The Quagga

... confronting the lion’s murderous energy     the quagga stands…
unsure of its identity...

LAU Stuart  劉偉成 (poet, essayist, critic; Hong Kong). An editorial director at Oxford University Press (China), Lau has recently completed a PhD in the Department of Humanities and Creative Writing at Hong Kong Baptist University 香港浸會大學 人文及創作系). He is the author of five poetry collections; the most recent, How Broad Are the Plank Roads of Sunshine(陽光棧道有多寬)(2015), won the 13th Hong Kong Biennial Award for Chinese Literature. A forthcoming collection of poems is titled Modest Heat in Fruits 果實微温 (2019): its Chinese title is actually a transliteration of the “Grocery Run” section in the weekly calendar of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, in which Lau participated in 2017, to emphasize the ingredient of the 60 poems written in Iowa out of the collection’s total of 95. A volume of prose, Alpine Forgetting of Shadows(影之忘返 ), was launched in 2019.

Author's introduction:

The quagga is also known as the quagga zebra. It resembled zebras in so far as its front part had zebra-like stripes, while its rear part was mud yellow, like a horse. Herds of quaggas, ostriches and wildebeest used to live together in the prairie plains of southern Africa, protecting themselves in this way against the raids of lions--something that proved to be very effective, and became a kind of legend in the animal world. Due to its agility and cleverness, the quagga was given the title ‘knight of the prairie plains’ by the aboriginal populations. In 1860, a quagga kept in the London Zoo committed suicide by banging itself against a wall in anger in front of the visitors’ eyes. The whole world was shocked. In 1883, the last specimen died in a zoo in the Netherlands, and the quagga became extinct.

Translator's note:

Hong Kong and Singapore are often mentioned in a single breath, because were both administered by the British, have majority Chinese populations and are global financial centers. Moreover, because Stuart Lau and I both come from Southern Chinese stock and have the same skin tones, it is often assumed I'm must be a natural translator for his work.

This is not the case. Stuart is a native Cantonese speaker and writer, steeped in Chinese literary culture and immersed in all aspects of Chinese language education in Hong Kong. My nanny spoke to me in Cantonese, but being Peranakan Chinese we usually communicated in nglish and a Malay Creole at home.  I started studying Mandarin as a second language when I was twelve! In Singapore, when one learns Mandarin in school, one acquires practical phrases: how to purchase things at the market and to read public transport signs. Later, at professional development courses, I learnt the technical terms for fixed deposits, equity linked notes and currency linked derivatives. I read in simplified Chinese characters. Stuart writes in traditional long-form Chinese. My literary references are from the canon of Commonwealth and American writers. The sprinkling of Chinese works I was exposed to was all translated with the exception of a Hong Kong chick-lit novel about an up and coming actress! I was not the ideal candidate to translate any of Stuart's poetry, least of all the very complex Ode to the Quagga.

When spoken aloud in Cantonese, Stuart's poetry resonated in a way the Mandarin did not. Perhaps this is because my nanny had babbled to me in that 'milk tongue'.   Whatever the reason, Stuart's poetry called to me like water to the roots of a seed that had been kept dry for far too long. Translating his poetry, starting with 'On the highway, looking to buy a bag of Chinese rice' gave me a taste for water from the source. I couldn't stop. And so it was that I found myself sending out roots into the rich  loess of Ode to the Quagga.

We Singaporeans in our carefully ordered society can't really understand the passion driving recent events in Hong Kong. I have only come to some appreciation because of this very significant Ode. And for that I am immensely grateful.

--Audrey Chin


dawn     standing at the balcony     looking at sky that will never be blue again
sparrows     dropping peace missives for the flowers
I know     if behind me the new rooms represent refuge and certainty     then
the sky and earth framed by this balcony are a wayward peninsula     floating away
one step back through the watery glass door     that’s all it takes to return
to the shabby rooms of my anguish     to tend my banished delusions
no matter     if it’s the gloom-black sky gaping into the light-wells of the sub-divided rooms
or the dead-welded iron-grills defending the tenements     as if they’re pawnshops2
I’m compelled to stake all on this moment’s impulse     open again the too familiar future
uncoiling from the borrowed time and space before Handover
the bottom ledge of a window as short as my shadow
its surface vast compared to the tomb behind me3
where I live     hypnotized in some kind of death
under crushing cross-beams4

passed over first by light then by shade     from one dwelling to another
my memories return in slices     a layer at a time
disappointed dreams whose freedom I use
now     up on this tiny balcony
stuck out like a panting dog’s tongue     I allow myself to stand  
to hear the self-shattered debris of my soul   like drum beats
thundering freedom from the seams of the horizon
boring through valleys and rivers     flattening rare blooms and grasses
rocking free the armada anchored in my bloodlines
rousing courage     launching imagination

