Date: 11-16-08 00:18
Hakka women can hack it
By FOONG THIM LENG
SPEND some time in any of the small Chinese towns or villages in Perak and you will soon find fascinating stories about the older generation of Hakka women there.
Known for their strong personalities and resilience in sharing even the toughest of labour in the family, many of these women can be found in Kampar, Gopeng, Batu Gajah, Pusing, Lahat and Papan – all towns in the Kinta Valley – and in Langkap and Chui Chak in Hilir Perak.
The toughness of the Hakka women had also been acknowledged by famous authors.
Pearl S. Buck’s heroine O-Lan in The Good Earth was soon back working in the fields while breastfeeding her baby after giving birth, while Han Suyin in The Crippled Tree praised the “unglamorous Hakka maid” for her thrift, hard work, clean life and lively retort.
Chai Cheong Tai: "It can be scary diving into darkness (to scoop out the tin-loaded tailings) but we have to support our families."
Contemporary author Amy Tan in The Hundred Secret Senses wrote: “When you marry a Thistle Mountain girl, you get three oxen for a wife: one that breeds, one that plows (hard working), one to carry your old mother around.”
According to local historian Chye Kooi Loong, many of the women were descendants of the immigrants from Dongguan county in the Guangdong province in China who worked in the tin mines in the 19th century.
The Hakka people had begun a long series of migrations in the 4th century, when they left the Yellow River area to escape invasions and chaotic wars.
“They had refused to bind their feet and breasts and had fought alongside the men during uprisings against the Qing Dynasty in China.
“They held on to their own customs and dialect wherever they went. They became known as the Hakkas, which means ‘Guest People’, because they did not assimilate into the local population,” said Chye.
The early women settlers in the Kinta Valley could be found working in tin mines, vegetable plots, construction sites, at roadside stalls and in the markets.
Chai Look Moi: "My husband died when I was 36 years old and there were nine children to feed."
In the 1950s and 1960s when the price of tin was high, they could be seen working in rivers for hours under the hot sun, sometimes carrying a baby on their backs, said Chye.
Former dulang washer Chai Lok Moi, 71, said she and a group of women from her hometown in Pusing used to cycle out before dawn to rivers near tin mines, at the outskirts of the town, to carry out their task when she was in her teens.
Tied to the bicycle carriers would be the wooden dish, a short cangkul for digging, a scoop to remove the mud and sand, a half coconut shell for digging and a pail for the tin ore.
Despite working under the sun for hours, the women remained fair as they were well protected by their dressing.
In her later life when the price of rubber was good, Chai and her friends would cycle about 16km to estates near Ipoh to tap trees.
“Times were hard then. My husband died when I was 36 years old and there were nine children to feed,” she said.
Her neighbour Chai Cheong Tai, 53, remembers the many occasions they had to dive into the water to scoop out the tin-loaded tailings.
“It can be scary diving into darkness but we have to support our families.
“Sometimes we were chased by the jagas (security guards) and their dogs at the mines. The jagas even threatened to shoot us if we went back,” she said.
Another former dulang washer Liew Yen Tai, 65, said the women used to wear a piece of cloth, called a bau tdiu tsai or literally a “small head wrapping”.
“The purpose of the cloth is to cover the top of the head and the back of the neck from the sun. Our blouses have extended sleeves for protection from the sun and we wore gloves,” said Liew.
She said it was common for Hakka girls to be named Tai or Thye in the Kinta Valley then.
“The word Tai means ‘to bring’ in Hakka. Our parents hoped that it would help to bring them a son in future by naming us thus,” she said.
Some women folk also acted as mediums in the villages. One of them is Tan Siew Mee, 65, from Kampung Chui Chak in Hilir Perak.
Her clientele consists mainly of young children suffering from a culturally specific condition called haak geng or “soul loss” and patients suffering from a serious illness known in Cantonese as chu mao tan, which is characterised by very high body temperature.
Tan, a mother of 11 children, who had worked as a rice farmer in her younger days, said one of those whom she had treated was one of her children.
“Those suffering from chu mao tan will not have appetite for food and would have aches all over the body,” she said.
Tan said her treatment was to first sprinkle medicated oil on specific spots on the patient’s body, followed by a rub from the forehead down the body, shoulders and arms with a black cloth containing black chicken feathers that had been boiled beforehand.
She said specks of “scales” and “hairs” would stick to the cloth.
Next, she would scrape the body with a wooden stick to “release” the heat from the body.
“The patient is then advised not to eat rice and fried food for a few days,” she said.
Tan said for babies and children suffering from high body temperature or lap chai, she would rub their bodies with flour after having them take a bath in water boiled with chicken feathers or laap chai cha and a combination of Chinese herbs.
The uninitiated will be surprised to see stubby hairs sticking out of the body which would be shaved off after the rub.
Tan also performs the haak geng ritual for children, particularly babies who cry non-stop at night.
She would light some joss-sticks and chant, while circling a piece of the baby’s clothes over the joss-sticks.
“The piece of clothing is then placed under the baby’s pillow and you will find the baby sleeping peacefully all night,” she said.
The older generation of women have been known to deliver their own children.
Tang Ngoi Ooi, 71, who grew up in Papan, said her mother delivered a baby girl and a set of triplets during the Japanese Occupation.
“Being the eldest girl in the family, my mother asked me to boil hot water each time she felt that the baby was coming.
“She called me in to clean the new-born child later,” she said.
On one occasion, when she was called into the room, Tang said she thought her mother had given birth to twins until she saw something on the floor which turned out to be a third baby.
“The baby died a short while later after we cleaned its body. My mother had no idea that she had been carrying triplets all along,” she said.
Tang, who used to work in the tin mines near her hometown, said it was normal for women to carry heavy planks and machine parts in the mines.
She also remembers those times when male workers sang Hakka mountain songs to woo the female workers who replied in song.
“It was fun singing to each other after a hot and tough day at the mines. It brings back memories of the happy old days when I sing some of the songs at karaoke sessions now,” said Tang.
Hakka women are also known to be good cooks who pay more attention to original flavours and nutritional value rather than appearance.
Among the best known Hakka dishes are Beefball Soup, Mei Cai Kou Rou (braised pork with preserved vegetables), and Yong Tau Foo (beancurd and vegetables stuffed with minced fish) – all popular dishes easily found at hawker centres and food courts elsewhere.
Another speciality is the distilling of rice wine which is used sparingly to add flavour to food, especially in the preparation of the “ginger wine chicken” dish which is said to be nourishing for women in confinement