Flattening the mixture with a wooden roller. (photo by Jimmy Lin)
February 21 has been designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization as International Mother Language Day, in order to highlight the importance of preserving linguistic diversity. Dominant languages have been making inroads into less powerful vernaculars, and efforts are being made throughout the world to save mother tongues from extinction. In Taiwan too, there’s one young man—Lua Ing-hua—who sets great store by the preservation of the Taiwanese language, also known as Taiwanese Hokkien. Lua has vowed to speak no Mandarin for the rest of his life, with a view to alerting the nation to the existential danger confronting Taiwanese.
Some have come to know Lua Ing-hua (nicknamed A-Hua-Sai, meaning “Master Hua”) because of their interest in his handcrafted thoo-lang, a kind of traditional rice huller which has become a rarity. Others admire the puffed rice he makes. Still others know him for his much-publicized fluency in English, Taiwanese, and Hakka.
A Taiwanese-speaking, rice-puffing man
The van pulls into the campus of the Hai Siann Waldorf School in Taichung City’s Wuqi District. Lua has barely unloaded his tools when he is greeted by a crowd of students on a second-floor balcony. “A-Hua-Sai! A-Hua-Sai!” The air vibrates with their excitement. They heard from their teacher about Lua’s planned visit a few months ago, and all of them have been looking forward to this special day.
Lua starts to count down: “Five, four, three, two, one… bang!” He deftly shakes out the grains of brown rice that have popped in the hot pressure vessel, folds them into maltose syrup, and stirs the mixture in a big bowl. After pouring the mixture out onto a wooden tray, Lua uses a wooden roller to flatten it. He slices the puffed rice with a special knife. The children enjoy watching this dramatic process: a rare treat especially for those little ones whose daily staple is no longer rice.
From Australia to Nanzhuang
Lua Ing-hua has gained something of a reputation in Taiwanese language promotion circles. He is often invited to give talks at schools, advocating the importance of “speaking one’s native language,” as well as displaying his thoo-lang and performing rice puffing, both of which are part of Taiwan’s cultural heritage. Lua’s career resembles that of a peripatetic missionary, but he says: “Actually I’ve never had any real plans for my life.”
At senior high school, Lua’s homeroom teacher wanted him to study medicine, but he wasn’t interested. Instead he listed non-medical science courses on his college application form and was admitted to the Department of Photonics at National Chiao Tung University. After graduation, he didn’t want to pursue postgraduate studies and went instead to fulfill his compulsory military service. After that, averse to finding a permanent job, he traveled to Australia for a working holiday.
When he returned to Taiwan from Australia, he was invited by a friend to spend time in Miaoli County’s Nanzhuang Township, where he learned how to make thoo-lang from an old master craftsman. For Lua this was a continuation of his globetrotting, as he went from an English-speaking country to a region where the vernacular is Hakka, another unfamiliar language for him.
A nascent Taiwanese identity
Lua was born in Taichung in 1986, the year the Democratic Progressive Party was established. His family had settled in Taiwan before the island came under Japanese rule (1895‡1945). In 1987, martial law was lifted, and in 1989 publisher Cheng Nan-jung burned himself to death in protest at the continuing suppression of free speech. By the age of three, Lua had rubbed shoulders with several crucial events in the history of Taiwan’s transition to democracy.
However, it wasn’t until Lua entered university that he began to participate in social movements and to explore issues such as farmers’ rights and land expropriation. These engagements led him to contemplate whether the government was treating every citizen equally, or whether there were in fact deep-seated social inequalities.
Afterwards he moved to Nanzhuang and became an apprentice to a maker of thoo-lang rice hullers. He then began to grow rice himself and learned to make puffed rice. He has mastered all stages of the journey of each grain of rice “from soil to mouth,” from growing through hulling to puffing. Moreover, Lua has visited more than a hundred schools in Taiwan to introduce thoo-lang and traditional puffed rice. His outreach activities are fueled by wider concerns: do children today understand Taiwanese culture? Do they know who they are, where they come from, and where they’re headed?
