The Teochew Store Blog
Learn about Tshuk-hue-hng (出花園), the unique coming of age ritual for the Teochew people.
Share with the community, take part in our Poll of the Month.
Taiwanese travel programme featuring rare footages of early 1990s Teochew 潮州. In Mandarin, with some interviews in Teochew and English subtitles.
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The Teochew Store would like to take this opportunity to thank all for your continued support.
A list of the top 100 most common surnames in the Teochew region.
Poll of the Month: The dragon boat festival is round the corner. This is a big event in Teochew. Do you celebrate it, where you are?
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Swatow is today of three prefectural-level cities of the Teochew region, the other two being Teochew 潮州 (Chaozhou) and Gek-yor 揭陽 (Jieyang). Being the Teochew people’s gateway to the world in the early 20th century, it was the port where our families embarked on their migratory journeys. As such the name Swatow rings familiar even for us who have never visited, and it has a special place in the heart of every overseas Teochews.
Until the 1850s Swatow was...
Good Morning Swatow!.. more great music out of Swatow
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List of Towns and Villages in Teochew in 1946. Source: 《马来亚潮侨通鉴》， 新加坡 : 南岛出版社, 1950.
Many of us amongst the overseas Teochews are the children and grandchildren of men and women who left the Teochew region between the 1920s and the 1950s. Ever wondered what the land of our fathers was like back then, or where your ancestral village is/was located? Here are some maps to help:
To download maps in JPEG files, please click here
Source: 《马来亚潮侨通鉴》， 新加坡 : 南岛出版社, 1950.
Teo-an 潮安 (Chao'an)
Thenghai 澄海 (Chenghai)
Jaopeng 饒平 (Raoping)
Gek-yor 揭陽 (Jieyang)
Teo-yor 潮陽 (Chaoyang)
Pholeng 普寧 (Puning)
Huilai 惠来 (Huilai)
Hongsun 豐順 (Fengshun)
Namoa 南澳 (Nan'ao)
Tuapou 大埔 (Dapu) - historically part of Teochew territory till 1733.
Poll of the Month: It is a Teochew tradition to make offerings at the graves of deceased ancestors on Qingming (清明) or Winter Solstice (冬至). Do you still adhere to this practice?
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The Teochew culture is not only about the past and old people. The language is vibrant and alive, and so are the dreams of our youths. Here's an example:
In this age of open information, Wikipedia is often the site where people visit to seek knowledge on a new subject or topic of interest. When conducting an online search on the keyword “Teochew”, Wikipedia’s pages on “Teochew people”, “Teochew dialect” and “Chaozhou” appear on top of Google’s results. Although largely informative, the Wikipedia page on “Teochew people” contains a curious introduction to our background, stating:
“Historically, these people were called Helao or Fulao, as they came mostly from Henan and Shanxi via Fujian, with well-maintained language and customs from north-central China.”
For certain readers can testify that Helao/Fulao does not exist in our daily vocabulary. Whether in China or Southeast Asia, Teochew people uniformly identify ourselves as “Teochew”, or more recently in mainland China “Teo-swa”.
Through further research on Wikipedia, one discovers “Fulao” is actually the Mandarin rendition of the Hokkien expression Hoklo 福佬/老 – meaning literally “Fujian men”. “Helao” 河老 on the other hand is linked to “Heluo” 河洛 (pronounced “Ho-lok” in Hokkien and Teochew), an inaccurate transliteration of Hoklo that has surfaced in literate stressing the purported origin of the Hokkien (and Teochew) people from Henan, in particular the Luo River basin. (Incidentally, the river itself is called Luohe 洛河, and not Heluo).
“Hoklo” is today widely used in Taiwan as a category for the section of its Chinese population whose forefathers migrated from Fujian’s coastal areas between the Qing dynasty and the Kuomintang’s retreat to the island in 1949. It is opposed to the Hakkas whose roots are traced to adjacent inland mountains or Chinese immigrants from other provinces. In a very similar way, the tags “Hoklo” and “Hakka” were adopted by late 19th and early 20th century Western Christian missionaries working in the Teochew region to different its inhabitants in the lowland plains from migrant settlers in the highland borders, whose distinctions in language, self-identity and customs were readily recognised In this context “Hoklo” clearly referred to the Teochew people (for more see The Bible and the gun: Christianity in South China, 1860-1900 by Joseph Tse-Hei Lee).
However there is evidence that at an earlier time “Hoklo” did not apply to the Teochew people. In 1843 Baptist preacher I. J. Roberts visited Hong Kong island, shortly after it was ceded to British possession, and made a family visiting tour. In his journal he recorded an encounter in a village with a family, “who speak the Hoklo dialect; which is nearly the same as Tiéchiú, which the assistant speaks” (cited in The Baptist Missionary Magazine, Volume 23).
This passage highlights pertinently that a close resemblance in speech between Teochews and Hokkiens from southern Fujian, which third parties are often unable to tell apart. At the same time, it gives an important clue to the etymology of the “Hoklo” expression.
In common usage, the reference to a person or a collective group of people in the Teochew is “nang” 人, and the Hokkien variation is “lang”. In both sets of vernaculars “lo” 佬 is rarely spoken. In contrast the Cantonese habitually use this word in their conversations, such as “dai-lo” 大佬 (“big brother”) or “gwai-lo” 鬼佬 (“devil-people”, meaning Westerners). As such, it is all likely that Hok-lo was in fact a nomenclature coined by Cantonese-speakers to refer to Hokkien migrants into their territory. As Hong Kong was the primary transit point for Christian preachers entering China in the past, the likelihood those who worked in the Teochew region picked up the “Hoklo” expression from their interactions with the locals or fellow missionaries who spoke Cantonese, and later wrongly applied it to the Teochews.
Besides being consistent with the fact that Teochews never call ourselves Hoklo, this is supported by the observation and writing of James Dyer Ball, an Englishman whose credentials included being chief interpreter in the Hong Kong civil service. In Things Chinese published at the turn of the 20th century, he explained:
"Teo Chews is the term applied generally to them (i.e. the Teochew people) in Singapore, Penang, and the Malay States, while “Hok-lo” is the name by which they are generally known by the Cantonese speakers in China. The former name being derived from the departmental city of Ch'ao Chao Fu (in local dialect—Tiu Chiu Fu or Teo Chew Fu) to which the different districts, from which many of the Hok-lo, came, belong; while Hok-lo means “men from the Hok province i.e. Fukien province”.