African drumbeats     thundering freedom from the vast grasslands
each resonating beat quick with the wind’s jealousy
each clear fresh waft warning of sour destiny
enemies    that flocks of ostrich sharpen their sight to see
ambushes    that fearful gnus sensitize their noses to smell  
the quagga the only one     in the waves of surging grass     standing fixed like a mountain
a sacred creature    seemingly free from the chains of samsara
but only seemingly    in fact also bound
by karma obliged to appear from nowhere     to provide
these moments of tranquility amid the chaos
its dappled front     alternating black and white
duality defining the divisions between love and hate
sacred eyes hidden between the wrinkles of right and wrong
a breath of the divine     into which the laws of nature evaporate
yet like the waves of a tsunami    still inundate      our world of illusion.

even as the lion treads nearer     even as the ostriches with their extraordinary eyesight
calculate the best escape routes
still the quagga     does not dodge     keeps its place in silence
its animal nature     a settled day-dreaming dignity
streaming from it    like tears streaming towards an enemy
merging with other streams of dignity     transforming civilization
even as the lion     caught in the clash between those who eat and those eaten
streaks across the landscape like a breaking revolution     even then    history pivots
stakes all on freedom

of course     I could pick from my memories  
more appropriate windows to secure my wildness         
but amidst the thundering drumbeats     why not this balcony
this altar in the blowing wind
to sacrifice the wildness deep in my heart
in these times when right and wrong only shape installation art
to be transported by this little buffer zone
to transcend this city’s meaningless hubbub
is without doubt     a form of happiness     like the quagga    |
whose soulful eyes hidden inside history’s wrinkles
ferry countless lonely souls across the void     like the Buddha

of course     we’re not waiting for any heroes
to explode like fireworks from the swamp of our collective memory  
this city’s heroes were discharged and sent flying
when the revolutionary headquarters became a garbage stop     signified only by a signboard5
when the entire city took to the streets to celebrate     the flags of ancient enemies lifted6
when everyone should have felt proud
when instead
they were labelled agitators drumming up independence
as the ranks pass now7  row by row from Central
toward the Peak     processing like the quagga’s stripes
from the back of its neck to its forebrain   from instinct to choice
I too set aside the burdens in my heart     the balcony becomes my springboard        
I leap into the torrent of the immense July tide
banners surging like waves of tanks     slogans sounding like gun barrels
empty and deep     seeming to need only belief
to see everywhere    bursting
from the mouth of a soothsaying mute
resurrected by one swallow of a jade cicada8                          
emerged from some dark unknown corner
into the crook of a tree    to tweet wantonly    
chirruping and chirping     drowning out the troubles of the day
till faith revives in the depths of night    and stars from the people’s hearts   
shine with the healing balms of a peaceful land     and on the broad roadways
the shouting surging ranks
criss-crossing in fresh bright lines like the markings on the quagga’s front half
yin and yang perpetually playing tag     night and day struggling
right and wrong wrestling     good and evil contending…

then the scene vanishes   
as if the Great Wall has fallen into the sea     Loulan9  drowned by desert sands
into the divide between sweet and salty water
wet on the threshold belonging to Xiang Lin’s widow10     donated for throngs to step on
each step one more wolf bite into her soul
each step required     so her soul can cross over     return to her mud-yellow skin
as if from a wind-battered outpost     to a deeply dug cave
to knead millet into yellow steamed buns    as eventually our lives are kneaded  
into the dirt of home     where we start from now        
and in once colonized times     a city and park of the same name11      surrounded by windows
that on one night each year     reflect a sea of candles
whose sconces hide forgotten shadows
children writing milk names on breath-dewed glass                             
shirtless men adjusting window clasps
leaning old men thinking up a hundred reasons to continue with life
on that one night each year     as wax drips from the candle-lit procession like cocoons unravelling     I wonder   
what image of truth will emerge into light?
at the end of our march we reach the pawnshop’s bottom steps     
its 1930s Shanghai style balcony
wide enough for quite a few soirees    
long enough to seem like the ten miles of foreign concessions12  in the old country
refurbished now     a restaurant
attracting handfuls of foreigners hungry for novelty
and tomorrow refreshed with a bright new colour scheme on the front of a magazine
a confident testament of another re-birth
for civilization

as wind combs its fingers through the quagga’s black and white stripes   
reaches its muddy yellow skin     pauses     then continues
as if rippling along waves of northern wheat
the quagga’s hind legs tense     its muscles tighten
agitation flows from it as though spilled from a jar       
its wet eyes fill with spirit that might burst forth at any time    
from its powerful hind legs     not so far from the lion
who fakes a yawn     for the time being turn its eyes away  
crouches down again     allowing the gnu a chance to retreat
even as the quagga stays

