Faa1 daai3 (花帶)—narrow woven braids of colourful, patterned bands of fabric—hang down from the black-fringed Hakka hat, part of traditional outfits worn by Hakka women in the fields to shield themselves from the sun. As they worked their hilly land, they sang mountain songs about their tasks, hardship, longing for their husbands working far away. Here in Hong Kong, they laboured in the vegetable and paddy fields of the New Territories while dressed in dark tunic tops, trousers and an apron, all dyed with native plants. The woven braids offer a pop of colour from these earthy outfits, signifying the lives and desires of the women wearing them: their marital status, achievements, the desire for a male child.
Hakka people—whose name, haak3 gaa1 (客家), is derived from the Cantonese word for “guest people”—have lived in Hong Kong since the 17th century. But in a region where Cantonese predominates, both their culture and language are under threat. As the city has grown, drawing people away from rural areas, Hongkongers have intermarried and distinct cultural traditions have been diluted. In the case of many Hakka descendants in Hong Kong, their grandparents or parents moved away from their villages to find work in the urban areas. In other cases, entire families moved abroad, often to work in Chinese restaurants in Britain, Germany and elsewhere. And when compulsory education was introduced in the 1970s, traditional Hakka life gave way to a more mainstream Hong Kong culture propagated through schools.
As with many children, Lam Wai-yun’s grandmother was part of the background of his youth. He was aware that she was a Hakka woman from her traditional dress and the food she cooked, but he was busy with school life and his friends and paid it little attention. Until she died.
“She passed away around six years ago,” says Lam, who is now a 25-year-old PhD student of life science and neuroscience at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “She was a full Hakka, and a very traditional one. After she died, I found I didn’t have a single photo of me with her and I regretted that I hadn’t spent much time with her. And I tried to find something to remember her by.”
Lam began to research Hakka culture to find that missing link with his late grandmother – and with his own ancestry and people. He contacted Hulu Culture, a non-profit organisation that works to protect Hong Kong’s culture and heritage, where he met the late Tsui Yeut-ching, a Hakka woman in her 80s who was an expert on the patterned bands woven by Hakka women to wear on their hats, aprons and other apparel. Tsui would share her knowledge about weaving on online forums and Lam asked her if she could teach him. There had been a resurgence in knowledge about this part of Hakka culture, thanks to exhibitions and cultural events, but Lam’s request was still unusual. “She was surprised that a young man wanted to learn, so she felt she ought to teach me,” he says.
“I called her Auntie Ching,” says Lam of his Hakka mentor, who died two years ago. She offered an opportunity for him to connect with a Hakka woman of his grandmother’s era. Not only did Lam learn the rudiments from Tsui, he has become so knowledgeable that he is in demand as a teacher of Hakka weaving. Perhaps more poignantly, he also takes his small creations to Hakka villages to give them to the older village ladies – many of whom recall the tradition from their youth but have long forgotten how to weave.
The Hong Kong UNESCO Global Geopark also contacted Lam, asking him to make patterned bands for a new story room on Kat O, an island off the coast of Sai Kung. “There are Hakka people at Kat O,” he says, “so they have been recording the history there and last year wanted to find a corner in the story room for my patterned bands.”
Academic Stephen Cheung Kwok-hung also grew up with a traditional Hakka grandmother. Around 20 years ago he began investigating the mountain songs sung by Hakka men and women in the hills while they worked. Called “shange” (saan1 go1 山歌), the tunes have long tones upon which the singer improvises lyrics. Cheung has written two on these mountain songs; as part of his research, he visited a large group of women in Tai Po who would sing not only the songs they could remember but also more modern renditions that reflected on society and new developments around them.
Cheung says one of his uncles, who also sings, introduced him to those women in Tai Po, who would often get together in a hall run by the Salvation Army. He was beguiled: here were elderly women singing into microphones, in a modern hall, but as part of a tradition that goes back hundreds of years. “They weren’t singing in the fields like the old days,” he says. “[But] in that modern setting, Hakka people were coming together, speaking their own dialect, remembering their own stories. [Each session] was a wonderful two hours.” Today, about 20 to 30 of the women are still alive and singing.
Cheung has learned to sing the songs himself, working with the women to take down both the traditional and modern lyrics. His research highlights this evolution, with examples such as one woman who sang about changes in Tai Po, like old village houses giving way to modern three-storey structures. Traditional songs offer a framework in which contemporary stories can be told.
While plenty has been written by historians and cultural anthropologists about the mountain songs and faa1 dai3, the race is on to ensure that the techniques, evolving lyrics and music are shared with a new generation. 72-year-old community artist Evelyna Liang Kan first met Lam in Fanling at an exhibition and class she organized with Caritas. “There was this young man looking at the patterned bands,” she says. “And he seemed to know everything, in among these middle-aged women who were the weaving students.”
Kan, who founded the organisation Art in Hospital, has for decades offered art therapy in different communities around Hong Kong, including in Vietnamese refugee camps in the 1980s. Over the past five years she has also developed a passion for investigating her own ties to Hakka culture, which come from her Hakka father. In December 2019, she brought together a group of artists investigating the Hakka culture of the 300-year old village of Lai Chi Wo, leading to an exhibition there. She also weaves and dyes clothes in the Hakka style.
Her rediscovery of Hakka heritage may have come late in life, but Kan has no shortage of energy. She has conducted interviews and collected stories and artefacts in Lai Chi Wo, and she has travelled to Hakka communities in Guangdong and overseas, notably in Northern Ireland. She wears Hakka clogs at home, just like her father did, to connect with him and the earth.
“There are so many roots, so many lines, of who I am,” she says. “My father is from Huiyang in Guangdong, [a part of] Huizhou. Previously I knew that I’m Hakka on my father’s side, but I never knew the language.”
These days both Lam and Kan are often active in traditionally Hakka communities where middle aged villagers are being reconnected with their own culture. “Often when I travel to the villages,” says Lam, “these women no longer have any patterned bands of their own. So I bring them along and it brings back the memories.”
The colour code of the bands varies between different communities. They also vary according to the social status of different women, with specific colours and designs for single women, married women and older women. In Hong Kong, those designs have evolved away from those of Hakka communities elsewhere, although they all share similar, central themes.
Lam explains the process. “The weaving itself is not very hard,” he says. “You tie a long towel around your waist to hold the loom and keep the thread tight. If the thread becomes too loose, it looks ugly and uneven.”
Each element is loaded with symbolic significance. The desire for a male heir is represented by the laam5 zai2 (欖仔) or “little olive,” says Lam, which is used by married women. “Unmarried women used other patterns such as a fish bone,” he says. Other aspects of nature such as spiders and turtles are woven in. Colours vary across districts. In the New Territories—except in Sha Tin and Sai Kung—unmarried women use black and white or blue designs. For married women, the colours are red or dark green, but the pattern inside the band is red.
Lam says his mother was surprised by his avid interest in Hakka culture, especially after he showed her the first bands he made. “Some people will feel that it’s old fashioned,” he says. “But for me it’s pretty relaxing. When you develop the pattern, it’s very satisfying. I’ll get so immersed that I’ll forget to eat or sleep when I’m weaving.”
“I love to see young people interested in their own heritage,” says Kan, as she and Lam sit with heads bent over the braids. “He simply looks at a patterned band and seems to know everything. In memory of his grandmother.”