It’s 6:30 p.m. at a radio studio in Miaoli, a small city in Western Taiwan. Yin Chang is plugged in. Her headphones are on, and the microphone is adjusted close to her mouth. The lights are dim; a blue banner declaring “Voice of Hakka Radio 97.1 FM” hangs behind her.
Chang, 36, fixes her headphones and pushes a strand of her bobbed hair behind her ear. With a bright voice, she enthusiastically greets the audience: “Hello, tegaho gaihei DJ Yin!” – “Hello everyone, this is DJ Yin!”
Chang hosts a program called Heinai, or “It’s me” in a variety of Chinese known as Hakka, the language of a Han Chinese ethnic group scattered throughout the continent. Heinai is aimed at Hakka youth; it’s part of Chang’s efforts to reinvigorate the dying language.
Chang adjusts the knobs on the mixing console and selects a rhythmic piano pop tune, “Shan Gou Tai,” by Liu Shao Xi, a popular Hakka artist based in Taiwan.
Chang grew up in Miaoli and, like 62.2 percent of the local population, is Hakka. In Taiwan, the Hakka are frequently referred to as ke jia ren or “guest family people” because throughout their history, Hakkas have been a migrant group, fleeing settlements to avoid one catastrophe after another. The Hakkas arrived in Taiwan during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when they escaped the Manchurian Armies that were taking control of China. The Hoklo people had already settled the fertile land of Taiwan, so the Hakkas were left to make do with the remaining infertile foothills, and, thus are known for their history of hardship and frugality. Hakka food reflects that reputation; they often stew and pickle their dishes for easy preservation. Notable traditional meals include tangy orange sauce, salty pork and sweet and sour fish with cilantro. But because the Hakkas are forever guests, it is their language that binds them together as a people more than anything.
Differences between various types of Chinese are comparable to the vast differences between Romance languages. For example, Mandarin and Hakka can be just as different from each other as Spanish and French. But the Hakka language is endangered. Taiwanese, which dates back to the Hoklo people, is widely spoken throughout the island, while Mandarin has now enjoyed seventy years of required teaching here. When the Republic of China took over Taiwan in 1949, it suppressed languages other than Mandarin, and, until the lifting of martial law in 1987, students could be punished for speaking their mother language at school. Today, most Hakka young adults, especially those who live in urban areas, did not learn their true native language as children.
Every year the Hakka Affairs Council — an organization established in 2001 and dedicated to preserving Hakka culture and promoting Hakka media — surveys Hakka people in Taiwan about the presence of language in their lives. According to a 2013 survey, 47.3 percent can speak Hakka fluently; however, most of those are elderly. Only 22.8 percent of people aged 19 to 29 speak Hakka, and that figure is even lower for children 18 and under.
Chang hopes that by presenting Hakka music to young people in her country, it will spark their interest in learning the language and spur more engagement in the culture, the same way it did for her about ten years ago.
Like so many other Hakka young people, Chang did not learn the language as a child.
“At that time, schools didn’t let you speak your dialect,” Chang explains. “Your parents also spoke to you in Mandarin, and if you didn’t live with your grandparents, then you couldn’t speak Hakka.” Chang became even more distant from the Hakka culture after leaving Miaoli to attend college in Australia.
While she was away in 2002, her parents, who are both journalists, founded the Voice of Hakka radio station. Worried that their daughter would decide to permanently stay in Australia, they asked her to come home and help design the website for their new station. Co-workers noticed her outgoing personality and suggested she consider DJ’ing a program. Since she couldn’t speak Hakka, she ended up programming “Multivitamin,” the station’s ten p.m. show comprised of popular Mandarin songs.
One night, a girl from Taiwan who immigrated to New Zealand called in to “Multivitamin” and performed an original song over the phone, singing in Hakka.
“As soon as I heard it, my entire body had goose bumps,” Chang says. “This girl and I were around the same age, and she also studied in a foreign country … but she could sing in her own mother tongue and sing it so well.”
Chang decided that she too wanted to learn the language and be more in touch with her true culture. She studied for the Hakka Language Proficiency Test, watched more Hakka TV, and used what she’d learned in conversations with her grandmother.
Her family was thrilled, especially her grandmother, who was proud to finally have a grandchild adopt the language. And just this year, Chang founded her Heinai program.
Like Chang, a growing number of young adults are passionate about the Hakka culture.
For Shin Nyen Vong, 24, and Ngien Fug Li, 37, both currently living in New Taipei City, social media is their gateway.
In 2011, Li founded the Hao Ke Zhan — “Good Inn” — Facebook group to help build a community and home for people interested in the Hakka language and culture. The one aspect that has really drawn young people to the group is the effort to establish regions of Taiwan where Hakka would be the official language.
“Taiwan actually has many communities, and the concept of a language zone allows language and cultural protection within the regions,” Li says. “I hope the language region proposal can be passed in law, allowing the children to learn their language and culture.”
The proposal, written by Li and in development for two years, requests that the regions would have schools that teach in Hakka, signs and public services written and spoken in Hakka, and businesses that primarily utilize the language. Li is working feverishly on promoting the proposal, gathering support via social media with the hope that he can soon present it to the Taiwanese government.
Li’s Facebook group has grown to over 2,000 members, with Vong ranking as one of the most active. He grew up in New Taipei City, the rare urban-born child who learned Hakka. But he never contemplated his Hakka identity until he took a Hakka language course in college to improve his speaking and writing skills that radically changed his perspective. “If there’s no language, there is no culture,” says Vong, who worries the language will be extinct in the next few decades.
