Field notes

Taiwan sowing the seeds of Hakka revival

Some 60 visitors having dinner in Dahu town in Miaoli as part of a day-long trip in May organised to introduce them to the Hakka way of life, including the cuisine and music. President Tsai Ing-wen, a Hakka herself, promised to revitalise the Hakka c
Some 60 visitors having dinner in Dahu town in Miaoli as part of a day-long trip in May organised to introduce them to the Hakka way of life, including the cuisine and music.PHOTO: LORRAINE ZHANG
Some 60 visitors having dinner in Dahu town in Miaoli as part of a day-long trip in May organised to introduce them to the Hakka way of life, including the cuisine and music. President Tsai Ing-wen, a Hakka herself, promised to revitalise the Hakka c
A young visitor to Miaoli learning how to chop wood, something that Hakkas used to do in the villages. PHOTO: LORRAINE ZHANG
A young visitor to Miaoli learning how to chop wood, something that Hakkas used to do in the villages.
President Tsai Ing-wen, a Hakka herself, promised to revitalise the Hakka culture and dialect.PHOTO: REUTERS

Young Hakkas going back to farming amid govt plans to revitalise dialect and culture

Tired of being cooped up in a Chinese medicinal product factory, San Huang gave up his manager job in 2015 to return to his hometown.

The 33-year-old bachelor swopped his suits and computer for boots and the hoe to work on his father's orange farm in Dahu, western Miaoli County.

"Our family depended on the good harvest over the years and I wanted to ensure that the culture that has defined our lives is not forgotten and will be passed down to the next generation."

The gamble is paying off for Mr Huang, who now earns NT$1 million (S$45,000) a year, thrice what he used to get, by selling oranges, jam and organising experiential farm tours.

Like Mr Huang, a small but growing group of young people belonging to the Hakka dialect group are moving back to their hometowns in western Taiwan to get in touch with their roots. Many are doing what generations of Hakkas before them have done - farm the land.

"We Hakkas are known for our passion for the land and hard work on the farms... Farming is intertwined with our lifestyles. So if we can make a good living out of farming, more people will follow suit and do it and the culture will be preserved," said Ms Lorraine Zhang, 34, who moved back to Miaoli three years ago from the southern mainland city of Dongguan to start a camphor tree plantation.

This grassroots movement is accompanied by government efforts, said to be among the most ambitious attempts yet, to revitalise Hakka dialect and culture.

  • All about Hakka

  • The word Hakka literally means "guest people" and was coined by other people in the lands where the Hakkas settled. Hakkas in Taiwan can trace their roots to provinces in southern China, such as Jiangxi and Guangdong, where their ancestors had lived after migrating from northern provinces like Shanxi.

    There are about 4.5 million Hakkas in Taiwan - the second largest Chinese dialect group after the Hoklos who speak the Minnan dialect, according to the Hakka Affairs Council.

    While the dialect can be heard in train announcements on Taipei's MTR, it is currently just a folk language - meaning it is not compulsory to teach it in schools. But there are plans to make it a national language, meaning schools in Hakka-dominated towns will have to offer it as a subject.

    Despite being a minority dialect group, the Hakkas have done well in Taiwan. Notable Hakkas include former presidents Ma Ying-jeou and Lee Teng-hui, and Taiwan's founding father Sun Yat Sen.

    Outside Taiwan, prominent Hakkas include China's former strongman Deng Xiaoping and Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his father and founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew.

    While Singaporeans are familiar with the dialect group's food classics like thunder tea rice, Hakka abacus seeds (yam gnocchi stirred fried with dried shrimp, mushrooms) and Hakka yong tau fu, Taiwan's Hakka cuisine is defined by what is dubbed Si Wen Si Chao.

    Emphasising the group's virtue of frugality without waste, the cuisine comprises eight dishes that are served at weddings, funerals and religious festivals.

    They include pickled vegetable stewed with pig stomach, stewed pork, spareribs stewed with radish, pig intestine stir-fried with shredded ginger, duck blood stir-fried with leek, and pig lung stir-fried with pear and Jew's-ear (nicknamed salty sour sweet).

    Jermyn Chow

There are plans to make Hakka a compulsory subject in elementary and junior high schools in Hakka towns. Local government and government-run enterprises in these towns will also have to provide services in the dialect.

There are about 4.5 million Hakkas in Taiwan and they form the second-largest Chinese dialect group after the Hoklos who speak the Minnan dialect, according to the Cabinet-level Hakka Affairs Council.

