Inspired by an experience at a summer camp in his twenties, a 39-year-old Hakka teacher has dedicated himself to the promotion of his mother tongue and culture for the past 10 years, fueled by the belief that the language deserves to be heard across the nation and around the world.
When he meets someone new, Qi Fon-siin (徐煥昇) introduces himself briefly in Hakka before handing out a business card that bears his Chinese name and the romanization of his Hakka name.
People walking into Qi’s four-story residence in Miaoli County are greeted by a plethora of Hakka-themed decorations, ranging from curtains made of Hakka floral fabric and tea sets adorned with Hakka tung blossoms, to framed calligraphy on the wall that reads: “Fighting for Hakka culture, creating value for your life (為客家拼文化, 為人生留價值).”
Every corner of Qi’s house is filled with piles of books and research papers on Hakka culture, as well as posters, brochures, toys and souvenirs from Hakka-themed events.
Hakka culture is present in every aspect of Qi’s life, and he even chats online and blogs in Hakka to use the language to its fullest.
“People who are passionate about a specific culture are described using terms such as ‘Japanophile’ or ‘Koreanophile.’ Well, I consider myself to be a devoted ‘Hakkaphile,’” Qi said.
Speaking about growing up in a Hakka community, where he lived with four generations of his family under one roof, Qi said that one of his favorite childhood memories was hearing his grandparents share their life philosophies through Hakka phrases.
Nevertheless, Hakka culture did not really captivate Qi until 1996, when he was about to begin his senior year at the National Tainan Teachers College — the National University of Tainan’s predecessor — and took part in a nationwide summer camp organized by Hakka Magazine.
The camp featured a variety of forums on Hakka history, culture and language, and on the last day, each participant had to perform a historical piece or a joke in Hakka. Qi pinpoints this as the moment when he became “captivated by the richness and diversity of Hakka culture.”
“Perhaps because Hakka people are self-restrained to a certain level, my feelings [toward Hakka culture] had been kept inside for a long time. For some reason, that summer camp helped vent those pent-up emotions,” Qi said.
He added that the experience not only awakened his identity and self-awareness, but also spurred him to take the first step toward spreading Hakka culture and language by establishing a student club dedicated to Hakka customs at his university.
After graduating from university, Qi went back to his hometown and started teaching at Jenai Elementary School in Miaoli’s Gongguan Township (公館), where he stepped up his promotional efforts by participating in Hakka-language seminars, producing Hakka-language teaching materials and composing nursery rhymes and poetry in Hakka.
He also composes speeches and theatrical pieces, and encourages his students to take part in Hakka-related competitions.
Motivated by his mission to teach young children to “speak the native language of their mothers,” Qi has contributed to the promotion of Hakka culture and language for the past decade, long before the government started its nationwide mother-tongue education program.
“The Hakka language has many tones and the tone changes are so complex that they are difficult for young children to grasp. By demonstrating the tones through stories and using auxiliary symbols and body gestures, children are able to pick up the language’s different tones in an enjoyable manner,” Qi said.
Qi added that he writes Hakka phrases on teacher-parent communication reports so that he can also teach his students’ parents, who mostly only speak Mandarin.
Apart from teaching at the elementary school, Qi also teaches Hakka at community colleges at night and on weekends.
He also volunteers as the host of a Hakka radio program that keeps elderly people who primarily speak Hakka appraised of current events.
In light of Qi’s dedication to his ethnicity, the Hakka Affairs Council presented him with the Hakka Contribution Award for making outstanding contributions in 2009.
“I never think too much, I just do it,” Qi said, adding that languages are more than just tools for communciation; they also encapsulate the wisdom of a people’s forebears and the cultural essences of ethnic groups.