Between the Teochews and the Hokkiens, many similarities in language and manners are shared. This is unsurprising since they occupy an adjoined territory in Southeast China. However there was definitely no confusion to the distinction of their collective identities in the 19th century, as attested by major violent clashes between migrants from the two groups in Shanghai in 1850 and in Singapore in 1854 – the latter lasted for more than ten days and resulted in the destruction of 300 houses and 500 deaths. The divide in identity may be traced during the Song dynasty (960-1279) when Teochew prefecture was joined with the Cantonese heartlands to form Guangdong province, whereas Hokkien-speaking Zhangzhou and Quanzhou prefectures were made part of Fujian. If the line of separation is so clear and ancient, how could a view persist amongst the Cantonese that the Teochews were “Fujian men”.
The answer appears to lie in the districts of Haifeng and Lufeng, where a Hokkien-speaking coastal enclave exists right between the realms of the Teochews and the Cantonese. Now administered under Shanwei (or Swabue) city, this area was governed shortly under Swatow from the 1950s to 1980s. However the non-Hakka/Cantonese section of its population vigorously rejects any suggestion that they are Teochew and instead insist in emphasising their descent from migrants out of Zhangzhou about 300 years ago. Their location and background strongly suggest that they are the original Hoklo, the “Fujian men”.
The most famous son of the Hoklos in Guangdong is arguably Chen Jiongming, one-time governor of Guangdong in Sun Yat Sen’s government. An anecdote told that Chen was once asked to play judge and suss out the guilty party of a crime between two suspects, a Teochew and a fellow Hoklo. However Chen was more interested in rescuing his own than the execution of justice. The near identical speech and accent of the two presented him the challenge of telling who was Teochew or Hoklo, since he could not openly display his bias.
Cunningly Chen ordered both men to be beaten and in an instance his answer was derived. Because the patrilineal character of the Teochew society, the man who was Teochew yelled in his moment of anguish “ua-pe-lu” 我父噜 (Oh my father)! At the same time, the Hoklo being brought up under stronger matrilineal influence, shouted out “ua-bhou-ui” 我母喂 (oh my mother)! Things happening exactly as he expected, Chen ordered the beating for the poor Teochew to be continued, while the Hoklo was released on the sly from the backdoor.
Whether this is a true story is unknown, but it tells an important point: Teochews are Teochews, and “Hoklo” means precisely what it states: “Fujian men”.
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Poll of the Month: Should all Teochews be called "Teoswa-nang" 潮汕人 as currently in mainland China, instead of "Teochew-nang" 潮州人?
The name “Teochew” is written in many ways. The variant we at The Teochew Store have chosen is the postal map spelling used in China during the republican era, as well as the standard form adopted in Singapore and Malaysia. However, literature out of Thailand generally stick to the spelling “Teochiu”, and those from Indonesia “Tiochiu”. Other variations that can be found on the Internet include “Diojiu”, “Taejiu” and “Tiuchiu”. These are all transliteration of the Chinese characters 潮州, which based on the Teochew “high language” spoken in the district’s prefectural city is pronounced diê-tsiu. At the same time “Teochew” is not infrequently represented in other language forms such as “Chiuchow” in Hong Kong Cantonese, “Trieuchau” in Vietnamese and of course “Chaozhou” in Mandarin (written in the past as “Chao-chow”).
Adding to the confusion, overseas Teochews who returned to their homeland after China re-opened its doors in the 1980s found that the region had adopted a new name – “Teo-swa” 潮汕. This name – derived by putting together “Teochew” and “Swatow” – was adopted after the historical Teochew prefecture was made defunct and replaced under Communist rule by an administrative unit centred on Swatow. As a result of the labours of the present government in China to promote Putonghua (Mandarin) and Hanyu Pinyin romanisation, recent English language pieces by writers in the mainland who are unfamiliar with old name Teochew, have designated the place by the appellation “Chaoshan” and its people the rather awful sounding “Chaoshanese”.
These are of course aberrations to Teochews who cherish their identity, and who know and appreciate its long of history. The name Teochew 潮州, literally the “Tidal Prefecture”, was adopted in 592 CE by the Sui dynasty on inspiration of the eternal flow and ebb of the South China Sea. That being said, the Teochew region actually first appeared on Imperial China maps as Kikyor 揭陽 (in Mandarin: Jieyang) county after the Han dynasty annexed the southern coast of China in 110 BCE. It was subsequently re-organised into a separate administrative area in 413 CE with the name Ngee Ann Commandery 義安郡, or the “Righteous Peace" Commandery.
The earliest Western literature in which Teochew was mentioned is possibly Juan González de Mendoza's The History of the Great and Mighty Kingdom of China and the Situation Thereof, which was first published in Spanish in 1586 as Historia de las cosas más notables, ritos y costumbres del gran reyno de la China and translated in English in 1588 by Robert Parke. Possibly the first full-length book on China published in Europe since the days of Marco Polo (who apparently visited Guangzhou in Guangdong and Quanzhou in Fujian but not Teochew), the collection of tales by Spanish travellers in the Far East spoke of Teochew as the home of the infamous pirate Limahong and gave its name as “Trucheo”.
It is probable that Juan González de Mendoza had learned about “Trucheo” from Teochew or Hokkien-speaking oral sources trading in Manila. However, Western navigation maps of China that appeared at around the same time marked the location of Teochew almost uniformly by various corruptions of its Mandarin name “Chaozhou”.
One of the earliest example is the map below (oriented with East direction on top) produced in 1598 by Jan Huygen van Linschoten, a Dutch acquainted with the Portuguese trade in the Orient. Here the Portuguese label “Chabaqueo” can be seen beside “I. de Lamao” (i.e. Namoa, or Nan’ao, island) and below right of “Chincheo” (Zhangzhou).
Any Teochew of age twoscore and above will remember a time when our fathers or grandfathers called themselves Dengnang 唐人 (“Tang people”), and spoke fondly of coming from Dengsua唐山 (the “Tang Mountains”), as China was known before the current term Tiongkok 中國became standard. This use of these references to the Tang dynasty (618–907 AD) is not limited to the Teochew people and is shared by overseas Chinese of origin from the provinces of Guangdong and Fujian (including the Cantonese, Hokkien, Hainanese and Hakka). The Chinese language is uniformly identified as Dengnang-ue 唐人話 (“Tang people language”), its written charactersDengnang-ji 唐人字 (“Tang people words”), and the Chinatowns in the West are “Tang people street” (唐人街). This phenomenon is undoubtedly linked to the glory of the Tang civilization, as even the Japanese till the 17th century saw China as “Tang territory” (唐土) and its inhabitants also as Tang people.