But there are fears that Hakka culture is weakening, with the council finding that no more than 15 per cent of young Hakka adults can speak their mother tongue.

Hakka Affairs Minister Lee Yung-te, 62, worries that the Hakka dialect will die out in Taiwan in 20 years without greater efforts to promote the language.

The push to revitalise the Hakka culture and dialect is one of the campaign promises of President Tsai Ing-wen, a Hakka herself.

There are plans to make Hakka a compulsory subject in elementary and junior high schools in Hakka towns. Local government and government-run enterprises in these towns will also have to provide services in the dialect.

The government will spend about NT$10 billion over the next four years to redevelop a 440km road dubbed Hakka Romantic Avenue, which cuts across 16 Hakka towns along Taiwan's west coast. It will also set up attractions, including a Hakka music village in Hsinchu and a museum showcasing art by Hakkas.

The Hakka Affairs Council is working with the Council of Agriculture to earmark plots of land in Hakka areas for young people to start tea plantations by the end of this year. To sweeten the deal, the Hakka policymakers are looking to provide subsidies to groom young farmers.

Mr Lee, who is also Hakka, said: "It is about creating a more Hakka-friendly environment in which people see the benefits and value of continuing the Hakka culture and lifestyle."

While the Hakka Affairs Council was set up in 2003 to safeguard the Hakka dialect and culture, its efforts managed only to "slow down their disappearance", said Mr Lee.

The Taiwan authorities' plans to give Hakka a new lease of life is part of a wider push over the last few decades to revitalise languages.

Before martial law was lifted in 1987, the use of dialects was taboo as the then Kuomintang government prohibited any other languages except Mandarin.

But this has since changed, with the Minnan dialect now widely used in the media. The island, which already has a Hakka television channel, recently launched its first Hakka radio station.

All these are a vast change from the past, when there used to be a stigma to being Hakka, said National Chiao-tong University's Hakka Studies College dean Chang Wei-an, resulting in their being "invisible" in the big cities like Taipei.

"Most people spoke either Mandarin or Minnan, and so people did not see any value in speaking Hakka. Hakkas also used to be ridiculed by the media for being backward farmers," said Professor Chang.

In schools, only one in 10 chooses to learn Hakka, while seven in 10 pick the Minnan dialect. Making Hakka the national language might be the turning point for the Hakka culture, said Mr Lee.

"We will need official recognition if we can instil the pride of being Hakka and speaking Hakka."

National Dong Hwa University's political expert Shih Cheng-feng said the government will succeed only if there is a mindset change among the Hakka community to revive Hakka.

"If people are not keen to learn Hakka or preserve the heritage, then all the efforts will become gimmicky," he said.

Interest does seem to be picking up in Miaoli, which has one of Taiwan's highest concentrations of Hakkas; nearly six in 10 residents identify themselves as Hakkas.

Miaoli may just be 45 minutes away from Taipei on the high- speed rail, but it feels very different from the capital city, where Mandarin is commonly spoken. Here, announcements at train stations and government offices are in Hakka. Older folk converse fluently in Hakka, greeting visitors with "ngi ho" or hello in Hakka.

Young Hakkas who have moved back to Miaoli are starting groups to popularise the dialect and pass on farming tips.

Mr Huang, Ms Zhang and her husband Kenny Lan, 38, for instance, set up a group in March to revitalise the Hakka culture. It now has more than 380 members. Besides monthly talks and forums on new ways of farming and the Hakka culture, the group has also organised day-long tours to introduce Hakka lifestyle and cuisine to visitors.

Said Mr Huang: "If many of the young Hakkas I meet can hardly hold a conversation in Hakka, then what will happen to their kids?

"It will be a pity if the dialect and culture dies out," added Mr Huang, who still speaks Hakka with his parents and friends in Miaoli.

To 69-year-old Chiu Bi-yi, these efforts are a good start to preserving Hakka culture but he hopes more will be done to help farmers.

His son Seven, 34, a former design engineer, said goodbye to city life and returned to run a resort to introduce visitors to camping and breadmaking in the foothills of Dahu district in Miaoli.

The elder Chiu said: "It is a means of survival for us. There is no point talking about preserving heritage and culture if people are hungry and struggling to survive."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 05, 2017, with the headline 'Taiwan sowing the seeds of Hakka revival'. Print Edition | Subscribe