100 Australian Poems 5.0: "My Other Chinee Cook" by James Brunton Stephens

James Brunton Stephens's poem "My Other Chinee Cook" is a strange little thing.  Its basic aim is to present an amusing anecdote where the butt of the joke is the subject of the poem and his wife, a quintessential form of Australian self-deprecating humour. Yet, to modern eyes, it can come across as rather racist, and somewhat off-putting.

The poem here is a sequel to "My Chinee Cook" which was published in the same 8 March 1873 issue of "The Australasian", the weekend companion to the Melbourne daily "The Argus".  That first poem tells the story of a man and wife who hire one Chinese cook after another, until they chance upon one who is just perfect - cooking, cleaning, and carrying out all manner of household duties for only room and board.  It's a situation that's just too good to be true. All good stories have to end badly and this first Chinese cook is found to be a jewel thief when he attempts to sell the wife pieces of jewellery from a Sydney robbery.

"My Other Chinee Cook" also concerns a brilliant cook but with a bit of a difference.  Here the cook has a "secret" recipe for "rabbit pie" which some might find rather disturbing.  This is a funny poem: the set-up is good, the final put-down delightful.  The high and mighty are brought to their knees, vomiting up the delicacy they had so enjoyed just moments before, and the pathetic scene at the end is delivered with just the right amount of pathos.  The problem I have with it is that it is just not very well put together: too often the rhythm is broken by just one too many syllables ("When my lad should bring our usual regale of cindered joint," and "And I never saw him more, nor tasted more of rabbit pie").   Given a choice I suspect I would have chosen the first "Chinee Cook" poem, though I can certainly understand the editor's decision here.

The concept of a Chinese cook is quite a common one in Australian folklore, with the most recent occurrence being in Baz Luhrmann's recent film Australia.  We see it now as a cliche, but, in 1873, it was probably quite a normal situation.  It's not the simple fact that the cook is Chinese that gives the poem its racist flavour, it's the overall tone of the piece: "He was lazy, he was cheeky, he was dirty, he was sly," being merely the introduction.  Even so, I'm of the view that we have to apply different criteria to written works of the past, acknowledging the state of the country and society of the time.  I'm not ignoring it, just attempting to allow it to sit within its historical context.

For a period after the death of Henry Kendall in 1882 Stephens was considered one of the leading lights of Australian literature: he wrote three novels and a play, but was probably best known for his five collections of verse. And now he is mostly forgotten, not even being included in Harry Heseltine's 1972 volume The Penguin Book of Australian Verse.  It seems like everyone you've ever heard of is there, except Stephens.

Text: "My Other Chinee Cook" by James Brunton Stephens

Author bio: Australian Dictionary of Biography 

Publishing history: First published in "The Australasian", 8 March 1873; and subsequently in Stephens's popular verse collection My Chinee Cook and Other Humorous Verses, 1902.

Next five poems in the book:

"Bell-Birds" by Henry Kendall

"Are You the Cove?" by Joseph Furphy ("Tom Collins")

"How McDougal Topped the Score" by Thomas E. Spencer

"The Wail of the Waiter" by Marcus Clarke

"Where the Pelican Builds" by Mary Hannay Foott

Note: this post forms part of my series on the poems contained in the anthology 100 Australian Poems You Need to Know edited by Jamie Grant.  You can read the other posts in this series here.

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on June 4, 2009 9:31 PM.

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