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 firstname.lastname@example.org.