Deng Cueng: Telling the Story of Teochew through Documentary & Old Photos

Wild Teochew (野性潮州), the first ever nature-documentary on wildlife in the Teochew region was officially released in the Teochew language recently. The film tells the stories of various living things in Teochew, such as the Chinese pangolin (Manis pentadactyla), stream glory damselfly (Neurobasis chinensis), caryopteris alternifolia (a species of Lamiaceae plant), fork-tailed swift (Apus pacificus), white wagtail, fork-tailed sunbird, swamphen (porphyrio ) and blue-tailed bee-eater. Through it, many Teochew people have realised that our ancestral homeland does not only have a rich historical culture, it is also blessed with an abundance of ecological resources.

Deng Cueng (丁銓, in Mandarin: Ding Quan), who hails from Teochew, China, is the documentary’s director, as well as the editor of the photographic collection Historical Photos of Teochew (舊影潮州). This book puts together a large number of vintage photographs of Teochew dated from the late Qing dynasty to the Chinese Republican era that he compiled several years ago, and its publication attracted the attention of many readers.

The Teochew Store had the pleasure of interviewing Deng Cueng to learn about his enthusiasm in promoting the nature and culture of his homeplace and the gains he has received from it.

Image 1: Deng Cueng (丁銓) : Director of nature documentary Wild Teochew and editor of Historic Photos of Teochew 


The Teochew Store (TTS): At what age did you start to identify yourself as a Teochew and develop an affinity to this identity? Was it caused by any experience in your childhood?

Deng Cueng (DC): I was born in 1988—by Teochew tradition, I am 36 years old—and grew up in the Teochew City (Chaozhou City) urban centre. As a boy, I always thought Teochew people were only the residents of Teochew City. When I grew older, I met relatives in Swatow and Gek-yor and realised that Teo-swa (Chaoshan) is the collective name of the three prefecture-level cities of Teochew, Swatow and Gek-yor. As I later came into contact with Teochews from Hong Kong and Southeast Asia, I discovered that they do not use the term Teo-swa, but regard themselves as the Teochew people.

As the years passed, I left my hometown and went to other places to study and work, and I gradually understood that the present Teo-swa area was historically called the Teochew prefecture, and gained a new understanding of the Teochew identity through the history of our people in our homeland and abroad. Ever since I was young, I have always identified myself as a “Teochew”. However, the meaning of this expression has taken varying interpretations and changes at different stages of my life.


TTS: How did you cross over from researching old photographs of Teochew to the filming and study of Teochew’s wildlife, which seem to be vastly different areas of interest?

DC: My grandfather is an agronomist. When I was a child, he often taught me to recognise the native flora and fauna of Teochew. This nurtured my intense interest in the living things of the wild and laid the foundation for my future career as a director of nature documentaries. I once went to a school in Teochew to give a lecture and displayed pictures of African lions, zebras and ostriches in the class. The children were able to recognise all of these animals. However, when I showed them the endangered wild animals in Teochew and other parts of China, many children found them unfamiliar. At times when I talk to adults about the animals living on our land, the first question they ask is "Do these animals taste good", or "What is the economic value of this animal"?

The famous British biologist Jane Goodall once said, "Only if we understand, will we care. Only if we care, will we help. Only if we help, shall all be saved”. Her words caused me to think: there is an absolute need to let more Teochew people realise that on this land where we live, there are also many precious animals and plants. The idea of shooting the Wild Teochew nature documentary was born in this way.

As for the collection and research of old photographs of Teochew, it is a hobby that I developed during my university days. It started when I found by chance some photographs of Teochew from a hundred years ago on the Internet. The valuable moments of the history they captured moved me deeply and I slowly began a collection of such photographs. As I enjoyed studying the finer points in the pictures, I also published some of my understanding of these old photographs online, and this aroused the resonance and support of many netizens. The publication of the Historical Photos of Teochew was the outcome.

Many people are already researching Teochew's history, language and culture, but less attention has been paid to its old photographs and natural ecology, which I so happen to be engaged in.

