A Treatise on “HAKKA by Heritage, JAMAICAN by Birth, CANADIAN by Choice” - Norman Hew Shue
Updated: Nov 17, 2020
This article’s title and theme is my views on a saying attributable to the late great Ray Chang. I consider this multi-step migratory history as an asset and literally the best of all (Old, Third and New) worlds, because by distilling the best from these cultures, makes for more well-rounded, world-wise individuals and these experiences should be used to enrich our culture and passed on to future generations.
In essence, China taught us about: basic values and work ethics; steadfast perseverance in the face of adversity as characterized by tending waterlogged paddies; making reject land arable by dint of hard work while being yoked along with, or instead of oxen.
In British Jamaica the stereotypical Oriental inscrutability is supplanted by laidback life with colourful expressive language, embracing fry fish, sun and sea. Rice field drudgery applied to 16 hour/day selling groceries piecemeal at low e.g. farthing [¼ of a penny] profits using colonial bureaucratic, disparate units [pound- sterling or avoirdupois? Quart – for liquid or dry produce?]
Then ‘Pulling up stumps’ for Canada replaced hot tropics with frigid sub-Arctic; cricket with ice hockey; speakonly-when-spoken to generation with a verbose articulate one; and the loose tropical saunter with the cautious ice shuffle walk; occasional flash downpours laughingly contrasted to weeklong Jamaican rains, and stoic optimism that after the worse snowstorm sunny weather will always follow.
The end products are super individuals ready for anything as if saying “Bring It On Eh, - I Man Hay Hakka Ngin”.
The following is a compilation of my experience albeit Jamaican-skewed, as I lived most of my life there rather than in India; South Africa; Mauritius or USA, where challenges might be different but met with the same stoic determination.
HISTORY/ IDENTITIY The Hakka people are a hardy ethnic originally Northern Chinese Han group that gradually migrated Southwards. Free thinking, not going with the crowd with customs such as the barbaric and impractical foot-binding fetish of women, they strive for a better life while preserving their own culture and move on when sensing adverse political or economic conditions. This resulted in our being recipient of the worst leftover hilly land, and traditionally being put up as “Guest People” [Hak- ka] by others.
Once reputed court favourites as scribes and artisans, migrations from the protective seats of power caused Hakkas to clash with other groups. This led to the construction of the unique defensive tu lou or tee lwey “Earth house” - round or square, tiered, multi-purpose self contained structures with thick walls and thick heavy wooden doors reinforcedpadded with iron sheets and stout wooden bars that is reflected in our later Jamaican grocery shops.
A unique hardworking dialect also developed to match, more guttural and marked by the lack of the ‘R’ sound, [rife in courtly Mandarin] and more transmissible over hills for commerce or courtship songs. Hakka-ness transcends colour of skin with increasingly mixed heritage by virtue of said migrations, and some non-Asian Jamaicans working in peaka peow [6:49- like lottery] shops, adapt to the culture, speaking Hakka and recognizing Chinese characters. It is more a way of life, beliefs and values that Hakkas reverently strive to support or be custodial of. This is encapsulated in the phrase Tsung Tsin, and visiting members and associates can be assured of being welcomed in any worldwide institution bearing this title.
TO ALL THOSE PLACES WE SOJOURNED BEFORE
In China, mainland migrations continued through the centuries and reaching coastal towns of the Guangdong province where some went laterally to India or other mainland places, while others, such as my pioneering parents took the bold intrepid step of going overseas to promises of opportunities.
We cannot help feeling great admiration for these women in calico dresses and gentlemen in white suits and two-toned shoes seen in many family albums. Their photos can also be seen on the walls of the many institutions they so far-sightedly established: The Chinese Benevolent Association in Jamaica and the Tsung Tsin buildings in Toronto, Edmonton and worldwide. Surviving elders might be seen faithfully at these modern tu los meeting places quietly reading, playing board games or enjoying each other’s company. Their modesty and reserve not betraying the fact that they burned bridges to go into unknown lands over a century ago. These elders are now few in numbers as the years take their toll, showing the calm withdrawn and distant characteristic of their generation with nary a hint of their valuable contribution and sacrifice. It is left to us, their descendants to recognize our unspoken sacred duty.
