Chris Tse – How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes

Dead Year Snakes cover

How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes by Chris Tse.
Auckland: AUP (2015).
RRP: $24.99.
SC, 80pp.
ISBN: 9781869408183.

Reviewed by Mary Cresswell.

In 1905, in Wellington, gold miner Joe Kum Yung was shot dead by a white supremacist ­­– this poem cycle by Chris Tse,1 How to be Dead in a year of Snakes, revisits and repatriates Joe’s story, back to the context it was born in and in which he died.

Joe’s death made his ‘history irretrievable’ (p 47) in the world of the New Zealand colony’s legally sanctioned white supremacy. His story became a story of the trial and madness of his killer, rather than of Joe himself.

The world is full of murder
and words are usually
the first to go. …
Those whose mouths
are filled with darkness
will spend their breaths
repeating alibis and verdicts.  (p 50).

Three years before the Year of the Snake in which Joe Kum Yung died, the SS Ventnor, carrying the bones of 499 gold miners back to their home villages, was wrecked off the Hokianga. Many coffins were lost, but many other remains were gathered up with respect and buried by local Maori,2 a respect that the remains of Joe’s story never received.

te rerenga wairua

There is no reason to leave
the dead                      in such a state –
the once-lost must find
their way upon                                    a bright line.
Death is the common ground
when acknowledged with respect
gratitude          and the offering of joss.                      (p 9).

Joe’s death was the beginning of a sensational trial, a platform for white supremacist tirades, and almost complete concentration on the murderer’s mind and intentions. Joe himself was merely an excuse ­– he could have been any elderly Chinese man walking down Haining Street at the wrong time.

So there goes   a life story reduced
to one gunshot
and there goes madness
in the form of public service

and there wait those graceless thieves
of light and sound
slipping to a snake’s crawl
to rewrite his thoughts.                       (p 40).

As the book goes on, we see Joe as an individual. We hear of his coming to the gold fields, of his family left behind, of what he thought his life might be in New Zealand. We are not harangued or yelled at (the only shouting comes from a rant by his killer); even the word ‘speak’ appears only rarely and gently.

If I could speak
all you’d hear is echo
over here
– no, over here –
– there –
passing through each version
like a tragic round (p 48).

Meanwhile, Joe Kum Yung’s own history remained unnoticed.

This man alone must face
the reality of death
and the silent drop
into anonymity. …  (p 64).

But the drop into anonymity is no longer inevitable. This extraordinary book, speaking equally in the languages of poetry and history, ends by speaking directly to the spirit of Joe Kum Yung and its right to be honoured:

No longer will you navigate this shift
solo, afraid of the thoughtless tides
the future can bring.
Even if his name still hooks to yours
there will be voices to say your name
to clear the way. The rest is up to you (p 69).

1Chris Tse’s book was shortlisted for the Ockham ‘Best First Book’ and actually won the Jessie Mackay ‘Best First Book’ award.  Author’s website: http://christse.co.nz.
2 In 2013 (also a snake year) members of the Chinese community went to the Hokianga to honour their dead and to pay their respects to the Te Roroa and Te Rarawa people, who had buried the bones cast ashore from the SS Ventnor.


Mary CresswellMary Cresswell is from Los Angeles and lives on the Kapiti Coast. Fish Stories, a collection of ghazals and glosas, was published by Canterbury University Press in 2015.

First published takahe 87
August 2016