“When the tidal wave came, the most vulnerable died tragically: some parents who carried several children were forced to let go the daughters to save themselves from drowning. Some mothers carried the babies with them and floated in the water, but the husbands took away the babies in order to save their wives. Some elderly parents could not swim and their sons did not abandon them, and they were all drowned. Some parents could not hold too many children together and they griped the children’s hair and little arms, but when they reached the high grounds, the younger ones had already died. Some elderly parents did not want to burden their adult children and they drowned themselves in order to save the family line. There were couples tied themselves together with strings but they were drowned. After the disaster, some people could not bear the deaths of their loved ones and they committed suicide.”
2023 has come. However, we cannot allow 2022 to pass without looking back at the Swatow Typhoon of 1922, an event that took away as many as 100,000 lives, but arguably also defined the Teochew people.
Lying along the Tropic of Cancer on the southern coast of China, the Teochew region is visited by a number of typhoons formed in the Pacific Ocean between June and November every year. Accordingly, the port of Swatow was placed on alert when telegraphic reports of the formation of a tropical depression in the Philippines were received in late July 1922.
The city had only light winds and showers on the morning of 2nd August, but a perceptible fall in the barometer presented a clear indication of the approach of a typhoon. By afternoon, the winds grew stronger and the rain became heavier. Ships and fishing boats were called into the harbour to take shelter. But nothing could prepare them for what was to come.
That evening, an ominous dark yellow hue enveloped Swatow's sky for about half an hour after sunset. The captain and crew of Kweichow, a Hong Kong steamer unloading cargo at the port that day, gave a graphic picture of what unfolded in the next few hours:
By eight o’clock a strong wind was blowing and the weather was very thick and overcast. As the wind increased, the master veered the ship for safety and let go the second anchor. At 10.30 p.m. the wind increased to typhoon force and was accompanied by heavy deluges of rain. For the next two hours squalls of terrific violence severely tested the vessel and the tremendous rain continued and increased. About this time the barometer became unreadable; 28.40 is the typhoon reading and the needle went far below this point, wavering over the unmarked part of the dial.
IN THE CENTRE OF THE TYPHOON
(“Enormous Typhoon Damage at Swatow”, Hong Kong Daily Press, 7th August 1922)
The speed of the winds that lashed the city, in the estimation of a ship captain, reached 100 miles per hour. As for the storm surge, it was said to be as high as 10, or even 12, feet above normal. The winds blew off the roof of the Catholic Ursuline Convent that stood near the waterfront and its Mother Superior Sister Marie du Rosaire, who had only landed at Swatow the week before, later recalled her harrowing ordeal that night:
The sister’s prayers were answered in the end as she clung on to a drifting bed that carried her over some distance to a cemetery, where she found shelter with a local family and their pig under two stone tombs.
Only at daybreak, did the extent of the devastation to the city become visible. There were more buildings fallen than standing. Ships were stranded onshore, a couple several miles inland. Dead bodies of humans and animals not floating in the waters were strewn all over.
Severe damage to telephone and telegraph lines meant that the city could not seek help from outside until more than 24 hours after the disaster, when another steamer, Kwaisang, sailed into port. It sent the following rescue message to Hong Kong:
Heavy typhoon at Swatow. Extensive damage to properties and heavy loss of native life. Pontoons and godowns wrecked. Tungshing and Shantung [name of ships] and others badly ashore. No means of working cargo.
(“Typhoon Damage at Swatow”, Hong Kong Daily Press, 5th August 1922)
Swatow is situated on the delta of Hangkang (or Han River) and surrounded by an extensive alluvial plain. The low ground permitted the tidal wave that followed the centre of the typhoon to inflict maximum damage, which Fannie Northcott of the American Baptist Mission explained:
Before the typhoon, this plain was more or less densely populated by fishermen and a few farmers, who lived in groups of villages…. Because the land was level, large numbers of villages were exposed to the tidal wave. When it washed in over the plain, it carried on its course, houses and humans across the plain inland, in some instances, 5, 7, or 9 miles; then to be thrown up on the side of a hill… When the wave receded, it carried out to sea, hundreds of bodies… Many of the villages are entirely deserted. All but a few tens of men were drowned, and they have gone other places to look for work. Their fields are soaked with salt water and their houses down; boats washed away, women and children drowned, and they go away from the fearful sorrow of all.