no matter how the interiors are re-arranged     the pawnshop’s outer walls
can’t possibly whitewash away its legacy of tangles  
steel wires holding up shop boards
their characters seeming normal in daylight     but blinking like ghosts at night
electricity cables powering those last century trams  
advancing like time’s battlements    protruding out windows
providentially     not arrowheads or spears     but shields
doing their utmost to uphold those shady half-committed personages
whose titles    verbose and meticulously annotated  
carefully explain the promises   the moral high ground from which mudslides plunge
raising river-beds high over the peopled plains     until inevitably
the river hangs overhead13     flowing past the ostentatiously fashionable
pawnshop-like windows and balconies     and countless miles of foreign concessions
slogans    all of which when chanted    become air bubbles in mud   
burbling and bursting between levees   bystanders in past days   overseers in previous times     
now gawk up at     praying daily
they won’t buckle

the ostriches’ other-worldly eyesight flung to the winds
the gnus’ stopped up early warning scent detectors  
the alarming lion who has wandered away
only a sign on the zoo’s outside fence    a relaxed finger   
to the singular body     the amazing bi-coloured coat                      

like a judge who cuts through right from wrong     like a farmer who knows his village’s sunburnt soil
like a shuffling prisoner obeying the rules     like a revolutionary martyr spilling hot blood…
like a speculator in the grey markets     like a dying man hoping to be cured by a blood-soaked bun14
like amoral un-committed internet hordes     like nationalist factions insistent on labelling deer as horses…
like far right revivalists in powerful countries     like swindlers who fashion fish eyes into pearls…
all belong to the same tribe of survivors
confronting the lion’s murderous energy     the quagga stands…
unsure of its identity    glances…
at its trapped self     and recalls freedom’s lightning
striking the gigantic trees
standing solemn
in its memory        
the drumbeats thunder from the African grasslands     advancing from afar
three long booms then two short thumps     reverberating against the prison bars    
into the mud     where the quagga stands
it stamps    
one thump then a second     finally a last push   
a repudiation of the sympathy offered from beyond its cage
then in the day’s bright light    
the quagga rams itself into its prison walls
there    at that moment as a species’ extinction is declared
Sisyphus’ boulder reaches the peak    approaches the tipping point
as Camus brought back to absurd life     ponders the ultimate human right    to choose to live
or die     
and then jolted by the quagga’s charge    the wall shudders    the boulder tumbles     
Camus must reconsider
if like humans an animal can choose     what more
chose suicide     how can we whitewash away the reasons?15  
the truth of our lives?
our deaths?



1) The extinct quagga with its half-striped half plain body is often used as a symbol for Hong Kong’s One Country Two Systems political status.
2) Hong Kong people have often felt as if they are pawns to be traded between China and the global powers, especially the United Kingdom.
3) The back of a person means his/her afterlife. The sentence refers to a meeting between Genghis Khan and a monk, where the Khan boasts about the vastness of his empire and is reminded by the monk that his dead body will take up the same space as everybody else.
4) The typical Hong Kong family flat is about 500 square feet.
5) Many of the locations on Hong Kong’s historic walk have been converted to other uses, with only signage to indicate their historical significant. Notably, Sun Yat Sen’s revolutionary headquarters was converted into a rubbish sorting station.
6) On the 1 July 2012 march to mark Hong Kong’s handover to China, colonial era Hong Kong flags were raised to protest post-handover policies.
7) Refers generically to all the 1 July marches rather than the specific 2013 march.
Reference to a folk belief that placing a jade cicada in the mouth of a dead person assists in a good rebirth.
9) Ancient Han Dynasty period kingdom along the Silk Road, populated by people of Indo-European ethnicity.
10) Character in Lu Xun’s novel of the same name; a twice widowed woman whose son is eaten by a wolf and purchases a temple thresh-hold that will be stepped upon, so her sin of marrying twice can be expiated.
11) Victoria Park and the area around Hong Kong Central, originally called Victoria City.
12) Refers to the foreign concession in pre-WWII Shanghai.
13) Refers to the raised rivers beds and levees of China’s Mother River, the Yang Tze, and their history of breakage and floods.
14) In Lu Xun’s short story “Medicine,” a man hopes to be cured by eating a bun soaked in a revolutionary’s blood but even such blood cannot save one from death.
15) Refers to the Lee Wang Yang incident, declared to be a suicide despite the dead man being found hanging from a window with his feet solidly touching the ground.

Audrey Chin is the Singapore-based author of two novels and a short story collection: Learning to Fly (1998), As the Heart Bones Break (2013) and Nine Cuts (2015) were all short-listed for the Singapore Literature Prize. She was also a contributing co-editor of the social history Singapore Women Re-presented (2004). Her short stories, essays and poetry,  published in the US, UK, Singapore and elsewhere, have garnered regional writing prizes. “Ode to the Quagga” is her first published translation.