The Hakkas are a remarkable and resilient people. As a wandering nation, prone to be victimized by discrimination, their experience is often compared to that of the Jews and the Gypsies. In Taiwan, Hakkas make up the island’s second largest ethnolinguistic group and represent roughly 15% of Taiwan’s population. Today, the Hakkas and their culture are an indispensable part of Taiwanese society and identity.
Originally a northern people hailing from the Yellow River plains, the Hakkas became uprooted in the 4th century’s Barbarian Invasions—a time when many Eurasian nomads migrated into East Asia and established their own kingdoms across north China (right around the time that tribes closer to Europe moved into the Western Roman Empire, leading to that empire’s collapse). The Hakka people were displaced and became refugees. Over the next thousand years, they wandered across the Far East.
Their name literally means “guests”—an ironic euphemism for “those who do not belong.” They eventually gathered in the Chinese south, sandwiched between lands dominated by local Hoklo and Cantonese cultures.
Beginning in the 17th century, many Hakka families were once again on the move. Driven by overpopulation and crippling poverty, many Hakka (as well as Hoklo and Cantonese) men began exploring lands beyond traditional Chinese territories. This massive early modern wave of emigration out of China brought Hakkas to places like India, Southeast Asia and Taiwan.
All experiences of migration are filled with hardships and often accompanied by seemingly endless streams of tears. For the Hakka people, it was no different. The poignant and bitter experiences of these brave and hardy folks, dating to as early as the 17th century, were recorded in a Taiwanese Hakka “hill song” known in the Hakka language as Tutoibigo (Mandarin: Dùtáibēigē), literally, An Elegy of the Crossing to Taiwan.
The following is roughly based on and briefly summarizes the solemn Hakka ballad. This folk song, sadly, may sound familiar to the many displaced souls still in the perilous search for a home in the 21st century.
You who listen to our tale, heed this: Do not go to Taiwan!
We believed it to be a land of opportunity. But these were lies. Countless brothers died in that strange land. They died away from home—in poverty, in misery and in obscurity.
Our story began along the southern Chinese coast as our people gathered in Cantonese ports awaiting junks departing for the fabled Ilha Formosa.
We relied on traffickers who demanded to be paid in Spanish Pieces of Eight. Many journeyed alone, but those with family were charged double the rate.
For some, it took all they had simply to reach the coast. These were wretched fellas, for as they waited for the ships to leave port, their cash ran out and were unable to pay the smugglers’ price. Already broke, they had to beg their way back to whence they came.
For those of us who made it aboard, our ordeal had only just begun. Countless brothers fell sick at sea. Vomit overflowed our overcrowded ships.
The ship’s captain, who had so enthusiastically spoken of our destination whilst on land, was now a different man at sea. There were no more talks of a better life, only repeated demands for what little cash we had left.
Note: Two to three days’ sailing was all it should take to reach Taiwan from the coasts of China. What the original song does not mention is that smooth sailing was a rare occurrence in the Formosa Strait, or, as the Taiwanese call this treacherous body of water, the Black Trench. How many souls were lost during these desperate crossings will never be known.
Disappointment—that was what greeted us on the Taiwanese shores. We had set out in search of a new home, of opportunity, for a future for our people. Yet, what we saw before us, were poor settlements of shabby thatched huts.
The Hoklo people had arrived in Taiwan before us. They built cities in the fertile lowlands and claimed much of the best plots as farmland. We Hakkas were latecomers, we were few in number, many became servants in Hoklo homes and coolies in Hoklo fields.
We knew rice was abundant in Taiwan, but it was a luxury few Hakkas could afford. Our employers only fed us cheap crops like yam that grew in ditches.
We slept not in beds, but in baskets woven from rough strips of bamboo. We had not even nets to keep the summer night’s bugs away. Instead, we offered the blood in our veins to their feasts as sleepless nights dragged on.
All year long, we Hakkas toiled from sunrise to sundown. Four days of unpaid leave during the Spring Festival was all the rest we got.
You better pray to be spared from illness, for your employer will surely turn you away then. You would not be paid during sick leaves and had to shoulder all your medical expenses.
Void of opportunity in Hoklo lands, some of our people eyed the mountains. There, in the ancient Taiwanese forests, lie unbound natural wealth, dormant and untapped.
But enter the sleepy woodlands at your own risk, for that was Savage Country. Indigenous mountain tribes did not welcome us. They hunted and offered our severed heads to heathen gods.
Is it any wonder that our people began to miss home?
In that strange land, we lived among strange folks with uncivilized ways. We were given no water with which to bathe. We witnessed strange and barbaric customs. We were worked like cattle. We had poor food. We worked all year round but earned little. Nothing was as good as the promises made to us by the traffickers who brought us here.
Is it any wonder that we began to miss home?
You who listen to our tale, heed this: Do not go to Taiwan.
The above retelling of the heartwrenching Hakka ballad is created by Island Folklore based on research done by Taiwanese Hakka scholar, Huang Chufang.
The original ballad exists in a number of different versions and many are available on the Internet. To see one of these (recorded in traditional Chinese script with pronunciation guides for recitation in the Hakka language), please click here.
The folk song vividly records the wretched condition and psychology of new Hakka immigrants to Taiwan who began arriving in the 17th century. In our next post (available 27 July 2017), the second of Island Folklore‘s ongoing Hakka trilogy, we move into later centuries and see these Hakka immigrants discovering their own identity and begin to carve out a place to call their own on the island of Taiwan.