Roots and Resistance in the Hakka Chinese Diaspora by Wayne Yeh
The Hakka Spirit is the Pillar of the Yap Clan
No matter how tall a tree grows, its leaves will fall back to their roots
There is a Chinese saying: 「有陽光的地方就有華人，有華人的地方就有客家人」Wherever the sun shines, there are Chinese people. Wherever there are Chinese people, there are Hakka people. My last name is Yeh, which means “leaf” in Chinese. When my family immigrated to the U.S. from a Thai refugee camp, my grandfather romanized our last name the Taiwanese way, spelled as Y-E-H. If it were standardized the Mandarin spelling, it would just be Y-E, and if it were to be spelled the Cantonese way, it would be Yip, Y-I-P. In the Hakka dialect, our surname is pronounced Yap, spelled Y-A-P.
Even though our diasporas are scattered across the world, adopting variant western spellings of the same Chinese surnames, we have common roots. Whether I am a Yeh, Yap, or Yip, I find it fitting and comforting that my family name means “leaf,” because I feel that I’m constantly drifting in the unknown, and swirled in chaos of what life throws at me, waiting to settle upon the stability of established roots.
I’m lucky enough to have gotten to visit my ancestral village in China twice. In 2014, I went on a “blind rooting” with my aunt and uncle where we used what little information we had of my grandfather’s village and its whereabouts. The buildings were crumbling and caving in, there were faded red text of cultural revolution mottos painted on the walls, and the ancestral hall’s altar was modest with wooden plaques of our ancestor’s names. The only downside is that we didn’t meet any relatives to connect with since we don’t speak Hakka. I was disappointed that we didn’t get to meet anyone — I had so many unanswered questions, but I was determined to return one day.
Growing up in America as an Asian American and learning about my racial, ethnic, and cultural identities was not easy. I had a difficult time integrating and reconciling my identities with my own family, and I continuously felt like an outsider forced to adapt to a contrived sense of ‘home.’ It wasn’t until I began to focus in racial and ethnic studies at Tufts University that I learned to embrace the contradictions that I hold within me. While I learned about the earliest Chinese Americans—those who built America’s railroads and ran laundromats—I saw people who look like me reflected in those narratives, but I knew this was still not an accurate representation of my family’s experience. I am perpetually searching for a refined sense of self. The Roots program has taught me to keep calm and settle, to be at peace with my life’s contradictions while embracing the redefined homes that come with diaspora.
I have been fixated on researching my family’s history since I was a child. When I explain to people that I am Chinese and Laotian, sometimes I am asked which side is Chinese and which side is Laotian. I feel that what is beautiful about my family’s experience is that the answer is “neither.” Neither “side” of my family or identity is wholly one or the other. My family is both ethnically Chinese and Laotian, and an entire generation of both my maternal and paternal family was born in Laos. My body, mind, blood, and tongue are not split neatly down the middle as if I can choose which to represent. Despite the ways I may feel broken, confused of my identity at times, I am whole and my family is whole. I may represent a little-known piece of Hakka Chinese migration, history, and diaspora, but the Roots journey has helped me bring myself back together as a whole.
Prior to being accepted to Roots, I did some research and followed leads of my own. I found multiple Facebook groups for Hakka descendants of the Yeh clan in my paternal grandfather’s ancestral village. To my surprise, social media had connected me to a range of resources on my ancestral family’s history. I joined a Facebook group for Yeh clan Hakka Chinese descendants who settled in Malaysia, as well as a Facebook page that detailed the history of our clan’s founding and migration histories. By the time I applied for Roots, I already had many facts of my ancestral village laid out. I got in touch with one of the Facebook page administrators, who then passed on WeChat contact information for clan members who still currently live in my ancestral village. In the months leading up to the Roots trip, I was able to converse with distant relatives using my limited Chinese literacy via WeChat!
My Him Mark Lai Family History Project story could begin with our trip to China in July 2017, or it could begin 23 years ago in 1994, when I was born in Chico, California in the United States. But that wouldn’t do justice to the journey my family has embarked on when I could start from 1960, the year my biological mother and father were born in Pakse, Laos before seeking refuge in a Thai refugee camp in their late-teens. Yet starting from 1960 doesn’t capture the depth of Hakka Chinese perseverance and migration that I am a product of. In fact, tracing my family’s roots could go back thousands of years, to one of the five main branches of Hakka migration from central Northern China. My family’s Hakka migration could be traced back to the late 15th and 16th centuries.
The Ye clan first migrated from Ye County in Henan Province to Guangdong Province during Emperor Xianzong’s rule in the Ming Dynasty (1464-1487) over one hundred generations ago. In the Qing Dynasty Emperor Kangxi’s first year of rule in 1662, a branch of the Ye family migrated from Xichun Village, Heshui Town, Xingning County, Meizhou City, eastern Guangdong Province. They migrated to Danshui, Huiyang . The ancestral founder for the Ye clan in Huiyang was 葉特茂 (Mandarin: Ye Te-mao, Hakka: Yap Tat-meu).
