Saturday, July 19, 2008

a guest re-view of the yamato

A search on the web of Huang Zunxian (1848-1905) – 黄遵宪- (HZX) - throws up many links, and there is no short of information about him that can be trawled from the internet. He is one for serious research by the academics on modern Chinese history.

A talk last Saturday, at the Ying Fo Association-新加坡应和会馆- at Telok Ayer Street prompted me to search thro my library of books and pull out this booklet that I had of him.

The topic of the talk was – Understanding Japan Anew – 重新认识日本 – chongxin renshi riben.

The talk was divided into two topics of an hour each and was conducted in Mandarin. The first hour was by a journalist of the local Chinese daily who is a commentator on Japan - its politics and society. The second hour was by an assistant professor cum CEO industrialist who is the president of the association. The common thread between HZX and the two speakers is that, they are of Hakka – 客家-ethnicity.

Perhaps this talk was organized because of the recent thaw in relationship between China and Japan – and to give the folks here an afresh understanding of Japan. The recent normalizing of relationship between China and Japan, which was frozen during the Koizumi years, and which culminated in mass demo in China, I believe have a subtle but significant impact on how the local Chinese here, particularly the older Chinese educated folks view Japan.

And this talk was held to give an afresh perspective on our understanding of Japan. And who would be more qualified and better to do that than these two gentlemen who were educated in Japan, and are also deeply engaged with Japan in their career. In Mandarin they are the - 日本通 - riben tong - an old Japan hand. While in Japanese they would be deemed the – 知日派 – chinichi hazhire pai (pinyin).

The two terms would have a different connotation perhaps – with the- 日本通 – taking a on a more neutral stand of being an expert of Japan, while -知日派 – in Japanese would carry a meaning of being pro-Japanese.

Now back to HZX, the Hakka connection and Japan –

A diplomat and great literary figure of the old school HZX lived the twilight years of the Qing dynasty (清朝). In 1891 he was posted as the High Commissioner of the Qing Emabssy in Singapore.

I first got to know of HZX while attending the Hakkalogy conference in Singapore in 1996 in the search of my ethic roots. On a trip to the ancestral homeland the following year I visited Meizhou-梅州-and his old residence – 人境庐 – renjing lu . The souvenir booklet was from the visit, and it has a brief introduction of his life history, his works and his residence.

HZX - is perhaps the first Chinese –日本通 – of the modern era. After passing his imperial examination in 1876, he was posted to the embassy of the Qing Court in Japan the following year as a diplomat. While he was there, he researched the history of Japan and studied her experience of nationhood during the Meiji Restoration – 明示維新。

He subsequently wrote the - History of Japan - 日本国志 – riben guozhi. He has also another welll-known work on Japan. The close to 200 odd poems that he penned on his observations of Japan & her society during his stay there was later complied into an anthology of poems known as - 日本杂事诗 - riben zashi shi .

Well, so much for the Hakka connection and Japan, it was perhaps only logical that the Hakka association in Singapore organized the talk – to re-afresh the understanding of the locals of the Yamato race – 大和民族 – dahe minzhu.

Postscript -

1) On 知日派 & 親日派
While studying in Japan – there was a Japanese senior who was my research lab mentor and we used to talk about non-academic stuff when we go out for lunch. He would jokingly said that if it was during the War, one would be considered a - shin nichi ha – 親日派 – qingri pai - namely belonging to the pro-Japanese clique if someone were close to Japan then.

親日派 – shinnichi ha - is definitely a term for the pro-Japanese, while - 知日派 – chinichi ha - could mean some who knows Japan.

2) The 2nd speaker was prepared for tough questions from the audience, and he had well prepared himself and anticipated that. After all the positive pointers that he presented of Japan in the talk, an elderly member from the floor during the Q&A session asked – what were some of the negative things about Japan.

The 2nd speaker was all ready to flash out on the screen, old photographs of WWII Japanese occupation of Syonan - 昭南– school children bowing to the - Hino maru - 日の丸 sketches of atrocities of the Japanese military by artist Liu Kang.

Singapore’s government policy towards Japan had since the 1960/s been to forgive but not to forget. Being a small island nation, she has to take a practical and realistic stand – and even though there was a significant Chinese population that has lived thro the Japanese occupation – cool headed policies that benefited the country took precedent above all else.

Japanese industries were encouraged to invest in Singapore, and over the years there is a strong community of expatriate on the island – living as it had been always in their own community.

Which, in actual fact the Japanese community in Singapore is nothing new. They were first here as early as the 1850/s and culminated in a community of traders and karayuki-san – 唐行きさん-in the late 1800/s and early 1900/s. There was even a street called Japan Street – which after the war it was named Boon Tat Street.

