Chee Gah Ngin: Many Places, One People

iphone 12.18.2012 898Before our trip to Meixian, I tried to refrain from getting too excited and from keeping high expectations.  But whether it was from keeping low expectations or identifying the strong familiarity between Meixian and Calcutta’s Chinatown, I fell in love with being in Meixian.  I loved the small-town feel, hearing Hakka everywhere, eating foods that I grew up eating, and just finally feeling like I was as close to home as I could get.  I’ve spent so much of my life being surrounded by people who are so culturally and ethnically different that it has been hard for me to truthfully say that I ever felt like I could call any place home.

But the by far most comforting thing about Meixian was the way in which locals received my father and I.  Unlike a lot of Hakka-Indians, Meixian locals weren’t surprised or even critical about the fact that I couldn’t speak Hakka or that I was raised in the US.  They were neither inhospitable nor pretentious about the way in which they received me, and that was such a huge relief to me.  I came to realize how common it was for overseas Hakka to come back and visit Meixian, not just for a cultural field trip but for a sort of spiritual duty.  For this reason, I think locals have understood the importance of recognizing and accepting self-proclaimed Hakka returners, and therefore have remained open to the Hakka transnational community.

One facet of our trip made me come to this conclusion.  After everyone went back to Shanghai, Fuji, my dad and I went on a mini-odyssey to find my family’s original village, Siyong, and my great-grandmother’s shrine to Pangu, the first living being and creator according to Chinese mythology.  A surprising fourth companion was our group’s driver—“Ron,” as he was affectionately named.iphone 12.18.2012 904

I’m still taken aback by how pivotal of a role Ron ended up playing in finding the shrine.  Other than also being Hakka, we had no personal connection to Ron.  However, he was willing to drive us out of Meizhou City into a relatively remote village to find our family and my great-grandmother’s old house.  But he did more than just take us back to our village.   He came into the house and patiently listened as our family received us and reminisced about long-gone family members and memories that were not his own.  The next day, Ron offered to drive us out to the mountain where my great-grandmother’s shrine was supposedly hidden.  While he could have waited in the car as we climbed up to pray, he instead trekked up with us.

Though my aunt must be in her mid-eighties, she was in unbelievably good shape as she expertly led our caravan of nearly ten people over rocks, tree roots, and narrow paths and ledges.  When we reached the top, I was surprised to find an entire temple.  It had once been abandoned, but my great-grandmother found it after a fortuneteller had advised her to pray to Pangu in order to restore the family lineage.  By that time, she had been desperate.  Our family had been one of the oldest in the region and had been living in the Meixian area for nearly 400 years.  Though she had had given birth to three sons, two of them had gambled their money away and eventually had to sell themselves into Chiang Kai-shek’s army to pay off their debts.  Her remaining son was my grandfather.

She walked nearly five miles and climbed up the mountain almost every other day just to pray.  Even after her daughter-in-law gave birth to sons, she wouldn’t let more than five consecutive days pass without visiting the temple.  And then the Communists arrived.  They wanted land; she gave over her land.  They wanted livestock; so she gave up her livestock.  And when the Communists threatened to execute her and her family anyway, people from surrounding regions helped her and my grandmother escape to India.  Though the temple was dynamited at one point, the shrine remained completely intact.

As we all made our way back down from the temple, the stories that my aunts and uncles and father had told me about Meixian and about how our family had survived were running through my head.  At the same time, I looked through the trees and heard the sound of construction and drilling.  There was a crane at the bottom of the mountain. iphone 12.18.2012 899

I wonder how long it will take before the shrine disappears, before we no longer have any family members in Meixian, and before we are re-scattered across the globe again.  While part of me is alarmed by this question, another part of me is oddly calm.  Almost all of our family members left China to resettle in India.  Some of them are now in Toronto.  Some are in Austria.  Some are in Taiwan.  Some are in Australia.  Some are in places as distant and completely random as Shelby, North Carolina.  And Hakka people are everywhere.  At Tonghe alone, I met another three students who are part-Hakka.  One of them was even a fellow Hakka Indian whose family had migrated to Sweden.

In Hakka, we have a common phrase that we use toward Hakka people or whenever we happen to run into each other:  “Chee gah ngin.”  This basically translates into “one people.”  It was used at the Toronto Hakka Conference, but I didn’t really understand what it meant then.  And then I heard it again at the conference in Meixian.  A Malaysian Hakka grad student had asked me, “Hey, do you know what ‘chee gah ngin’ means?”

Before she had asked me this question, I had told her about my family and how they had survived the internment camp, along with the majority of the Hakka community. We talked about genocide against the predominantly Hakka Chinese community in Indonesia.  She told me about discrimination against ethnic Chinese (many of these also being Hakka) in Malaysia.  Despite the hardships and discrimination that they have faced, Hakka people have managed to survive and keep their identity intact.