On the fourth day after the typhoon, the Hong Kong Branch of the Swatow of Chamber Commerce issued a circular letter that read:
(“The Disaster in Swatow”, Hong Kong Daily Press, 8th August 1922)
In response to the appeal, the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce opened a public subscription fund to aid the victims and over $28,000 was raised within hours from the British and foreign community. The local Chinese Chamber of Commerce also followed suit to start its own Swatow Relief Fund.
Meanwhile, the death count continued to rise. International papers published on the 10th of August an estimation of 50,000 casualties and 100,000 homeless by the American Consul at Swatow. The Teochew huiguan (or association) in Shanghai, on the other hand, was informed that at least 100,000 people perished in the affected coastal counties of Thenghai, Jaopeng and Teo-yor.
As news of the disaster found its way out of China, the heads of the Teochew communities in Siam, Vietnam, Singapore and Penang wasted little time raiseing funds and sending rice to aid their families and kinsmen. They were strongly backed by other overseas Chinese, as seen in the example of the Teochew (Swatow) Relief Fund of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce, which collected donations of over $27,000 on the very day of its creation.
The stream of help from abroad proved critical. The transgressing tide from the sea had not only ruined food supplies in the stores but also rendered the farmland of affected areas infertile. Moreover, there was no government in China that the people of Teochew could expect rescue from. The official central authority at the time, the Beiyang government, was seated far away in Beijing and hopelessly divided. An emissary of President Li Yuanhong only travelled to Swatow to bring relief of 50,000 silver dollars four months after the typhoon. The Kuomintang, which had established a rival government in Guangdong in 1921, was also in disarray after its president, Sun Yat-sen, was ousted from Guangzhou following the rejection of the provincial military commander, Chen Chiung-ming, to his plans for war against the warlords ruling other parts of the country.
As for the Swatow municipal government, it was only formed in the previous year after Swatow was granted city status and separated from Thenghai. The low regard its authority was held in the eyes of the public was apparent when a group of 3,000 unarmed bandits threatened to loot the district if they were not guaranteed a sum of $100,000, and when a handful of native dealers tried to jack up the price of rice, sparking attacks by incensed mobs. While the city leaders managed to maintain order by imposing martial law, dealing with the pressing issues of potential food and water shortage and the danger of plague, as dead bodies started to decompose under the summer heat, needed more sophistication and resources.
Officers of Hai Ching, a ship that came from Xiamen but failed to discharge its consignments at Swatow, reported in Hong Kong that no less than 2,500 bodies were taken from the water on the day it was in port. Many corpses were piled up in front of a temple near the Bund—a situation blamed on the objections of the locals against the burying of the bodies without coffins, and this resulted in noisome odours in the air that compelled people to walk on the streets with their nostrils covered in a cloth or handkerchief, containing small balls of camphor, and the officers to cut short their visit. As if oblivious to the risk of exposing themselves to diseases, some locals were also spotted bathing and washing clothes in water with floating human, buffalo and cattle bodies.
At this point of crisis, the resourceful merchants in Swatow knew they had to step up. One day after the typhoon, a Swatow Disaster Relief Office (汕頭賑災善後辦事處) was set up with the city mayor and the president of the Swatow Chamber of Commerce as chairman and vice-chairman respectively. With a mandate to coordinate relief work both in the urban settlement and the districts around, the office organised several committees to oversee the removal of obstacles, restoration of traffic and reconstruction of shophouses; the distribution of porridge and food to victims; the management of medical aid, diseases and sanitation; the conduct of field surveys to collect information; and inspection of finances.
To fulfil the tasks required for securing public health, the merchants activated the charitable halls (善堂, also called benevolent societies) in Swatow, which they themselves were the managers and funders. In particular, Choon Sim Siang Teung Charitable Hall (存心善堂), which was the largest organisation (and still active in Swatow today), was given charge of collecting and burying the dead bodies, while the municipal authority played its part by offering rewards to those men who were willing to dirty their hands.