The old Teochews had a particularly penchant to speak of “land” as “mountain” (or “hill”, as the Teochew term sua does not differentiate the two). When a group of Teochews crossed over from Singapore to open new gambier and pepper plantations on the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula in the 1840s, the new town they helped to found, Johor Bahru, was termed as Singsua 新山, the “New Mountain”, though the surrounding terrain is flat. This is dumbfounding as Teochews are seafarers by traditional, and a survey of the geography of the Teochew homeland and the rest of the southern Chinese coast quickly reveals that the concentration of human activity on river estuaries and along the shore. Even though more than two-thirds of Guangdong and Fujian are occupied by the Nanling and Wuyi mountain ranges respectively, these interior highlands are sparsely populated. They are overwhelmingly tall – the highest point in Teochew is the 1497-metres Honghuang-sua 鳳凰山 (Phoenix Mountain) summit, but have barren soil. So why did our forefathers associate in their vocabulary “land” with “mountains”, and where exactly is Dengsua?
A Google map check reveals a city in China called Tangshan (唐山), but its location in the Northeast is closer to Mongolia and North Korea than the South China Sea. The unlikelihood that it was the Dengsua our ancestors had in mind is certain from its past as a nondescript village until it was given its name by a Tang era emperor mourning the death of a beloved concubine in a nearby mountain. Moreover, it seems that the term Dengsua is familiar with Chinese from Guangdong and Fujian, and so the answer must lie closer to home.
Until the Meiling pass was cut through mountains in northern Guangdong in 716, China’s coastal region in the south was practically inaccessible from its political centre in the Central Plain except by sea. The Teochew area was extremely remote and could only be reached by land from Fujian’s Tingzhou and Hakka territory in Meizhou via the Hangkang’s 韓江 (Han River) upstream tributaries, or from other parts of Guangdong through a pass within the Noihue-sua 蓮花山 (Lotus Flower Mountain) range in Pholeng (Puning) county. These journeys lasting weeks were arduous and dangerous. As such, a posting to the Teochew prefecture was abhorred by Tang period imperial officials. The horror of such a fate was highlighted when Han Yu was given the death sentence for criticising a Tang emperor’s Buddhist beliefs, but banished instead to Teochew after his colleagues pleaded for his life.
The angst suffered by the elderly Confucian scholar was tersely expressed in a poem he wrote on his way to Teochew, in which he urged in the final line his nephew to be prepared to collect his bones “from the side of the miasmic river” (full poem shown below). Even worse than disgrace and isolation, Han Yu’s mind was weighed down by the infamous reputation of the prefecture’s chief waterway, which before being named after himself, was known as the “Crocodile River” (鳄江). The fear factor was linked not just to the frequency of attacks on humans by the reptilian beasts, but also deadly diseases like malaria that arose from swamp conditions of the environment.
Palynological studies (the scientific study of spores and pollen, both living and fossilized) reveal that the Hangkang river delta was completely submerged from circa 4000 to 2500 BCE when sea levels over 2.5 metres higher than present. The shoreline, about 30 kilometres further in from today’s limits, gradually retreated after 2000 BCE to leave behind lagoons, semi-enclosed estuaries and marshes. Supporting geomorphological data (geomorphology: the scientific study of the origin and evolution of topographic and bathymetric features created by physical or chemical processes at or near Earth's surface) show that 23.62% of the delta area was formed between 50 BCE and 550, and another 29.72% more recently between 950 and 1250.
(The Neolithic of Southeast China: Cultural Transformation and Regional by Jiao Tianlong andCharacteristics of the Han River Delta in Geomorphological Development by Zong Yongqiang are recommended readings by those interested in learning more on this topic.)
What these basically tell us is that most of the lowlands occupied by the cities, towns and villages in Teochew were until less than a thousand years ago covered under water and mud. This is confirmed by historical evidences that related to the Teochew prefectural city (Chaozhou), now a distance of 30 kilometres from the shore, as a thriving seaport from the time of its founding in circa 413 to the Sui dynasty (581 to 618). By plotting on a map (see below) showing the Hangkang delta in its various stages of advancement, the local spots of human settlements known to exist before or during the Song dynasty, two interesting trends can be noticed. Firstly almost all those locations dated before or during Tang are lined on the edge of pre-existing dry land; and secondly those that sprung up thereafter in Song sit close to the present course of Hangkang, and the other two major rivers Iongkang 榕江 and Liengkang 練江.
One of many noble acts attributed to Han Yu during his eight-month stint as governor was the eradication of the crocodile malice, supposedly through a ritual offering of a pig and a goat to the giant reptiles and an impassioned order for them to remove themselves to the sea in seven days. This is of course fantasy, but the crocodiles did completely disappear after the destruction of their habitats by extensive engineering works carried out initially to mitigate flood incursions and later to reclaim the wetlands for rice cultivation. The first dikes were apparently built on Liengkang and this facilitated the relocation of the seat of Teo-yor county to the appropriately-named Singheng 新興 (“New Prosperity”) town in 793. Against the background of an agricultural revolution in Song to increase food production, at least 18 major dike construction and repair projects supervised by prefectural officials were undertaken in Teochew from the 10th to 13th centuries (see: Study of Chaozhou Jincheng Rice by Huang, Gui)
These developments on the Han River delta were not unique. From the writings of various mid-imperial China sources, it is known that the other major river basins in Guangdong and Fujian were similarly plagued by the maladies of man-eating reptiles and epidemics arising from the natural environment during Tang, but they disappeared with extensive reclamation of swamps and coastal flats for agriculture in Song. As is Teochew, the two other pre-Tang port cities in the coastal south, Guangzhou and Fuzhou, are now situated fairly upriver, away from the sea.
Centuries ago when Teochew got its name the “Tidal Prefecture” (潮州), little space separated the tides of the South China Sea and the foot of the high grounds where our ancient forefathers had their dwellings. At an age when the Chinese civilisation and culture in Teochew were at their pinnacle, they learned to master the natural environment and gained great strength as a people. Though this prosperity was followed by many ebbs and flows of fortunes, one thing the passage of time did not take way: the home of our people is found in Tang mountains.