3) Japan Street
Boon Tat Street, as I read somewhere was once called Japan Street in the pre-war days. Why is the street located near to Telok Ayer in a Chinese enclave named Japan Street - were there many Japanese Shops around the area too, other than in Middle Road area? Yet to find that out-
4) The talk

重新认识日本 - 讲座联新书发布会
<传统社会与高科技社会 – 日本内部的文化冲突>

Title of talk: Understanding Japan Anew

1) President of the Yin Fo Association:
<Traditional Japanese society and its high tech society – the clashers internally within the Japanese civilization>
2) Journalist and commentator Huang,
<China & Japan: the misconception of - of being of the same language (writing script) and roots>

1) Renjing lu - 人境庐 (booklet)


Renjing lu (name of the residence of HZX in Meizhou)
Complied by: Meizhou city – Renjing lu - Cultural relic management section
Author: Xie Ji
Date publishL 1995.12

人境庐 - Renjing lu – which literary - means a dwelling set at the edge of human habitat - is derived from the beginning of a phrase in a well-known poem by Tao Yuan Ming 陶渊明 aka Tao Qian 陶潜 (365-427AD) , Drinking Wine - 饮酒

Web link :

a) Huang Zunxian -

b) Tao Qian

Drinking Wine – 饮酒


Tuesday, July 01, 2008

mountain folk song 客家山 歌 let you guess - a refection on speaking dialect

A few Sundays ago, I discover that history need not be confined to just the tangible – the physical buildings such as the old shop houses or go on an archeological dig up Bukit Larangan or Fort Canning.

For there is the intangible aspects of our heritage that is also intimately link to history. It’s in each of us – the language that we speaks, the songs that we sing and the tale that we tell , which is the part of oral and cultural heritage. That is our ethnological & social history.

A reflection of our oral heritage – the Hakka dialect

It was the last of the series of talks cum forum on Hakka culture organized by the clan association – The Ying Fo Hakka association - 应和会馆 - located at Telok Ayer Street. - on Hakka folk songs – 客家山歌 . It was in celebration of its 186 anniversary
Though the clan building, its structure dating back to 1882 is still standing strong after 120 over years and with a few good rounds of renovation, it dawn on me that many of the oral and cultural heritage of this dialect group will so be gone - without a conscious effort of preservation and promotion.

Of all the five major dialects spoken in this city state – Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hainanese and Hakka - the dialect that will most likely to disappear soon among the local born Singaporean population would be Hakka.

With a community that constitutes less than 10% of the local born population it is perhaps around the two hundred odd thousand range. The Hakka community is geographically relatively much more diversely spread that other dialect groups. There no longer is a Hakka enclave and you could not longer find a concentration of Hakka/s in a certain locality on the island. To Kereta Ayer – you can discern that this has a concentration of Cantonese, to Purvis Street – the Hainanese, or Hougang you have the Teochews, and the Fujianese around the island.

To get to hear Hakka spoken, the most likely place to go is perhaps visit a traditional Chinese herbal medicine shop or a pawn shop – the traditional trade of the Hakka here - and look for a middle-aged person who could perhaps still converse in their mother tongue. Well, and that is fast vanishing if it had not.

It’s thus not a surprise to see that in the Channel 8 program on one’s roots – 追根到底 - zuigen daodi – the hosts had difficulty to pick someone around the city that could speak Hakka.

Being brought up speaking Hakka, there is a certain measure of nostalgia attached to the dialect. While studying in Tokyo, when I had a yearning to hearing Hakka, I would drop in to Ginza – the shopping & pedestrian paradise of Tokyo. For among the tour groups from Taiwan, there was a chance that someone among them would speak the dialect.

If Hakka is heard in Orchard Road, or out on the streets or in Chinatown among the younger population – you can be guaranteed that they are not local born. Most probably these youngsters are from the Silver State of Perak up North in the Peninsula, or from Kulai, Johor or perhaps from the outskirt of KL or from Sabah in East Malaysia, This is where the Hakka dialect is still being kept alive cos of its relative high concentration of the dialect group there.

Other than it is a minority population in the city-state, the demise of the Hakka dialect could also be due to fact that Hakka is linguistically closer to Mandarin than the other dialects - that to speak Mandarin, you just need to tune the pronunciation a little to sound like Mandarin. Thus perhaps the community found it relatively easy to jump start the - Speak Mandarin Campaign - in the days of -多讲华语,少讲方言. – Speak more Mandarin, Less of Dialect.

Among the nephews and nieces in the hometown, who are educated in English & Malay & have not learnt a word of Mandarin in school, I find that they do not have much of a problem picking up Mandarin. Most likely it is because they spoke Hakka at home and have a foundation of the language in the dialect.

The diversity of the different dialect groups that had enriched the Chinese community on the island – could be glimpsed as a museum exhibit from the static display at the annual River Hong Bong - 春到河畔 - festivity put up by the different clan associations during Chinese New Year. It’s the annual parade of our heritage – our roots, where we came from, & the trade that the early migrant communities were engaged in.

