Entrance to traditional Hakka home

Red Gate Residency Part 2

Retracing My Roots


The Arrival of the Hakkas into the New Territories

Hong Kong Museum of History

The Hakkas was forced to flee the coastal areas of Hong Kong and move 25 km inland during the early Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), to prevent them from supporting the Ming regime in Taiwan. This evacuation order was lifted in 1669. Two Qing emperors, Yongzhen (1723–1735) and Qianlong, (1736–1795) encouraged people to reclaim the coastal regions of Hong Kong. Most people came from the provinces of Jiangxi, Fujian and Guangdong (especially in areas of Huiyang, Chaozhou and Jiaying). In the Qing court these new settlers were registered as Hakkas, translated in English as “Guest Families”, as opposed to the local Puntis.

Hakka woman working as a stone breaker in the early 20th century. Image courtesy Hong Kong Museum of History

The Hakkas experienced great challenges as they were the last to resettle in Hong Kong. They were given inferior farming lands and many made a living as poor domestic labourers involved in masonry or baking plaster. The Hakkas eventually gained a reputation for being industrious workers, in particular the women who had great stamina when working in the fields.

There were six major clans who were the first to settle in the new territories; they were the Tang, Hau, Pang, Tao, Liu and Man clans. They each built communities to protect themselves, constructing walled villages, ancestral halls, schools and markets.

The Tangs were the first of the major clans to have moved to Hong Kong, during the Northern Song Dynasty (960–1127) and began settling in Kam Tin, Lung Yeuk Tau, Ha Tsuen, Ping Shan and Tai Po Tau.

The Hau clan came from Pan Yu in Guangdong province during the late Northern Song Dynasty (960–1127). The Pang clan came during the late Southern Dynasty (1127–1279) before moving to Fanling during the reign of Emperor Wanli (1574–1619) of the Ming Dynasty. The Taos fled to Tuen Mun, during the late Southern Song and early Yuan Dynasty (1127–1368).

Traditional Hakka clothing is defined by its simplicity. Both men and women dressed in black or blue tops, trousers and headgear for working in the fields. Image courtesy Hong Kong Museum of History.

The Lius arrived in Sheung Shui around the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) and began as a clan during the Ming Dynasty with the reign of Emperor Wanli (1573–1619) and living in Sheung Shui Wai. The Man clan lived in San Tin, Yuen Long, Tai Hang, Tai Po during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644).

The Wang Family of Qingxi Village, Guangdong Province

Pictures showing my grandparents with their children. From left to right standing: Wang Xue Qiong (Mother), Wang Xue Chi, Wang Xue Chun, Wang Xue Zhong & his wife Liang Yu Jin and sitting: Wang Yun Ping & her son Lian Jing Wei.
My acceptance in Red Gate residency was based on my proposal of doing research about the Chinese culture that exists in present day China and its juxtaposition against the Chinese culture in Trinidad and Tobago. My focus was to be on the lifestyles of the Hakka ethnic Chinese as my family belong to this group.

During my residency I was able to travel for two weeks to Guangdong, a province formerly known as Canton or Kwangtung, it is located on the coast of the South China Sea with a population of about 104 million citizens. It was from this province where the majority of the Chinese who migrated into Trinidad & Tobago came from, prior to the twentieth century. Very few Hakkas, however, came during the 1800s to work on the plantations. It was not until after the formation of the Republic of China in 1912, that most of the Hakka Chinese came to Trinidad & Tobago. My family is therefore, relatively a new generation of Trinidadian Chinese. My father was born in Trinidad who married my mom who was born in Guangdong province of China.

A group picture of my aunts and uncles taken in 2015

My mother’s village is located in Guangdong province. It takes about an hour by bus from Shenzen to get to the village. Shenzen is a city that borders the north of Hong Kong to get to the village. The name of the village is called Qingxi, which translates to “Deer City” in English. It is said that 800 years ago during the Ming Dynasty, the deer that drank from the stream of the mouth of the Yinping Mountain fascinated the Hakkas who arrived in the region, and hence the name. As there is a monument in the centre of the village dedicated to this history, a grey pillar supporting a half a globe on which stand three deer. The monument is surrounded by water at it base.

Entrance to the village
Image of the interior of the village (left) and my mother’s childhood home that has been remodelled (right)

Visiting my mother’s old Hakka village was intriguing. It is like an enclosed hamlet surrounded by a wall of single story buildings. One assumes that the design was deliberate to act as a fortification to protect the village from outsiders. The interior was a series of intersecting narrow corridors. Merged into the exterior wall of this village was the Wang Ancestral Hall dedicated to the deceased patriarchs of the Wang family. My grandfather was Wang Yong Zhen (b.1919 — d.2000)whereas my grandmother was Li Guan Feng (b.1926 — d.1998). They earned a living as simple farmers and raised five children in the village, one son and four daughters.

The exterior entrance of the Wang family Ancestral Hall
Details of the frescos and woodcarving

The hall itself is a very modest structure with architectural details of the classical Lingnan style, which is found mainly in the Guangdong region. The term Lingnan means “South of the Five Ranges”, a range of mountains that is located between Guangxi and Hunan province. It covers a geographical area that includes Guangxi, Hunan, Guangdong, Jiangxi, Fujian and Hainan Island.

