Reviews / September 2010 (Issue 12)

The Growing Mind: A Review of Jennifer Ching's A Painted Moment and Patty Ho's Heart to Heart

by Flora Mak


Jennifer Ching, A Painted Moment, Proverse Hong Kong, 2010. 154 pgs.
Patty Ho, Heart to Heart, Proverse Hong Kong, 2010. 105 pgs.

Ask my ten-year-old self to consider the beauty of Gustave Caillebotte's The Floor Scrapers, and I would stick my tongue out. But as an adult when my gaze chanced upon the painting, my sensations were awakened. The graceful stretch of the muscular workers, the turning heads which communicate in silence, the sawdust scattered and gathered, the artist's perspective ... appreciation only grows with age. This enlightened perspective towards life is central to the two Proverse publications reviewed here, Jennifer Ching's A Painted Moment and Patty Ho's Heart to Heart. Ching's debut novel depicts the breakthrough of an individual's mind; Ho's debut poetry collection presents affectionate portrayals of natural objects and human affairs.

The plot of A Painted Moment revolves around the twenty-two-year-old narrator Rachel Glass (her name suggesting her troubled identity), who finds her comfortable little world threatened when her best friend, Yun Ung, dies of a heart illness. At the beginning of the novel, Yun Ung has passed away and Rachel is struggling to write a eulogy. She only feels worse about her deceased friend as old acquaintances show up with stories of their failures in life. The sense of loss and pain persists until she understands Yun's final message and eventually leaves her comfort zone.

This psychological plot runs in parallel to a Chinese fable Rachel recalls. It is about a lonely girl, Lan, befriending and confiding in her shadow. The fable echoes the main themes of the novel, which are self-growth and friendship. (This use of a Chinese fable may remind readers of Amy Tan's novels.) In A Painted Moment, rich Chinese elements—for example, tang wan making and die xian playing—are displayed too. They coherently sustain the mysterious yet reliable image of the sagacious old man in the fable, who watches over and provides insightful advice to the inexperienced Lan.

The Chinese fable’s plot is intertwined with the events in the main story of the novel, and every time Rachel arrives at another stage of her mental growth, they find their equivalences in the Chinese tale. In the fable, the shadow becomes Lan's friend; in the narrative, Yun Ung is Rachel's shadow. Solely taking form in Rachel's memory, their relationship is told primarily in flashbacks, Yun is an optimistic and cheerful hero. (He is also the best developed character in the work.) Ever since he first met Rachel when they were children, he has been her best friend and protector. Upon his death, his brotherly influence becomes a curse, like the shadow friend which has prevented Lan from opening up to others. Given their intimate relationship, one would even wonder if Yun's presence has anything to do with the awkward emptiness of Rachel's love life.

The loss of such an important person implies the destruction of Rachel's world. She is forced to confront the past and future on her own. The overcoming of grief seems at first impossible, especially since we are told that Rachel "mostly lives through the lives of her other friends." Indeed, the detailed first-person narration is filled with stories of Yun and Rachel’s mutual friends. At one point, she behaves like a helpless spectator at the quarrel between her two girl friends, Chloe and Olivia. (Whether the familiar pair of names alludes to Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own is not certain.) For Rachel, "They are, in this instant, interchangeable. Behind them, I can fade in the shadows, with my darker skin and long dark-brown hair. I almost want to." Even as Rachel’s friends blur together, she wants to hide in their shadow and find safety in the background of her social circle.

The "shadow" Rachel wants to assume is different from Yun's. It is a reflection of her constant fear towards the reality outside her safe fortress. But as the novel reaches its climax, Rachel fights the desire to completely subsume her identity. She dashes to Yun's grave and tries to stop the burial:

It is a dramatic moment, a scene from a soap opera played right out on the lawns of the cemetery, with two undertakers as witnesses, me the central character, me who has never been the centre of anything in my life, me who for the first time suddenly appreciates how good it feels just to yell.

By letting go of her fear and facing her true self, she is able to finally overcome the loss of her friend. Thus, the shattered world is again narrated from a different perspective, as Rachel confidently embraces Yun's motto, "In every life. There is always a moment when what once was, is no longer, and what will come is not yet clear. This is my moment." In short, Ching has painstakingly illustrated the inevitable moment of self-independence pressing upon us in due time.


Heart to Heart is the sincere expression of a lover of life. It is the debut poetry collection of the Hong Kong-born Patty Ho, a solicitor and philosophy student who has developed a love for poetry since her youth.

The fifty-eight poems in this collection are categorized into four sections, "Be ahead of all parting," "It's all I have to bring to-day," "Music of Love" and "Heart to Heart." From these titles, one can tell that most poems are about universal human themes. Along with the carefully chosen photographs and thought-provoking watercolour illustrations provided by Ho's sister, the collection constitutes a dynamic conversation between visual and written texts about the emotions and values we all share.

Thematically, Ho's poetry is strongly characterized by her positive regard for life and philosophical wonders. A wide range of human themes—age, romance, loneliness and death—are discussed, sometimes in plain question-and-answer format, sometimes through metaphors. The poems' engagement with the human condition is rooted in Ho's organic vision of poetry. The collection's first poem, "One Good Line, " is an analogy between poetry and life:

The hardest poem to write
is one's own life.
Is it a clean white sheet
for us to compose as we like?
Or is it a form set
with predestined theme and length
and a limited choice of words?

To Ho, poetry provides a way of penetrating into the life of things. Thus, a bare tree can be a poem; and a thoughtful photographer and a web-making spider are compared to a poet. Likewise, natural objects and phenomena and pieces of art acquire transcendental significance. "The Waves" muses upon the atmospheric force of sea waves:

The waves are coming,
drawn by a mystic mover.
A symphony they are playing
of being and nothing,
of time and eternity,
daring and beautiful.

Notably, Ho's way of using natural imagery is similar to Shelley's "Love's Philosophy," in which the Romantic poet compares the love between men with the harmonious order of nature. With an array of imagery like moonbeams, stars and clouds, the poems have an unmistakable Romantic touch. Under Ho’s arrangement natural elements become either admirable organic beings or graceful adornments. The most creative poems in the collection are those in which she succeeds in fusing her original ideas into fantastic natural scenes. In "Inspiration," Ho visualizes inspiration as a delightful nymph:

None knows when it will come.
Then on a sleepless autumn night,
like soft moonbeams it falls,
scattering a cluster of glistening stars
on the lake of my heart,
breaking it into ripples of music
swirling round and round.

However, the repeated use of certain images begins to grow clichéd as they appear again and again, e.g. "two angelic stars/beneath the smiling moon" ("Poem of love") and "the two stars now meet/over the moon of hope" ("A loving smile").

Similarly, the poem analogy is also regrettably abused by its undifferentiated usage throughout the collection. For instance, the six-lined poem, "Prelude: When night curtains softly fall" is filled with dull repetitions:

Stars write poems in the sky,
moonlight writes poems on the lake,
the wind writes poems upon the willow,
dreams write poems below my pillow;
Oh my dear, why don't you come near
and write a poem on my lips?

These are moments which suggest that Ho has yet to arrive at a mature grasp of poetry. One gets the sense that her craft has yet to take shape. Many of Ho's poems are artless, conversational lines that accumulate into picturesque details. It might be worthwhile for us to wait for Ho to present her more mature work in the near future.

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