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Other Pilgrims Came From A Place That Is Not England
February 18, 2010 4:11 AM   Subscribe

This is a tale of a place you know from your time in America, but have never heard of. Until the 1960s, two-thirds of Chinese immigrants came from a single mid-size city in Guangdong Province in southern China. Its language is a dialect incomprehensible to anyone in the rest of China. The city tells its own stories: There is the story of China's collectivist past and relentlessly capitalist present, and there is the story of the people who left, and those who returned: its arcade market buildings, now in various states of disrepair, show the Western architectural heritage that many of the immigrants brought back with them when they returned to a place called Toishan. Photographer Alan Chin shows and tells in a New York Times essay about his ancestral home.

Despite the city's importance to US history -- it was the birthplace of many of the "coolies" who built the transcontinental railroad, and the immigrants started the small laundries that were the Chinese entrepeneurial niche in America's big cities -- there is hardly any information or scholarship on Toishan available in English. Take a look.
posted by foxy_hedgehog (28 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite

 
I am a little bit disappointed that taishanese is not the seekrit language with which one can communicate with fat little pandababys.
posted by elizardbits at 4:33 AM on February 18, 2010


I think he's exactly right about his prediction at the end there that places like Taishan will eventually become attractive locations, if they can survive the ongoing environmental degradation as the country booms. If I was an even moderately non-poor person I'd be buying a cottage in the hills, though I'd probably go for somewhere I have a better chance of understanding my neighbours.
posted by Abiezer at 4:44 AM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


They claim the village was founded in 1776.

I advised an excellent PhD dissertation about this community a few years ago, eventually coming out as a book or readable through ProQuest right now, so I feel like I know it pretty well. If anyone wants the reference, MeMail me privately.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:21 AM on February 18, 2010


Also, Taishanese dialect is not "unintelligible" to outsiders, that's utter bullshit. Wikipedia is not an authoritative source on such matters.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:23 AM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


> Its language is a dialect incomprehensible to anyone in the rest of China.

A typically ridiculous journalistic statement about language. The linked Wikipedia article says "Speakers of Standard Cantonese often feel it difficult to understand Taishanese without adapting," which is not at all the same thing. Also, I wish journalists wouldn't tell me what I have never heard of. I have, in fact, heard of Taishan and Taishanese.

That said, it looks like an interesting piece, which I hope to find the energy to read when I wake up further.
posted by languagehat at 5:24 AM on February 18, 2010 [3 favorites]


Heh. On non-preview: fcm, that's not from Wikipedia, it's from a far less reliable source, the New York Times.
posted by languagehat at 5:25 AM on February 18, 2010 [3 favorites]


Agreed that the Times is an even weaker source, in love with exoticism.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:27 AM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


Toishan is not exotic, nor is Joangshan, where my wife's people hail from.

I wish Westerners would stop treating the Far East as mysterious and just work on understanding it instead.
posted by bwg at 5:43 AM on February 18, 2010 [3 favorites]


I don't know if it's exoticism -- Alan's parents are from Taishan, and he's a native speaker of Tainshanese. Perhaps that was his experience when visiting, or trying to speak with Cantonese-speakers in the US in the Taishanese he learned from his parents.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 5:44 AM on February 18, 2010


I definitely sympathize with this article. I live in Rhode Island, a small and almost-unheard-of corner of the United States. People have emigrated to the the rest of the country to do all sorts of things, and they often return, bearing ideas gained from their time abroad. The people of Rhode Island speak a dialect all but incomprehensible to their neighbors as well, for bonus points! Go Taishan!
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:52 AM on February 18, 2010 [5 favorites]


Toishan is not exotic, nor is Joangshan, where my wife's people hail from.

Toishan sure is exotic to me, just like Virginia might be exotic to someone from Toishan. Why is that bad?

I wish Westerners would stop treating the Far East as mysterious and just work on understanding it instead.

What does that even mean?
posted by Garak at 6:15 AM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


This is a tale of a place you know from your time in America...

A bizarre way to frame the post. During the maybe two and half months total I've spent in America over the years, this part of China really didn't impinge on my consciousness. And I bet you the same holds true for most visitors.
posted by Mocata at 6:54 AM on February 18, 2010


> What does that even mean?

It means exactly what it says. Are you having trouble with English comprehension today?
posted by languagehat at 7:05 AM on February 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


What does that even mean?

Mysterious and exotic in this sense are properties not of the place, but of the relationship between a person and the place. As the person learns more about it, the place becomes less mysterious. But often people assume that mysterious is a property of the place itself, and so do not bother trying to learn anything.
posted by Nothing at 7:29 AM on February 18, 2010 [5 favorites]


The people of Rhode Island speak a dialect all but incomprehensible to their neighbors as well

As a non-native Bostonian, I can confirm this. The mysterious Ocean State peoples to our south are routinely turned away at the border, gibbering their coarse, ear-searing gibberish the entire time. May God allow DeLeo's Royal Court and King Patrick to build the oft dreamnt-of wall along our southern flank!
posted by jalexei at 7:43 AM on February 18, 2010 [6 favorites]


Toisan represent!