I was able to respond, “Yes, I understand what it means.”

Optical City

Searching through dozens of websites and forums in search of final must-visit destinations scattered throughout Shanghai, the San Ye Optical Market was consistently cited as a eye glass haven for both foreign travelers and locals. Stories of unfathomable deals and reassuring reviews of quality and build, I couldn’t help investigate this peculiar marketplace. Armed with an opened forum post and my elementary Chinese vocabulary in optometry, I ventured into the unknown.


Arriving at the eyeglass market, I was immediately met with 3 floors of glasses of hundreds of styles. Equally overwhelmed with merchandise as the fabric market, the atmosphere had an eerily empty feeling to it. I was the only customer wandering the 3rd floor as concerning thoughts filled my head. I settled on a store with a large variety and sat down as the shopkeeper brought me dozens of pairs of glasses to try on as she helped me hone in on my ideal style. An hour later and I was wearing a new pair of glasses with two more in my pocket. The speed and quality, combined with price resulted in many recommendations to friends. Equal quality lenses and a week long waiting period will cost an average consumer 3 times the price that I paid for 3 pairs of glasses.


The eye class market located alongside the Shanghai Railway Station metro stop was another pleasurable, yet daunting experience. However, I was glad to be able to explore on my own and test my Chinese in various environments. In the 3 or so months spent in China, I have felt that inclinations to explore, experiment, and leave familiar comfort zones has left me with a new cultural experience and many new relationships.

Fabric Markets in South Bund

Saved stipends and three months in China has allowed me to explore the wide array of markets available to consumers in Shanghai. “Made to order” however has become a staple in my shopping endeavors. Customized goods have made the shopping aspect of my time abroad truly unique from any of my previous international experiences. One of my most memorable shopping experiences was at the South Bund Fabric Market in my journey to purchase my first suit.


Arriving at the South Bund Fabric Market is a daunting experience. A sensory overload to the unprepared shopper, foreigners are constantly badgered and lured into pleading booths. I, however, was able to slide under the radar, mistaken for a local, and avoid the pressured atmosphere endured by other shoppers. I wandered the dozens of booths, peering into the storefronts. Clueless of what I was looking for, my search was aimless. Wandering through the maze of fabrics, I was shocked to find an escalator leading to three floors of tailors. To my untrained eye, the entire introduction to the fabric market was overwhelming. In search of a couple suits to be made, the market was beginning to stress me out, without the constant pestering from booths. My search led me across the street to a separate market that presented a much cleaner, relaxed atmosphere. Many of the booths were larger, better lit and organized, and most importantly, very few foreigners had crossed the street into this new paradise.


I quickly learned why so few foreigners paced these hallways. The first store I went into, after multiple laps around the simply designed mall, approached me in Chinese and after hearing my first few sentences, clarified that they didn’t speak English at all. I decided to rely on my broken Chinese in favor of the laminate wood floors and undivided attention of my new friend. Before long, I was try on multiple jackets on hand, searching through online catalogs and fabric books, and finding excuses to buy more than I had set out for. The entire experience lasted nearly 3 hours and after a fitting the week later and a following week of alterations, I found myself on the subway with two garment bags filled with a couple brand new tailor-made suits. Made to order and a fraction of the price paid for a 3 for 1 Jos. A. Banks suit, I couldn’t have been more pleased to venture for the less frequented market and to put my clothing vocabulary to the test.

An Unsustainable Eco-City? An ethnographic film by Bohannan, Coursen, and Feng

Chai Lu Bohannan and Julie Coursen did fieldwork with Fudan University graduate student Feng Ran examining the social impact of a developing eco-city on nearby Chongming Island. Because Chongming, an island in the Yangtze River Delta, is a couple of hours away from Shanghai by bus, conducting this research was challenging.

Evaluating the Social Forces of Dongtan Eco-city from thefieldworker on Vimeo.

Shiliupu Fabric Market – an ethnographic film

For a class called “The Chinese Marketplace” taught by Prof. Pan Tianshu (School of Social Development and Public Policy, Fudan University), Chai Lu Bohannan combined her leisure with her study by filming a fabric market. Like many of her classmates in the Davidson-in-Shanghai program, one of the side benefits of living in Shanghai is the ability to get affordable custom-made clothing. The students (and some of the faculty, I must admit) enjoyed selecting fabrics (silk, cashmere, and wool, for example) and then choosing a style (traditional Chinese, modern business, or contemporary fashion). Chai Lu made this film along with other Fudan and international students – Daryl Ang, Yizhou Nie, and Jingwen Wang.

Shiliupu Fabric Market from thefieldworker on Vimeo.