Vong carries around white buttons that say “I speak Hakka” on them, giving them to Hakka people he meets. “I sense a language crisis,” Vong says. “It motivates me to want to protect the Hakka language.”
* * *
A professor and dean of the College of Hakka Studies at National Chiao Tung University, Wei-An Chang says the Hakkas were once called an “invisible” ethnic group since their language is not used in the public sphere. “People viewed Hakkas as country people and didn’t really respect them,” explains the professor, who has conducted extensive Hakka research studies. “The Hakka language, probably in about 30 years, may be completely gone.”
Hakkas who joined the Return Our Mother Tongue Movement, which was founded in 1988, protested policies restricting the use of the Hakka language in the media and fought to allow the teaching of mother languages in schools. Wei-An Chang says these efforts have been effective in spreading awareness about the Hakka peoples’ contributions in Taiwan, often overlooked since they are such a minority.
Tracy Liao, deputy director at the Hakka Affairs Council planning department, says that Taiwan has seen an increase in young people identifying as Hakka. “Some people know their dad is Hakka, or they know their mom is Hakka, but they aren’t willing to identify as Hakka,” Liao says, adding they “would rather say they’re Taiwanese.”
Today, “more Hakka people will tell other people they’re Hakka,” Wei-An Chang says. “Their voices are louder.”
According to a 2014 survey conducted by the Hakka Affairs Council, from 2011 to 2014, there has been a 6.6 percent increase in people who voluntarily identify as Hakka. More students are also contributing to Hakka academia. The College of Hakka Studies that Wei-An Chang presides over is located in the northwestern city of Hsinchu, and is one of three Hakka studies programs on the island. The first such program was founded at National Central University (NCU) in the Zhongli District in 2003.
NCU’s Hakka Studies building is seven stories high, towering over a green pond. It’s summer vacation and about 90 degrees out, but inside, graduate students Mingheng Hsieh and Baiwei Lin are sitting on black swivel chairs, hunched over their white desks, typing away at their laptops, without much other company in the building.
Hsieh, 24, was born in Hsinchu and is half-Hakka, half-Hoklo. He is conducting comparative research in Christian and Hakka cultural preservation and hopes to become a Hakka studies professor. “The most important concept is that this culture needs people to understand or use it,” he says. “If you put it in a museum or record it or write it on the paper, then one day it will [be] gone.”
From Taipei, Lin, 23, did not live in an area rife with Hakka speakers, but was raised by her Hakka grandmother, who spoke the language to her. Later, her grandmother moved back to her hometown, a highly Hakka populated area in southern Taiwan. Lin would go visit each Chinese New Year, enjoying Hakka dishes like daxiaofeng, a chunk of pork cooked with green onions, soy sauce, sugar, wine and Chinese cabbage.
Lately, she made a point to learn more about Hakka culture, something she took for granted as a child. “It [gives me] a sense of my roots,” Lin said. “Since you know that you are Hakka, you don’t want to have an empty identity. You will want to understand your culture more deeply and understand yourself.”
* * *
Ninety-year-old Henzung Zhang, a retired principal who wrote a Hakka dictionary used in schools and cultural centers, wakes up early each morning to practice tai chi with his wife. Afterward, he’ll watch Japanese TV with her and drink luicha, or Hakka tea.
Once or twice a week, they drive from Zhongli to Guanyin in northwestern Taiwan to visit his childhood home and its traditional Hakka courtyard, distinguished by having only three enclosed sides. The center room is a shrine, and Zhang goes there to venerate his ancestors. A picture of Guanyin Pusa, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, hangs on the wall; red couplets and lanterns hang on either side. Zhang and his wife light their incense sticks with a candle. Smoke slithers from the glowing red tips of their incense sticks into the air. Clutching the sticks between their gently wrinkled hands, they bow multiple times, perhaps giving thanks for their relatively peaceful lives, praying for their family.
He and his wife had taught his children and grandchildren Hakka. Not all of his grandchildren are fluent, however. Thanks to the Return Our Mother Tongue Movement’s efforts, since 2001 primary schools have been required to teach mother languages, including Hakka. It was about that time that Zhang decided to write his Hakka dictionary, now used in a number of schools. He’d just retired from his position as an elementary school principal, and the dictionary consumed ten more years of work.
Today, he flips through the pages of his work, bound between a beige-red cover. He points out Chinese characters and says the Hakka word for them. “Children in schools are taught in Mandarin, and they speak Mandarin every day … their Hakka is poor,” Zhang says.
Zhang wants Hakka to be taught accurately, and asserts that some Hakka language teachers themselves do not speak it well. “Promoting the use of Hakka isn’t easy, but if they’re Hakka, they will like to learn Hakka,” Zhang says.
Increasing awareness, especially through music, is exactly what DJ Yin Chang strives for.
On this night, before Heinai ends Chang selects one last song: “Yue Guang Guang” by Qiu Xing-Yi, the girl from New Zealand who helped Chang embrace her mother language.
“When a lot of elderly people see you speaking Hakka, they are very encouraging,” Chang says, indicating they inspire her to continue DJ’ing. “I have felt a sense of achievement. I can’t really sing or create music. What I can do is play their songs. Everyone can do something different and add a bit of their own strength.”
* * *
Rosalie Marian Chan is a journalism and computer science student at Northwestern University who is especially interested in reporting on culture and diversity. Based in Chicago, she has Chinese, Filipino and Taiwanese Hakka roots. You can follow her on Twitter @rosaliechan17.