It is a little known fact but I’m Hakka. No, that’s not just a brand of fish balls sold in the Asian grocer, it’s a Chinese dialect group. You’re probably scratching your head again (hopefully it’s not lice), thinking, “But hasn’t she been saying she’s Peranakan? What are all these other posts on Peranakan culture and people then?”
Wait a minute. Hold your horses. Okay, to most Chinese, this explanation is unnecessary, since all of us identify to being Chinese and a member of the dialect group from which we are descended, but as my audience is composed of many white Aussies (Hey Mate!) and Americans (Hey y’all!), a bit of foreword on the topic of distinctions Chinese make among ourselves is in order.
White people probably don’t google or read these pages, but there are many forums on which Chinese argue (almost always among ourselves) about which dialect group is most successful or stingy or whatever the desired characteristic maybe. Yes, only among Chinese is stinginess a desired characteristic as it tends to be synonymous with accumulating wealth – in our case, at any rate.
How this multi-layered identity that has non-Chinese utterly confused works like this: Let’s use Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, invariably known as the Father of Singapore as an example since whatever I’m about to tell you is verifiable through a few punch and clicks of the keyboard.
Mr Lee has been identified as Peranakan because he comes from a long-line of Peranakan. Now, if you’ve read my post on how Peranakan faces differ from regular Chinese faces, you’ll also know that Peranakans also identify and are identified as Chinese. His great grandfather though, was a Hakka from Dapu County in Guangdong Province, China. Thus, since Chinese society and culture is patriarchal and patrilineal, Mr Lee is still considered a Hakka, even if like me, he probably speaks no Hakka. As an aside, I particularly abhor the ignorant, racist dog, Ah Chia, who asked Mr. Lee to own up to being Baba (male Peranakan) when being Baba and being Chinese are interchangeable and not mutually exclusive.
The reason I speak no Hakka is because I never heard it at home. Hakka, which has various sub-dialects, is said to be an amalgam of the other dialects the Hakka people heard as they travelled on foot from one end of China to the other. Therefore, I suppose, it’s always been easier for my Hakka father (who is half Teochew) to speak Cantonese to my Cantonese-speaking Peranakan mother, who identifies as Cantonese, who speaks English most of the time anyway, than it is for her to speak to him in Hakka.
But part of who we are must be in the blood because even though I was never taught Hakka, as a child, on reconnaissance missions for my Cantonese-speaking Peranakan mother, I understood perfectly the conversations my Hakka father had with his Teochew mother. Talk about child labour!
What little I know about being Hakka I actually owe to my mother as my father hardly impressed upon me “Hakka-ness.” When I was a child, she used to say to me in the little Hakka she knows that, “To Hakkas, a girl is loss-producing goods.” And in English, she’d go on to tell me how my father, being the son of a daughter, was made to sleep in the hallway while the sons of his grandmother’s sons slept in the room with her. At mealtimes, his maternal grandmother also gave bigger and better rations to her sons’ sons than to him, her daughter’s son.
The precious little I know about Teochews also comes from my mother, who used to say, “Teochews are very stingy.” A brief look around the internet will conjure up similar descriptions, including a reference to them being the Jews of China, in that many are also very business-savvy. Teasing my father in front of me, she’d say, “Hakkas are very stingy and Teochews are also very stingy so your father, being a Hakka-Teochew (who later told me one of his grandmothers is Peranakan) is doubly stingy.”
None of which was ever apparent to me while I was growing up because my father was not only extremely generous towards me, he treated me as the equal of my brother; something that I discovered is not uncommon among Hakkas of my father’s generation. Perhaps indirect victims of sexism like my father, whose grandmother was clearly biased against him, they sought to address the imbalance in the status quo by being fairer towards their daughters, many of whom, in my generation, have been sent to college. I know this because when I went to college, there was a sizeable number of Hakka girls.
One of my most enduring friendships has been with one of them. While we don’t talk much about being Hakka, one day, the conversation turned to our looks; she and I both bear a striking resemblance to our fathers – she, at a glance, me, when I put on glasses.
“I thought it’s said that girls who look like their dads have better lives,” I said, referring to an age-old Chinese belief.
“Wouldn’t you say it’s true? Wouldn’t you say you and I have good lives?” she asked me, rhetorically of course, for there’s no denying that our lives are splendid.
2 to 3 generations ago, we’d have been told we are loss-producing goods, made to work hard around the home, perhaps never to set foot inside a higher learning institution. Today, almost all of the Hakka girls I know are tertiary-educated. Among the other dialect groups, sons may still be preferred to daughters, but among modern Hakkas, little distinction is made between the two.