From Vacuum by Nicholas Wong


In 2013, there were 319,325 migrant workers in Hong Kong.
About half were Indonesian and nearly all were women.

Recruitment and placement agencies, in Indonesia and Hong Kong respectively,
are routinely involved in the trafficking of migrant workers and their exploitation
in conditions of forced labor.

Exploited for Profit, Failed by Governments (Executive Summary), Amnesty International, 2013




“At first, [     ] did not have any friends in the strange place. At first, [     ] insisted the use of Cantonese because––. At first, women looked like [     ], [     ] looked like that reef. At first, bad girl as cultural displacement. [     ] was anxious, at first, about not living up to the expectation from society. At first, [     ] had another home, the home with _____. At first, [     ] would rather not use them to represent those who used them to represent her and people like her. At first, he disliked [     ] to call him ______. At first, goodness could be sustained. Grief avoided [    ] in the three-bedroom apartment, before [     ]’s avoidance in narration, at first.”




But didn’t you notice she finally became a subject (or an event)? Yes, the police. Yes, the interrogation. Yes, the unreeling of truth you expected to hear in the brindled dark

would only be heard by her when her lips slightly parted for a fearful language to emerge

Everything else: imagined

Crime scenes made your hindsight habitable: should have... if not... I saw it coming

A neighborhood redolent of saliva. Small talks. “Did you act cute? Did you repeatedly say kawaii?” the police asked, some imagined

Some imagined she answered What do you think? Some went on with a kind of vagueness just set. Some saw her head (from newspapers or in person) purpled and swollen like an aubergine, but less narrow

“Explain why it happened.” One thing, you said, the police must have said. They say it in all cases, as if the self were the cause of a force

the force, then an object the force imposed on. So go on. Explain ––




Reality’s whiplash––debts––I––here––unparadise––a battle

I never knew that the light chewed, and its chewing on a face meant crushing

My phone auto-corrected
kawaii (the Japanese word
for cute) to lawsuit ––

I was alone in the sitting room. There’s so much to dust. I neared the window. The skyline was jagged. What if demolition was the true form of permanence? A nest was a mirage in drag

My family didn’t live with me anymore. There’s no enjoyment in resemblance. Things either are or aren’t, I said

I auto-corrected my texture. Furniture had a reputation of being hard. You still had to ask why I acted like it




When the police made me sit in this room for hours and my victimhood stand behind intentions, vocabulary reached its end

Our world had changed. The wind started a trend, under which we all had to prove we’re innocent some day

Since when the horizon had become a cult thing

Something strange in their act of copying what I said on paper. No crossing out was allowed, or the report would have no legal stand

I had an instinct that there’s clear evidence to prove that colors devoured, and the devouring happened because of downed ownership through a sackful of lacks

Some nights, ghosts sang in tenor, but I called their singing an unspecial nocturne

Why’d one waste his time warning a tart of crumpling? Wasn’t the grass burnt by lava enough to say all volcanoes were amoral

Rats appeared 34 million years ago. They now barely managed modern breaths. Anyway, they tried to rewrite my language, so that a certain truth could be constructed

I didn’t mean to lessen a person with a metaphor. But their eyes, concerned with accuracy, looked at mine, as if a third eyelid showed




I went on explaining:

I matured in the first month
after arrival. I slept,
enjoyed adults, baby-sat. I kept
quiet, out of sight.
Although I slept, I non-dreamed.
I remained short
of light, 20 to 30 percent of light


I readied. I reacted. My back arched. I repelled

“Body is self-rewarding.” “This may take a few days.”

I acted. I elephant, gorilla, smaller,
rabbit, raccoon. I, feared.
I, wild, puma, although I ass

What I to them, I


Q: “Do you know first aid?”
A: I kept words in the fridge. They rotted at room temperature

Q: “Shall we start somewhere a list of bad maids?”
A: What was bad? I de-froze my words at mountaintop

Q (under the guise of a judgment): “This one answered back.”

A: When language reached the trough, the wind looked for a reddened face,
++++++++++++++++++++++++++or an anemone, or anyone

Q (under the guise of sympathy): “Let her go.”