Toisan emigrants had sent back a ton of money - to build schools, factories, and even a railroad. When the Cultural Revolution came through, suddenly all these folks who had hardscrabbled for anything and got something were painted as capitalist oppressors and a great amount of it torn down or dismantled. So much for uniting the workers with the fruits of their labor...
posted by yeloson at 8:26 AM on February 18, 2010


Wait a sec- did they ONLY emigrate to the US? Canada's transcontinental track was laid by Chinese workers too- and from Guangdong as well- and I'd say that the legacy that they left behind in Canada is even more evident, especially seeing as the Chinese population of Canada is much, much, larger, per capita, than that of the US. Of course, most of these Chinese are recent or relatively recent immigrants, but the fact is, those buildings in China might just as well have been a Canadian influence and not an American one.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 8:35 AM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


jalexei: But then, pray tell, whatever shall happen to the oxcarts of coffee-milk that they bring in tribute each fortnight?

mmm coffeemilk
posted by xthlc at 9:06 AM on February 18, 2010


Indeed master xthlc, 'tis a source of great distress that the uncouth barbarians to the south are blessed with such an elixir. By Royal Proclamation we shall insist they continue the commerce of Ye Olde Autocrat at a fair price of trade. Have they the temerity to refuse, we shall gather a regiment of stout men-at-arms, and liberate by force if necessary that which is, by Divine Providence, surely ours.

Failing that, we'll rent a van to Maine and steal some Moxie.
posted by jalexei at 9:44 AM on February 18, 2010


especially seeing as the Chinese population of Canada is much, much, larger, per capita, than that of the US

Is it really? It definitely seems so in southern Ontario and BC, but I had the impression that on a national scale, the figures were comparable. My memory is quite fuzzy on this though.
posted by pravit at 9:44 AM on February 18, 2010


pravit- Calgary is almost 7% Chinese and 18% "Asian." Any major Canadian city except Quebec City (which is less than 3% visible minority) will have a substantial Chinese population. Canada as a whole is about 4% Chinese- not "Asian"; Chinese-- which is a larger proportion than all Asian groups in the US put together.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 9:49 AM on February 18, 2010


I will confirm that it happened to me once, shortly after I had moved to Rhode Island, that a friend had to translate from Vo Dilunese into Standard American for me. I picked up quickly after that.
posted by Kattullus at 9:51 AM on February 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


Oh, and Rhode Island's best kept drink secret is Yacht Club soda. Mmm... Yacht Club...
posted by Kattullus at 9:53 AM on February 18, 2010


Okay, corrected, 4.5% of the US is "Asian," but that's barely more than the 4% (2006 census) of Canadians who are "Chinese."
posted by ethnomethodologist at 9:54 AM on February 18, 2010


A bizarre way to frame the post. During the maybe two and half months total I've spent in America over the years, this part of China really didn't impinge on my consciousness. And I bet you the same holds true for most visitors.

Mocatta, I meant it to mean that most Americans are familiar with Chinese immigration to the United States, but they don't know about the origin many of those immigrants. It's new data about a subject we already know about.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 11:29 AM on February 18, 2010


I'm a Cantonese immigrant from Hong Kong and although I can mostly understand the Cantonese spoken by people from Guangdong or rural 'huarng hua' areas, the accent can be terribly terribly thick. Hong Kong Cantonese as a spoken language has had different environmental pressures on it's evolution for quite a while than the Cantonese dialect spoken in previously relatively closed-off Canton province.

Maybe this is where the perspective of an 'incomprehensible dialect' is from?
posted by porpoise at 11:41 AM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


It means exactly what it says.

Thanks, brother.

As the person learns more about it, the place becomes less mysterious. But often people assume that mysterious is a property of the place itself, and so do not bother trying to learn anything.

See, some folks get it.
posted by bwg at 4:17 PM on February 18, 2010


There's other localities with a similar history of out-migration like Taishan, as I recall, but given the way chain migration works people will tend to end up in similar places overseas due to kinship and friendship links (institutionalised in the 同鄉會 native place associations/guilds). Did something ages ago for a European project on Chinese immigration and one of the places featured was the counties around the port of Wenzhou in Zhejiang; I believe the same's true of some communities in Fujian. A lot of Zhejiang people were recruited as labourers during WWI and stayed on in France, which of course is famously where so many later went on the work/study programmes, hence the young Deng Xiaoping joining the Communist Youth League while working at a Renault factory in the Paris suburbs.
Liverpool, being a port city, has one of Europe's oldest Chinatowns and I believe the links with Shanghai meant a lot of the sailors were from also the poorer Zhejiang hinterland.
posted by Abiezer at 5:03 PM on February 18, 2010


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