Talkin' Toisanese

Coming to terms with a stigmatic linguistic identity – by William Poy Lee


Suey Wan is an innocuous farmer’s village nestled among remote hills in the backwater heart of the fertile Pearl River Delta in Guangdong province. My people’s six counties are collectively known as Toisan. Toisan’s origins are more legendary than historically established, but the first Chinese settlers are said to have arrived here during the chaotic last days of the Tang Dynasty, hoping to find peace in this then far-off corner of the expansive Chinese empire.

For a millennium, my forbears lived relatively unperturbed, rarely traveling farther than twenty miles away from their village, and eventually evolved their own version of the Cantonese dialect – the rustic, rough-sounding and salty jizz-juice tongue of Toisanese.

I have a confession to make. As a child, a third generation Chinese-American born in San Francisco, I was often ashamed of my parent’s Toisanese dialect. Of course, I spoke Toisanese at home without reservation. But in the company of non-Chinese neighbours, it seemed unmusical, clunky, and too loud. By contrast, American English flowed mellifluously, so easy on the ear. It was the language of modern times, of speed, military might, industrial capacity capacity and amazing technology – whereas Toisanese was the language of farmers in some backwards old village in China.

My shame always was deepest when our patient and otherwise kind public school teachers reprimanded my friends and I during our rare lapses into Toisanese. These rebukes inevitably happened at recess, when we gave ourselves completely over to the freedom and joy of play. Spontaneously, someone would slip into the briefest, happy flurry of Toisanese. The recess teacher, scowling, would spin around in the direction of the offending sounds, shake her large, brass recess bell furiously, and rush over to the offender. She would shout over the clanging: “This is America. Speak only American. You will sit on the bench until recess is over.”

Sometimes, a teacher caricatured Toisanese in the most awful way, twisting her neck and moving her head back and forth and sideways like a chicken, as if to say, “What self-respecting person would want to speak this gibberish?” It didn’t matter that I excelled in reading and writing; one slip and the teacher somehow forgot that I had spoken American every minute of that day and every day since the beginning of the semester. These thunder-cracking harangues condemned Toisanese as a transgression equivalent to coming to school while burning with chicken pox and coughing in everyone’s face. In this milieu I began to doubt the worth of my first language, my family’s origins, and the place of my parents in American society.

It took me many years to feel right again about speaking Toisanese and then many more before I felt good about being a Toisan-Chinese. My awakening began tentatively when I entered Chinese language school at the age of eight. My acceptance of my background surged ahead in the late 1960s during the Civil Rights movement, when many people of colour reconnected with the roots of their own suppressed heritage. But in my childhood in the 1950s, America was arrayed against the speaking of Toisanese.

Even more invalidating, so too was the rest of Guangdong Province, the home of Toisanese itself. Guangdong’s official dialect was Cantonese, and Cantonese speakers considered Toisanese inferior. Mandarin was China’s official language, and all Cantonese were now forced to learn it. Cantonese and Mandarin were as different as French is from Italian, despite their common Latin roots. Toisanese is a dialect of Cantonese, but just as Parisian French feel assaulted by Quebecois French, so too Cantonese speakers consider Toisanese an embarrassing variant. Official China, with little use for Cantonese, knew nothing of Toisanese. China had historically considered the province of Guangdong a distant backwater in the most backward corner of the empire, a place to exile unpopular magistrates, rebels, and criminals. And for Cantonese speakers, Toisan villages were their backwaters.

Becuase of Toisanese’s stigma as a hillbilly, down-in-the-delta variation of Big City Cantonese, there are no Toisanese novels, poems, or operas. There is no legacy of Toisan royals with ornate summer palaces. The prolific Shaw Brothers Studio of Hong Kong did not make movies in Toisanese. Not even bit players speak Toisanese in Cantonese movies. Toisanese signified sweaty, impoverished backcountry peasants working oxen in mud all day, with syllables that are harsh to the normal ear and spoken at a decibel level equivalent to shouting. Those from Toisan who wanted to pass for a better class in Guangzhou or Hong Kong dropped Toisanese and picked up Cantonese as if shedding soiled, ill-fitting, rough cotton work clothes for the blue silk garments of scholars and merchants.

