The online Teochew community has been abuzzed in recent weeks with the jingle “Teochew nang 潮州人, Gaginang 家己人, hey-o, hey-o” sung to the tune of Jambalaya. Simple as the lyrics may be, the ear-catcher produced by the Singapore Teochew Poit Ip Huay Kuan has tugged the heartstrings in many of us.
Gaginang, meaning “(my/our) own people”, is an expression all too familiar for Teochews all over the world. No matter who we are or where we come from, once spoken, it melts away every barrier standing between us and a fellow Teochew. Besides being the name of a popular website dedicated to the promotion Teochew culture, it is said that Gaginang was in the past the “codeword” that gets you out of trouble if you were ever so unfortunate to be caught in one of the fights of the notorious Teochew triad in Hong Kong.
While we may now have a laugh, the Gaginang identity was formed as result of much pain and hardship, revealed in the full maxim “Teochew-nang, Gaginang, pah-si bho-siang-gang 潮州人, 家己人, 拍死無相干". Literally it means “Teochew people, own people, beat (each other) to death and (it) does not matter”. Although this can be interpreted as “we are together as a people, no matter what happens”, there is still plenty to ponder as to why the idea of beating up one another, to death, even crossed the minds of our forefathers?
Surprising as it sounds, the notion of Gaginang is actually fairly recent. Traditionally the Teochew society was divided in tight-knit clans completely protective of its own members, but distrustful of everyone else. Marriages were seldom arranged with families beyond the next adjacent village. This created an explosive environment during the Qing dynasty when imperial oppression and corruption reduced Teochew prefecture to extreme poverty and lawlessness, and turned the clans and alliances of clans against one another. The eye witness account of John Scarth who visited Teochew in 1856 reveals an era of widespread fighting and kidnapping that forced the building of walls sixteen to twenty feet high for defence against neighbouring villages not of a quarter of mile in distant. Some four decades later, John Thomson was even told of a gruesome tale of a prisoner in the clan feud having his heart cut out, boiled and eaten.
The Teochews who ventured to Southeast Asia in search of livelihood on the other hand, could afford no such “luxury”. Away in foreign land and separated from their family network, they could only seek companionship and support from fellow Teochew emigrants, who were the only ones who spoke the same language and understood their needs. In places where even the other groups of Chinese were hostile, unity was the sole key to survival. This common experience of diaspora had a healing effect on the fractious tribe, and by the turn of the 20th century the Teochews overseas had learned to see beyond parochial clan interests.
The Teochew prefecture was struck by a series of natural disasters in the early 1900s, including the Swatow Typhoon that took away more than 100,000 lives in 1922. Overcoming their differences from the past, thousands of Teochews abroad from all districts and social classes pulled together their resources to provide aid and relief to victims in the homeland. In areas where local government officials were incapacitated or simply incompetent, directors of the Teochew association in Shanghai stepped in to provide much needed leadership. The recovery of Swatow was swift. When nations across the globe were embroiled in depression in the 1930s, the city’s port was the path of growth to become the third largest in China, after only Shanghai and Guangzhou. This was the moment in history when the world discovered the strength of the Gaginang spirit – a spirit based on sacrificial giving and caring of all Teochews as one big family, a spirit we will do well to carry on with.
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