Chaozhou, Guangdong, China 潮州
So this entry really isn’t just about Chaozhou, but about Chaoshan. But when we’ve spent decades claiming that our homeland is Chaozhou, not realising the difference? That’s a little shameful. Then again, I didn’t even know Chaozhou was a city until recently (I thought it was a province), and couldn’t point to it on a map if you asked.
Three-quarters of my bloodline hails from the Chaoshan region. It’s often simply and confusingly referred to as Chaozhou, better known amongst the Cantonese-speaking diaspora (of which I am a part of) as Chiu Chow, and as Teochew in its eponymous language that I cannot speak or understand. While part of the Cantonese-speaking Guangdong province 廣東/广东, the Chaoshan (Teoswa) region is unique in that it uses the Teochew language instead. (Mandarin has four tones, Cantonese has six, and Teochew has eight!) While not actually true, it sometimes seems like there’s far more Teochew people outside of Chaozhou than in it! Many ethnic Chinese people you may know, even prominent politicians — particularly in Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and immigrants in Canada and USA — trace their lineage to this region. Members of this Teochew diaspora have tended to lose their language within a generation, including my parents, who are still able to understand it due to being raised with the language present, but largely unable to speak it.
But back to the whole Chaozhou/Chaoshan confusion thing. Thinking we were going to Chaozhou, we ended up booking a hotel in Chaoyang, a district of Shantou, 80 km away (a two hour drive in traffic) from downtown Chaozhou. Oops! Chaoshan 潮汕 refers to the conglomeration of the three cities of Chaozhou 潮州, Shantou 汕頭/头, and Jieyang 揭陽/阳. They’re far apart but it seems like they’ll all merge into a mega-city in the next decade or so. For our trip though, while it made things a little difficult and forced us to hire a driver (who kept dangerously falling asleep on the road), it led us to some unexpectedly interesting places.
Turns out that Chaoyang 潮陽/阳 is the homeland of a granduncle of ours. While we weren’t going to visit his old homestead or anything like that, it gave us more impetus to explore the area — resolutely devoid of tourists — and get a sense of life in Chaoshan. Much of our first day was spent visiting local temples: Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism coexist side-by-side. We noted the odd amount of high school students with their parents at the temples: it’s gaokao 高考(university entrance exam) season, which will determine their — and possibly their family’s — fate ahead.
We also visited some of the areas of greater historical significance in Chaoyang — a well-preserved tower built in the 1200s now standing right across the street from shops blaring out techno music, the beach in Haimen 海門 adjacent to a park dedicated to a famous poet from the Ming Dynasty. With no English translation and little context of Chinese history, the significance of these places went over my head, but I could appreciate the art around, primarily in the form of calligraphy engraving, and just to see how locals passed the time relaxing, enjoying the water, or just chatting under shade.
I asked if we could see examples of traditional “villages” (closest translation to 村, but really like neighbourhoods inside a town) where people live. Our driver took us to an affluent family compound, where several related families sharing the same last name had a spacious, lavishly decorated area all to themselves, with newly commissioned traditional arts mingling with their flat screen TVs. They graciously let us wander around and take a look as they continued watching TV and playing mahjong.
That certainly wasn’t what I expected though. Our driver then took us to a crowded neighbourhood a five-minute drive from our giant hotel, and we wandered into a cramped series of alleys strewn with anything and everything, dodging motorbikes zipping past other pedestrians and playing children. While traditionally constructed (in a way less visible nowadays in big cities in China, and completely gone from Hong Kong) with typical Chinese flairs, the houses were crumbling and overgrown, possibly over a hundred years old yet still very much lived in, with traces of their former glory still visible. Families cooked outside in the alleyways, open doors revealing family ancestral shrines; houses mingled with shops, sandwiched by bike mechanics on one end and the main street open to cars on the other.
What I enjoyed most about the experience was seeing how my parents reacted with genuine curiosity of both the wealthy and less-well off surrounds: I had just learnt that their parents were from opposite ends of the wealth spectrum, and while they had never visited their parents’ old homes before nor did they know where they were, they could imagine it being like the places we just visited. (We had to restrain my dad from actually wandering inside someone’s house!) For all they know, the people we encountered could have been them. For all I know, those people could have been me. If my grandparents hadn’t moved to Hong Kong (legally and illegally, by the same wealth divide), this is where we could be: on either end of the spectrum, on the other side of the destructive Cultural Revolution that did not touch Hong Kong, speaking a language I know practically none of, living a 21st century life full of Chinese traditions still well and alive in Chaozhou, and possibly believing in another religion. My imagination runs wild!
And this is how we spent our time in Chaozhou and its surrounds: chasing down what we could have been, grasping at the ends of the strands we knew of. What my parents know isn’t much; what my sister and I know is even less. My mom couldn’t stop smiling when she heard Teochew spoken in her mother’s dialect; my dad couldn’t resist eating a few more street treats. We ate plenty of freshly-made beef ball noodles and fish dumplings, just like my grandfather used to buy for my mom from fellow Teochew immigrant vendors in Hong Kong, and far superior in texture than any others we’ve had elsewhere; as well as oyster omelettes 蠔/蚝烙, congee Teochew-style, kway teow 粿條 (flat rice noodles, now quite well-associated with Singapore) with Teochew satay 沙茶, street samples of nut candies, restaurant versions of deep-fried taro like their parents used to make, and a whole dizzying array of other things I couldn’t absorb so quickly.
My parents had the opportunities when they were younger to go visit Chaozhou and their family homes, which they chose not to take. Like me with Hong Kong, they were never enthusiastic, thinking there wasn’t much to see. We were thus very surprised to arrive in the city of Chaozhou and see the fantastic (and touristy — who knew!) pedestrian streets, hawking all sorts of goodies my parents recognised yet still having a old, traditional atmosphere with ornate arches every block; the beautifully preserved city wall, the bustling Kaiyuan Temple 開/开元寺 full of weird statues and trees, and the unique Guangji Bridge 廣济橋/广济桥, made up of 24 free-standing pavilions and 18 boats. It used to a bridge of only boats; now, the 18 boats leave every evening, returning in the morning, effectively closing off the bridge at night, kind of like a moat.
Wander down a few alleys, significantly more chaotic, with far more Teochew spoken on the street than Mandarin, and there are still residences dating back 1000 years (and featuring hilariously high door saddles which my sister struggled to climb over, meant to mitigate humidity’s effect on doors, at the entrance of every room), now restored yet somehow blending right into the so-called modern neighbourhoods and densely-packed shops of Chaozhou. Emerge on the west side, and there’s the peaceful West Lake Park 西湖, which we sadly didn’t have time to enter.
With only a day in Chaozhou-proper, we had only a fleeting glimpse of the cultural center of our ancestry, but one that gave us a greater appreciation and a stronger sense of identity. We closed off our trip (also our last full day travelling together as a family) driving through the suburb of Chao’an 潮安, into a traffic- and pedestrian-choked 村/neighbourhood we knew my maternal grandparents were both from. Hundreds of street vendors and carts jostled in a single lane, fighting for space against cars, bikes, and motorcycles; a backdrop of densely jammed apartments, mazes of alleyways, potters, crowded shops, and the occasional large advert surrounding it all.
With no way to find out their actual addresses, we were as close as we could get, nearly 100 years after they were born there. All we could do was see and imagine once more the life they knew, wonder which remnants of the past remained in the image we were seeing, and reflect on what remnants of their lives and culture were passed down to us.