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A New Year is here again. This is the time when many of us look back to take stock of our experiences in the past twelve months, and make plans to better ourselves with a list of resolutions.
The idea of New Year resolution is closely tied to modern concepts of time management and goal settings, although its root is traced to religious festivals from the West. At its centre is the notion that time exists on a linear time-scale, as indicated by the progressive numbers that mark each different year. However, time was not tracked in the same way in the old Chinese society, which used a lunisolar calendar tied to the four seasons of nature, as well as a recurring sexagenary (60 years) cycle. In this world that our forefathers were familiar with, perpetuity, and not progress, was the keyword.
The emphasis on the perpetual is critical in shaping aspirations and hopes in ways different to what many of us are used to. Here the individual self is merely a part of a larger scheme of things, and the pursuit of his/her personal ambitions are secondary. Instead future happiness is staked on the well-being and the achievements of the next generation. While this is not unique to the Teochew people, no one else takes this more seriously than any Teochew father or mother. At any family gathering, there is always a proud uncle boasting how well his son is doing in his career, or a grinning grandmother counting aloud the number of grandchildren she has.
Coinciding with the evolution of the competitive modern society, recent generations of Teochew parents have made their primary concern the performance of their children in school. Good grades, they believe, will translate into good jobs and security in life. By performance in school, this often refers narrowly to the attainment of high scores in academic subjects like English, Mandarin (or another local national language), science, mathematics, history, literature, etc. At the same time, any interests in other fields, including different aspects of the Teochew culture, is deemed as irrelevant and burdensome. More than once comments have been noted from young overseas Teochews of their parents’ criticism of their desire to pick up the “useless” Teochew language. Not a small number of friends have also questioned the purpose of promoting something as “backward” as the Teochew identity. Its practical value as a medium for business in Southeast Asia, they point out, has greatly diminished since the 1970s.
But as the old saying goes, there are many things money can’t buy. And moving forward in life is not only dependent on the plans we make today. Looking to the past to learn from those who ventured ahead of us in life’s journey is just as important.
One of the best ways to do so is paying attention to the counsel of our Teochew elders. You see, Teochews are traditionally “village people”, whose lives are not regulated by power of the law or the knowledge of elites, but by the agreement of members of family and neighbours on “the immutable law of reason”. This reason contains lessons in life picked up and accumulated over many generations, and further refined from endless debates over tea and across the dinner table. As a result, even a simple conversation with an old Teochew can yield nuggets of wisdom that cannot be learned in any textbook or prestigious MBA courses.
Take for example, five words left behind by my grandfather: zo nang dieh lao sik 做人著老實 – “we have to honest at all times” – forms a short, but precious cornerstone advice invaluable for anybody. My grandmother’s advice to me to marry only a partner who is of “one heart and mind” (dang sim dang yi 同心同意) with myself is another that I fully cherish. Because Teochew wisdom is not housed in books, but shared through daily interactions, enlightenment to the principles of living a rewarding life is not limited solely to the highly-educated, as this short interview with this sparkling former noodle-seller shows:
In the coming year some of us will be seeking “completion” by making “root-finding” trips to our ancestral homeland, while others will strive for the same by more learning and more sharing. The Teochew Store hopes that we can be part of your journey in 2015.
We wish all our fans and readers a Blessed and Fruitful New Year.
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The great joy of being a Teochew is the buffet of delicious food that we get to eat. Teochew plain porridge served with pickled vegetable, chai-poh eggs etc etc, char kway teow, braised goose (or duck), steam promfret, pork trotter jelly, all kinds of kuehs… our taste buds are spoilt for choice.
A popular dish for Teochews both in Swatow and overseas is the traditional Teochew oyster omelette or-luak 蠔烙 (literally “pan-fried oysters”). It is simple to prepare, delightful to eat, and certainly needs no introduction. But well, here is anyway a video about a famous or-luak stall in Swatow with 50 years of history:
For anyone inspired to try to serve up a plate yourself, here’s the recipe from allreceipes-Asia :
Ingredients Serves: 4
2 teaspoons fish or soya sauce
2 tablespoons tapioca flour
1 tablespoon rice flour
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon chilli paste
6 to 8 large fresh oysters
salt and pepper
Prep:10min › Cook:15min › Ready in:25min
In a medium bowl, beat the eggs with fish sauce and set aside.
Mix the tapioca flour, rice flour and a pinch of salt in 125ml water to make a very thin batter. In a large wok, heat 1 teaspoon oil until smoking hot. Pour in the batter and let it set.
Pour the eggs over and when it is almost set, mix everything together. Make a well in the centre by pushing the egg and batter mixture to the sides of the wok. Add the remaining oil and stir in the garlic until fragrant. Add the chilli paste and oysters. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Toss until heated through.
Turn onto a serving platter and garnish with coriander sprigs. Serve with bottled chilli sauce mixed with vinegar to taste.
Variations of the or-luak are found in neighbouring southern Fujian (where the Hokkien people live), and the dish is a symbol of the importance of the sea to the lives of the Teochew and Hokkien populations in coastal Southeast China. When the renowned Confucius scholar Han Yu was banished in the 9th century from the Chinese Central Plain by the emperor to become governor of Teochew (at that time a frontier region of the Tang empire), he discovered the Teochew diet of oysters and other exotic seafood and was so fascinated that he composed the poem “Helpful Verses for Yuan Shiba Introducing Food in the South” 《初南食貽元十八協律》to inform his friend Yuan Shiba about them. In what was the prolific poet’s first and only poem with food as the subject, he noted how the Teochews enjoyed food prepared with salty and sour condiments, and dipped in pepper salt, pepper oil and orange sauce (but made him burst into sweat and turned his face red), and confessed that apart from the snake, everything they ate were new to him. For the Teochew people however, the appearance of oysters in our diet traces back even much further.
One day in the late 1950s, an archaeological team from the Guangdong Administrative Committee for Cultural Heritage made an unexpected finding when they chanced upon a shell mound in the remote village of Chenqiao (陳橋), some two kilometres west of Teochew city. Composed of tens of thousands of marine shells, including oyster and clam, it stood at a fairly remarkable height of 1.4 metres. The villagers did not think much of the derelict heap, but for the trained archaeologists this was a treasure trove. Found in many parts of the world near coastlines, lagoons, tidewater flats, rivers and streams, shell middens are not random formations but cultural deposits created by our human forefathers during their transition from the hunter-gathering to sedentary lifestyle 4,000 to 10,000 years ago. As they adapted to living in more confined spaces, their diet was diversified to encompass all everything edible within reach, and shellfish that can be easily collected from shallow waters became an important food source.