Perhaps it was due to this awareness that if you don’t use it or promote it will be gone, that a Senior Minister after learning his mother tongue for years, for the first time address parliament in the Tamil language, last week.

Well, so much on the dialect, now back to the mountain folk song –

The folk song that the Hakka is known as - Hakka mountain Songs - 客家山 歌 – hakka san goh (hakka) - kejia shange (pinyin) . I had always wondered why the Hakka is known for their mountain folk songs, and how did they developed their singing prowess.

The answers came in the talk by Ms Xu Qiuju –徐秋菊 – an authority on the folk songs as well a champion singer herself from Meizhou – 梅州 - the heartland of the Hakka/s located in North-eastern Guangdong Province - 广东省.

I was also surprised to know that my ancestral village –松口 - Songkou (pinyin) - Tsung keau ( hakka) - featured prominently in the folklore of the Hakka songs. For since time antiquity – all the Hakka mountain folk songs came from - Tsung keau!

Mountain song of the Hakka

Why is the folk song of the Hakka/s always known as - 山 歌– shan ge (pinyin) - or san goh (Hakka) – songs of the mountains, you may ask.

The Hakka - 客家 – kejia (pinyin) as the name suggest means - guest people. They migrated from the plains of the Yellow River in Northern China to the highlands of Southern China close to the borders of Fujian, Guangdong and Guangxi - 福建, 广东省,广西省. Historically it could be divided into 5 major waves of migration over a period of close to two thousand years – escaping from wars & internal struggles, and invasion of the northern barbarians.

As the story went, the Hakka being later migrants to Southern China, they had no other choice but to settled in the mountainous regions that surrounded their river routes that they took to moved southwards. For the plains and fertile land had already been occupied by the locals- such as the Cantonese –known as - 本地人- bendi ren - in Guangdong province. The later migrants were thus called – 客家人- kejia ren - or the guest people, to differentiate them from the locals.

These escaping soldiers from the North, inter-married with the women of the mountain tribe who then beget the Hakka that we know of today. Being occupiers of the vast mountain ranges, and their dwellings remotely located, the yells and calls they made to keep in contact with each other across the hills evolved into sing-a-song pitch which subsequently gave birth to the mountain folk songs, so the story went.

The traditional Hakka folk songs were ballad based on a set tunes in hepta-syllable liner. The themes of many of these songs were love songs and teasers sang in duet among the young men and maidens while out in the mountain - moving from hill to hill or to collect firewood, etc. There are song duel, where they were composed and sung impromptu.

They are songs of love, of joy, of sorrow, of advice derived from the wisdom of the common folks. They were supposedly to have a tradition as old as the - Book of Songs – 诗经- shijing - the collection of poems from antiquity during the time of Confucius.

Hakka mountain folk song – was never really a accepted as a mainstream culture among the educated elite of the traditional Hakka. For being steeped in the Confucian traditional moral and ethics, they would frown upon the expression of love in the crude and uncultured prose sang in duet among the young men and maidens. However among the common folks, the songs were a lively part of the Hakka folk culture.

There was many a tale of this smart & quick-witted maiden who in a song duel was no match for the scholar.

In the 1960/s - while the hills in the west were alive with the Sound of Music from Julie, out on the highlands to the east, it was reverberating with the mountain folk songs of Third Sister Liu – 刘三姐- Liu Sanjie.

This hit musical movie from Communist China, which was filmed in the scenic Guilin - 桂林 , Yunan Province - 云南省- was adapted from a Hakka folklore. Liu Sanjie used her singing talent – in the songs she sung to defy the oppressive bourgeois landlord. It was also a love story - Liu San Jie, found her prince charming that could match her singing talent during the annual Song Festival up on the mountain.

Songkou - Tsungkeau – 松口 or 从口

My ancestral hometown –- 松口 - Songkou (pinyin) - is pronounced as - Tsung keau - in the Hakka dialect. Going by the Hakka sound - Tsung keau – could be written as 松口 or 从口.

松口 - means mouth of the pine trees i.e the name of the town; it could also mean -
从口 - coming from the mouth:

Thus when challenged to a singing duel by a scholar coming up river on a boat to the village looking for this pretty and talented maiden - Third Sister Liu, Liu Sanjie sang -


- Since antiquity the mountain songs came from TsungkeauWhence have you the mountain song delivered on a boat? -

(punning on sound Tsungkeau – i.e coming from the mouth )

Hearing that, the scholar was dumb stuck and could not find a better phrase to reply her. Since then this lyric has been synonymous with the village and the Hakka mountain songs.

