The significance of one hundred pounds

Analysis by Chris Tse

Featured in Capital #60
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One hundred pounds

for Wong Wei Jung, Wellington 1914

There is no photograph of the father
of the father of my father
only one taken
from the ancestral home by a man
not related. I imagine him
(inside a cardboard
box, lost in the tenements
of modern Canton)
in pure black
and white, and perhaps aged
the colour of old blood,
and wonder
did he have hair
that swung across his back
in the style of Manchurian
subjection, or was it cut
short and covered by
a trilby? Ah, there
is nothing to see, only brazen black
letters on aged white paper:
a notice of Murder
from the Minister of Justice
the reward as great
as the poll tax.

By Alison Wong
from Cup (Steele Roberts, 2006)

About the poet

Alison Wong was born in the Hawke’s Bay. Her first collection of poetry, Cup, was published in 2006, and was shortlisted for Best First Book of Poetry at the 2007 Montana New Zealand Book Awards. Alison’s acclaimed novel As The Earth Turns Silver (Penguin, 2009) won the Fiction Award at the 2010 New Zealand Post Book Awards. It was also shortlisted for an Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Award.

In brief

The poem’s title refers to the historical poll tax payable by Chinese migrants upon arrival in New Zealand (the only ethnic group subjected to this tax). A revelation in the closing lines takes the title in a more shocking direction: the poem’s subject is revealed to be a murder victim and the titular £100 is a reward for information. In her author’s notes, Alison explains that her paternal great grandfather (to whom the poem is dedicated) was violently murdered in his fruit shop on Adelaide Road in 1914. After pressure from the Chinese community and Consulate, the Minister of Justice offered a reward for information from the public that might lead to apprehending the murderer; but the case was never solved.

Why read it

Cup was the first poetry collection I read that reflected the experiences of a Chinese New Zealand writer. It’s a landmark book, which contains poems about family, love and parenting amongst others that look to the past and New Zealand’s mistreatment of Chinese settlers. In both this book and her novel As The Earth Turns Silver, Alison strives for a genuine representation of both past and present-day Chinese New Zealanders.

Why I like it

In this quietly searching poem, Alison asks us to question the value of a life, and the artefacts and events that end up defining it. The poem also captures the frustrations and fragmentation of unearthing our own family histories – what can we pass on to future generations when there is little left in the way of records and photographs? It’s a poem that contains many layers of historical context, delivered with devastating emotional impact.


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