And right on cue, investigations at the Chenqiao site unearthed more skeletal remains of cow, pig, deer, fish and turtle (i.e. prehistoric dinner leftovers), and a range of man-made stone and bone tools such as adzes, hatchets, choppers, hammers, pries (for opening the oyster shells) and pottery shards. Even more exciting was the discovery of the fossilised remains of ten human beings, dubbed later by local archaeologists as the “Chenqiao people”. Unfortunately little information has been published about them. Apart from the estimation of their age to be 5,500 and 6,000 years old, it is also reported they included male and female, and young and old, suggesting they were members of a family.
So the next time when you pick up a pair of chopsticks to eat a plate of or-luak, know that you are not indulging in good food, but also continuing a tradition, the Teochew family tradition.
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But what if we are asked to give the definition of a “Teochew”? It is not every day that we get asked something this difficult, but a kid, your kid, might just be curious enough to do so. Or who is a “pure” Teochew? Don’t sniggle. I have come across several comments on Facebook by “pure-blood” Teochews finding out, with considerable pride, how many are like themselves? Recently I came across another Facebook post by a person who half-jokingly announced himself as a “more real” Teochew than others because he was born in Teochew city itself and not overseas.
In a way, these boasts are not invalid. Although Teochew people have been trading with Southeast Asia since at least the Song dynasty (from the 10th century), and tens of thousands became labourers in different parts of the region after the late 17th century, these emigrants were almost exclusively male, and those who could afford, always returned to their home village to retire. On a survey of Swatow in 1858, Lord Elgin reported of a habit amongst the “Chinamen” seeking work in Singapore (presumably referring to Teochew men) who sometimes brought home with them their Malay wives, leaving them in place of ancestry, and returning to Singapore without them. Accordingly children at that time who were not of “pure-blood” were rare, and even many of them were brought up in Teochew.
Of course things have changed greatly since about a century ago when the advent of steam shipping, civil wars and Japanese invasion led to the migration of Teochew women in significant numbers and many Teochew people setting up families abroad permanently. Due to economic and political factors, the majority of their overseas-born children and grandchildren have never gone back to Teochew and with time, grew up and embraced ways of life different from their forefathers. It was once taboo for a Teochew should marry a non-Teochew, not even another Chinese, inter-racial marriages is now a largely acceptable norm amongst members of the diaspora. Therein lies the question – do you still count as a Teochew even if you are of partial Teochew descent?
By Teochew tradition this is determined solely by your paternal lineage. But of course reality is always more complicated. Some time ago, I came across again on Facebook the spirited defence of a Teochew lady of her “non pure blood” daughters’ heritage. She revealed that she is married to a black man, but while her girls do not look like her, they speak the Teochew language even better than some of their cousins. Rather succinctly, she pointed out that she has always been proud of being Teochew because “our culture has gone through so many dark time (sic) in history, and our strength is based on an open spirit that has allowed us to adapt ourselves wherever we are, and to absorb the qualities of any country we live in.”
It is interesting that this proud mother should stress her daughters’ fluency in our language. I know a girl in Swatow who speaks Teochew daily at home, but told me that her grandfather was actually a Hakka – a language that she has no knowledge of. She sees herself as a Swatow native, and in manners and customs, she is no different from her neighbours or friends. Do such assimilated members of the society count as Teochews as well?
Eminent French sociologist Emile Durkheim noted that kinship through common ancestry (either real or perceived) and marriage does not ensure the cohesion of a community in the long-run. Instead individuals see themselves as one people when they share values, beliefs, customs and a way of life lifestyle fostered. Unlike the modern consumer “culture” that extends its influence through the media and the internet, a traditional culture like the Teochew one thrives on the intimate interaction and primarily oral communication between its members, which creates a collective consciousness. It is this consciousness that is both unique and exclusive, which gives us our enduring identity.
Accordingly, fluency in the Teochew language not only allows us to bond with the elder members of our family, but also serves as a key to unlock knowledge to the treasures of our heritage. Of course, this is not to say that the Teochew identity is exclusive to those who speak the language well, or language competency is the sole measure to the level of our “Teochewness”. Many aspects of our fine culture can be expressed in another language (as we do so on this site) or even in non-verbal forms – such as cooking. But it is also true that we lose a great proportion of ourselves as a community if we forsake our mother tongue. With a diminished proficiency and vocabulary, our ability to pass on what we know to the next generation is compromised.
Being Teochew is a birthright, an exclusive privilege. At the same time, being Teochew is knowing and embracing an appreciation of life shaped by wisdom and experiences accumulated and passed on from generation to generation. The heritage we have cannot be taken for granted. Whether “pure blood” or otherwise, we hold a torch in our hands that we need to pass on to our children to keep the flame burning.
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Stories, who doesn't enjoy hearing them? Especially bedtime stories when we were kids (or perhaps even till now)... How about some stories out of Teochew - the very same ones told to our great grandparents when they were little? Here's one:
THE MISTAKE OF THE APES
A thriftless man, who had a scolding wife, resorted to the woods to hang himself; but after he had tied the noose his courage failed, and he went home. His wife, on seeing him, said he had been gone so long that she had begun to hope he would never come back. This so wounded his feelings that he declared his intention of ending his life, and again betook himself to the forest. There he passed from tree to tree and deferred the act from hour to hour, till he entered a strange gorge, and sat down in the attitude of a musing Buddha under a branch on which he decided to fix his rope.
Being exhausted by fasting and fatigue, he fell into a deep sleep, and was presently discovered by a wandering ape, who reported to his tribe that he had found their ancestor. A council of the elders was then called around the sleeping man, and after due inspection they unanimously decided that he was indeed their ancestor, and should be their king. So they carried him to their stronghold in a wooded glen, enthroned him in an arbor, and surrounded him with offerings of fruits and nuts. When he awoke he found his wants so provided for and his servants so deferential that he thought he might greatly enjoy life among the apes. They continued to bring as tribute to him the best of their gleanings in the neighborhood and all the treasures they collected in their excursions to distant regions. He saw where they had stowed the valuable articles accumulated during past years, and at his leisure he examined and assorted them.