A (under the guise of confession): I, by mistake, fried a gourd with a gourd, which made the assessment of my cooking skill purely a matter of gourd-ness

A (under the guise of anxiety): Problem was I had been thinking a lot about space how perspicacious it could be. I was longer than my bed. When space died, its codicil said my understanding should lie recumbently, nightly

Q (under the guise of abuse): “Now bend over.”

A (under the guise of employment): When I told you I was not adjustable like your patella band, you said there’s a saying: “be nice.”




Mutual acceptance: “They are things we live among. Seeing them is like seeing scattered clothes hangers. We think about what to do with them.”

[I was asked how I disciplined children]

They were things we lived among. Seeing them was like seeing scattered clothes hangers. I thought about what to do with them

“This one answered back.”




To enhance the tenacity of instant noodles, you told me to cool them under a running tap

I stood in the cold shower, let the water overflow myself to capacitate peace

You could trust me with less angle, if that helped you obscure terror

Your friend of a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend told you her maid was HIV+, and had been sleeping with the children

Some crimes, like love, were exocrine

There’s a cliché that words could kill, or shelter someone. There’s a cliché that all clichés had to be clean for the libelous lips




Mutual acceptance: friends showing affection and trust by sleeping side by side

one another and each other
were suddenly airlifted
to fit. My eyes wanted
to be part of everything
they saw. She said
I was a Leica, aluminum
for the body, pictures for the heart.
She said my eyes focused faster
than I thought. I couldn’t see

the anatomy of their judgment against us. The sight preceded the touch
that preceded my memory of her skin
that preceded solicitude. They saw, she said

There’re things that operated only with distance, noise––echo, household––

home, my hand––hers




No one could understand I tried filling a crevice with audacity in this place that had become a placenta fostering a different kind of friendship. I couldn’t remember which concept wasn’t elusive. I remembered the haunting of a recurrent blind fever, with which I was urged to bond in an instant. It’s difficult. A lot of people thought that. No revolving door, but venue. That nausea caused by stillness. I was that woman, who thought the city’s imagination hadn’t grown a full femur. Please don’t walk out on me, that unliberated, abandoned I, when I couldn’t walk out in exchange of an embrace, the loneliness’s icon




I was afraid of staying in this form. What other forms of being could I adopt? Thinking of it tested the limits of my humanness

I opened a children’s book. It had a personified water spider as the protagonist

It started tiny like a burnt chestnut. It’s given a narrative arc, a few pages of glossy transformation. To validate its verisimilitude, the author made it a ninja of espionage on page 4

It had a sparky black garb. It tucked its raging belts to illustrate the quickness of aches

I wanted to be it. An avalanche of darts, grapping hooks. I could shatter hesitation of clams like that

See? I wasn’t a lout––I was educational

That one skittering on the pond was my kitsch

My original had sunken in a collapsible boat

Hyperboles said too much of my fear of being-ness

I mesmerized with disguise, which, at times, got so messy as if someone scorched her skin to keep it dry, but wanted the sensation of rain




Beyond the finality of fear, an us––I kept on imagining

I imagined I worked nightshift in an aquarium. It’s closed. I opened it like a one-page book

I read its condensed ecology of motives with an insomniac throat. Instead of sleep, sponges estimated deficits in bleaching cold

A mop that preferred solo and soaps, always muted with plea

was more personal than calm

On break, my nose stuck to the glass that kept a surplus of marine lives in zones. My nostrils became a form of nonsense in hogfish’s eyes

A ship, by sinking, lost her weight. Sessile polyps wished in secret for wreckage

Wet with work, I was an amphibian by night. In one form, I denied the possibility of conversion; in another, I held an eye that read the tanks’ conceit ––

Something inside wasn’t evolving fast enough to be one of us



Nicholas Wong is the author of Crevasse (2015, Kaya Press). His poems and translation are forthcoming or have appeared in Asymptote, Copper Nickel, Massachusetts Review, The Missouri Review Online, Quarterly West, The Margins, and Verse Daily. Based in Hong Kong, he is a real Asian poet and an assistant poetry editor for Drunken Boat.