Whither Hakka mountain song –

It’s heartening to hear from Ms Xu that that in recent years there is a revival of sort of Hakka folk songs among the common folks in China. With the promotion and call for the preservation of Intangible cultural assets- Hakka mountain folk songs has been identified as one of the intangible cultural asset in China for preservation and promotion.

As in elsewhere in the world, traditional culture is losing it draw to the younger generation. In order to entice their interest & with the keen interest among the young in China to learn English, Ms Xu explained that English phrases have been interwoven to the lyrics folk songs – and hope that it could do the trick.

Thus you have -

唱首山歌 let you guess ! (chong shu san goh let you guess )
- Sing a song of the mountain, to have you guess

(note: the hepta-syllable lyrics– which is the length of ballad line )

What an odd animal it had created! Imaging a Scottish folk song from the highland interjected with - ni hao ma – 你好吗 – meaning how are you.

However, I cannot help but to be amazed at how the Chinese have taken on modernization and globalization in their stride. And considering Meizhou is relatively a up country county in the highlands.

Barely 30 years ago, before the country open up to the outside world by Deng Xiaopeng, - 邓小平 - and during the days of the Cultural Revolution – Hakka mountain sound would be banned, and what more English - this would be anathema & the composer would be banished forever to toil in the labor camp!
Mountain song in the city

Fast forward back to the 21st century – the connoisseur of these mountain songs are a very select group of aunties and uncles, who have heard them sung by their grandparents.

Among the audience in the talk, someone asked Ms Xu how she would propose to promote the mountain song in Singapore. She said that it’s best to get the young to be interested – and when they go for mountain song classes to bring their kids, oh no, their grandchildren along!

I wonder, with the passing of this generation of aunties and uncles, grandmas and grandpas, who would be left in the city state to enjoy the songs of Ms Xu and her pupils. When the young became aunties and uncles they have nothing to be nostalgic about the mountain songs, much less understanding their mother dialect.

Postscript –

a) Mountain song class

If you wish to learn some Hakka mountain song, a weekly class is organized by the Ying Fo Hakka association at Telok Ayer Street, (website of the association below)

b) A lesson in Hakka - faan poh - providing a glimpse of our origin

The common /colloquial term for 'woman' in Hakka is - faan poh - 番婆

番 – faan – meaning foreign, from another group, clan or tribe
婆 – poh - meaning the female gender – woman,

Thus – faan poh – means women from another tribe or group.

This phrase probably came about when the escaping soldiers from the North met the tribal women in the mountain ranges of South China – who were the – faan poh – And whom they took as their wives later.

Thus – from the intangible asset –of the dialect – one could get to know the origin of once ancestors through the fossilized words and vocabulary.

Without knowing the dialect – the future generations of Singaporean of Hakka ancestry would be poorer in their understanding of their roots and having a living link to it. What fun – dialect!

(other words with fann eg : Tomato – 番茄 – fanqie (pinyin)– a foreign import in ancient China )

b) Hakka – the mountain dwellers

There is a saying in the Hakka heartland of Guangdong Province 广东省 –
山区客家谚语 (yanyu)


- In every of the mountains there ought to be Hakka living
And, no Hakka who does not live in the mountain -

c) Hakkalogy

At one point in time in the 1980/s Hakkalogy - 客家学 – as a social study became in vogue. Then, the three head of states in China, the greater China region & SEA were all of Hakka ancestry – namely Deng Xiaoping - 邓小平 - of China, Lee Tenghui - 李登辉- of Taiwan and LKY of Singapore.

In November 1996, Singapore hosted the 3rd International Hakka Convention – 第三届客家国际检讨会。

In conjunction with the event an exhibition was held at the national museum:

客从何处来?从“过客”到公民 客家文化源流展
From “Guest People” to Citizens - The Hakka Exhibition

Singapore History Museum
Nanyang Khek Community Guild Singapore – 新加坡南洋客属总会


1) 客家山歌 - 非物质文化遗产丛书

刘晓春 胡希张 温萍
浙江 人民出版社 2007年3月

Book title: Hakka Mountain Song – Series on Intangible Cultural Heritage
Publisher: Zhejiang Renming Chubanshe 2007.03

Other intangible cultural heritage of China – that is kept alive in Singapore:
南音 - nanying

Nanying - traditional song and music on traditional instruments with it's origin during the Tang Dynasty. It is still kept alive by an ensemble with the Hokkien Association at Telok Ayer Street.

2) Photograhs :
-A scenic drive along road up Mt Yinna - 阴那山 (taken in 25Dec1997 on visit)
-Quay at Songkou overlooking the Meijiang River - 梅江 - where the ancestors board the boat down river to the Nanyang - 南洋 - the South Seas (24Dec1997)

2) Links -

Ying Fo Hakka Clan Association:


Intangible cultural asset – UNESCO :

Hakka – wikipedia:

Hakka Hill song – wikipedia :