One day when the apes were away he took all their portable wealth and made his way out of the forest and back to his own door. His wife, seeing him more shabby than ever, poured reproaches upon him, but he silenced her by putting a piece of gold in her hand. Having enough to live comfortably upon for many years, the woman became companionable. She soon told her intimate friend that her husband went away to kill himself and came back rich, and this friend urged her own husband to do likewise. He in turn importuned his lucky neighbor to disclose to him the method by which he got his fortune. Having promised secrecy and a share of the plunder, he was intrusted with the story of election to headship among the apes, and was given direction how to reach their retreat. He then set off, followed the same route, sat in the same attitude under the same tree, and awaited the arrival of the scout who should call the tribe to carry their returned chief into their fastnesses.
The apes had meantime deliberated, and had concluded that a being who had deserted them, taking with him their goods, was neither their sire nor sovereign. So when a young ape foraging for provisions saw this second man under the tree he returned home and notified the tribe, whereupon the apes, moved to indignation and anger, surrounded him in force and tore him in pieces.
You love it? So did I. Well there's another 39 more Teochew folktales collected from Swatow by American missionary AM Fielde in the 1880s in Chinese Nights' Entertainment: Forty Stories told by Almond-Eyed Folk Actors in the Romance of The Strayed Arrow.
Happy reading. =)
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Almost every tourist in Teochew would have visited the ancient prefectural city of the same name. The reconstructed Ming-era Guangzi city gate 廣濟門, Siangze bridge 湘子橋 and the Memorial Arches Street 牌坊街 bring us back to times when the place ranked alongside Guangzhou and Quanzhou as the grand centres of economy and culture on the southern Chinese coastal.
Yet within the Teochew region, the influence of Teochew city did not extend beyond the banks of the Hang-kang 韓江 river by where it stands. The variety of Teochew spoken here, although seen as gentle and refined, and acknowledged as the “high” form of the language (till today it is insisted upon as the performing language for Teochew opera), is never deemed as a standard for all to conform. Instead people in Teochew accept that “whatever language you speak depends on which river water you drink” and the result is a rich spectrum of local accents and vocabularies that change quite literally along the flow of the different rivers. Teochew city has a history of over 1500 years. So why hasn’t the people it governed achieved a homogeneity in speech?
Well, there is firstly no need to and secondly no desire to. By far and large, Teochews are village people. Through close inspection, you will come to find that many parts of Swatow outside the old city district are actually urbanised village clusters populated by their original inhabitants. Many of us who are city dwellers will view dimly of this characterisation. In our minds after all a village is a small, undeveloped and backward place, as opposed to the vibrant modern metropolis that is ever-expanding. But this is a biased view that fails to recognise the true character of a village.
A village is not a primitive, downsized town or city. A city is a centre created for the extension of political and economic control of surrounding areas. It is built by its native rulers and migrants (both willing and unwilling ones), and its wealth is generated by trade or military coercion of neighbours. An imposed system of rewards and punishments govern all activities in the city. A village, on the other hand, is an organic settlement. Its population usually consists of members of a clan or a handful of clans, and increases through births and marriages. Beyond blood and marital ties, the people are united by common economic exploitation of locally available resources, and a heritage defined by collective consciousness. While the pride of a city is its power and wealth, the strength of a village is the resilience of its people’s identity.
Because a village is a small community, the children attend the same school, the women shop at the same marketplace, and the men drinks and chat at the same open spaces. The lives of its members are enriched by close interaction and daily communication. Although this type of lifestyle now eludes those of us who live in cities, social media has allowed the re-creation of the aspect of regular socialisation. Virtually on cue, thousands of Teochews across the world have transcended geographical divide to come together in a growing number of Facebook groups and pages to share memories, information, travel photographs and not a few recipes for our favourite Teochew dishes. Just a few years ago people were saying that Teochew is a dying culture, but you will be surprised (as I am) by the level of Teochew-related activities online.
Many of these online communities are without rulers and builders, but they thrive nonetheless on the basis of our shared identity and dreams just the old villages continue to do so in the land of our forefathers. If you are looking for a “village” to join, here are a few Facebook groups and pages that you may wish to look out for:
潮人潮语 Closed group: 9,671
柔佛潮州八邑會館 3,994 likes
我是潮汕人 I Am DieSuaNang Public group: 3992 members
im teochew!! Public group: 3885 members
Singapore TeoChew Nang 新加坡潮州人 Closed group: 3278 members
Gaginang Public group: 2215 members
潮州人 ~ TEOCHEW NANG (แต้จิ๋ว Triều Châu) Secret group: 1197 members
潮人在越 ( Người Triều Châu ở VN ) 1,038 likes
民都鲁潮州公会 876 likes
Singapore Teochew 新潮人 Sin Teo Zin Public group: 822 members
新加坡潮州八邑会馆 Teochew Poit Ip Huay Kuan 706 Likes
International Teochew - We are Gaginang! Public group: 539 members
潮語大家講！Cùng nhau nói tiếng Tiều! Public group: 525 members
Người Triều Châu - Teochew - 潮州人 Public group: 478 members
潮州人2 ~~ TEOCHEW NANG 2 Secret group: 465 members
柬埔寨潮洲人 423 Likes
潮州自己人 Public group: 349 members
Gaginang UNSW - Teo Chew Student Association (TCSA) Public group: 315 members
潮州人 Public group: 311 members
Teochew Public group: 294 members
Teochew Sibu (诗巫潮州公会) 256 Likes
Teo-Chew Association (TCA) at UCLA 2014-2015 Closed group: 228 members
新加坡潮汕留学生联合会 (Xinchaoliu) 225 likes
吉兰丹 潮青团 197 likes
Teochew Australia - We are Gaginang! Closed group: 194 members
Sydney University Teochew Association (TCA) - 雪梨大學潮州會 Public group: 181 members
Teochew Indonesia - We are Gaginang! Public group: 174 members
Teochew Segamat Closed group: 159 members
Teo-Chew Association (TCA) @ UCI Closed group: 151 members
潮男潮女 128 likes
Teo-Chew Association @ UCSD Public group: 110 members
柔佛哥打丁宜潮州会馆 Public group: 107 members
Teo-Chew Association (TCA) at UW Public group: 106 members
Teo-Chew Association (TCA) at UCLA Public group: 97 members
Teochew New Zealand - We are Gaginang! Cosed group: 79 members
Chaozhou 邦 Cosed group: 73 members
Teochew Kang Hay T'ng 70 Likes
Teo-Chew Association of Southern California | 美國南加州潮州會館 Public group: 64 members
Gaginangs in Germany Public group: 41 members
Special Interest Groups & Pages
潮藝館 （Teochew Puppet & Opera） 1,779 likes
Teochew Letters 1041 Likes
金玉楼春潮州木偶剧团 1,009 likes
香港潮商卫视 CSTV 894 Likes
Teochew Language 750 Likes
What Teochew Say? 547 Likes
新新荣和潮剧 Teochew Opera 337 Likes
潮剧珍藏 251 likes
Teochew Opera Fan Club 243 Likes
返乡里去潮州 Go Chaozhou 193 Likes
新加坡揭阳会馆潮乐团 Public group: 187 members
The above listing is not exhaustive and excludes several smaller groups (of less than 50 members) and pages for restaurant and eating places. Last but not least, do “like" and follow our Teochew Store Facebook page if you love our work!
