"The Past" Contest Winners / September 2012 (Issue 18)

Old Shikumen Gate

by Adam Radford

Adam Radford 1

“Dark” she growls.
“You, foreigner, really dark!” she says again
waving her short arm to describe the frame
Of the old stone gate I’m leaning in.

She moves off under the drooping eaves
passing a neighbour who washes from a stone basin
a sopping white sponge in his fist -
she fades out down the narrow alleys.


Down the hutong the jambs are smashed in,
like eyes plucked from sockets.
Passing headlights beam in from the street
like lost projectors
living rooms are haunted
by thriving plastic bags that stir
the ghostly light hoves across
the kitchen, the air still as oil,
mosquitoes breed, flit and gambol;

Above in jaded silhouette
laundry drips off a lonely, bamboo-cane,
there’s a flapping of a lime green curtain;
A mother pulls it shut, the neon blinks out
the gong ren stare from over the road.


Bespeckled with chippings, shirt rolled up,
it’s too hot for ‘the barracks’ and bed bugs;
too close to the centre for a roadside hammock.
He puts up his rope-soled slippers on the scaffold;
and flicks a cigarette, it pops into a hail of sparks

in his exhausted moment's break,
he watches the wrecking arm in the breach:
its giant three-pronged spoon floors with an uppercut
making a grating sound like crushing teeth.

The relief is on, a gang in smeared orange overalls,
laughing like pirates, from tarred, rasping lungs,
hanging from each other like dancing drunks
across the ruins of the estate. Their footfalls
are hollow scrapes on the felled clay shakes;
echoes in the mouths of the old Shikumen gates.
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ISSN 1999-5032
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