In the past 25 years my wife and I had made repeated trips to China and one of the most memorable was our latest trip to the Hakka heartland of Yongding, Changting, Ninghua, Dabu and Meixian in Fujian and Guangdong provinces, which enabled us to gain an indelible insight into the fascinatingly unique Hakka culture and way of life.
One of the highlights was the viewing of the creme de la creme of the centuries-old Hakka “tulous” (earth buildings) in Yongding county, comprising mainly fortress-like round and square buildings of reinforced mud, sandstone and timber, which stand out as a rare jewel in Chinese folk architecture and much acclaimed worldwide by architects and heritage enthusiasts. Numerous clusters of these gigantic tulous are scattered in various parts of West Fujian and have become prominent landmarks in this mountainous region. The larger edifices, with as many as 300 hundred rooms, have the dimension of a football field and can accommodate up to 800 residents of the same clan. They date from 13th to early 20th centuries. Many have withstood periodic earthquakes and some are still inhabited by the original owners’ descendants.
Of the several “toulous” of different eras that we had visited, Jiqing Lou, built in 1419, truly bowled us over with its elegant architectural style, respectable vintage and near perfect state of preservation after almost 600 years of human habitation without a break! It is a quintessential early Ming structure, with its exquisitely carved wood and masonry works still in place and they have mellowed with time. Four-storey high, it has 206 residential units which had housed about 800 people in its heyday. Its common corridors can be partitioned for privacy. An unusual feature is its 72 sturdy and beautifully-grained wood staircases which connect all the floors.
When some of these “tulous” were first sighted by the US spy planes during the Cold War period, they were mistakenly believed by the CIA to be China’s secret nuclear reactors! The American fear was allayed only after they were invited to inspect them, following the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries in the 1970s.
When the Hakka forebears first moved into these southern provinces from their original homeland in North China more than 1000 years ago, other Han Chinese also originally from that region were already long entrenched there. Resented as intruders and discriminated by the earlier settlers, these latecomers had, perforce, to retreat into the inhospitable regions in order to avoid further clashes and large scale bloodshed with the other Chinese dialect groups.
They therefore opted for communal living in massive “tulous” both for cohesive and defensive reasons, and sharing out whatever meagre produce that the hostile land would yield. Such adversity required of them courage, ingenuity and physical prowess to adapt to their new surroundings or perish.
The Hakkas’ instincts for self-preservation and their ability to overcome extreme privations, coupled with their industry and thrift, enabled them to turn adversity into advantage, carving their place as an integral part of their new homelands. These traditional values have become symbols of the people and are commonly referred to and admired by others as the Hakka Spirit.
Hakka women are worthy of special accolade. Renowned for their sturdiness and female virtues, they had to shoulder much of the heavy and tedious farm work in addition to household chores, thus enabling their men folks to seek fortunes or fame elsewhere in China or in countries overseas.
We visited the imposing Hakka Ancestral Hall at Ninghua’s Shibi village in Fujian, the mecca of Hakkas everywhere. From Ninghua their ancestors later spread out to other parts of Fujian, Guangdong and even more distant greener pastures. We were palpably moved by the ancient records of their sufferings and tremendous achievements despite seemingly insurmountable odds, tracing their first mass migrations from the north due to wars and famines which predated Mao Zedong’s famous Long March by more than 1600 years.
Among their illustrious descendants were numerous outstanding statesmen, scholars, generals, artists, writers, musicians and entrepreneurs, who read like the who’s who of China and countries with sizable Chinese populations. They include such household names like Zhang Jiulin, Wen Tienxiang, Hong Xiuquan, Sun Yat Sen, Deng Xiaoping, Zhu De, Ye Jianying, Liu Shaoqi, Hu Yaobang, Guo Moyue, Luo Xianglin, Lin Fungmien, Han Suyin and Aw Boon Haw, to name just a select few.
Apart from our Mr Lee Kuan Yew and a former Taiwanese president, Singapore’s Premier Lee Hsien Loong and Thailand’s ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Sinawatra are also of Hakka descent. So too are several PAP Old Guard ministers and some later ones including Richard Hu, as well as former Chief Justice Yong Pung How, Supreme Court judges and Permanent Secretaries. Among these formidable Singaporeans were the late Hon Sui Sen and Howe Yoon Chong, who were among Singapore’s most successful civil servants and who later became Cabinet ministers and served with distinctions.
How do we account for so many prominent Hakka political and military leaders? Is there something in its culture and character traits that account for these flairs, or are the names above just a collective coincidence? My own view, admittedly somewhat speculative, centers on the dialect group’s history as a diaspora people escaping persecutions from non-Chinese and other Chinese dialect groups. This creates among its members a keener awareness of how the larger political processes can affect individual lives. Long after the initial migrations, the arduous journeys from political persecution have survived in the collective folk consciousness. Living away from large population centres in barricaded mountain “fortresses” also allows for a degree of independence from governmental authority not afforded those from the fertile plains.
Another result of living in remote mountainous regions with meagre land is the necessary cultivation of an ethic of hard work, and an ability to overcome extreme hardships which the less stout-hearted would easily have succumbed and perished. Such a culture and environment provide an excellent political training ground for dynamic men of strong convictions and indomitable courage, with a gift for rallying whole communities to fight for their just dues and able to withstand prolonged periods of adversity in the wilderness. Living at the periphery of major population centres nurtures in these sturdy Hakkas a keen sense of survival and a proud tradition of independent political thought and action. Would it be too far fetched to conclude that such a tradition percolates even beyond the traditional Hakka homelands, to the new homes of their adopted countries?
Hakka Singaporeans have ceased long ago to be “guests” here. Together with other Singaporeans, they have become co-owners of the Republic and contributing most significantly to the continuing prosperity of this country.
Lam Pin Foo