Tracking the spirit of the Hakka Chinese
With thick, curly brown hair and a dark complexion, Paula Williams Madison (aka Siu Na Lowe) often had trouble explaining her Chinese lineage — probably because all she knew about it was that her grandfather was Chinese.
That was until she attended the Toronto Hakka Conference four years ago. There she discovered a vast network of connections that eventually helped her find her long-lost grandfather and his 300 descendants in China.
“The conference is the only place where no one laughs when I say I am Chinese,” Madison said.
Born and raised in the Harlem section of New York City, Madison is in fact a 151st generation member of the Hakka Lowe clan. Her grandfather Samuel Lowe, along with many Hakka Chinese, came to Jamaica in 1905 to work on a plantation. He returned to China in 1933 when his daughter, Nell Vera Lowe, Madison’s Chinese-Jamaican mother, was 3 years old.
Inspired by her Hakka heritage, Madison, after retiring at the age of 58, started to research her roots. She learned about the Toronto Hakka Conference in 2012 and signed up, not knowing what to expect.
“I had never seen my grandfather and I didn’t have a lot of information about him,” Madison said. “But from the gathering in 2012, I learned enough about the Hakka people, I met enough Hakka people, and I found Hakka people who were willing to help me — including a cousin — Keith Lowe. We didn’t even know we were related when we came!”
More than 100 guests from nearly 10 countries including Jamaica, Trinidad, the US, Australia, India and Malaysia gathered at the Chinese Cultural Centre in Scarborough for the fifth Toronto Hakka Conference on July 1. The theme of the three-day conference, which continued at York University, was the “boundless Hakka spirit”.
The conference is the only place where no one laughs when I say I am Chinese.”
“Hakka people are all over the world,” Madison said. “They are global people, and while we have an affection for and affinity to the countries we reside in, it’s the Hakka culture that unites us.”
Conference co-founder Keith Lowe was born in Jamaica, and while he knew he was Chinese, he didn’t realize he was Hakka until he came to Canada and met other Chinese people from different provinces.
“All Chinese born in Jamaica are Hakka from the Shenzhen and Dongguan area, and we are all the same,” Lowe said. “When I came to Canada, I saw a distinct way of life. I’m different — I’m Hakka.”
According to Hakkaology researcher Patrick Chen, since 1854, many Chinese first arrived in Jamaica as indentured labourers. By 1885, many of them had accumulated enough wealth to start small businesses, usually grocery shops, and gradually expanded into other businesses such as carbonated water, coconut oil, baking and spices.
By 1957, the Chinese in Jamaica were running nearly 400 bakeries and 200 restaurants. The Chinese population in Jamaica peaked at 11,800 in the 1970s, then declined as many left fearing a financial downturn. Most went to the US, Canada and the UK.
The term Hakka translates as “guest families”, referring to the Hakka people’s tendency to migrate. Starting in 317 AD, there have been five major Hakka migrations from the northern provinces of Henan, Hebei and Shanxi to the southern provinces of Guangdong, Fujian and Jiangxi, as the Hakka people uprooted their families to avoid famine and civil wars.
Former Canadian Senator Vivienne Poy, a patron of the conference, believes her mother’s Hakka spirit is within her.
“Hakka women were the only women in China that didn’t bind their feet,” she said. “They were industrious, they worked alongside their men to maximize their income and fought alongside their men in battle.”
“We are always moving and wherever we are, we mix with the local people and we adapt the local traits,” Madison said. “When we blend in locally, that doesn’t mean our culture is subdued.”
Being Hakka himself and a professor emeritus at the University of Toronto, conference co- founder Shui Loon Kong’s research on the Hakka was inspired by his own family tree.
“I am honoured to be in the presence of so many Hakka people, from so many different places — not just geographically, but also racially and culturally,” Kong said in an interview.
In his keynote speech, Kong identified two key elements of the Hakka spirit: humbleness and frugality.
“Being humble means also caring for others and having an open attitude towards others,” he said. “Frugality is defined in terms of environmental protection — a respect for material and people, developing both for a better future. Hakka people are practical, yet they aim high in life.”
Scholars sometimes generalize and call Hakkas part of the Han people, he said. In fact, the Hakka are more like global citizens.
“Since the beginning, Hakka people have been a symbol of humanity, as they believe living in harmony with other cultures and ethnic groups,” he said.
Many Hakka- Canadians have become leaders, entrepreneurs, educators and public servants, including former governor general of Canada Adrienne Clarkson, who was the first HakkaCanadian to be appointed to the position.
Shaun Chen, the first Hakka to sit in Canada’s Parliament, received the Hakka achievement award for his contributions to Canada, where his parents came to settle in the 1970s.
“I am truly honoured,” Chen said. “Being a HakkaChinese- Canadian has allowed me to have a global perspective on so many things. To have this room full of different Hakka diasporas from Asia and from the Caribbean is truly symbolic of the Hakka spirit as well as the Canadian spirit. I’m very proud to be a part of that.”
To most of the guest speakers, the most important attendees of the conference were the young children who came along with their parents and grandparents.
“You are what we are here for; you are the next generation of us,” Madison told the youth in the room. “Our grandfathers and greatgrandfathers did everything, so that you could have every opportunity to be excellent. So wherever you’re going, we are going with you.”