In October 1917, my paternal grandfather 葉運財 (Mandarin: Ye Yun-cai, Hakka: Yap Yun-chhoi) was born in the eleventh generation of the Huiyang Yap clan and as the first-born of my great-grandfather, 葉慶祥 (Mandarin: Ye Qing-xiang, Hakka: Yap Khin-siong). My grandfather was born in the tumultuous early years of the Republic of China’s founding. Similar to other Hakka Chinese, my great-grandfather was in search of economic opportunity and became an indentured servant in Laos, leaving behind my grandfather until he paid off his debts and was able to bring his family to Laos. My grandfather’s younger siblings were born in Laos throughout the 1930s, and he started his own Lao-Hakka Chinese family of eight kids from 1953 until they left for a Thai refugee camp in the late 1970s as a result of the U.S. war in Southeast Asia.
A product of migration and diaspora, whether by choice or by economic and political design, is having final resting places dispersed from our places of origin. This is a deviation of the norm where generations of Chinese clans are buried in the same ancestral cemetery. Diaspora means not returning home even in death. I think of the souls that left China as part of the diaspora, but their bodies remained in foreign and often hostile lands. As a result of their migration, the final resting places of members of my family are scattered and their names altered. My paternal great-grandfather is buried in Muang Khong, Laos. When my paternal grandfather was born, his Hakka surname was pronounced “Yap.” At the time of his passing in 2002, my grandfather was known by his Lao first name and our English surname was Romanized in the Taiwanese spelling, “Yeh.” Born 葉運財, he was buried over seven thousand miles away as Soi Yeh in Los Angeles.
Although my paternal grandfather and great-grandfather are not buried at our ancestral home, things felt like they were coming full circle when I finally returned on their behalf. I hadn’t made this connection until I researched the Hakka culture and understood the significance of returning home for a peoples who are known as “guest people,” perhaps as perpetual foreigners. When I arrived at the local family association, there was a large red and yellow banner hanging outside that said “Warmly welcoming overseas Chinese returning home to visit their kin” and there were family members waiting outside and applauding as we arrived. I was overwhelmed to find two lines of people leading up to the entrance. Once we settled down inside, I was seated next to an 80-year old man who is my grandfather’s younger cousin. He brought out a photo album with photos from my grandfather’s last visit in 1990, and I had brought some of the same photos!
In front of the ancestral home and fish pond sat a stone dog, which is why the village is called “stone dog house.” The distant relatives, who I now called uncles, encouraged me to get a photo atop the stone dog. They said that every child who grew up in the village has a photo of themselves riding the stone dog, and now it is my turn since I’ve traveled all this way. It is said that there is a temple in the distance facing the house. In the Hakka dialect, the words “temple” and “cat” are homonyms (“miao”). There is the belief that fish are afraid of cats, and cats are afraid of dogs. In order to repel potential evil spirits from the temple facing the Ye village, two stone dogs were placed on each side of the fish pond. The female stone dog was stolen, and only the male stone dog remained — now the dog has protected the home for hundreds of years and generations have lived peacefully and happily. I’ve finally returned to ride the stone dog, perhaps like my grandfather and great-grandfather did more than a hundred years ago.
When it came time to take group photos in front of the stone dog, my grandfather’s cousin eagerly pulled a handkerchief from his pocket where he revealed a medal hung on a red and gold sash. At first, I thought I was getting presented an award from my family, and I thought this would be a Roots first! Suddenly, he put the medal around himself and gleamed proudly. Turns out the medal commemorates his fifty year membership in the Guangdong Province Communist Party Committee. He was very excited to show off his achievement upon my visit from afar.
The architecture of my Hakka ancestral home itself set my rooting apart from my peers before me. The structure was built in a half-moon shape and is known as an “enclosed dragon” home. Each layer of the Hakka “enclosed dragon” architecture surrounds the ancestral altar in the center, known as the “Dragon Hall.” When I visited in 2014, the ancestral altar was modest with wooden boards and faded maroon accents. At the time, it looked just like the photos my grandfather had of his last visit. This time, the ancestral hall was renovated and decked out in immaculate lavish gold detail. I stood with my uncles and paid respects to our ancestors—the generations who came before us and laid the foundation for our clan to call this place home. A piece of me was uneasy with paying respects at the newly renovated ancestral hall. Something about it just felt contrived and inauthentic, and I was caught off guard. I wanted to pay respects to my ancestors just as my grandfather and his forefathers did, but something about the renovations felt like I was an outsider or on the set of a movie. I felt like a tourist. I tried to brush aside these internal criticisms and reminded myself that I do have a connection to this place and those before me—renovated or not.
