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A Small Chinese Minority Group Finds a Home in DC


By Vanessa Wang

Over a hundred and fifty people gather at Bohrer Regional Park to worship what is believed to be the fullest and biggest moon of the year. Alongside the moon-gazing activity, a lively group of men and women anywhere between twenty to eighty years old lead a festive sing-along. There is an impressive all-you-can-eat buffet of bubble tea, pomelos,

Hakkanese vermicelli, and even blue crabs, brought in a catering truck and steamed on the spot. A round-shaped pastry called “mooncake” is the highlight of the event, as young and old smile satisfactorily when biting into the red bean and lotus seed fillings.

Chinese and Vietnamese communities all over the world recognize this occasion, celebrated each year on the fifteenth day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar and known as the Mid-Autumn Festival, or Moon Festival.

To the Chinese and Vietnamese, a full moon symbolizes the spirit of the occasion: harmony, harvest, and “wholesomeness” of friendship and familial ties. The crowd gathered on this day belongs to a little known yet surprisingly vigorous community in the DC area: the Hakka Association in Washington Metropolitan Area (HAWMA).


HAWMA was founded in 1984 to bring together the Hakka people, a sub-group of the Han-Chinese, in the DC area. With the goal of preserving and promoting the Hakka culture, HAWMA holds at least three large-scale events each year, drawing over a hundred participants each time. These events coincide with the three biggest celebrations in the Chinese culture: Chinese New Year, Dragon Boat Festival, and Mid-Autumn Festival. Moreover, HAWMA serves its Hakka community by offering free cultural classes on Hakkanese language, song, theater, and food.

“We are a cultural organization. We welcome people of all religious beliefs and political inclinations,” says the past president of HAWMA, Mr. Yiwei Chang, who believes this all-embracing mindset one of the keys to keeping the organization strong and healthy.

Ms. Eugenia Shyu, who was HAWMA’s president before Chang, offers another view as to why the organization has not only survived, but prospered, over the past thirty years. “The Hakka people relocated many times throughout history, all over China and across the sea to Taiwan. Everywhere we went we had to fight for land and a place for ourselves. We know the importance of sticking together.”

It is impossible to separate Hakka culture from its migration history. The Chinese characters that stand for Hakka literally mean “guest families,” a term originating from the group’s status as newcomers in southern provinces of China during the Wu Hu Uprising in the 4th century.  The Hakka people have adopted the white-colored Tung Blossom, a flower that thrives on hillsides all across China and Taiwan, to symbolize their undefeatable spirit. HAWMA’s choir, which holds weekly practices and performs Hakka hill songs, even names itself after the Tung Blossom. Both Ms. Shyu and Mr. Chang agree that the term “ngang giang,” literally “hard-necked,” is the best way of describing the Hakka disposition—one that is unbreakable, and when needed, stubbornly so.


In a way the Hakka people have never stopped their journey, as can be attested by the personal stories of Mr. Chang and Ms. Shyu. Both arrived from Taiwan as students, and now, more than twenty years later, have families in the D.C. area. “I try to educate my children on the culture, through food, customs, and values,” says Ms. Shyu, when asked how she passes on her Hakka experience to her American-born offspring. “Language is the hardest. It’s good enough that they can speak Mandarin.”

Preserving the Hakkanese dialect is one of the biggest challenges HAWMA faces. Teaching the young generation to speak Hakkanese is a difficult task even in Taiwan, where Hakka people account for a fifth of the total population, but the education system is entirely in Mandarin. In the DC area, where Hakka people are a minority group within a minority group, this mission is almost impossible.

Katherine Liu Slater, a PhD student at the University of Maryland and current secretary of HAWMA, says she understands Hakkanese but speaks it with less ease. Having lived with her Hakkanese grandparents as a child in Taiwan, she remembers speaking the language fluently at one point in her life. “But when I went to school no one could understand me. After that I refused to speak Hakkanese.” A self-identified 100% Hakkanese, Mrs. Slater says that it was after she came to the U.S. four years ago that she started to think about her identity. “I will live in America for many years—who knows when I might go back to Taiwan?—but I will always be Taiwanese and Hakkanese.”
HAWMA events are open to the public and memberships are offered to all who celebrate the Hakka culture. The next large event can be expected in February 2015, around the time of Chinese New Year. More information can be found at www.hakkadc.org.

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