“sikfan glaschu” Sean Wai Keung (Verve Poetry Press) – book review

In “sikfan glaschu” Sean Wai Keung takes readers on a tour of eateries in Glasgow. The collection’s title is explained in the title poem, where his journey brings him to Glasgow,

“then sat by the window thinking about being a kid again
sitting in my room writing stupid rhymes for fun
hearing that familiar evening shout of sikfan meaning
your food is ready

as soon as i would leave my room i would smell it
freshly steamed rice or vegetables with oyster sauce
or a pie crisping up in the oven

. ……………………………………………………………….don’t you miss that

the eagerness / the hunger / the sense of mystery
the not-knowing exactly what would be waiting on the table”

This is a journey of fusions: traditional foods merge with new tastes, provoke memories or sensations that are equally both familiar and new. The poems mediate on the feeling of being an outsider in a place now called home and the need to create new traditions so as to create a sense of belonging in a place that doesn’t necessarily want you. Food is usually at the heart of family life: shared meals become shared conversations and food is a symbol of hospitality, a welcome enabling guests to stay longer. Most socialising is done around a meal. The poem hints at a merging of identities: oyster sauce is not traditionally British and a pie isn’t traditionally Chinese. A British-born Chinese person adapts to multiple cultural identities: this could be an opportunity to forge a combined identity or could be a form of separation, never completely belonging to British traditions yet not entirely Chinese either. Hence not knowing “what would be waiting at the table” while also knowing it would nurturing and sustaining.

The collection is split into three sections, pre-lockdown, during lockdown and emergence from lockdown. As the first section is about fitting in, merging known food with strange food, the second looks at the limitations and opportunities offered in lockdown. “kfc pollokshaws”, remotely ordering from a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet, ends,

“as far as i can tell the internet is insufficient
at encapsulating what kentucky really means

it’s just a far-off blob i cant fathom
a mass of essential people i can’t know
living their lives
getting on with things
like chickens sometimes do”

Although the internet can bring people closer, it can also highlight differences and bring to the fore how little we know about the lives of others. KFC is marketed on being a traditional secret recipe enjoyed worldwide, but does it really bring people closer together or is the writer overthinking authencity? Should we just enjoy the food and move on or should we be concerned about how true the food we eat is to its origins? That question surfaces again in “byblos cafe”, this time questioning Lebanese food, again without a guide to confirm whether the food is genuine or an Anglicised version of Lebanese food,

“i will never forget how
as we left into the chill drizzle that last evening above us
a neon sign glowed and i swear the word authentic in
authentic lebanese cuisine flickered or winked although
then again it could have just been a trick of the light”

The sign isn’t just about the food, it appears to question the poet about his authenticity. Which cultural identity is his real one? Does he have to chose? Isn’t being himself enough?

“sikfan glaschu” is a culinary tour of Glasgow eateries from small family-owned restaurants to familiar, large chains. The food, and traditions implied through food, is a lens that explores relationships to traditions, how these can be shared or used to divide and asks questions about belonging and identity. Overall the poems have a celebratory tone: food is to be shared and offers a chance to be curious and understand other cultures, to share and come together.

“silkfan glaschu” is available from Verve Poetry Press.


Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

Emma Lee The Significance of a Dress cover image

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