The Moon Illusion


by Tammy Lai-Ming Ho

In a Paris restaurant, old-fashioned and poky, a waiter dragged a small wooden table to the window in a space just big enough for her to squeeze in and sit down. In that odd corner, her bags were on her lap, and she craved red wine. An artwork too imposing in size—and its canvas needed cleaning—occupied the opposite wall. Her dining partner, a friend of a friend, gave her a present in a box. It looked like a vanilla-scented candle. The colour was a prestigious aged milky white, like water that has been used to rinse uncooked rice. Water that you could use to lubricate your face. You know the kind of candle: the one you buy in an airport gift section when you are so bored you say to yourself your legs demand to be walked. The kind that women use both hands to hold, giving them an air of coy vulnerability. She smelled this dull safe choice for a couple of seconds, smiling only slightly.

Earlier that afternoon, he had waited for a friend of his friend in a bar in a fashionable Parisian neighbourhood that hung art and sold imported craft beer. Beer in hand, he examined the labels on the bottles lined up clinically against a wall. They were uncluttered; easy to access and put back in their place. But there was no old-fashioned scheme. He had previously seen bottles arranged by flavour, country, colour, alcohol content, and alphabet in reverse. Even something called IBU. For what he knew, and he would admit he knew little, the labels were designed to say that the beers weren’t produced by big faceless corporations and that they were young and daring. But there was still an air of predictability about them. For a start, the names tended to be obscure, in most cases unredeemed by witless punning. Maybe he was just lacking humour. Certain typefaces were frequent, while some of the labels’ provocative images would have made for in-demand tattoos. Other than himself, there was only one customer, a woman, whose age was difficult to guess, sitting by the window, which had recently been polished to let more light through. Her table was covered with miscellaneous items as though she had emptied out her three bags, frantically, looking for something.

She had a morning appointment with a saxophonist trained at the Paris Conservatory who had offered to discuss her poetry. He said he was middle-aged but what did that mean these days? She thought the answer might be biological or psychological or financial but certainly not numerical. He didn’t look middle-aged, but rather like a gentleman on the cusp of being respectably old and he slowly sipped whiskey neat at room temperature all the time. She wondered if being indecisive was ever a good trait and she remembered she was once upon a time in several cities very decisive when it came to love making: she would plan out her preferred steps. She had fun even though she was almost always overruled. This was the thirteenth poetry session she’d had with the saxophonist, who was writing a memoir in verse about his years wandering in Asia before he became middle-aged. His experience was such a cliche that it might potentially come into fashion again, depending on the audience. He didn’t show off his knowledge and he sparingly hinted at his friendships with other poets. He would never ask questions that might lead to opportunities to boast about his grandiosity. When she arrived with her three bags, she was running out of breath and he was drinking whiskey, the glass reflecting light on the accent table. She sat on the armchair by the open window; the air was somewhat damp, sloppy. Since she had chosen the armchair the first time she came, she stuck with it even though it was really too big for her. Again she saw the photographs on the walls; they were messy, needing curation. She commented on his memoir, which was very near its end. She also corrected those stanzas pertaining to Hong Kong between 2014 and 2022, asked questions about both his life and poetry schools, and suggested a few minor changes. And he reminded her to work on her rhythm, to experiment with different topics and forms, and that she should not wear her heart on her sleeve in writing. In fact, she shouldn’t wear her Cantonese on her sleeve. See, she was doing it again.

Sunday 16 October 2022

About the Author

Tammy Lai-Ming Ho is a Hong Kong-born editor, poet, translator, and scholar. She is the editor-in-chief of Cha: An Asian Literary Journal ( | |, the English-language editor of Voice & Verse Poetry Magazine, and an editor of the academic journal Hong Kong Studies. She has edited or co-edited a number of volumes of poetry, fiction and essays, including Desde Hong Kong: Poets in Conversation with Octavio Paz (2014), Quixotica: Poems East of La Mancha, (2016),  We, Now, Here, There, Together (2017), and Twin Cities (2017). Tammy’s translations have been published in World Literature TodayChinese Literature TodayDrunken Boat, and Pathlight, and by the Chinese University Press. Her first poetry collection is Hula Hooping (2015), for which she was awarded a Young Artist Award in Literary Arts by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council. Her other books are Too Too Too Too (2018), Her Name Upon the Strand (2018), and Neo-Victorian Cannibalism (2019).

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