And yet most of the first Chinese-American pioneers were Toisanese. Arriving in the 1850s to join the California Gold Rush, we stayed to build the first transcontinental railway from the west, while Irish immigrants built it from the east. Grimly, we stuck it out through the 1880s, a reign of terror of anti-Chinese legislation, anti-miscegenation laws, race riots, lynchings and torchings of Chinatowns up and down the West Coast. The horror of life for California’s Chinese residents was so unrelenting that it gave rise to a popular expression, “He didn’t have a Chinaman’s chance.” Beginning in the 1900s, we eventually settled into an uneasy, institutionalised “Jim Crow” segregation within the surviving Chinatowns.

Over the years, I sensed that the linguistic characteristics of Toisanese might be reflective of the inextricable bond between the Toisan land and its people. Like the language of the Basques of the Pyrenees, the U’wa Indians of Colombia, and the Hawaiians with their islands, our tongue was inseparable from the mana or power of our homeland. Like these other peoples, the Toisanese and their dialect are unofficial and under-recognised. Our character is unpretentious and practical. We became tough-skinned to life’s difficulties, and focused with an incredible drive on family, land, home, education and abundance.

Our dialect reflects life wrested from the mud, clay and stone of wet delta land, and the need to be heard over vast stretches of fields. In truth, the normal volume of spoken Toisanese is a shout. When spoken angrily, the listener is often finely sprayed with spittle. Sentences explode out of the mouth like a mortar barrage, with consonants, vowels and all the tones meshed into a tight barbed clump of earthy sounds. Toisanese can arc over rice fields, penetrate a flock of noisy geese, cut through a grove of bamboo trees and curve around a hill. Toisanese syllables sound like they are wrapped up like clogs of dirt embedded with stone, held together by the long, sinewy grasses we use for cooking. As the sentence lands, the remaining sounds hook your eardrums like fishing barbs.

The dialect was designed for survival—year after year, day after day, sometimes minute by minute. A self-reliant village of farmers needs to know immediately of any emergency, and the Toisanese shout served as our warning system, one that could carry over the curvaceous metes and bounds of our countryside. A levee has just burst! A week’s labour seeding a field will be lost unless all hands run to shore it up. The shout would boom and echo across the fields.

During World War II, Toisanese warnings were of destruction and death. “Danger! Danger! Japanese soldiers are raiding the village for rice and vegetables, young girls to rape and young men to kill. Do not return to the village. Cross the river and run to the hiding place in the hills. Wait for us there. Make no noise. Don’t come back tonight. Your life depends upon it.” In the land of Toisan, there were no excuses for failure. There could only be survival, and Toisanese evolved to guarantee survival. A nuance-free language whose meanings are harshly, crudely and loudly clear, a language where layered linguistics of hidden meanings have no function or place.

By contrast, Big City Cantonese is melodic like a stanza of music, with seven tones and spoken at a normal volume. The one-upmanship of city sophistication propels its colloquialisms. It’s the language of overly clever merchants and prickly double-entendres from the social elite, spoken in urbane quarters while wearing clean, fashionable clothes, and cosseted by elegant manners. Its basis was politeness masking a withering wit, preferably while eloquently describing the subtle fragrances of this year’s harvest or that rare tea handpicked by monkeys from misty high cliffs.

But even the Cantonese appreciated that the ear-splitting, spitting Toisanese dialect is at its oratorical finest when one is being downright rude and insulting, especially when disgracing the bones of your ancestors. It soars even higher when salty and sexually graphic. You know you’ve been told off when you’d been tongue-lashed in Toisanese.

Although Chinese school was the start of my eventual acceptance of my Toisanese heritage, it initially confirmed for me the shame of my dialect. The Chinese school principal and teachers trucked no Toisanese. My first grade teacher, Mrs Wong from Hong Kong, enforced this linguistic reign of terror with a drumstick. Rap went the drumstick at the slightest offense. Speak Cantonese and leave Toisanese behind! Meanwhile, my mother tutored me with a Toisanese-accented attempt at Big City Cantonese. I often cringed, imagining Miss Wong’s sharp correction of my recitals the next day.

In time, however, my Cantonese improved. I did well in my recitation and written exams. My frustration at my shameful Toisanese roots softened. And soon enough, my resistance to my jagged bi-cultural identity melted away.

A third generation San Franciscan, William Poy Lee is an author, lawyer, business consultant and educator who has lived in China for over five years. His memoir The Eighth Promise: A Toisan Son Pays Tribute to his Toisanese Mother was published in 2007, and is a Toisanese-Californian coming of age story in America’s tumultous 60s and 70s

Click here for a video of William giving a percussive and spoken word performance of the Toisan dialect

Below are some old archived photos of William's mother and father