On the conduct of this work, Sister Marie du Rosaire observed:
Through their business and family links, the Swatow merchants were also able to rally their counterparts based outside Teochew. The powerful huiguan in Shanghai led the efforts of the Teochew merchants in other Chinese cities by contributing 75,000 silver dollars and also interceding with the Guangzhou military authorities to reduce taxation in the area. Leaving no stone unturned, its directors further directed a charitable hall in Swatow to arrange for the adoption of orphans, shipped ten thousand sets of clothing and coordinated and financed the repair of broken dikes.
As for the Teochew association in Hong Kong, it organised several medical teams and contributed money to the English Presbyterian-run Swatow Mission Hospital (汕頭福音醫院), which among providing other services, worked with the local boy scouts troop to make house-to-house visits to offer medical aid.
By the 13th of August Swatow’s port was back in operation, marking a milestone in the city’s recovery. However, the villages in Thenghai, which bore the worst of the brunt, were still struggling to finish burying their dead. Despite the county officials and the village gentry initiating local relief and rehabilitation efforts, not every community was in a position to help itself. Noi Sha, a village of 10,000 inhabitants near Swatow that was swept by the tidal wave, for example, was left with 25 survivors and the bodies of those who drowned had dammed the river in the area, causing the flow of water to stop. At another village of nearly 600 inhabitants, Northcott reported, only 48 men and 1 woman remained among a mass of fallen walls.
The headmen in Thenghai tried to hire hands to help clear the bodies, but were let down by the refusal of most villagers to take up the work. Fortunately, their desperate appeals for help to the charitable halls in neighbouring Teo-Ann county, whose members—many being common peasants and fishermen—readily travelled to the sites at their own expense and with no expectation of reward. Joined by kind-hearted individuals, they toiled in unsanitary environments for days adding up to a month without protection, except for pieces of garlic stuffed in their noses to fight off the stench of rot.
Swatow would recover from the disaster of 1922 and go on to grow to become China’s third most prosperous port city, behind only Shanghai, Guangzhou. Sadly, its progress was halted by the city’s occupation by the Japanese at the beginning of the Sino-Japanese war in 1938. The Teochew trading networks straddling the South China Sea that were responsible for its wealth would then be dismantled by the expansion of the Second World War to Southeast Asia, the outbreak of the Chinese civil war, the Great Chinese Famine, the Cultural Revolution, and the upheavals in Indo-China in the 1970s— developments that caused more destruction than the Swatow Typhoon.
Yet, through all these, the people in Teochew never forgot what happened in 1922. In the run-up to the Swatow Typhoon’s 100th anniversary last August, researchers conducting field research in Thenghai located in various villages no fewer than 30 steles dated to the 1920s that faithfully documented the tragedy and its aftermath. But the memories were not just etched in stone. Even though a century has passed, descendants of the disaster's victims and survivors continue to pay their respects at the mass graves that litter the Teochew region’s coast on the 11th day of the 6th lunar month every year.
A long history of floods, typhoons, earthquakes and famines, along with piracy, rebellions and wars, had taught the Teochew people the strategy of survival through the building of unbreakable bonds in family and clan, even to the perverse extent where communities built walls around their clusters of houses and warred against their neighbours during the Qing dynasty times—a phenomenon that caused missionary James Hudson Taylor to warn visitors to Swatow that “to be kindly received in one place was not uncommonly a source of danger in the next”. However, when the tidal wave swept through in 1922, it also tore down these invisible walls of suspicion and taught the people in their darkest hour the Gaginang spirit that the Teochew people are now known for.
Today many of us live in sufficiency or even abundance. We talk about Gaginang as a byword and even sing about it. But to be a true Gaginang means much more — it is living a life that involves the denial, and even sacrifice, of ourselves for the sake of the greater good and the people we call family.
As our forebears taught us: “Teochew-nang, Gaginang, pah-si bho-siang-gang” (潮州人, 家己人, 拍死無相干) — “Teochew people, my fellow people, I am willing to die for you”.
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