In Jamaica, the majority of Hakkas coming at turn of century opened a Ham Tewh Pu (Grocery shop
[lit. salted-head shop - of cod no doubt]), almost one very corner in downtown Kingston,filling that niche to contribute to the local culture and economy, while enriching their own lives. This gain was negated however by the loss of the Hakka language among most of their children since in colonial Jamaica, with foreign language, measurements and customs, the focus was to learn English.It didn’t help also the community being dispersed throughout the island. This is regrettable since language would have given root identity to those of Hakka-Jamaican-Canadian heritage. This is in stark contrast to the fluency of our India-sojourned brethren who is one step behind in continental migration and who stayed together in enclaves.
Hakka was my mother tongue only because of being an only child; not having a local nanny; and of course having non-English speaking parents. The strongly phonetic language is difficult to learn second-hand [as attempted in a school] and some parents sent their kids back home for immersion.
My parents adapted to tropical life in downtown Kingston that invariably starts with cockcrows in a capital city then more residential than commercial.My father, locally called “Foreman”because of his stature and colonial pith helmet when not in clad in merino and homemade shorts and two inch thick wooden clogs [Kyak] would be filling the kettle with the obligatory tea and preparing the stove, an example of Hakka resourcefulness, made out of a large rectangular galvanized oil drum turned horizontally.
“Gwee Loong -[the poetic name he gave me meaning cinnamon or spicy dragon] hoi munn”, is the command to open shop by wrestling with the stout wooden door-bars and metal-clad doors.With a rustling of loose change in the till and clanging of the tin funnels and measuring cans the shop, steeped with the smell of salt fish and cooking oil,was readied for business with bantering in local patois.
ADDED PERKs [BRAWTA]OF MIGRATION
The grocery at Barry Street and Maiden lane was a front seat to the microcosm of Jamaican life in snippets and vignettes of cherished memories: Such as two women engaged in descriptive insults in middle road with arms akimbo or the hijinks of neighbourhood kids and their dog. Behind the counter, I would be serving or reading comics:The Phantom with striped trunks and skull ring or Mandrake the Magician from newspaper for wrapping saltfish. Shelves and glass cases displayed Philip’s Milk of Magnesia, multicoloured Jiffy dyes [Post-Office red;Primrose yellow]; Sunlight soap; Cigarettes-Four Aces; Royal Blend; Zephyr;Buccaneer. As evening came, the envelopes and letter-paper sale ban came into effect “No stamp after six”, presumably to give the Government Post Office fair competition [another bit of British bureaucracy that coloured Jamaican lives-] Sunday shopping was also curtailed, although morning trade was surreptitiously done with a lookout guarding the shop doors.
A great perk of multi-ethnicity is the diverse cuisine from traditional ones from the old country or modified like Swee Mien to Port Royal style fry fish [which TTA recreate here regularly]. Hectic shop life saw quick fix meals in kitchens within sight of shop counters like staple rice mixed with Chinese finely minced sausage or even green tea.Local dishes include curry goat, mackerel rundown, pumpkin stew soup, or avocado pear with salt and bread.
At school we kept our eyes out also for Frutie and her pram –a cornucopia of‘stinking toe’; custard and star –apples;Jew/jupe/june plums [nobody knows or cares about exact designation but golden apples in the other islands]. Mangoes of all varieties and taste Turpentine; hairy;black; Julie, Bombay; #11. A patty sandwiched inside a coco bread would“hold yu” for the rest of the day. Vendor foods include: salted Peanuts; Pepper shrimps; Ice-cream man with fudge,Kokomo, and icicle, or Snowball -shaved with a hand ice-plane with syrup poured liberally on top; or Oysterman on bicycle with crocus bag.
In Canada it is a battle getting kids to eat homemade traditional dishes rather than the fast foods of a huge metropolitan city.