Image 2: Deng Cueng introducing Teochew's wild fauna and flora to children

TTS: The Historical Photos of Teochew collects and records a large number of old photographs of Teochew. How has it influenced the protection and passing on of the Teochew culture? How can a reader benefit from this book?

DC: The book contains many images of Teochew from the late Qing Dynasty to the early Chinese Republican era. These old photographs not only allow us to see Teochew’s appearance a hundred years ago, but it has also provided a basis for the restoration of damaged or destroyed buildings. For example, the book has an important photograph of Dinghai-Lao (literally, “Stemming the Sea Building”). Dinghai-lao was the office of the Teochew prefectural government during the Ming and Qing dynasties. It was burned down in 1911 during the Xinhai Revolution. The photograph is the only high-definition image of this structure found so far and it has served as a crucial reference for its recent reconstruction.

In addition, this book is mainly based on pictures accompanied by lively and easy-to-read explanatory captions. It is thus achieved a wider readership. After this book, many local young people found a great interest in Teochew's history and architecture. Some middle school and university students even took the initiative to investigate the details of the photographs. They fed back the clues or materials they gathered to me and this provided many valuable information for the revised reprint of the book. Through this book, they developed a deeper understanding of the history and culture of their hometown.

TTS: A vivid storyline, exquisite images and high-quality production. How was the Wild Teochew documentary made?

DC: It is a work produced entirely through the collective strength of the Teochew grassroots. At the end of 2019, I returned to live in Teochew City and got to know a group of local ecology enthusiasts, including several biology experts and teachers. We used our spare time to study and learn about the wild fauna and flora in our surroundings and also spent our weekends holding public education lectures and taking children to the open to discover the wildlife around us. At the initial stage, we collected and sorted out a lot of information on the natural ecology of Teochew.

In 2020, a nature documentary I directed won an award and a prize money of over RMB 100,000. We used the money to purchase better cameras and equipment as well as drones. I wrote the script for Wild Teochew. A good friend of mine, Siou Su Hiong (肖樹雄), who is a policeman and an amateur nature photographer, shot images of the wild animals in Teochew in his free time.

The most challenging part of photographing the animals is that besides having to accurately grasp their living habits, it needs a long while to wait for the right moment and light to capture the best shots with the camera. Our team spent nearly three years accumulating the materials and turning them into a film. Although the process was tedious, compared with science books full of difficult-to-comprehend texts, this 30-minute documentary is full of wonderful images and stories that the audience can relate to and thereby raise their awareness to care for native wildlife.

The commentaries of Wild Teochew have two language versions—Mandarin and Teochew—and both are accompanied by Chinese and English subtitles. We hope that friends abroad can also discover the beautiful creatures that inhabit our homeplace through this documentary.

Image 3: Shooting of Wild Teochew nature documentary

TTS: From discovering to promoting Teochew’s historical culture and ecological wealth, what has been your greatest gain?

DC:My biggest gain is to have been able to make many friends from all walks of life, who affirm my ideas, and through their various areas of expertise provided immense support behind the publication of Historical Photos of Teochew and the release of Wild Teochew.

For instance, during the process of collecting old photographs, I got acquainted with Mr Terence Tan, who was a fourth-generation Teochew from Singapore and the editor of the book Memories of Old Swatow. While I was preparing to turn Historical Photos of Teochew into a book, he unreservedly permitted me to include his collection of old photographs of the Teochew prefectural city. This moved me very much.

A colleague in the media industry once said to me that "Teochew is an unawakened lion sleeping on its nature and cultural heritage". For the longest time, the biggest impressions people have of Teochew are its food and cuisine and historical sites. In reality, its stories go far beyond. Our efforts over these few years have more or less drawn the attention and recognition of the local government, and we have also received responses and feedback from the relevant departments. These [signs of change] tell us that our sacrifices are worthwhile.

* Note: Mr Terence Tan also contributed to The Teochew Store his entire collection of Teochew Home News, a fortnightly magazine for Teochews in Singapore and Malaya started by Mr Goh Yee Siang in the 1940s. PDF copies of all issues of Teochew Home News can be downloaded for free at this URL:


Teochew language version of Wild Teochew. Click here to watch from original video site.  

Historic Photos ofTeochew publicity video.


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