S F Ho, Water, 2020, screenshot series to accompany written essay. Courtesy the artist.

S F Ho: Water

Presented as part of The Pandemic is a Portal


Water is Money

My grandmother Helen had a favourite saying: 水為財 or “water is money,” a popular idiom in Cantonese that everyone knows. Allegedly borrowing from the slang of the triads, water often symbolizes money in the Cantonese colloquial. Get rich and it is said that you “pile up water” (叠水 dap sui); to “catch water” (撲水 pok sui) is to get money; a refund is known as “returning water” (回水 wui sui); stealing money is to “rip off water” (掠水 lut sui); making extra money is known as “replenishing water” (補水 bo sui).

Hong Kong is a port city born out of a colonial drug war. Consequently its culture, including its language, is deeply rooted in the spunky ingenuity of capital. However, for my grandmother, “water is money” had a very particular meaning. To my memory (and I should note that I am the only person in my family who remembers this anecdote) her story is something like this:

It is nearing the end of World War II. My grandmother has lost a child due to medical shortages and lost her father to Japanese bombs. People are eating weeds and maybe even human flesh to survive. In the midst of this destruction, a British or American soldier walks into her home and asks for something to drink. She charges him a ridiculous price for a glass of pineapple juice that she happens to have lying around. The next day, he comes back with his friends.

My grandmother learns how to make tea and coffee for the soldiers. From this first engagement she starts a small coffeeshop and then a restaurant, which becomes her life’s work for the next thirty years. For her, water was a magical substance, totally free, and yet if you add a little something to it you can 撲水, get money. And from this, you and your family can survive.

I am interested in this abstraction where my grandmother says “water is money,” but she really means something else. To address this, I turn to Samuel Delany’s sword and sorcery series Return to Nevèrÿon (1979 – 1987), which is set within the social transition from a barter to a market economy. In one of the novellas, an elder named Venn creates a lesson for the children of Ulvayn out of mirrors and a scrap of paper. She has been teaching the children how to draw symbols that can stand in for things in the real world. Venn gives Norema a scrap of paper with some symbols on it: a three-horned beetle, three horned lizards and two crested parrots. Using red symbolizes that it happened before noon. From this Norema infers an actual experience of seeing a three-horned beetle, three horned lizards and two crested parrots in the morning. Drawing from her own lived experience, Norema guesses that “probably you were at the estuary, on the far bank; because the parrots never come over on this side. And it was probably yesterday morning, because it was raining the night before last and the lizards usually come out in the mornings after rain.”[1]

The boys of Ulvayn’s coastline wear mirrors on their bellies, and Venn asks Norema to look at these symbols as they appear reflected in the mirror-belly of one of Norema’s friends. The reflection looks similar but distorted, with some meaning shifted and the referents to place and experience lost. When the image is reflected in yet another mirror, instead of making the symbols legible again, she notices something entirely different written on the back of the paper: “The great star clears the horizon two cups of water after the eighth hour.”[2]

This mirror game alludes to a multitude of subtle semiotic shifts in representation and abstraction that Venn demonstrates to the children. Stories reflect experience. Sex is reflected in gender, which in turn is reflected in a drag ceremony practiced in the mountains. However, of all these lessons, the situation that Venn spends the most time with is the reflection that happens through money.

Now money, when it moves into a new tribe, very quickly creates an image of the food, craft, and work there: it gathers around them, holds to them, stays away from the places where none are to be found, and clots near the positions where much wealth occurs. Yet, like a mirror image, it is reversed just as surely as the writing of a piece of paper is reversed when you read its reflection on a boy’s belly. For both in time and space, where money is, food, work, and craft are not: where money is, food, work, and craft either will shortly be, or in the recent past were. But the actual place where the coin sits, fills a place where wealth may just have passed from, or may soon pass into, but where it cannot be now — by the whole purpose of money as an exchange object.[3]

