A chandelier of bags adorns the ceiling at poet Jane Wong's exhibit at the Frye Art Museum: After Preparing the Altar, the Ghosts Feast Feverishly. 
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A chandelier of bags adorns the ceiling at poet Jane Wong's exhibit at the Frye Art Museum: After Preparing the Altar, the Ghosts Feast Feverishly.
Credit: Photo by Jueqian Fang.

"Have you eaten yet?" Poet Jane Wong prepares her ancestors a feast

If your ancestors were here, what would they eat?

Seattle poet Jane Wong grew up in a Chinese-American restaurant in New Jersey.

She’s a first generation American – her mother survived the Great Leap Forward and ensuing famine in the countryside of China. And although the food of her childhood, the food of their livelihood, and the food of her ancestors are very different, they all overlap in her.

Jane’s show at the Frye Art Museum is called "After Preparing the Altar, the Ghosts Feast Feverishly." (Read the full poem here.)

Adwoa Gyimah-Brempong speaks with poet Jane Wong

Wong's show at the Frye Art Museum is called "After Preparing the Altar, the Ghosts Feast Feverishly."

In it, she imagines the meal her ancestors might make for themselves: chicken feet, pizza, the pizza box, a single flip flop.

But also on the menu are the frontier, and even the American Dream, for which she says her family was voracious.

“There’s a desire to eat things that are seemingly full, but they might be potentially empty,” she said.

Her family worked hard for that dream – like many immigrants, getting by on hard work and pride. They were always dressed well growing up, albeit from Marshall’s rather than luxury stores.

And Jane was always well fed. Overfed, she realized later, perhaps to make up for the family history of lack.

Love! What is love

if not knotted in garlic? Child, we move through graves

like eels, delicious with our heads first, our mouths

agape. Our teeth: little needles to stitch a factory of

everything made in China. You ask: Are you hungry?

Hunger eats through the air like ozone. You ask: What

does it mean to be rootless? Roots are good to use as

toothpicks. You: How can you wake in the middle of

a life?

Those tags have a fraught meaning for Wong.

"I could be working in a factory right now,” she said. "And I know that very well, and I think my family knows that. Every single time I see a 'Made in China' tag, I can't help but think about my mother working in a factory – which she did, as a young woman. Embroidering luxurious birds."

Using needles to stitch luxury for others while dreaming of a better future feels like the prototypical immigrant story.

My own father wanted to be an astronaut, for example, but became an economist instead – practicality winning out over dreams.

The centrality of work in her family’s life runs strongly through Wong’s work. “As much as this poem is about food, it’s also about labor.”

The room that contains the exhibit is deceptively simple. It contains a large gold table with restaurant bowls around it. Some of the bowls have a line from the title poem; to read it, you walk around the table.

In this form, it has neither beginning nor end. There are also empty bowls, mirroring the space breaks in the poem as well as the not-so-distant specter of hunger.

Above the table there is what Wong calls “a chandelier of plastic bags,” full of oranges or flowers. It’s a visual joke that not everyone will get, she says: a nod to the seemingly universal immigrant habit of hoarding plastic bags.

Anchoring the room is a giant neon sign that asks, simply: HAVE YOU EATEN YET? It’s a greeting, a way of saying how are you?

In the restaurant where Wong grew up, they never ate the food they cooked: crab rangoon, General Tsao’s chicken, wonton strips, egg rolls. It was lacquered, fatty, sweet – very removed from her family’s real life.

That food is simpler: tomatoes, egg, soy sauce, some ginger.

“That’s my favorite dish – and I hope it never shows up in a hipster restaurant,” she said.

What does it mean to “elevate” a culture’s food, she wonders?

“Elevate it for whom? Why would you add lobster to something, or truffles? You can’t gild a potato.”

All of Wong's earliest food memories are of home and family, whether it was her grandmother peeling grapes for her in a little bucket or sharing a moment while teething with the family dog. Silence is as much of her story as the words are.

"I’m constantly afraid of what my family thinks of what I’m doing, in terms of bringing up painful memories," she said.

"They shouldn't have to talk about it if they don't want to, and they don't. So I find myself listening very closely to what is not said."

At the opening of her show, one of her uncles, a fishmonger in Seattle's International District, came up to her and said, simply, “you understand.”

"Sometimes I think about how invisible he is," she said, "behind the counter, scaling fish. To have him be present in the gallery space, and beyond — I feel very lucky to have them give me permission to do that. All I can say is that I hope that it gives them that sense of being seen."