Ask other Chinese of the reputation of the Teochew people and you will probably get descriptions like hard-nosed businessmen, diligent and thrifty workers, and in the case of Hong Kongers, perhaps even unruly members of clannish gangs. These stereotypes were no doubt true to an extent relevant to our forefathers’ struggle for survival in a difficult stretch of time in history. Yet behind these impressions of being calculating pragmatists, Teochews hold above the authority of reason in the regulation of manners and behaviour.
In any situation of negotiation or conflict, all parties are always urged toda-dau-li 呾道理, to speak “the immutable law of reason”. As Lin Yutang (in My Country and My People) explains, the correctness of this reason is not based just on logical reasoning, but also reasonableness in touch with the human nature. Being reasonable allows situations to be handled with flexibility, understanding and realism. Being reasonable means matters of business are discussed over sessions of tea, and not thrashed out over endless revisions of lengthy proposals and contracts.
In the belief of Teochew people, knowledge of this eternal reason is assumed to be possessed in any civilised person. It is a universal authority higher even than written law. Laws after all were historically prescribed by emperors in faraway imperial capitals. As a 1868 British publication observed, people from Teochew were “noted for their independent and turbulent spirit” and “rank among those who are sparing in their allegiance to the court of Peking, and seldom yield up the quota of revenue justly due to the emperor”. It is thus this invisible hand of reason that keeps order in the whole Teochew society even when centres of political power rise and fall.
One of the lasting memories almost every visitor takes away from Swatow is the disordered state of its traffic. Especially during peak hours, the main road junctions are choked with taxis, public buses, motorcycles, three-wheelers, bicycles and modern sedans that seem out-of-place in the tired-looking city. However amidst the apparently mad jostles for the right of way that the traffic lights and road lanes barely have power to restrain, we see also the magic of reason at work. Like dancers on a stage, motorists and pedestrians move ahead and step sideways in prefect synchrony to allow the movement of everyone without accident or gridlock. Spend enough time in the city and you will appreciate the beauty of spontaneous order.
A society shaped by the reasonableness of its common souls, rather than reasoning from the top, supports the pursuit of happiness for all. True there is no Eiffel Tower and roadside restaurants for dating couples are rare in Swatow, but Teochews are a hopelessly romantic people. This is seen in the love of our older folks for storylines centred on love in the Teochew operas, over plots with patriotic themes that are preferred in northern China. Especially popular are local folktales where the main characters’ true love overcome the rigidities of the ideal Confucian society that stand between them and forever happiness.
Amongst the many Teochew opera plays, none is as well-loved as the tale of Sou Lak-nio 蘇六娘 – the sixth lady of the Sou family – that the troupes also never tire of performing. Set in the Ming dynasty, this equivalent of Romeo and Juliet out of Gek-yor 揭陽 (Jieyang) tells of a love between the young daughter of an esquire and her cousin that was threatened by her father’s agreement to marry her to a scholar from a well-to-do family. Despite his love for his only daughter, Sou Lak-nio’s father refused to heed her protests as the arrangement was made by a senior member of the Sou clan. To allow a girl final say against her family elders’ wishes was considered outrageous and shameful for a respectable family. This forced Sou Lak Nio to attempt to take her own life by jumping into a river on the eve of her wedding. However unlike the Shakespearean version, this story ends on a happy note. Sou Lak-nio’s faithful servant girl Tho-hue桃花 finds her in time and with the aid of an old friendly boatman helped her elope with her cousin. Freedom triumphs in the end over “proper” society with the approving applause of the crowd.
Or watch the all-time favourite 1957 movie version of Sou Lak-nio below:
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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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#1. The homeland of the Teochew people sits on the Southeast coast of China, near- equidistant between Hong Kong and Taiwan, although through large-scale emigration from early 19th to mid-20th century close to half of all Teochews now live in more than 40 countries and territories overseas. If Teochew is a country, it would through its land area of about 10,000 sq km be the 169th largest in the world (after Lebanon), and through population of approximately 25 million (inclusive of all Teochews worldwide) the 50th biggest (ahead of Australia).
#2. Historically Teochew existed as a prefecture in imperial China that was created in 413 CE. Originally called Ngee Ann ("Righteous Peace") Commandery 義安郡, it was first given the nameTeochew 潮州 (literally the "Tidal Prefecture") in 592 CE. Teochew prefecture became defunct after China became a republic. Its centre of administration was shifted in the latter half of the 20th century from the Teochew prefectural city (listed by its Mandarin name “Chaozhou” on maps) to its port of Swatow 汕頭 (Shantou), causing Teochew to be referred now in mainland China as "Teo-swa".
#3. The traditional Teochew society’s basic social unit is the extended family defined by paternal lineage, and not the nuclear family or individual. The head of a household is the grandfather, and accordingly first cousins are considered siblings and addressed as brothers and sisters. Care and protection of members, as well as perpetuation of lineage are held firmly as its core purposes. In order to fulfil these, husband and wife in many families in Teochew adhere strictly even in the present era complementary gender roles, whereby the responsibility of the man is all external engagements, while the woman has complete charge of domestic affairs.