As we exited, my relatives ushered us to leave and head to the ancestral burial site nearby. I was eager to see the living quarters once again, but one of the leaders suggested we leave. I persisted, and told my grandfather’s cousin that I wanted to see where my grandfather grew up. He led me to a door which opened to one of the inner rings of the half-moon structure, the rest of the relatives followed reluctantly. Nearly everything was in ruins. The living quarter ceilings had caved in, roof tiles were crumbling, doors were knocked down, the interior walls were deteriorated, and tall shrubs grew up toward the sky. Even if this wasn’t the tailored view my relatives might have wanted us to see, something about this felt right and authentic to me. I began to feel more at ease.
My relatives pointed out a unit that my great-grandfather and grandfather apparently lived in. Like the other family units, this one was run down with rubble from the walls and ceiling pieces piled in the middle. I stepped in and made my way into one of the rooms. There wasn’t much left, and it was hard to tell when it was last inhabited. I did find two oil lamps that my grandfather or great-grandfather may have used. Compared to our time in the newly renovated ancestral hall, this felt more like what I had come here for. I wanted to physically stand in the space that my ancestors have been in, regardless of how devastated it may look. As sunshowers started to sprinkle upon us, a black butterfly representing the spirits of lost loved ones—was in sight and I knew this felt right. This was it, this was what I came for.
We continued making our way along the half-moon shaped living quarters when one of the relatives stopped in front of a door on the left side of the living quarters. He said he knew I was also trying to research the roots of my maternal grandmother, who had been ‘bought’ as a small child to be a servant to a young girl marrying into the clan. To this day my grandmother does not know her own surname or origins, but she knows the name of the Yap family who she served and moved to Laos with. Prior to my rooting, I provided these names, and during our walk my relatives pointed out the home they believe my maternal grandmother briefly lived. While I was mainly focused on tracing my paternal roots, I also got a piece of my maternal family’s history and saw the home in the same ancestral village where my grandmother spent part of her early childhood.
When we finally reached the burial site of the Yeh clan patriarch, one of the uncles explained to me that I would not be allowed to light incense and pay my respects. He explained that in the Hakka tradition, we only pray to the founding ancestor on one day of the entire lunar calendar on a holiday known as Jingzhe (驚蟄祭祖大典). I have seen photos and videos where hundreds of Yeh clan members return to the ancestral village to pay their respects on this holiday. My relative said that each year, people don’t need reminders of when the holiday is, they all know when to flock back to the village for the large celebration. I will have to come back in the future to experience this celebration and properly pay respects to my ancestral founder.
This roots visit with my distant relatives was so surreal to anything I have ever experienced as a queer man with an estranged relationship from my father. My gong gong passed before I was old enough to come out to my family members. Sometimes I wonder if he would accept me for who I am. During lunch after our visit, I sat a table full of my uncles and was nervous about them all suspecting my sexuality. It is the only time in recent memory that I remember sitting at a table of only men as peers. Especially reflecting on the effect patriarchy and masculinity has had on my family through my maternal grandmother’s experience, it felt comforting, surreal, and foreign all at the same time.
Since returning from the Roots trip, I presented at the New York Hakka Conference where I got to speak on my experiences in researching my ancestral origins. There were many attendees with threads of Hakka diaspora coming from all over the world—Peru, Jamaica, Trinidad, and more. I was amazed by how extensive the Hakka diaspora is, and how there is a strong sense of camaraderie among Hakka regardless of where our ancestors settled and how many generations removed we may be from China. There is an overwhelming shared connection in mutual resistance against merely being “guest people” or perpetual foreigners.
In my Roots research, I found the saying 「樹高千丈，葉落歸根」which means “No matter how tall a tree grows, its leaves will fall back to their roots.” I realized that I embarked on this journey not in search of a glamorous “life-changing” experience, but I was seeking to validate and affirm who I already am by falling back to my roots. While some may come in search of a glitzy golden ancestral altar, I am perfectly content with an aged stone dog holding its firm ground.
This Roots experience strengthened my Chinese American and Hakka identities grounded in honoring what is, rather than what could have been. I have learned that Hakka people are known as political revolutionaries in overseas Chinese communities. My commitment to my Hakka ancestors is to continue striving for social justice for working-class immigrant communities of our shared diaspora. Even if I do not return to my ancestral home again in this lifetime, perhaps one of my descendants will return on the one hundredth anniversary of my birth. While our bones may end up scattered, our spirit remains intact.
Author’s bio: Wayne Yeh 葉威 is a Civic Action Organizer at the Chinese Progressive Association based in Boston, Massachusetts and is on the board of the Asian American Resource Workshop. He was born and raised in Chico, California to a Hakka Chinese and Laotian family of refugees. He attributes his commitment to grassroots community-based social justice work to his mentor and advisor in American Studies and Asian American Studies at Tufts University, Dr. Jean Yu-wen Shen Wu.