world is “origin”. There is nothing static about this notion of origins, for this world in its vital energies is originary. It is not only a spiritual quality; it is also immediately apparent in the land, in the architecture, in the way of life. For someone who comes from a world of which the etymological root is “progress”, it is simply not possible to make use of the word “backward” in the case of Tibet. Tibet rejects the outlook of Darwin’s theory of evolution so widespread in our world. Everything in this world takes place in an untrammelled time-space, an integrated whole, a powerful consciousness of life and history. Here you might gain an immediate sense of what is known as “eternal life”. When you discover that the time shown on your watch is totally out of sync with that of the Buddhist elders seated on the stone slab at the Jokhang Temple, you begin to suspect that the time of your “progress” is in fact regressing this moment in the direction of death.

In no sense is Tibet a place where spiritual beings are ethereal like the wind. This is pure conjecture on the part of atheists living in the world of “progress”. In Tibet, a spirit is something you can meet with on the road. They are not insubstantial air: they are tangible and have all the intense reality of stone. They are things capable of inflicting injury on the wind and its ilk.

A materialist visiting Tibet who did not become—if only for a split second—a mystic would, I believe, have to be devoid of any feeling.

I do not like discussing the supernatural. Nor am I fond of poets given to liberally sprinkling their works with the word “soul”. I am certain that there is no spirit to speak of in those places where the word “soul” is spoken of with such gusto. I didn’t hear the word once during my stay in Tibet, nor did intellectuals there debate its loss. But the spirit was everywhere.

Prior to my trip to Tibet, an avant-garde friend back from New York told me that he found it surprising that there were people still wanting to go there. Surely such behaviour was well and truly passé? I didn’t quite know what he meant. Could the progress of time mean that places such as Tibet were out of date? To which parts of the globe would future ages travel? No, I felt hopelessly out of step with fashion—I had always imagined the Tibets of this world to be timeless.

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Opus 4 • Yu Jian (1983)

Sun Face Sai Kung_2012-09-05 09.40.40 crop

I have been re-reading Yu Jian’s second book of poems, The Naming of a Crow (《对一只乌鸦的命名》) from 1993, just to see if there was anything in it that I hadn’t really appreciated in earlier encounters. Here is one poem that suddenly struck me with a force that I had never noticed on previous occasions: without any clear idea of why, I decided just to get to work and translate it, and I was pleasantly surprised by the way the text seemed to open up as I went along. I’m a terrible reader sometimes; I rely on translation to do my reading for me!

If you read Chinese and are interested in how the language works in this poem, there are a few points of grammatical and lexical interest: I’ve listed these after the Chinese version.

“Opus 4 • Yu Jian (1983)”

One half of that white snake of stones is wound around the mountain
basking in the sun, while the other half
crawls through the legs of a pine forest.
A crow watches me grow up out of a field of grass:
it circles overhead to investigate
before hitting the road once more with the clouds ―
it thinks I’m a tree.
A herd of cows keeps a 12-year-old king company
as he dreams beneath Spring’s regal new canopy.
He sees a red bee in his dreams.
I pass as quietly as I possibly can but he wakes suddenly with a start.
In the spaces between mountains and towering trees between grass and the squirrels between sunlight and streams
we have swapped eyes forever.
He stays put far away in his mountains like a fairtytale about a forest spirit.
I spend the rest of my life trying to imagine the sound of his voice.


Yu Jian photo SMALL_30 JUL 2018



  • The particle 着 can be used to indicate that a verb serves as a “background” or “accompanying” action to another main verb. So in 白蛇缠着山晒太阳, the main action is the basking in the sun, while 缠着山 gives us some more information about how this basking is done. Basic Chinese by Yip Po-Ching and Don Rimmington has a brief explanation of this point.
  • You don’t see the noun 华盖 hua2 gai4 very often. It has two meanings: (1) canopy (as over an imperial carriage) and (2) aureole, a meteorological term referring to “a ring of light around a luminous body”. Fortunately, “canopy” in English is a common metaphor for the sky.
  • I’m a bit unsure of the meaning of 交换眼睛. It may be an idiom, but it’s not one I’m familiar with. There’s a hint of swapping places with another person, of exchanging (if only imaginatively) lives: I suddenly saw everything around me with his eyes . . .
  • I guess one would expect the poem to say: he was like a forest spirit. Yu Jian makes a delightful modification here, by suggesting that he was not just like the spirit but the whole mood or atmosphere of a tale for children: 像一个有林妖的童话.


The Hurricane and the Poet


One prompt for poetry is the intense experience, something out of the ordinary which reduces us to stunned silence. When words fail us, we turn to poetry in order to make sense of an occasion that defies the ordinary run of our vocabulary. Language, in such cases, is forced to reach for new resources. It has no choice but to rise above its habitual methods. Such experiences constitute a kind of high-level apprenticeship in “extreme” creativity

Tomas Tranströmer’s prose poem “Hurricane, Iceland” is a simple example of what I mean. The speaker, probably representing the poet himself, gets caught in a strong wind, an unusually strong wind. He tries to make this perfectly clear in the opening lines:

Inget jordskalv men himlabävning. Turner kunde ha målat det, fastsurrad. En ensam vante virvlade förbi nyss, flera kilometer från sin hand.

Not earthquake; rather, skytremor. Turner could have painted this, lashed up tight [fastsurrad]. A solo/unpaired/single glove whizzed past just now, several kilometres from its hand.

