Friday, May 22, 2009

Taiwan 2009 (Part 1) - Hakka Culture

Just came back from my 2+ week visit of Taiwan. I was lucky that during my stay, the weather has been pleasant and dry despite that May and June are supposed to be the rainy season. As a place where I grew up and visited often, one wonderful experience of this trip was exposure to some aspects of Hakka 客家 culture that was unfamiliar to me previously. By the way, if you ever had rides on Taipei Metro, you might have noticed that the announcement was always repeated four time in: Mandarin, Taiwanese, English, and yes, Hakka.

Hakka people are a subgroup of Han Chinese that have originated from north-central China (today’s Henan 河南 and Shaanxi 陝西 provinces). It is believed that they have migrated south over a thousand year ago and reached south-eastern China, primarily in JianXi, GuangDong and FuJian provinces. Later in Qing dynasty, along with Hoklo people 福佬 from Quanzhou 泉州 Zhangzhou 漳州of southern FuJian, many Hakka people moved for political and economical reasons and settled in Taiwan where their population is currently estimated at 3+ millions, a distant second to Hoklo that accounts for about 70% or 15+ millions of the total population.

Possibly due to their long history of immigrant status (the word Hakka literally means “Guest Families”), Hakka people tried hard to preserve their customs and traditions. Not surprisingly, there are also histories of conflicts and fights at times between them and locals. In Taiwan, they did not fare much differently as a minority in number, most of them ended up settling in hilly and less desired areas of Taiwan with limited resources. This may not be all bad as the group developed strong bond and are known to be hardworking and frugal as they faced many challenges. Many Hakka people have become significant leaders at wherever they or their ancestors settled; a shining example is Li GuangYao who is considered by many the father of Singapore.

In Taiwan, with the increased funding and establishment of the cabinet level Council for Hakka Affairs in 2001, Hakka culture awareness has received much more attention and garnered energy for its renaissance. There have been many events organized and promoted in the island to recognize Hakka culture. One significant event is the Tung Blossom Festival 桐花祭/桐花節 which is now held every year from mid April to mid May.

Tung tree (Aluerites fordii Hemsi) is native to China and has a historical significance with Hakka people in Taiwan. During Japanese occupation, Japanese government made concerted efforts to utilize the resources in Taiwan in many ways. One of such efforts was to introduce Tung trees to the hilly regions of MiaoLi and HisnChu counties where Hakka people reside and used them to produce Tung oil 桐油 for paints and inks. Those days were long gone and remaining Tung trees have been quietly living in wild on the hills for a long time until recently as tourists flocked back to visit when blossom.

We stayed at the Westlake Resort in SanYi 三義town which has a large property and many Tung trees. Although we missed the peak, we still got a good look of the blossom and the falling flowers and petals on the ground. I could imagine the claim of “May Snow” 五月雪 may not be an exaggeration if we were at the right place and time! What I found interesting is that unlike most trees, Tung tree is dioecious that some are male and some are female, and cannot self-pollinating. We saw a lot of male flowers helplessly lie on the ground completed with five white petals and the claw that has turned red, a sign that it has done its job with pollens spread.

After lunch (traditional Hakka specials including the famous Stewed Pork Belly in Mei Cai 梅菜扣肉), we visited nearby scenic spots like the now closed tiny ShengXing 勝興 train station that stands at 400+ meters elevation and used to be the highest point of Taiwan railroads. I still recall when taking train home from Taipei, the train often stops at this station till the northbound train passes. Then our train would start moving again and accelerating downhill to TaiZhong. The quiet station and neighborhood are now filled with tourists, shops, cafes and people on the abandoned tracks.

Driving a little further south, one could see the remains of an amazing 100+ years old LongTeng Bridge 龍騰斷橋. The bridge was 100 meters long, 33 meters high with a main span of 61 meters. It was built in 1905 and collapsed in 1935 when a 7.3 Richter scale earthquake took it down during the Japanese occupation. What is unusual about it is that the support of the bridge was built with mostly bricks.

SanYi itself is a historical town and capital of wood carving and sculpture business of Taiwan for a long time. According to the story, the region is a poor hilly land that could only be used to plant economic plants like Camphor Laurel樟樹 and tea trees. The former happened to be seen as a high value timber by Japanese during the occupation and active harvesting and export was resulted. By pure accident, a local resident noticed a nice looking root of a Camphor Laurel tree that was previously harvested and decided to do some carving with it. The rest is history.

Initially, the wood carving business was focused on religious figures, furniture and decorations for both domestic and exports (to Japan). Many skilled masters emerged who trained a large number of students. The town prospered once more during the 60s when Americans military personnel vacationed heavily in Taiwan during the Vietnam war. However it took a disciple like Zhu Ming 朱銘, now an internationally renowned sculptor, to bring and aspire many to the level of high art. An enjoyable way to get a sense of the history and appreciation of the art is to visit the SanYi Wood Sculpture Musuem 三義木雕博物館 where, among other things, you can find impressive collections and exhibits of wood sculptures of past and contemporary artists. Some of the clever arrangements taking advantage of the shape and look of the wood will no doubtedly remind you of the most popular collections at the National Palace Museum such as the Jade Cabbage and Meat Stone of Qing Dynasty.

Hakka people (about 34 millions worldwide) share a common spoken language that is simply referred to as Hakka 客家話. Interestingly, with its evolution over a thousand years due to the migration, Hakka has kept many features of southern year old northern Middle Chinese 中古漢語 that have been lost in the North including the official spoken language Mandarin. According to the wiki entries, Hakka has a full complement of nasal endings, -m -n -ŋ and occlusive endings -p -t -k, maintaining the four categories of tonal types, with splitting in the ping and ru tones, thus giving the classical six tones. Some dialects of Hakka have seven tones, due to splitting in the qu tone. All these features do make it far more musical compared to the modern northern Chinese dialects.

A way to appreciate it is to listen to some Hakka songs. Last year, I had a chance to see on TV the performance of a song writer and singer Lin Sheng-Xiang 林生祥. In this trip, I had a chance to see in person the performance of song writer and singer Lo ShiRong 羅思容 who is also a poet and painter. Both are wonderful. Below is a YouTube music video of The South 南方, a beautiful modern Hakka song, lyric by Zhong YongFeng 鍾永豐, composed by Lin ShengXiang 林生祥 and performed by 林生祥 and Ken Ohtake 大竹研.

Talk to you soon!

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