The Hakkas are a remarkable and resilient people. As a wandering nation, prone to becoming victims of discrimination, their experience is often likened to those 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.

Photo: Typical circular Hakka fortress-settlement
Hakkas typically constructed circular fortress-settlements to protect against raids by hostile neighbouring peoples and tribes.

Originally a northern people hailing from the plains of the Yellow River, the Hakkas were uprooted in the fourth century’s mass Barbarian Invasions. It was a time when Eurasian nomads migrated eastward—founding numerous kingdoms across northern China—and also westward into the Roman Empire, leading to that empire’s collapse in western Europe.

The Hakka people were displaced in the chaos and became refugees. Over the next 1,000 years, they wandered all across the Far East.

The name of the Hakkas literally means “guests”—an ironic euphemism meaning “those who don’t belong here.” As they abandoned the north, Hakkas gathered in the Chinese south, sandwiched between lands dominated by local Hoklo and Cantonese cultures.

Mural of southwestern Taiwan's Fort Zeelandia during Dutch times
Fort Zeelandia in present-day Tainan City: The Dutch were the first to colonize Taiwan.
The colony attracted an influx of Hoklo and Hakka labourers who mixed with Taiwan’s indigenous tribes.

Over a thousand years later, Hakka families were once again on the move. Driven by overpopulation and crippling poverty, Hakka (as well as Hoklo and Cantonese) men began exploring lands beyond traditional Chinese territories. This massive wave of emigration out of China brought Hakkas to places like India, Southeast Asia and Taiwan in the 17th century and beyond.

Migrant experiences worldwide are accompanied by hardships and endless streams of tears. For the Hakka people 400 years ago, it was no different.

The poignant and bitter experiences of these brave and hardy folks were recorded in a Taiwanese Hakka “hill song” known in the Hakka language as Tutoibigo 渡台悲歌 (Mandarin: Dùtáibēigē)—literally, An Elegy on the Crossing to Taiwan.

The following is roughly based on and briefly summarizes the solemn Hakka ballad. It captures the desperation, frustration, heartbreak and disappointment of the migrants who composed it. This folk song, sadly, may resonate with the many displaced souls still in the perilous, desperate search for a home in the 21st century.

Image of traditional East Asian ship

Opening

You who listen to our tale, heed this: Do not go to Taiwan!

We hoped that it would be a land full of opportunities. Instead, countless brothers perished in that stranger’s land.

They perished—far from home—in poverty, in misery and in obscurity.

Departure

Our story began along the southern coasts as our people gathered in Cantonese ports awaiting ships departing for the fabled Ilha Formosa.

We depended on traffickers who demanded payment in Spanish coins. Those with family and children were often charged double the rate.

For some, the most impoverished, it took all they had simply to reach the coast. As they waited for ships to leave port, their cash ran out and they were unable to pay the smugglers’ price. Already broke, they begged their way back to where they’d started.

Those of us who made it aboard, our ordeal had only just begun. Countless brothers fell sick at sea. Vomit and discharge overflowed our overcrowded vessel.

The ship’s captain, who had 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 even more payment.

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 rare in the Taiwan Strait—the Black Ditch—as the Taiwanese call this stormy and treacherous body of water. How many souls were lost during these desperate crossings will never be known.

Arrival

Disappointment greeted us on those Taiwanese shores.

We had set out in search of a new home—of opportunity and a future for our people. Yet, all we saw before us were dilapidated settlements of shabby thatched huts.

The Hoklo people had arrived before us.

They built villages in the fertile lowlands and claimed much of the best plots as farmland. We Hakkas were latecomers. We were few in number and many became servants in Hoklo homes and coolies in Hoklo fields.

We heard that rice was abundant in Taiwan, but it was a luxury few Hakkas could afford. We slept not in beds, but in baskets woven from rough strips of bamboo. All year long, we Hakkas toiled and laboured from sunrise to sundown for the benefit of others.

Void of opportunity in Hoklo lands, some of our people eyed the mountains. There, in Taiwan’s ancient forests, lie untold natural wealth—dormant and untapped.

But enter the woodlands at your own risk—that’s Savage Country.

The tribes of the highlands did not welcome us. They hunted and offered our severed heads to heathen gods.

Homesick

Is it any wonder that our people began to miss home?

In that strange land, we lived among strange folks.

Is it any wonder that we began to miss home?

You who listen to our tale, heed this: Do not go to Taiwan.

Photo: Sunset over the sea

The above retelling of the Hakka ballad is based on research done by Taiwanese Hakka scholar, Huang Chufang.

The folk song vividly records the wretched condition and psychology of new Hakka immigrants to Taiwan who began arriving in the 17th century.

By the 18th century, however, things began to look up for Taiwanese Hakkas. From these horrid beginnings, Taiwan’s Hakkas began to carve out a place of their own on the island of Taiwan and cultivated a distinct identity that centred around their Martyrs.

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Posted by:The Island Folklore Society

A society for the collection, preservation, translation, promotion and celebration of Taiwanese Tales & Traditions. Visit islandfolklore.org to learn more.