If we compare the reflections of the mirror game to the empty spaces created by money, the three-horned beetle, three horned lizards and two crested parrots in red correspond to how objects and gestures perform in a space without money, what Venn describes as “a time when things carried about with them and bore their own powers — baskets, heaps of fruit, piles of clams, the smell of cooking eel, a goose egg, a pot, or even a cast of a fishing line or a chop with a stone axe at a tree.”[4]

Continuing the passage, the distorted reflection of the three-horned beetle, three horned lizards and two crested parrots reveals a world of bizarre equivalency that Venn asks the children to interrogate. She wonders at how money can stand in for different kinds of labour and objects all at once: “One simply cannot measure weight, coldness, the passage of time, and the brightness of fire all on the same scale.”[5]

As to the mysterious passage written on the back of the paper, Venn imagines a model of money without being money, where people’s personal money is tallied on a sheet of paper while the money itself is collected in a central money house and used for larger works that are in the interests of the community. The boys imagine that with this new kind of money, people would have to trust each other more than when simply trading goods, so much so that this trust becomes a new value in the tribe, a value familiar in our present narrative of trust funds and trust companies. If a lot of people pledge a little bit of money on paper, the boys imagine that they can build boats that fly from land to land by digging with their wings and tunnelling under the floor of the sea. They envision creating a single giant turnip garden that can replace the many little turnip gardens cared for by individual women in their village.[6]

In finding our relationship to water, I think we are playing a game different from Venn’s mirror game. Delany has pertinent ideas about what lies outside of these games, but we will take our own route.


Water is Wet?

In the I Ching, water is called the Abysmal, as its energy trickles downward to the deepest chasms of the earth. In the water cycle, water held in the earth’s deepest reservoirs is called fossil water because it typically stays in the ground for about ten thousand years. However, human extraction has shortened the residence time of this water, which in turn has intensified the water cycle. The trigram for water is an energetic yang line held between two broken yin lines, reminiscent of the soul wrapped within materiality. Water is dangerous, but also hints at how one should behave when faced with difficulty (evoking the Bruce Lee / Yellow Umbrella counsel to “be water”). It asks that you accept the world as fluid and that everything around you must change, a fundamental notion in what is, after all, “The Book of Changes.” In the face of change, to act like water is to be steadfast and consistent in all situations: “it flows on and on, and merely fills up all the places through which it flows; it does not shrink from any dangerous spot nor from any plunge, and nothing can make it lose its own essential nature. It remains true to itself under all conditions. Thus likewise, if one is sincere when confronted with difficulties, the heart can penetrate the meaning of the situation.”[7]

In Chinese medicine, there are five elements that are described in relation to one another. In relation to water, metal generates water and water generates wood. Earth controls water and water controls fire. Diagnostically, water correlates to the sound of moaning, the emotion of fear and the smell of rot. It also correlates to winter, storage and to the kidneys where 氣 (qi or hay) originates. 氣 itself is an expression of the energetic meeting of heaven and earth, which is in a constant state of flux. Humans live best when they follow this energy as it fluctuates — for instance, with the seasons. 氣 manifests simultaneously on the physical and spiritual level. When it condenses, energy transforms and accumulates into physical shape.

Thinking of some other qualities of water, I want to go back to my grandmother’s idea of adding a little bit of something to water as a means of survival. For her, this meant coffee beans or tea leaves, and in herbal medicine we call this an infusion. You can put energy into water by boiling it to speed up the process of infusion, or you can make a cold infusion which preserves the chemical constituents of more delicate herbs. You can also leave an infusion out in the sun, using solar energy to help extract and dissolve medicine into water. Traditional Chinese Medicine often uses a decoction method to make medicine. Tougher roots and stems are slowly boiled over a low flame, reducing the amount of liquid to a concentrated solution. Of course, this capacity to dissolve also makes water vulnerable. It becomes a solvent not only of the organic compounds in tea and coffee, but of methylmercury, arsenic, pesticides, and chromium oxide. The concept of solvency in financial terms has implications analogous, again, to the Cantonese 水為財 idiom. Recalling Venn’s lessons, essence is abstracted into liquid assets.

