“Chinatown Poem” is an original cento written using language taken from billboards, commercial shop signs, advertisements, and other elements of the linguistic landscape of Boston’s Chinatown neighborhood. The poem explores Chinatown as both a site of diasporic cultural production and a space where racist tropes and stereotypes about Asian people circulate and become reified. The poem asks a series of questions about Asian (mis)representation in America: Who is this language for? What makes this language specific to Boston’s Chinatown, as opposed to any Chinatown in America? What is the life expectancy of this language in the world versus in poetry? Can the poem be read out loud, or must it be viewed? Though easily missed, there are glimpses of the real diversity, histories of immigration, and strength and resilience of the communities that make up Chinatowns across the U.S.: “se habla español,” “最大的障礙是語言,” “One day you’ll find a house / that could be a home.” Conceived of as a cento (a poem composed of lines from poems written by other poets), “Chinatown Poem” challenges conventional definitions of what constitutes poetry and who counts as a poet.
Image Credit: Market Scene in an Imaginary Oriental Port