MUSIC What bridge the Jamaica North America gap was that, because of commercialism and technology the latest music and fads could be shared almost immediately. Each evoking a distinct memory and time in our lives - good or bad. Early radio was the ubiquitous Rediffusion affordable at three penny [British tru’-pance] a day, a sort of cable crystal radio consisting of a small brown box with brass wavy grill and single volume knob. This preceded tube radios with green cat eyes then transistor ones.
The 50’s saw the blond trio dominating the singles: Patti Page/Doris Day/Rosemary Clooney- “Cross over the Bridge ..Leave your reckless way behind you”; 60’s, Bobby Darin - Rocking robin; Everly Brothers Bye Bye Love with DJ’s like Charlie [The Cool Fool with the Live Jive] Babcock.
To be supplanted in later years by eighttrack cassette in your souped up Cortina 16 E Gee Tee cruising up Half WayTree road to James Last’s Games lovers play; Elizabeth serenade, in tight Dacron pants with slit front pockets, pointed shoes and boys and gals perfumed with Brut or Kiku. Crashing parties in Havendale and Barbican, eating curry goat on driveports, then dancing cheek to cheek to This Magic Moment with The Drifters.
The latest fads both local and ‘fahrein’ include originally: Land crab on a string; gig tops made of cotton thread reels; The delicate art of peeling transfers in school book; water guns; yo-yo; hula hoop; Psychedelic posters; Disco mania.
PASTIMES In Jamaica there is a great bond with the sea, which I truly miss and regret that my kids didn’t experience the tingling surf that is so therapeutic that pharmaceutical companies are bottling it now as a nasal spray. Jamaica, an important island when Britannia ruled the waves, have mementoes everywhere of this naval past - Port Royal; old cannons buried at some street corners as horse hitching posts. My mother would take me down to Hanover Street Shell wharf to konn sunn or look at ships. Standing on the heavy wooden shifting planks, I would stand in awe beside looming ship hulls anchored by huge ropes to massive iron knobs. We downtown kids used to wharf fish for the whole night. Beaches or pools include Bournemouth; Sigarney; Gunboat; Mineral Baths at Rockfort; The Myrtle Bank pool was just down Rum Lane and Harbour Street. Our farsighted elders had also provided a beach for us where Windward met Rockfort roads.
Nowadays in the digital age of Netflicks, it is hard to comprehend what a big deal it was to line up sometimes in rain in Sunday Best for an eternity to see movies. Our imaginations were filled with the exploits of Johnny Weissmuller in Tarzan, Randolph Scott, or Sabu. The contorting “Cobra Man; Ranny Williams; The Vikings with Sonny, Victor and Margaret; or an up and coming band called the Dragonnaires led by one Byron Lee sometimes provided live pre-show entertainment.
CANADA Kingston experienced increased population growth and attendant complex socio-economic problems with irremediable political situations after Independence that had me searching the atlas in true Hakka style. On a visit to Toronto, walking down King Street I saw people leaving money [and even making change!] for unattended newspapers on a milk-box. Also around this time, baseball great Dave Winfield accidentally killed a seagull [one of pesky millions] and was taken to task and jailed. This display of the honour system and love for animals, suggest that there is a lot going for Canada and I joined the long early morning line at the embassy along with a lot of my contemporaries.
The Chinese coming to Jamaica now are of other ethnic origins along with conglomerates on the spur of China’s multinational economic boom.
This last migration saw freezing temperatures replacing the searing heat of Jamaica where snow is a mystery, and emulated with cotton wool in shop displays at Christmas time; and where red American and oethie [Tahiti] apples swap places for rarity and expense.
Canada has its wonders - from Fall colours to Northern lights aurora. This beauty can be deceptive though, as in December 2013 partying revellers were admiring the ice laden trees from TTA’s windows not realizing this was the start of one of the worst ice storm which left hundreds of thousands without power in eastern Canada - 300,000 in Toronto alone, and might have been responsible for several fatal crashes. We reverted to flashlights; 60's era transistor radios; dial phones instead of mobile; with produce shortages reminiscent of Jamaica, at gas stations and supermarkets. After a one-day ordeal my living room resembled an Everest base camp with blankets and extra clothing strewn about. The hot water supply luckily used a gas heater with a piezoelectric starter. Perishable foodstuff was moved outside or to enclosed porch secured from animals, and the darkness was punctuated by loud crashes of branches falling and the phenomenon of ice quakes - when enormous subterranean ice shifted.
