“Our mother tongue is the soil that nourishes our culture. It is the passport to our souls,” said international trader-turned-language teacher Lin Tsung-ming (林聰明), a native of New Taipei City’s (新北市) Yingge (鶯歌).
Lin worked at an international trade company when he decided to quit his job and take up teaching Hoklo (also known as Taiwanese) in schools and discover the culture of his nation after an encounter with a foreigner, who mentioned to him that many Taiwanese children could not speak their mother tongue.
“Shame on you,” Lin quoted the foreigner as saying.
Now Lin is teaching Taiwanese at two elementary schools in Yingge and also volunteers at the Yingge Ceramics Museum.
“That foreigner’s remark awoke something in me,” he said, adding that he began to explore the Taiwanese language during graduate studies at National Taiwan Normal University’s Department of Taiwanese Culture, Languages and Literature.
In his field research, Lin said he uncovered many fascinating stories from the elders of Yingge, which is known as the birthplace of the nation’s pottery and ceramics industry.
“It was very hard work in the factories during my childhood. At that time, I just wanted to escape from here,” he said. “Now those childhood memories have become the best asset in my research.”
In examining the vernacular spoken by ceramics laborers, Lin’s research looked into Taiwanese folk culture.
Lin explained that a local expression: “In the Yingge grotto, you can enter, but not leave,” may have come from the area’s Yingge Stone — a local landmark, which elders say can spew out gas to obscure visibility. The phrase can also be taken to mean Yingge residents are friendly to outsiders, Lin said.
He said that the hills surrounding the town were said to contain “caverns containing dragon gem minerals,” and so they are conducive for accumulating wealth. When people from outside the town visited, they tended to stay because of the local hospitality and because it is a good place to make their fortune, Lin said.
Another local expression illustrates outsiders’ view on how people in Yingge seemed to be able to make easy money by just mixing earth and water to produce ceramics, which can be sold for good profits, Lin said.
The old expressions point to the town’s development, with ceramics and pottery production generating wealth for many local families, he said.
However, Lin said that in the early days, ceramics production was not at a professional level and it was difficult labor to work in the factories.
He said there are other local expressions such as “playing with ceramics has no future” and “nine out of 10 fired ceramic items are broken pieces.”
These expressions show that making a profit from ceramics was not always easy — you might not starve, but you could not become rich from the business, he said.
Lin also conveys his love for his hometown in songs, which have won him prizes for three consecutive years in Yingge’s Taiwanese storytelling competition.
“I just want to use words and sounds to document our precious cultural treasures, so they can be passed on to the next generation,” Lin said.