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