Some spent a powerless, homeless Christmas almost into the New Year. Later newspaper illustrated the crazy Canadian spirit born of this resilience, photos of puffing joggers negotiating the debris-strewn street at the height of the crisis. Also the kids were making lemonade from this sour lime as they skated down iced streets. I guess even some of our Jamaican Canadianized yardies “sucked teeth with mouth long out to Port Royal” at the snow-less, ice-Christmas.
Despite the cold, Canada is great for its priorities on kids [followed by seniors; women; cats etc.; racoons etc.; roads & infrastructure; then we guys] and their education with almost a school on every corner, and for ecology awareness and the Health care is the best in the world. It is also commendable for quality control policing, not like in Jamaica where foodstuff never ever expires and overfishing and pollution is unheeded.
THE FUTURE The home away from home in Toronto is the Tsung Tsin Association building at Midland and Passmore Avenues, an impressive edifice with two huge stone lions guarding the entrance. These along with the signage, signify the Association as being Chinese but the Soca music sometimes heard booming from the building, denotes a Caribbean heritage.
TTA was established in 1984 and membership grew necessitating a larger permanent facility. On Feb. 18th 1989 in determined Hakka fashion pioneering founding members including then President Norman Ho-Fatt; and government dignitaries braved the -17°C Canadian cold for a literal ground breaking event followed by traditional auspicious lion dance and speeches. The dignitaries welcomed this contribution to the ethnic mosaic. The latter choice of word is important for a country that allow retaining cultural identity rather than the “melting pot” designation used south of the border. Canada is a mosaic with the haggis, shamrock, dragon-boats, and pubs, and Caribana of its multi-cultural diversity preserved.
There are other Toronto Hakka Associations sharing similar migratory experiences such as those from India, Mauritius or Trinidad, but no matter what the adopted ethnicity, we are all same Tai Gah Ngin or Big Family People.
TTA and others have a large proportion of elders, which might be expected since through sheer economic reasons, our younger generations are busy with jobs and families just as we were at their age, and it is a natural cycle of things to seem complacent or uninterested to their culture until they are more settled. Our focus now is on their present needs how best to cater to, or help them with these. With the aim of searching, promoting and preserving the culture various Committees were launched and based on member needs; participation; and feedbacks crystallized into the present CRSY [Cultural, Recreational, Social and Youth] Committee, a vibrant one of hardworking volunteers with a faithful following which meet this aim while providing the only revenue for the astronomical cost of maintain such a prime estate meeting place. The functions are almost monthly, with Bingo/ Mah-jong playing; karaoke singing; social or line dancing revellers. A visiting Jamaican guest at an island-themed event commented that we are more Jamaican than Jamaica in recreating the atmosphere here.
These past and current activities [with more specific details posted elsewhere], includes:
Cultural and educational programs:
Informative Chat rooms/ lecture/seminars; Chinese language classes at various levels; Movies; Libraries for borrowing reference and archives.
Recreational and exercise programs:
Tai chi; Sit and be Fit; Bridge; Karaoke; Mah-jong; Table Tennis; Cycling; Ukulele Clubs. Social functions Themed [e.g. Hawaiian/Negril/] Nites; or traditional: Mothers’ and Fathers’ Day functions. Christmas; Mid-Autumn Festival; Banquets/Balls.
Youth subcommittees: E.g. Youth oriented family fun games evening
From Bus outings [e.g. to the Elvis festival at Collinwood] to international cruises on the largest ocean liner afloat, and anything in between, limited only by imagination.
Facilities: Might also be available for certain personal and family functions.
Such as Canada Day or United Way March parade and tributes. Fund raising including the Re-location Drive. As the occasion arises as in disaster relief, for Caribbean schools; Parkdale Club; or Toy or Food drives.
These list of activities are far from exhaustive but limited only by imagination and what the members wants. There are physical limitation at the present site to provide for example, Basketball if this is feverently desired] and accessibility to aging members. This resulted in a drive for TTA’s own relocation.