The three moves here all attempt to convey magnitude. The first makes use of an indirect kind of simile. The hurricane is compared, by implication, to an earthquake, but since it happens in the sky, the poet invents the compound word himlabävning, made up of himmel = sky, firmament + bävning = trembling, shaking. This audacity at once brings home to the reader something of the power of the weather the poet faced on that day: the shock of the hurricane is at least partly duplicated in the shock of the unexpected comparison.

Tranströmer’s second magnitude is a cultural one. The reference to the English artist Joseph Turner is there to remind us of the fact that the artist had a fondness for painting violent natural scenes — titles such as “Eruption of Vesuvius” (c. 1817) or  “Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth”  (1842) alone suggest this particular bent of his imagination. But, as the poem makes explicit, he would have to have been fastsurrad or “strapped up tightly” to avoid being carried off as he worked. This incidentally poses a bit of a problem in translation: the tendency is to want to fasten Turner down, but obviously he would need to be upright to make his art. At the same time, despite this binding, he would have to have at least his painting arm free.

Perhaps this thought about arms crossed Tranströmer’s mind as he added a third image to complete his presentation. The word ensam in Swedish looks as if it might mean “one-some”, but its most common meanings include “sole” and “alone, lonely”. The poet uses it here to underscore the fact that gloves come in pairs. The image is shifted from merely striking to exhilarating with the addition of the phrase flera kilometer från sin hand. The intrusion of the word “kilometres” between the hand and its accompanying glove magically, I think, conveys the enormous interval involved.

So far, we have an evocation of an extreme weather event. Tranströmer goes on to increase the drama by adding a life-threatening predicament:

Jag ska ta mig fram i motvind till det där huset på andran sidan fältet. Jag fladdrar i orkanen. Jag är röntgad, skelettet lämnar in sin avskedsansökan. Paniken växer medan jag kryssar, jag går i kvav, jag går i kvav och drunknar på torra land! Vad det är tungt, allt jag plötsligt har att släpa på, vad det är tungt för fjärilen att bogsera en pråm! Äntligen framme. En sista brottning med dörren.

I will make my way into the wind across to that house on the other side of the field. I flap/flail about [fladdrar] in the hurricane. Having been X-rayed, my skeleton hands in its notice. The panic mounts as I criss-cross back and forth, tacking: I’m going down, I’m going down, drowning on dry land! How heavy they are, all these things I suddenly find myself having to drag with me, and how heavy it is for a butterfly to drag a [whole] barge after it! I made it. A final struggle with the door.

The speaker has no choice but to make his way in impossible conditions to the distant house. The meaning of “fluttering” links back to the wind, and is close etymologically to the Swedish verb fladdra, but the word seems a bit feeble to me in this context: possibly “thrash” or “flail” would be truer to the situation, if less linguistically accurate, here (Robin Fulton uses “flutter” in his version: it certainly prepares us much better for the butterfly image). The bit about X-rays may seem out of place, but the dislocation of terms here, especially the phrase “to hand in one’s notice”, gives it power by dint of its incongruity. At this point, maritime references come to the fore to drive home the point about the speaker being both out of his habitual element and seriously in danger. They culminate in the topsy-turvy image of the butterfly-tugboat towing a barge [en pråm] behind it. By putting the cart before the horse here, the poet once again evokes the magnitude of the wind. At the same time, there may be a hint of something existential here: as the panic increases, the speaker is made to feel the full weight of his being on the Earth.

Of course, after that, the poem has to tell us what happened. Did the hurricane victim make it to safety or not? Tranströmer provides the following resolution:

Och nu inne. Och nu inne. Bakom den stora glasrutan. Vilken egendomlig och storslagen uppfinning är inte glaset — att vara nära utan att drabbas . . . Ute rusar en hord av genomskinliga sprinters i jätteformat över lavaslätten. Men jag fladdrar into längre. Jag sitter bakom glaset, stilla, mitt eget porträtt.

Finally inside. Finally inside. Behind the big pane of glass. No strange or rather magnificent discovery, [this thing] glass [I’m not sure about this interpretation! Fulton has “What a strange and magnificent invention glass is”] — to be so close without being struck [drabbas] . . . A hoard of transparent sprinters the size of giants rushes by outside over the lava plain. I no longer flutter/flail about [fladdrar]. I sit behind the glass, calm: my self-portrait.

His relief is palpable, signalled by the repetition of the simple phrase “Finally inside”. Along with the simplified language, the mood shifts: things gets mundane. There is one final, showy image of the weather, but what counts most is the glass and its calm. The speaker may see actually himself reflected in the pane — hence the words mitt eget porträtt (“my own portrait”) — but by now he is stilled, like the language of his text. His days as a butterfly have come to an end.

This is language at home in its habits: composed and equal to the task. Only when it is called on to deal with something larger than ordinary life, like a hurricane, is it put to the test. Such ordeals are vital though. When a writer comes to grapple with the more subtle, less dynamic occasions of human being, she has at her disposal a model of sorts for the precision, the power, and the quality she needs in order to communicate her experience unforgettably. She has, in other words, an idea at least of how to hurricanize herself against banality, chattiness, blur.

Here is a link to Robin Fulton’s full translation, “Icelandic Hurricane”, on Tranströmer’s official website.

《蛙文》/ Frogscript 2 • 郭少鳳 Evette Kwok

Japanese Frog for Frogscript_Thumbnail_2 FEB 2018

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