Hong Kong is a cultural hotpot. People from all four corners of the globe make “Asia’s World City” one of the most diverse places on the planet in terms of food, fashion, and festivities.
The broth of this hotpot is a Chinese population which makes up more than 90 per cent of the city’s ethnic mix. Most of these people are of Cantonese descent, but for a small minority, their ancestry can be traced back to the territory’s earliest inhabitants.
Punti, Hakka, Hoklo and Tanka: these four groups of people built Hong Kong into the bustling metropolis that we live in today.
The Punti, translated as “original residents”, were the first to settle here. In the 11th century, the earliest clans took advantage of the fertile New Territories soil and developed a strong agricultural society. Then came the Hoklo, from Fujian, a fishing community known as the “river people”. They were followed by the “sea gypsies” (the Tanka). Famous for living almost their entire lives on the water, these boat dwellers docked their junks in and around Cheung Chau, Aberdeen and other harbours around Hong Kong.
The Hakka is the largest of the groups. They first arrived in 1688 after the lifting of the coastal evacuation order brought in by the Qing dynasty.
By the time the British took over in 1898, almost half of the New Territories’ population was Hakka. The construction of walled villages such as Tsang Tai Uk, and culinary delights like yong tau foo (stuffed beancurd), has ensured the Hakka influence has remained to this day.
Keep traditions alive
War and famine forced this mass migration to our shores and with it came a blend of customs which would shape Hong Kong’s identity.
Lion dancers first wound through the streets of Guangdong before making the leap across the Sham Chun River. Plumes of smoke billowing from hillside graves during the Ching Ming Festival are another import. The annual Cheung Chau bun scramble, a roast suckling pig to ring in the New Year, and the procession of pole-balancing children during the Tin Hau Festival are all products of the city’s forefathers.
Lee Kwai-ying is Hakka. Now in her 70s, Lee keeps the traditions alive by singing folk songs on local radio.
“When I was eight, I looked after the cows in the hills,” she recalls. “I started singing because there was nothing else to do. No shops, no restaurants, nothing. I just enjoyed the scenery and sung to my farm animals.”
As shops and restaurants have sprung up all over the New Territories, however, this rural way of life has fallen by the wayside. Like so many ancient practices across the globe, tradition has struggled to hold back the tides of change.
Urban and industrial development since the 1970s has drained the rural population, many moving to seek work in the city. Old village houses lie abandoned across what was once the region’s rice bowl. Intermarriage between indigenous groups, as well as expatriates, has led to widespread assimilation. Even natural disaster has played its cruel part: Typhoon Wanda in 1962 displaced tens of thousands of Tanka and Hoklo whose boats were destroyed.
The result of this cultural demise has been devastating. According to the 2011 census, the number of people speaking indigenous languages fell by 22.3 per cent from 2001.
Fragile flask of culture
Language is a cornerstone of cultural identity and the falling numbers of native speakers has been a concern for some time. “Language is a flask containing culture,” believes Dr Lau Chun-fat of the Association for Conservation of Hong Kong Indigenous Languages.
“Like a flask, language is fragile and can be easily broken. When the flask breaks, the culture will evaporate and be lost forever.”
Lau was born into a Hakka family near Yuen Long before moving overseas to pursue a career in academia. Upon returning in 1992, he was shocked to find none of the children from his village could speak Hakka. Over the next 14 years, he studied linguistics with the intention of preserving Hakka and other local dialects.
In spite of his efforts, even resorting to speaking only Hakka to his children, Lau has struggled to keep these languages alive.
He feels parents have not actively nurtured their ancestry for the next generation.
“Parents see these minor languages as ‘useless’,” he laments. “Children are not being forced to practise their traditions. The people are still living, but the soul is no longer there.”
Resurgence is possible
Responsibility for reviving this soul lies with the young. They face a simple question: do they care enough about their heritage to save it?
Tasked with answering that are people like 21-year-old law graduate Stephanie Tang. The former Sha Tin College student is the granddaughter of Lee Kwai-ying.
For Tang, Hakka culture “is something the older generation celebrates and brings us along to enjoy vicariously”.
Promoting indigenous practices, she hopes, will ignite passion in her peers. “We need to bring more attention to festivals. It’s a great way to bring family and friends together. This, and perhaps the food. Hakka food is spectacular!”
Saving these endangered traditions is not impossible. Once on the brink of extinction, the Maori and Hawaiian languages have had a major resurgence in popularity.
Tang accepts there are obstacles in seeing similar results in Hong Kong, citing an “unfamiliarity” and “lack of attachment” her generation has with their ancestry.
The government would have to play a key role in any revival. Past administrations have arguably been at fault. After the second world war, only Cantonese and English were taught in classrooms. Local dialects were not heard on television or radio. Employers sought only Cantonese fluency.
The government would need to commit wholeheartedly to a significant linguistic and cultural shift, says Lau. “These cultures may perish, but instead of preserving them, the government prefers building a Disneyland. Unless the government becomes aware of the importance of indigenous languages and cultures, I see a bleak future.”
Despite this forecast, a cultural resurrection must not be written off just yet. The Hakka are renowned for facing adversity head-on and Lee encourages the next generation to live up to that reputation.
“I was born to be a Hakka,” she says proudly. “I have learned to worship the Hakka way. I have welcomed newborns into the world the Hakka way. I hope that more people, especially the young, will follow our customs.”
In 1844, colonial official Robert Montgomery Martin called Hong Kong’s indigenous groups “predatory, dissolute and utterly useless”. Yet it was these “highly injurious subjects” that made Asia’s World City the international hub that it is today.
The ways of the Punti, Hoklo, Tanka and Hakka have become part of everyday life. To lose that would be to lose the heart of Hong Kong.