Wong Soak Koon translates another poem by Usman Awang into English and shows how it still has relevance almost six decades later.
In this season of intolerance and unthinking racism, I was propelled to take down from my bookshelf an old collection of Usman Awang’s poems. I remember how the sanity, the maturity of his verses had ministered to me in times past.
Here, I translate his memorable short poem Anak Jiran Tionghoa. At the fence, Ah Chew stands, securely confident that Iskandar will come out to join him; Iskandar will cross that barrier and welcome him.
The simplicity of this poem carries a deep message. It is a timely reminder to us, through the poet’s humane observation of two children at play, of shared experiences as we come together to build a multiracial nation.
Written in 1962, when independence was recent and new, the poet’s message is never didactic. Instead, it gently persuades us to return to the ‘innocence’ of children who do not bear grudges for long.
In some ways, this poem reminds me of Wordsworth’s belief that The Child is Father of the Man, telling us that we can learn from children if we have the humility. In addition, it recalls Robert Frost’s Mending Wall, where Frost warns us that before we build “fences”, we had better think clearly what we are fencing in and what we are fencing out.
Anak Jiran Tionghoa (1962)
by Usman Awang
Begitu kecil ia berdiri di tepi pagar
kilat matanya memanggil Iskandar
siapa lalu siapa berkaca
melihat keduanya bergurau senda
Anak Tionghoa kelahirannya di sini
di bumi hijau ladang-ladang getah dan padi
dia bisa bercerita untuk siapa saja
di sini tanahnya dan ibunya bersemadi
Lihat mereka berebutan pistol mainan
he, jangan berkelahi
ah, anak-anak dengan caranya murni
berkelahi untuk nanti bermain kembali
Lihat mereka tertawa riang
Ah Chew tak punya gigi sebatang
Iskandar mengesat hingus ke baju
sekarang mereka menunggu aiskrim lalu
Bumi tercinta resapkan wahyumu
jantung mereka adalah langit mu
darah mereka adalah sungaimu
nafas mereka adalah udara mu
Translated into English by Wong Soak Koon:
My Chinese Neighbour’s Child
So small, he stands near the fence
His bright eyes call to Iskandar
whoever passes, whoever has eyes
will see them sharing laughter
Chinese child, you were born here
in this green land of rubber estates and paddy fields
he will tell anyone
this is his homeland where he will bury his mother
See how the two wrestle for a toy pistol
heh, don’t fight
ah, children in their innocence
fight, then come back to play together
See their happy laughter
Ah Chew has no teeth, not one
Iskandar wipes his runny nose with his sleeve
now they wait for the ice cream man to come
Beloved land, imbue them with your sacred guidance
their heart is your sky
their blood, your rivers
their breath, your air
Each reader will have her favourite verse, but I like the second verse which tells of duration and the timeframe of belonging to a homeland. The Chinese boy was born here, and such a birth is, in fact, enshrined in the Negaraku, our national anthem, in the line which reads “tanah tumpahnya darahku”, which refers to the foetal blood of birth.
In this riveting second verse, the birth of a child and then the long years which lead to growth, maturity and the death of a mother encapsulate the tests of time and of loyalty to a homeland.
Usman Awang’s selection of a simple word “hingus” in the fourth verse refers to more than a child’s runny nose since beringus connotes the innocence of childhood, of the freshness of experience.
Perhaps it is this childlike (never childish) trust that refuses to be easily manipulated by the powerful for their own cynical ends. I recommend that, time allowing, we reread what this national laureate (sasterawan negara) so wisely penned decades ago.