COMMENTARY: Who are the Teochew people? They are our neighbors and friends.

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Cindy Luc

By Cindy Luc
For Northwest Asian Weekly

When I first tell people that I am Chinese, I get an instantaneous assumption and the question “Do you speak Cantonese or Mandarin?”

I kindly respond with, “No. I speak the Teochew dialect.”

Hundreds of dialects and counties exist in China. Teochew, also known as the Diojiu Ue or Chaozhou dialect, happens to be one of them. The people and dialect originate from the Chaosan region in the eastern part of Guangdong Province. Civil wars during ancient times and the early famines that occurred in China in the 18th to 20th centuries caused massive numbers of Teochew to migrate and settle in neighboring countries, such as Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Singapore, Malaysia, Korea, and Vietnam.

A significant number of Teochew people share experiences identical to those of Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees in the late 1970s, during the Cambodian and Vietnam War.

These experiences are well documented in writer/director Ham Tran’s 2006 award winning film “Journey from the Fall,” and also Seattle local Sam Ung’s book “How I Survived the Killing Fields.” Both these men are notably Teochew. The next waves of migrations lead Teochew people to permanently settle in countries, such as the United States, Canada, Australia, and France, where a large number of Teochew associations have formed.

The majority of Teochew people are multilingual because of their ability to adopt the language and culture of their new countries. My parents and many other adults in the same generation, for example, were war refugees from Vietnam and speak five languages: Teochew, English, Vietnamese, Mandarin, and Cantonese.

This is why it is difficult to differentiate a Teochew-speaking person from another Chinese, Vietnamese, Cambodian, or other ethnic person. Teochew people speak the language of their adoptive countries so fluently that they can easily be identified by that country. Teochew is scattered and spoken almost anywhere, making it one of the most dominant overseas Chinese dialects in the world.

Many well-known Hong Kong and Vietnamese celebrities are not recognized as Teochews because of heavy Cantonese and Vietnamese influence — but they are. These include singer Sammie Cheung, singer Miriam Yeung, actor Steven Ma, and famous Vietnamese singer Truong Vu.  Prominent literary figures include Cambodian/Australian author Alice Pung and Singaporean novelist Wena Poon. For Korean drama lovers, actor Jang Yong is also of Teochew descent.

A good percentage of family-owned businesses located in the Seattle’s International District and Rainier Valley are operated by Teochew families. These include Lucky An Dong Co., Fashion Hair Salon, Chong Wah Ginseng & Herbs, Wong Tong Seafood, Phnom Penh Noodle House, New An Dong, Mekong Supermarket, Hung Loi, Inc., and Monorom Jewelry in South Seattle.

Sadly, many young Teochew speak little to none of the language because of its rare use in the mainstream. There are not many other Teochews to identify with, except family members.

However, thanks to modern technology and the rise of social media, Teochew youth all over the globe can connect with one another through the Internet.

One of the greatest discoveries is website and non-profit organization Gaginang.org, founded by San Francisco native Ty Lim. This organization periodically hosts events around the coastal United States and other parts of the world, including an annual GGN Thanksgiving gathering in San Francisco and biennial Gaginang conferences that are held in a different city every two years.

These events have attracted many Teochews from areas like Seattle, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, Maryland, St. Louis, New Orleans, and Georgia. It has also brought international Teochew travelers from Japan, Australia, and Singapore.

“I just have some sort of an instant connection with Teochew people,” said Douglas Lam, of Hartford, Conn., who is an active member of the organization. Veteran board member Vinh Ma, of San Francisco, stated, “I love meeting new Teochew people and seeing their enthusiasm about their culture.”

Gaginang.org is set to celebrate its 10-year anniversary next summer.

Young Seattle Teochew students can look forward to a recently launched Teo-Chew Association (TCA) at the University of Washington, run by student President Elizabeth Lam.

“Ultimately, my goal is to create a Teochew community for the younger generations to preserve and celebrate Teochew language and heritage.”

These students hold weekly meetings and frequent social events, such as bubble tea night and camping trips, to connect with other fellow Teochew students. (end)

Cindy Luc can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

5 Responses to “COMMENTARY: Who are the Teochew people? They are our neighbors and friends.”

  1. Hi,

    I a Teochew person came from Cambodia, I hope many of you interested and support my book. Here is my book press release:

    ***

    New book inspires readers to overcome life’s difficult times
    Luong Ung-Lai’s “The Freedom…Cage II Moy” reveals how one can find the inner strength required to overcome horrific experiences

    BOSTON, Mass. – In “The Freedom…Cage II Moy,” author Luong Ung-Lai tells a harrowing account of a childhood spent trying to survive Cambodian genocide during the Khmer Rouge regime.

    This inspirational memoir begins shortly after the narrator, Moy, witnesses the painful deaths of her mother and grandfather. Forced to fend for herself at a young age in order to survive a war torn country, her story depicts a childhood full of horrific memories, from living and working in the sugarcane fields, to escaping rape and walking alone through the dark jungles of Cambodia.

    Eventually making her way to the Thai border, Moy was finally given a chance of freedom and education and later made her way to America. Once there, she quickly learned that success in the states wouldn’t come easy.

    Constantly bullied by her peers, Moy struggled to adjust to life abroad. However, due to her strength and determination she began to learn English, became an American citizen and graduated from the University of Massachusetts in Boston with a bachelor’s degree in both English and Philosophy, in 1996.

    This gripping autobiography delves into the ugly depths of humanity while praising the power of family bonds that can never die. Throughout her experiences, it is childhood memories and her mother’s love for her that give her the strength and happiness she needed to survive the Khmer Rouge regime. With her mother’s spirit by her side, Moy always looked towards the future and eventually allowed her memories to bring her healing and closure.

    “This story is about living for something even if it seems like nothing. I held onto my dreams because my mother’s spirit wouldn’t let me give up,” said Ung-Lai. “I used my inner strength, overcame life’s obstacles and made a better life for myself.”
    Ung-Lai hopes that her story will empower and encourage people of all ages to overcome life’s darkest moments and to find the strength to keep going.

    “The Freedom…Cage II Moy” is currently available at Amazon.com

    For more information please visit: https://tfcmoy.wordpress.com/

    About the author: Luong Ung-Lai is a Chinese American who was born in the city of Angkor in Cambodia and grew up being called by her childhood nickname, Moy. In 1977, she lost her mother and grandfather at age thirteen and was forced to survive in the midst of Cambodian genocide during the Khmer Rouge regime. Years after starting a new life for herself in America she began writing The Freedom…Cage in 1987, a memoir of her traumatic experiences in Cambodia. After working many jobs to support her education, she graduated from the University of Massachusetts in order to improve her reading, writing skills and speech. She later revisited and refined her book in order to get it published. Ung-Lai is also the author entitled, Silver Moon, Tom Cupcake.

  2. teochewyouth says:

    Teochew people should garther together to the big power community and help the people gaginang promote the culture, teochew whue to the young

  3. Joanne says:

    In Northern California, many big business owners are also from TC decent. King Eggroll, SF Market, TK Noodle house, Lion Market just to name a few. I’m positive there were more, but I can’t think of any off the top of my head. I only know this because as a fellow Teochew family, my dad does business with a lot of them and he told me this :)

  4. Jefferey Vu says:

    Wheww go Elizabeth Lam!! Hopefully TCA and VSA can join forces in the future!

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