Clara Hsu

the last Chinese opera singer in Havana

People are used to seeing this old woman
moving among them
gracious, speaking in Cantonese
without a drop of Chinese blood
yet she is the last of her kind
donned with a phoenix crown
and long flowing sleeves
singing without accompaniment
(instruments were confiscated
after The Revolution)
Life is defined as before and after.
Twenty-thousand Chinese
dwindling down to less than twenty
who can still speak “Say-Yup”
the village language of south China.

In an upstairs room the image of Quan-Gung
and his three brothers,
all revolutionary heroes of another time.
Honor was the code
“even though not born at the same time
but wish to die together.”
It was not to be
Destiny is never dictated by man’s wish.
So the dimming torch is carried by a woman
whose step-father was a Chinese man
immersed in the art of opera.
In the heyday there were four theaters in Havana
and she was the princess,
the butterfly lover, the woman warrior, the white snake spirit.
Darling, this loose-curled-redhead must have stolen
the hearts of thousands.
Her fingers still extend like an orchid flower
and her high-pitched voice soars above
the woodblock and cymbals
now played by her dark-skinned grandchildren.

She is happy to receive an embroidered
pink-silk jacket.
She won’t take it off even in the heat.
The Lung Kong Association is lively
with visitors from San Francisco.
Many Chinese faces
Many Cuban faces
Many languages
Many gestures
too many too many smiles and laughter
the village swells
She holds my hand
and together we sing
我偷偷看 偷偷望

Translation of the Chinese text:

A sky of falling flowers obstruct the moon.
A cup of wine is placed on the phoenix desk.
Teary Princess Flower offers incense.
To return gratitude is to die for the parents.
I steal a glance and look again.
He’s with tears concealing his sadness.
I’m struck and alarmed,
Afraid that my husband regrets this marriage,
Reluctant to die for love
And accompany me to the fountain of death.

from the Chinese opera, “Princess Flower” written and composed by Tong deSung, 1917-1959

hsuClara Hsu is a Chinese American poet born in Hong Kong. She is a mother, piano teacher, traveler, actor, translator, poet, playwright, purveyor of Clarion Music Center (1982-2005) and Executive Director of Clarion Performing Arts Center (2016 to present).

Since shelter-in-place, Clara has turned her attention to videography. She directed a series of comedic skits under the title Move Over Corona. Her latest skit, Moon Palace Residential, was featured in the 2020 San Francisco Virtual Autumn Moon Festival. Her second children’s play, The Piano, premiered on YouTube as a play-movie on October 11, 2020. Clara continues to work with students in music and acting as well as conducting remote Chinese poetry classes with seniors in low income housing.

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