Koon Woon’s Paper-son Poet: When Rails were Young, A Memoir, a poetic, multi-genre memoir of his growing up both in China and America has finally reached the shores of all who read English in the Pacific Rim. He continues in this newest book to “tell the truths” of life as it is lived—but if you are a new reader do not mistake his writing for a raw, unfiltered immigrant biography.
In prologue to this book that consists of prose stories, poems, and an extensive transcribed interview by Frank Chin that comprises the second section, Koon Woon characterizes himself thusly: “You are the dragon on the wall / You are the railroad when America was young.” Koon contextualizes his own coming of age as a boy in Southern Guangdong Province with his coming of age later in America, working, studying, and struggling with poverty, mental illness, and loneliness in America, with early Chinese railroad workers who had arrived a hundred years prior.
Koon Woon’s great-grandfather, Lock Lick, in fact had gone to Hoquiam, Washington to run a laundry and restaurant. Later, Lock Lick’s son, however, was an alleged wastrel and died somewhere in Canada without reporting the existence of his China-born son, (Koon Woon’s father). Thus, when Koon Woon’s father needed to immigrate to the United States he had to buy a “paper-son” immigration paper from the Woon family. Like other Chinese, Koon Woon’s father then was detained at Angel Island in San Francisco, the Ellis Island of the West.
Koon Woon writes with the wisdom of a 66-year old man who retains in his bones and blood a much younger mastery of form: what I call “word gungfu”–muscular, dynamic, and versatile, springing with alacrity or moving trance-like in meditation. His poetry and prose in the first half of the memoir draws from the wellspring of childhood in the village under Communism: helping his father plant and harvest rice, as well as attending Party meetings as a young child, amidst playing cards and poker games, fishing, eating, washing, and, of course, fighting, only to have “to try to wash the blood in the lotus pond.” Then, on October 31, 1960 his plane lands at Sea-Tac airport in Washington State after a journey from Hong Kong, Taipei, and Tokyo. That flight marks the beginning of his journey both away from Asia, and his later return, through poetry and memory, to rediscover the meaning of his life and consciousness of being a man treading water that overlaps upon dual shores.
Koon Woon was born “Locke Kau Koon” in Nan On Village in Guangdong Province and was part of the 19th and 20th century migration of Toishan peoples from the Pearl River Delta to America. His actual surname is Locke, and his family in fact is related to Washington’s most well-known politician, Gary Locke. Koon Woon himself immigrated to the United States in 1960 to Aberdeen, Washington, worked in the family restaurant, and studied mathematics and philosophy at the University of Washington. Later, he completed degrees in creative writing and began to publish books of poetry, which were well-received by literary critics and readers alike.
While some of the concerns of his work (migration, displaced family, and harsh journeys) recall earlier poems from “Songs of Gold Mountain” (1911-1915), or poems written by sojourners on Angel Island before World War II, Koon Woon work differs in that it is written entirely in the English-language. More important, his writing is also tempered by the irony, humor, and brashness of the West Coast beat generation poets—including Kerouac and Ginsberg together with ancient Tang poets and classic Chinese novels such as the Three Kingdoms and Journey to the West. This all makes for an intoxicating, caffeine-rich East-West brew not unlike the Hong Kong drink “yin-yang” which combines the bittersweet taste of both tea and coffee in one satisfying cup.
Koon Woon’s lyric artistry surprises and delights, here is one example in his long poem, “Song of the Village (In Water Buffalo Time),” an ode to his growing-up in Nan-On village:
She gives me crackers and tea, and draws the mosquito net.
I hear a faint moan from the water buffalo.
He too will be librated…
Dragonflies hover over chrysanthemums
Like helicopters over a burning forest.
Bananas and grapes bunch together like families.
Women splash buckets into the well.
I look for the faint prints of water buffalo …
Extending the range of his previous two books of poetry, Paper-son Poet provides us with a contemporary, allegorical Asian version of Plato’s “cave,” whereby people chained and facing the wall of a cave begin to interpret and give names to the shadows they see, mistakenly taking shadows for reality rather than ascertaining the philosophical truth behind. In Koon Woon’s book, the “shadows” include both the fractured memories of his Asian past, as well as the realities of the American present that include daily encounters with good or bad feng shui at work or in love, coupled with bouts of mental illness, and observations on the highly stratified class structures of traditional Chinatowns in Seattle and San Francisco, whereby the merchants count their profits, and male and female workers are systematically exploited both by their own kin and by the society-at-large.
In essence, then, Koon Woon in his daring first memoir unveils the cave’s shadows to reveal spiritual and psychological truths of being a man, a poet, and a modern Asian American dancing on the tightrope of consciousness. In so doing, he must call out the shadows of race, class, and politics for what they are—illusion—and replace them with his own names, his own words, his own sentences, his own being.
Each reader, through perusing KoonWoon’s Paper-son Poet can step out of the cave of festering, hackneyed old stories, thus freer of the illusions that have bound him or her. To borrow from the author, “The rails are still young,” and it’s time to board the train—to Asia, to the Americas—seeing them in a new light.
Koon Woon will give two readings from his new memoir ‘Paper Son Poet’ (Goldfish Press). On Thursday, November 3, he will read with Dan Raphael and Willie Smith and an open mic preceding the reading at Couth Buzzard Books (8310 Greenwood Ave. N) at 7:00 p.m. On Thursday, November 10, he will read with Katie Tynan and Roselle Kovitz and an open mic at an “It’s About Time Writers’ Reading Series” event at Ballard Branch Public Library (5614 22nd Ave. N.W.) at 6:00 p.m. Free.