Water is hardly a neutral substance, though people tend to forget this due to its ubiquity. Water’s talent as a solvent, its high boiling point and strong surface tension can be attributed to hydrogen bonding, which is also important in determining the structure of protein and DNA. As with the I Ching’s complex interplay of yin and yang, it is an asymmetrical balancing act. The covalent bonds that hydrogen forms with oxygen in a water molecule tilt the balance of electrons in each atom so that the tips of the hydrogen atoms carry a positive charge and the butt of the oxygen atom carries a negative charge. This allows water to pull apart other polarized molecules and ionic compounds.

We experience water as fluid, but for many substances, water is also sticky. It breaks apart ionic bonds and tugs at other polar molecules as well as itself, while stable molecules with no charge are squeezed together. This pressing energy, called the hydrophobic effect, is important in the formation of cell membranes. The hydrogen bonds in water also push water molecules apart when it cools and solidifies, leading to less density as it forms into ice. If water were to sink when frozen, the plants and animals that inhabit bodies of water would be crushed by the weight of ice when it freezes. Instead, by freezing from the top down, water insulates those same entities from the cold. So, through the phrase “Water is Life,” we can also get a feel for how the unique relationships that polarized hydrogen bonding engenders contribute to making this life a possibility.


Water is Money is Life

Cathy Busby and Charlene Vickers, Intertribal Lifelines. Installation view at Surrey Art Gallery, 2017. Photo: Surrey Art Gallery. Courtesy the artists.

In Cathy Busby and Charlene Vickers’s 2017 collaborative installation Intertribal Lifelines, brightly coloured blankets covered with bold text conceal and bandage the Surrey Art Gallery’s exhibition space — calling out to water protectors while spelling out water pollution disasters and threats. Blankets can be used for ceremony, honouring, shelter, protection, rest and care. Historically, as carriers of smallpox in the settler colonial project, they also act as symbols of biological warfare. The blankets in Intertribal Lifelines call out the Mount Polley gold and copper mine where a tailings pond leaked into salmon-bearing waters. They name the Rio Doce, where the collapse of a dam owned by the Samarco mining company destroyed nearby communities while releasing iron ore tailings into the Doce River and eventually into the Atlantic. The blankets name mercury poisoning in Minamata Japan, as well as the mercury poisoning of the Wabigoon River which brought Minamata disease to the Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong First Nations. Many of the tactics of this installation stem from an earlier collaboration, Hands Across the Sky, a 2016 performance at VIVO Media Arts that incorporated sound, gesture and, of particular note, a collection of bright orange cones, redolent of traffic cones used in construction, which were used to speak as well as to listen.

For me, the cones immediately recall Rebecca Belmore’s Ayum-ee-aawach Oomama-mowan: Speaking to Their Mother (1991), created in response to the 1990 Mohawk resistance to the invasion of their sacred burial grounds at Kahnesatake. Made of wood veneer, moose hide and leather, Belmore’s massive megaphone gave people a platform to speak back to the land. In a 1992 documentary by Marjorie Beaucage, we see land protectors at the Wiggins Bay Blockade on Treaty 10 territory use Belmore’s piece to speak to the clear-cut land in their Cree language. In another gesture called Singing to Their Mother (2014), Belmore brought the megaphone to Lake Ontario, highlighting particularly the activism of Anishinaabe water-walkers. Initiated in 2003 and led by grandmothers such as Josephine Mandamin, water walkers have been journeying along the Great Lakes and beyond as a means to care for water and address issues such as the decades-old drinking water advisories in place on reserves across Canada. The importance of listening to, caring for and healing water is again highlighted in a more recent work by Belmore, where the cone is again reversed into a shape for listening. Wave Sound (2017) directs attention towards bodies of water in Banff National Park, Pukaskwa National Park, Georgian Bay Islands National Park and Gros Morne National Park by amplifying the voice of water and the acoustic ecology of each specific site. Inextricable from the environmental soundscape of water, listeners might also hear the interconnected sounds of rustling leaves, birdsong or wind when they engage with these outdoor sculptures.

