The White Cockatoo Flowers: Stories by Ouyang Yu

Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve

Ouyang Yu’s view of the modern world is humorously summed up when he suggests that if Shakespeare wrote the famous quote “To be or….”, it would become “To be or not to be entertained”….

 The general population is obsessed with money, sex, distractions, food and are merely ‘animals with clothes’. Poetry, which is a dominant topic in his book, is undervalued. Despite this, many, especially Chinese, create this demanding form although they are rarely published and never financially rewarded. One story features Yu at a book signing event. A man takes his newly published work, worth $49.99, and does not pay. The poet, who admits poetry will never fall into the best seller category, is so incensed, that he writes a long and carefully worded letter to the man, explaining how hard it is to make a return on his writing efforts. There was no reply.

 This collection of stories focuses on national identity. Ouyang Yu lives in Australia and frequently visits China and is often considering the language of both. Whereas there is the complexity of the Australian version of English, he points out that China has a range of dialects as well as the five major Chinese languages.

 When he has a complaint at a hotel in Guangzhou, it is the variation in accent that finally allows him to be understood, and prevents his being robbed.

 A man, his wife and son settle in Sydney, and before long, Wai Lai demands his name be changed. He was teased at school and now his fellow workers get confused as to Christian and surname. Comical exchanges occur between father and son. Thoughts dwell on the importance of a name. Fortune may follow fame but success certainly depends on a name. Would Ernest Dickens, James Satre, or Freud Shakespeare reach the heights they have?

 Sharply observant, never cynical or critical, Ouyang Yu is often funny. He lists some items on the menu in a restaurant in China. Alas, ‘White Cloud Pig Hands’ and ‘Ten Fragrance Drunken Pork Ribs’ failed to live up to their fanciful names!

 He probes for truths about life in the modern world but it is language – its joys and restrictions- that beautifully examines what the experience of family and friendships in China and Australia. Sex appears often and it is the patriarchal attitude of the Chinese men that brings some ribald humour.

 The White Cockatoo Flowers Stories shows cultural differences too, and the difficulty of living in a new country. For instance, the collective nature of Chinese society is vastly different from the individualistic Australian one.

 Migrants and refugees all experience what these stories describe. They attempt to learn how to live in a country that is not the place of their birth….and to face a new and sometimes confusing reality.

The White Cockatoo Flowers: Stories


by Ouyang Yu

Transit Lounge Publishing

ISBN 978 192302 308 6

$32.99; 272pp

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