A familiar feature can be found on the apex of the roof of the hall, a crescent stone panel with bas-reliefs. The bas-reliefs and the frescoes that adorn the walls depicts stories from classical Chinese literature such as the legend of the Eight immortals crossing the Seas, Romance of the Three Kingdoms or Water Margins. The layout of the ancestral hall is adapted to the sub-tropical climate of Guangdong, with it open courtyards and high ceilings providing ventilation for ceremonies and gatherings that involves the burning of incense and paper blessings.

Interior entrance leading into the main hall with tablets describing that it belongs to the Wang family who came from Huai Shu village in Shanxi province
The main hall where the memorial tablets of the ancestors displayed

The Wang Ancestral Hall was built with two courtyards, each separated by a doorway. The first courtyard would be the reception area where all the families would gather during festivals or main events. In the second most inner courtyard is the main tiered altar that houses numerous eight-inch high green enamel rectangular tablets. Each one of these tablets is a memorial dedicated to a deceased family member, whose name is inscribed in gold. It was from their memorial tablet that I discovered that my grandparents were the 25th generation of Wang and my mother the 26th generation. However I am not to be from the Wang clan as my paternal family belonged to the Liu clan, who are also from this province.

The main tablet that displays the words to bring honour to the family surrounded by the memorial tablets of the ancestors

With the help of a translator I learnt from the tablets that hung on the doorways, that the Wang clan emigrated from Huai Shu (pagoda tree) Village, Hong Tong county located in Shanxi province in the north-west of China, next to Hebei province, where Beijing is located. This mass migration was officially organized in the Ming Dynasty from 1117-1123 through about 1795 in the Qing Dynasty. This migration involves some 80,000 people of 500 surnames. They went to the north as well as the south, where they called themselves Hakka. Today, there is a big shrine in Huai Shu village, regarded by many as original root of the family.

Plaque showing the sponsors who contributed to the restoration of the hall in 1986 and a Hakka marriage sedan to carry the bride during the wedding

The Wang Ancestral Hall itself would have been built during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), as there are twenty-six generations of memorial tablets in the hall. The hall offers an insight into the old traditions of China, as these were the status symbols of their day, reflecting the prestige of the family. Not everyone could have built an ancestral hall, as one could only gain the title officially from the government, by passing the imperial examination, and this was very difficult to achieve. This examination was stopped at the end of the Qing dynasty in 1912.

The ancestral halls still play a vital role in family gatherings, where all ceremonies, such as weddings, deaths or holidays are performed to include the ancestors in these events. Two important ceremonies are the Spring and Autumn Ancestral worship during the second and ninth months of the lunar calendar. Most times these rituals are performed on auspicious days to ask the ancestors for protection, good health and prosperity. This is why the ancestors are highly regarded as they were responsible for the birth of the future generation and it is the duty of the present family to keep them happy in the afterlife, so that they, in turn can bless the family.

The burning of the paper blessings as offerings to the ancestors
Preparation of the offerings

I was able to witness one such ritual. It was an informal ritual where the mother of the bride was there to ask the ancestors for a good marriage and a happy life. Both mother and daughter were present with an array of offerings, which included an entire cleaned and gutted chicken, various fruits and snacks. Then the mother proceeded to pile a stack of paper offerings on the ground before the altar in the open courtyard, and began burning the pile while murmuring blessings. Afterwards the mother went close to the altar continuing her blessings and then pouring a substance in a niche below the altar. All the offerings were removed from the altar and firecrackers was lit outside of the hall, concluding the ceremony.

View of the village from the burial site

After the ceremony I was guided to the Wang family burial plot located on the fringe village. Walking on the narrow dirt track towards my destination, I reached the top of the hill before turning right, passing an old water tower like a sentinel guarding the entrance. I was then greeted with two rows of three-foot high earthenware jars surrounded by an open concrete enclosure. Inside these earthenware jars are the bones of my ancestors including those of my grandparents. The funeral rights for the Hakkas are distinct as they practice the custom of double burial. This custom may seem strange to most but it is a perfect example of filial piety, which is part of the Confucian philosophy that defines a person’s love, respect and devotion for their family, even in the afterlife.

The earthenware jars housing the bones of the ancestors

The double burial involves a first burial in a coffin for several years until the body is exhumed and the bones cleaned before being placed in the earthenware jar to be reburied in a special chosen area. The location is very crucial, as it must have good Feng Shui for the continued welfare of the entire family. The double burial is attributed to the constant migration of the Hakkas in the past, where the family would carry their ancestors with them whenever they move and bury them once they have settled.

Myself standing outside the inner entrance to the main hall

This direct observation of the Hakka culture has given me new insight into my own history and that of Trinidad & Tobago. The Hakkas are a fairly new wave of Chinese who arrived in the twentieth century. Being born in Trinidad and Tobago, it was intriguing to witness first hand of seeing both sides of the same coin. My research will try to explain the idiosyncratic elements that define the Hakka culture and how they have either changed or assimilated into the post-colonial lifestyle of Trinidad and Tobago.