A cup of fine tea: Reid Mitchell’s “Hiring Mourners in Wan Chai”

Reid Mitchell’s “Hiring Mourners in Wan Chai” [Read the poem here] (First published in issue #1 of Cha)

— This post is written by Tammy Ho.

The opening lines of Mitchell’s heartbreakingly sad poem contain both a Western literary allusion and a reference to Chinese culture: ‘I hired a whore the night my father died / gather ye mourners where ye may’ (L1-L2). The reference to the first line of Robert Herrick’s poem “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time”: ‘Gather ye rosebuds while ye may’ will be familiar to most people, even if they don’t know the source. While Herrick’s poem urges the ‘virgins’ in the title to live life to the fullest and seize the day as one day they will die, Mitchell’s persona gives the line a melancholy twist by using it to describe the end that the earlier poem warned against. Instead of gathering rosebuds, the speaker urges the reader to ‘gather ye mourners where ye may’, a reference to the Chinese practice of hiring mourners for funerals. Notice the slight shift in the construction of the line from ‘while’ in Herrick’s poem to ‘where’ in Mitchell’s. (The poet is perhaps suggesting not so much that one seize the day but that one seize the place.) The ‘where’ in this case is Wan Chai in Hong Kong. Perhaps unsurprisingly for the location the only available mourner on hire is ‘a whore’. The contrast between the ‘virgins’ in Herrick’s poem and the ‘whore’ in Mitchell’s work points to an interesting conclusion: is the end result of Herrick’s call for virgins to enjoy life and throw abandon to the wind the degradation of prostitution?

Of course, Herrick’s main point that we should savour life while we can is also evident in Mitchell’s poem, which is about the end of life and loneliness. At this crucial moment, the persona finds himself alone and isolated: ‘friendless I left myself by faring so far’ (L3). Thus while the seventeenth-century work is filled with amorous undertones, we see that the speaker in Mitchell’s poem hires the ‘whore’ not for sexual gratification but for simple company: ‘a Thai woman with a Chinese face lay in my bed till day / I sat at this desk, drank whisky, and cried’ (L4-L5). The anonymity of his chosen mourner (normally the mourners hired for Chinese funerals are strangers) is heightened by her ambiguous heritage: ‘a Thai woman with a Chinese face’. Her role in this particular wake is simply to sleep, while the persona’s is to commemorate his father by drinking, crying and staying awake. The rhyming of ‘died’ (L1) with ‘cried’ (L5) brings father (died) and son (cried) together nicely, suggesting the son’s recollection of his dad. However, as the lines appear at the start and end of the poem, we now see the irreversible distance between them.

Reid Mitchell is a New Orleanian who refuged one crucial year in Hong Kong (2005-2006) and has previously taught in New Orleans, Princeton, Berkeley, Budapest and most recently, Huaqiao University in China. Mitchell has had poems accepted for publication in The Pedestal Magazine, Poetry Macao, Mascara Poetry, Asia Literary Review and elsewhere. He has also published a novel A Man Under Authority (Turtle Point Press, 1997), a number of literary dialogues (with Tammy Ho Lai-Ming) and academic works of history. He teaches in the history department of the University of Albany, in New York. Contact: reid@asiancha.com [Also see Mitchell’s Cha profile.]
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2 Responses to “A cup of fine tea: Reid Mitchell’s “Hiring Mourners in Wan Chai””

  1. Bob Bradshaw Says:

    Yes, I agree by poem’s end that there is an “irreversible distance” between father and son. But it isn’t just a distancing between father and son, but between cultures and identities.

    The great opening line is followed by a mocking reference to ‘gather ye rosebuds…’. Herrick’s response to approaching death seems almost irresponsible compared to the narrator’s grief.

    After all, the narrator knows something about ‘distance’ …Take the line ‘and friendless I left myself by faring so far…”

    Again, the old word ‘faring’ leads us momentarily to think of adventure, romance…but the poet undercuts this expectation with ‘ a Thai woman with a Chinese face lay in my bed till day’. Again, there is nothing to allay the grieving. Worse, he has left not only a culture behind, but perhaps his identiy as well…”I left myself”….

    A fine, fine poem…

  2. Lee Minh Sloca Says:

    I gave it a week, hoping that I would change my mind about L2 & L3,

    gather ye mourners where ye may
    and friendless I left myself by faring so far

    but I’m afraid, I did not. I still hate them. They feel so out of place. It’s nice that “may” end rhymes with “day” in L4, but it feels like those two lines got stuck in Mitchell’s mind like some song refrains that he felt he need to input it. I wish he had put quotation mark around those two lines then I could still enjoy the poem. As it is I don’t see the logic of using old English colloquium in this situation. It would have been interesting if the whole poem was in old English; the sound of ancient sounding words would have given a certain mood and color to the dying father.
    This is more profound when I read his other two poems; none of which uses the odd mixture of language.

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