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The Hakkas



A Brief History

by Kenneth Lyen

The exact origin of the Hakkas is lost in obscurity. There is little to go on, except perhaps the unique Hakka dialect, which resembles Mandarin more than any other Chinese dialect. It is believed that they originated some two millennia ago from the central plains of eastern China, around the Yellow River basin. This river is the lifeblood of much of China, but is extremely unpredictable. Periodically it floods, damaging homes and crops, and forcing thousands to become refugees. Perhaps as a result of these floods, the Hakkas migrated to different parts of China, hoping to seek a more stable life. Thus began the spirit of restlessness and adventure that imbues Hakkas worldwide.

Most places the Hakkas migrated to were already owned by landowners. Thus, it was difficult for Hakkas to acquire land. If they wanted to remain as farmers, they could only find less fertile land at the peripheries of existing towns. In order to make ends meet, both men and women had to work, and hence women could not afford the luxury of having their feet bound. Unbound women’s feet became a symbol of women’s equality with men and a hallmark of the Hakkas. Alternatively the Hakkas could become labourers working for others.

However, like migrant communities worldwide, these refugee Hakkas had the resolution to prove themselves as a capable group, able to rise to the challenge and to achieve more than the indigenous population they found themselves in. There were two major occupations that they could enter on an equal footing. The first was the civil service. To enter the civil service, and to become a governor of a region, one had to take the Imperial Civil Service Exam. Many Hakka scholars studied hard for this exam, and from sheer determination, quite a number succeeded. They entered the civil service and rose up the ranks to become governors. The second career which welcomed the Hakkas was the army. Recruits were often difficult to find, and thus when the Hakkas applied for a post, they were accepted readily. Many Hakkas excelled themselves in the army, and there are some famous Hakka generals.

Because the Hakkas were officials in the civil service or were army officers, the indigenous population were disinclined to refer to them as refugees. Instead, they called them “Hakkas” or guests. It is a wonder that the Hakkas did not get absorbed by the peoples whose districts they had migrated to. One possible reason could be the tradition that Hakkas are not supposed to marry other dialect groups. In Singapore, the most famous Hakka is our former prime minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

The peripatetic tendency of the Hakkas meant that they were unable to sprout deep roots in any one place. The need to preserve their identity and chronicle their ancestry has become a sort of ritual etched into the psyche of this wandering race. Records of births, marriages and deaths, have been entered into a family book for several generations. Our family has such a book, and it is from these records, now updated, that we have managed to reconstruct our current family tree.