#4. Besides the family clan, the Teochew personal identity is rooted in one’s place of ancestry. This refers to the village, and also the county, where the family clan resides. Teochew prefecture had eight counties during the late Qing period. Accordingly overseas Teochew organisations usually name themselves as the "association of eight counties" (poih ip 八邑), which are namelyHai-yor 海陽 (renamed Teo-an 潮安 in 1914), Gek-yor 揭陽, Teo-yor 潮陽, Jaopeng 饒平, Pholeng 普寧, Huilai 惠来, Thenghai 澄海 and Hongsun 豐順.
#5. The Teochew region has been inhabited by humans since about 8,000 years ago, a period that dates far longer than China’s supposed 5,000 years of history. This is shown by archaeological artefacts comprising stone tools and a pottery shard discovered on the offshore island of Namoa 南澳. A coherent collection of evidences belonging to a series of archaeological cultures dubbed the "Teochew Prehistoric Trilogy”, including the largest prehistoric kiln site ever found in China, reveal the occurrence of indigenous progression from the Neolithic Stone Age to Early Bronze Age between 4,000 and 3,000 years ago.
#6. All the cities, towns and large villages in Teochew are located by the coast, or along the region’s four major rivers, namely Hang-kang 韓江, Iong-kang 榕江, Liēng-kang 練江 and Ng-kang-ho 黃岡河, or their tributaries. This is because more than two-thirds of terrain in Teochew are occupied by undulating mountains and hills and until the previous century water was the main mode of local transport. Communications between Teochew and other parts of China and foreign lands were also conducted primarily by sea.
#7. The Teochew saying “whatever language you speak depends on which river water you drink” aptly depicts the classification of spoken Teochew into several dialect clusters corresponding to the region’s different river catchment areas. However the Teochew vernacular is in essence a single language that is closely related to the native speech of adjacent southern Fujian, known commonly as Hokkien or Taiwanese, or formally as Minnan. The Teochew-Hokkien family of vernaculars is exclusive and not mutually intelligible with other forms of spoken Chinese. It is also observed by linguists to possess ancient elements that pre-date the Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE). Apart from the vernacular form spoken in daily life, the Teochew language has a classical literary form traced to the 7th to 13th century Tang and Song dynasty era. This can be heard in Teochew opera performances. About half of all Chinese written characters can read differently in Teochew in two or more ways (colloquial and literary). This phenomenon is called dual-reading.
#8. The golden age of Teochew was in the Song dynasty when it was one of the wealthiest areas in China. An agricultural revolution drove a rapid population expansion, while the export of fine porcelain on the Maritime Silk Road transformed its prefectural city into a leading centre of commerce. Even in the early part of this prosperous period, Teochew was lavished with comparison as the home of Confucius and Mencius by the sea (海濱鄒魯), and many aspects of Teochew fine culture, including architecture, wood carving, porcelain craft, embroidery and music, were inspired.
#9. Nothing delights a group of Teochews more than sitting around a table to share a few dishes of Teochew cooking. Seafood and green vegetables are always served, while emphasis on freshness and authentic taste of ingredient, perfect balance of sweetness and saltiness, as well as colour and presentation provide the secrets to achieve the Teochew taste. The touch of the Teochew people to regale the gastronomic senses was already memorialised as early as the Tang dynasty in a poem composed by the eminent poet Han Yu, and till today Teochew food is widely recognised as one of finest representation of Chinese culinary.
#10. Harmony in relationship with nature and man sits at heart of the Teochew understanding of well being. In all things beauty is seen in simple exquisiteness, and not grandeur or opulence. In daily life, this is best exemplified in the Teochew custom of the drinking of kanghu tea 功夫茶. In a plain ceremony, the host prepares and serves the elixir of life in miniature teacups over several rounds, invigorating not only the body and mind of his guests, but washing way also all differences in class and opinions.
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Finding a place is usually less of a challenge than locating the people we want to find.
Villages in Teochew are typically inhabited by one, or just a few, surname-clan(s). At the same time, they are of fairly large population size of up to several thousands. In other words, most people in a neighbourhood are related in one way or another by blood or marriage. Thus turning up at the place of your ancestry looking for “fifth uncle of the Tan family” can be a futile exercise if you do not do your homework.
To ensure the success of your root-finding mission, you need to have an idea of your family tree and structure, and gather other details, such as the year your parents/grandparents left overseas, in order to identify the correct kin, or more aptly get yourself recognised. Old family photos or letters are of course most useful. Full Chinese names of your direct relatives are another critical piece of information, as the middle characters by tradition denote the generation of a particular lineage line.
The best spot to begin your enquiries on the ground is the clan ancestral hall (called祠堂 sêu têung in Teochew), which functions as the “memory bank” of the village. In its absence, go to the local marketplace as this is where virtually all families are represented. Because Teochew villages tend to be tight-knit communities, it could well be a matter of minutes before you find yourself drinking tea in the company of your long-lost relatives.
Anecdotes similar to a scene in the 1989 movie Eight Taels of Gold (shot partially in Teochew), where Sammo Hung starring as a Chinese immigrant taxi driver from New York was thoroughly fleeced of his wealth by a whole village of relatives on his homecoming, has caused much anxiety over what to expect when we meet our relatives in Teochew.
If you plan to go back to your village just to take some photographs as souvenir, you might leave feeling emptier inside than before. Seeking to relate is the whole point of roots-finding. While circumstances vary for individual families, it is safe to say that on the whole economic condition in the Teochew region has improved drastically since the 1990s, and possible harassment by “poor cousins” should no longer be a major worry. By custom, Teochew people are extremely hospitable towards their guests, and their obligation towards kin and kith is even more complete. So chances are, you will be made to receive even more than what you have in mind to give.
What should we say, and how should we behave, when meeting dozens of relatives for the first time? These are serious questions for overseas-born Teochews to consider, especially if we are brought up in highly Westernised environments. One misstep may just ruin the first impression we give.
For starters, being able to handle at least simple exchanges in Teochew language helps to break the ice, for few people in Teochew are comfortable with Mandarin in the family setting. Speak English only when you wish to murmur to yourself. Be ready also to share plenty of family stories, but be prepared to listen to even more. Do not be overawed when more than one person tries excitedly to engage in conversation with you at the same time, for this is way people in the villages, especially the elderly, interact in everyday life. Keep smiling.
Stay reminded also, that the Teochew society is not composed of individuals, but lots of people organised within set family structures. Observance of generation status, birth order and gender are inherent in the manner in which people relate to one another. Always show respect to elders and thoughtfulness to the young. Lastly, make sure you are well-versed with the different family addresses before you meet your clan – it will come in handy!