Third Culture x Peel Street Poetry: Tegan Smyth

This year’s edition of Peel Street Poetry’s annual slam was won by Tegan Smyth. Tegan is a halfie with Australian and Hakka-Chinese roots. She currently lives in Hong Kong, so it wasn’t too hard to track her down for a coffee and a talk about her work, and the prejudice she faces and confronts.

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Let’s start with your roots. Hakka is a pretty obscure ethnic group, can you tell us more about that?

They mainly live in southern China. They are Han-Chinese, but they’ve always been considered outliers. You could say they’re the gypsies of China. Women never bound their feet, and a lot of the men were revolutionaries – like Sun Yat-sen; he had Hakka roots. These days there are still many people who identify as Hakka, but few still speak the language. Here in Hong Kong, you need to go north into the villages of the New Territories to hear some old people speak it. I don’t speak it either. My mother decided to teach her kids Mandarin instead, because it’s more useful.

Do people judge you for not speaking your mother tongue?

Depends what you define as my mother tongue. Here in Hong Kong I do get judged for not speaking Cantonese. My mother was born here, so people expect me to keep the Cantonese language alive. They accuse me of erasure. But they don’t realise that my mother’s actual language, Hakka, was erased by Cantonese… So I don’t really think I’m in the wrong for picking up Mandarin instead.

Your mother was born in Hong Kong, what about your father?

He was born in Australia. His family had been there for six generations. My mother met my father when she went to Australia to study. In those days it was really easy to migrate to Australia. I was born in Australia, and spent my first eight years in Sydney. Going to school as a mixed-race person wasn’t always easy. In the ‘90s it was still okay for kids to laugh with Asian eyes and such. It wasn’t malicious, but it makes you feel like an outsider. And then when I’d try to make friends with the two Chinese girls in my year, they would say I wasn’t one of them.

Tegan speaking at Peel Street Poetry
Tegan speaking at Peel Street Poetry

And then you came to Hong Kong.

What a difference! First of all, I was used to open spaces, even in Sydney. Australia feels so sparsely populated compared to Hong Kong. The first time my mother took me to one of the shopping streets, I asked her if there was a parade happening. I’d never seen that many people in one place on a regular day.

And then of course my school was very different. I went to an international school, and there were kids from so many different backgrounds. I met a lot more people with a similar “identity crisis.” Although I now realise that, even in Hong Kong, you can still have identity issues. You still don’t really know where you fit in. You may see mixed-race people in advertising, or media, but you don’t see them in government, or any other public roles. They’re usually in entertainment. The only famous mixed-race person I can think of who’s not in entertainment is Stanley Ho, who is famous for owning everything.

I think looking for people who are like yourself is a very lonely quest

Do you feel the need to search for people who’ve had similar experiences growing up?

Not really. I’m not looking for validation anymore. I think looking for people who are like yourself is a very lonely quest.

You won the poetry slam with a poem on your mother. She seems like a strong woman.

She’s an exceptionally strong-willed and resilient person. Even though she achieved so much, she still faces so many obstacles because her skin is quite dark. People automatically pigeonhole her as a domestic worker. [Southeast Asian women in Hong Kong often work as nannies, or take on other forms of domestic work | ed.]. It’s about how other people receive you, no matter how accomplished you are, no matter how much you’ve done, some people’s attitudes won’t change.

My mother used to hold a high public position which no woman had held before, and even in that function she’d get people asking if she was just hanging around, or taking another official’s kids to school. It’s ridiculous how that still happens.

Migrant workers in Hong Kong march for better rights | ©cc by-nc-nd IDWF
Migrant workers in Hong Kong march for better rights | ©cc by-nc-nd IDWF

You are passionate about migrant worker issues. Does your mother’s experience have anything to do with that?

My mother would hear people say racist things behind her back, because they’d think she was Filipina. Women, and especially migrant women, suffer such disregard in our society. The latest example is of course the murder of two Indonesian women by a British banker here in Hong Kong. If those women had been Chinese, there would’ve been petitions and government meetings to address how this could’ve happened. But now, the actual victims are just a sidenote. I don’t understand how people can’t identify with these women. Many people who grew up in Hong Kong were at some point raised by a migrant helper. And these women suffer so much, and have barely any legal protection.

Is poetry for you a way to protest this?

Poetry is one way, yes. But I also organise events to inform people. After my law degree, I worked in the pro bono legal sphere, and got to meet a lot of people involved in public interest issues. Together we organise monthly drinks, where we get NGOs and activists to talk. It takes place every last friday of the month. This month we’re working on violence against women, in cooperation with Amnesty International.

Their next event will be on Nov 25 in Orange Peel, HK. Find the Facebook page here!

I’m also working on a book, documenting different voices of refugees and migrant workers. I’m thinking of calling it “A Table of Two Cities”, because it’s a food project. We’re trying to change the narrative on refugees and asylum seekers, letting them share stories through the culture of food. I think you can’t make snap decisions about people; and that’s probably what being third culture is about.

Tegan’s poetry was published in the Asian literary journal ChaRead her poem on language and identity here, and keep an eye out for the publication of her winning poem Reach.
Cover image of traditional Hakka houses ©cc by-nc-nd Hayden Opie
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