I want to share a recording of water from a place near Hope, BC, called Othello Tunnels, a set of faulty railroad tunnels designed in the early 1900s by an engineer of European descent who loved Shakespeare. Today the tunnels form a scenic trail enjoyed by nature lovers. Though there are didactics at the site about the engineer and his love of Shakespeare, there are no signs about the workers who died while dynamiting these tunnels out of stone. While recording the water, I burned incense for these workers, many of whom did not have proper funeral rites. Turning around, I noticed a man taking pictures of me with a fancy digital camera. That day, the tunnels were flooded with heavy rain. I thought of the rain draining into the earth and entering the water table. Typically, in the water cycle, this reservoir would stay in the ground for maybe 100 or 200 years. However, literally just down the road, the Nestle Waters Plant was actively draining and bottling the Kawkawa Lake aquifer without consent from the Sto:lo Nation, and they continue to do so today.

If all water is connected and animate, does it remember the cycles that it has been through, the bodies it has moved through and the material that has dissolved in it over billions of years? Water, sap, blood, medicine, milk, oceans, sewage and rain, the connections that run through and between us are tangible and irreplaceable. They stand in stark opposition to concepts of financial liquidity that only point toward further abstractions, separations and false equivalencies. I began by talking about my grandmother Helen. However, for me it is not only necessary to acknowledge blood relations, but also remember networks of queer kinship and genealogy and especially the genius, resilience and experience of trans women of colour that make possible my existence. When I think of grandmothers, I think of Tourmaline’s film Atlantic is a Sea of Bones (2017), which takes its name from a poem by Lucille Clifton. The poem ends with the momentous lines, “maternal armies pace the atlantic floor. / i call my name into the roar of surf and something awful answers.” Recalling for me the complexities of Delany’s mirror game, Atlantic is a Sea of Bones reflects change and continuity across generations as embodied by the intergenerational mirroring of Egyptt LaBeija, an elder of the New York ball scene, and artist Fatima Jamal. In distinct contrast to the lush cinematography and sparkling attire seen in the majority of this short film, there is a scene shot with a phone camera where LaBeija in ordinary street clothes looks down towards the West Side Piers where she once lived and out towards the Hudson River, which in turn empties into the Atlantic. Turning away from this view, LaBeija wipes tears, salty and watery, from her eyes and then looks directly into the camera. It feels like she is speaking to us when she says, “The memories. People should never forget where they came from.”


I would like to express my gratitude to some of the water systems that have sustained me as I wrote this piece, a practice that I learned from poet, teacher, and water protector Rita Wong. First, stal’əw which is otherwise known as the Fraser River, the Tagus River that drains into the Atlantic Ocean, also the Capilano, Seymour and Coquitlam watersheds, and finally the Pacific Ocean that touches the two distant places that I sometimes call home.[8]

A version of this text was originally presented as a talk at Hangar in Lisbon Portugal, on the invitation of Valentina Desideri, Denise Ferreira da Silva and Kadist.


[1] Samuel Delany, Tales of Nevèrÿon (New York: Bantam, 1979), 65.

[2] Ibid, 67.

[3] Ibid, 72.

[4] Ibid, 82.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, 84.

[7] Wilhelm, Hellmut editor, Cary F. Baynes translator. The I Ching or Book of Changes, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977), 115.

[8] Wong, Rita. “What Would Restitution and Regeneration Look Like from the Point of View of Water?” Cultivating Canada: Reconciliation through the Lens of Cultural Diversity. Ottawa: Aboriginal Healing Foundation, 2011.


S F Ho is an artist who is 90% chill, 10% not, living on the unceded Coast Salish territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh and səl̓ílwətaʔɬ peoples. They’re into community building, books and being sort of boring. They recently finished writing George the Parasite (2020), a short novella about aliens, love and boundaries.

[Image carousel descriptions:

[A series of six screenshots of the artist’s writing in the TextEdit software on their computer. Each shows the gray menu bar and formatting buttons running across the top and displays text and images against a white background. Several shots have selections from the text highlighted in sky blue. The menus all show the document’s heading, “Untitled — Edited”

[Water 01: The Chinese phrase 水為財 is printed in big bold blocky strokes. Below that, the translation into English as “WATER IS MONEY" in blocky letters and highlighted in blue. Though in all caps, “is” is much smaller than “water” and “money” in the phrase.

[Water 02: A block of text with parenthetical translations interspersed. This is a quote from the artist’s essay. The last two sentences are blue-highlighted. It reads, "Allegedly borrowing from the slang of the triads, water often symbolizes money in the Cantonese colloquial. Get rich and it is said that you ‘pile up water’ (in parentheses, Chinese characters 叠水 and dap sui); to ‘catch water’ (in parentheses, Chinese characters 撲水 and pok sui) is to get money; a refund is known as ‘returning water’ (in parentheses, Chinese characters 回水 and wui sui); stealing money is to ‘rip off water’ (in parentheses, Chinese characters 掠水 and lut sui); making extra money is known as ‘replenishing water’ (in parentheses, Chinese characters 補水 and bo sui). The concept of solvency in financial terms has implications analogous, again, to the Cantonese (Chinese phrase 水為財) idiom. Essence is abstracted into liquid assets.”

[Water 03: The artist’s imagined rendition of a made-up protolanguage from a Samuel Delany story. Six distinct red characters and symbols are arrayed in two rows. The rows include geometric shapes such as an inverted capital “L,” an arc like an elephant trunk and Chinese characters, each appearing one or more times. Mixed in are clipart of a beetle, a gecko and a parrot as characters in the invented script.

[Water 04: Another quote from the essay: “The distorted reflection of the three-horned beetle, three horned lizards and two crested parrots reveals a world of bizarre equivalency that Venn asks the children to interrogate. She wonders at how money can stand in for different kinds of labour and objects all at once: ‘One simply cannot measure weight, coldness, the passage of time, and the brightness of fire all on the same scale’.”

[Water 05: One line in blocky text: “WATER is MONEY is LIFE,” where “water,” “money,” and “life” are in all caps. The word “is,” is typed in lowercase. The word “money” is struck out and also highlighted in blue.

[Water 06: A block of text: “If all water is connected and animate, does it remember the cycles that it has been through, the bodies it has moved through, and the material that has dissolved in it over billions of years? (highlighted in blue) Water, sap, blood, medicine, milk, oceans, sewage and rain (end of highlighting), the connections that run through and between us are irreplaceable, tangible and necessary.”

[Descriptions of images embedded within essay text:

[The first is one line of red protolanguage text from Water 03 displayed as a single line of text.

[The second is a photograph of the Intertribal Lifelines mixed media installation, an artwork by Cathy Busby (Scottish / English descent) and Charlene Vickers (Anishnaabe descent) from 2017. This installation at Surrey Art Gallery is composed of a mix of 30 handmade and store-bought bright patterned blankets hanging on three black, 17-foot high walls. The blankets simultaneously conceal and define the gallery space, which symbolizes a broken system being bandaged. Fluorescent-coloured duct tape is used throughout directly on blankets or layered onto clear plastic sheeting over the blankets, spelling in all caps the names of places where water is contaminated and where Indigenous people are primarily affected: Standing Rock, Minamata, Rio Doce, Grassy Narrows, Wabaseemoong. Two bold, hard-edge orange painted stripes stretch from floor to ceiling at intervals, interrupting the organic, flowing display of blankets and plastic sheeting. Long thin pieces of wood lean upright against the walls. (Some details of this image description are courtesy of the artists, Cathay Busby and Charlene Vickers.)]

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