While demonstrating how to make puffed rice at a nursery school in Tamsui in 2018, Lua felt like talking to the children in Taiwanese. He was surprised to find that the vast majority of them did not even understand the simplest greeting tak-ke-ho (“hello everyone”). “This doesn’t bode well,” he thought: if this situation continued, perhaps the Taiwanese language, and the other vernaculars in Taiwan, would not survive the current century.
For historical and political reasons, Mandarin as a dominant language has invaded Taiwan’s public sphere, to the exclusion of the other languages spoken by people of various cultural heritages. Having become aware of the danger faced by Taiwan’s vernaculars, Lua has decided to forswear speaking Mandarin for the rest of his life. He describes his obsessive urge to learn Taiwanese: frantically checking dictionaries, imitating older people’s accents, and forcing himself to think and write in Taiwanese. In Lua’s view, for a language to survive people must be able to read and write in it. In this digital age, “people use written and spoken language primarily on their smartphones, so if Taiwanese can’t be written down, it will certainly become obsolete one day.”
Language and culture are inseparable
Language is a medium that preserves culture and witnesses history: they depend upon each other. Lua mentions the two main Taiwanese words for “soap” as examples: sap-bun and te-khoo, both of which gesture toward Taiwan’s history.
Taiwan occupied an important place on trade routes between East and West during the Age of Discovery, serving as a hub for interactions between many countries. The French for “soap” is savon, while in Spanish it’s jabón. These cognates sound similar to the Taiwanese word sap-bun. The linguistic borrowing here testifies to the region’s rich history of international relations. As for te-khoo, te means “tea,” and khoo is a ring or disc. The word refers to the discs of tea-seed press cake left over from tea-seed-oil extraction. These discs were used for cleaning. That nearly half of Taiwanese people once used te-khoo for cleaning purposes is indicative of how much tea Taiwan produced in its heyday as a major exporter.
The Taiwanese language encodes these and other clues from the past; to decipher them is to relive Taiwan’s history. Unfortunately, however, with the impending extinction of the vernacular, oblivion awaits the historical memories recorded in it. Their disappearance will be an irreversible loss for our culture.
A trilingual YouTuber
As a student, Lua worked hard to improve his English proficiency. During his year in Australia, he gained the confidence to put his language skills into practice. Many netizens have asked him for English learning tips. “Taiwanese people are obsessed with learning English. I have capitalized on this phenomenon, using English as a way to catch people’s attention and get them to listen to what I really want to say.”
Having something to say about the threatened demise of the Taiwanese language, but unwilling to say it in Mandarin, Lua makes full use of his other languages: each additional language, he hopes, will help him reach a new audience. His trilingual fluency in Taiwanese, English, and Hakka has thus become his trademark. Lua’s YouTube channel—“Tsiok Ing Tâi”—has attracted more than 48,000 followers. Tsiok Ing Tâi features “Eng-Tâi Express,” a series of videos created by Lua and his collaborator A’iong, a New Yorker living in Taiwan. They select two news articles every week, one in English and the other in Taiwanese, and translate each into the other language. The topics they have discussed so far include weather, semiconductors, kangaroos, and the classroom discipline monitor, a student role peculiar to Taiwan’s education system. They hope to show their audience that the Taiwanese language lends itself to every imaginable topic in daily life.
Realizing how important it is to safeguard their native languages, many countries have been making efforts to preserve their vanishing vernaculars. Lua mentions Welsh in the United Kingdom, Ainu in Japan’s Hokkaido, and Maori in New Zealand, all of which are threatened by the incursions of dominant cultures and languages. However, public awareness has led those governments to promote and reward the study and preservation of vernaculars. The most crucial task for them is to help people take pride in speaking their native languages.” For the Taiwanese people, this is something worth pondering and emulating.
Why has Lua decided to avoid speaking Mandarin from now on? In response to this question, he refers to Hong Kong’s Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill Movement. “You may ask Hongkongers why they have stood up for their rights, and whether they really think they will succeed.” Lua continues: “I also know that the survival of the Taiwanese language is not very likely, but this isn’t a matter of success or failure. For me, it’s a matter of having no choice but to do it.”
Do you remember those words and phrases your mother taught you when you were a babbling toddler? Next time you go back home, learn some more from her, and say more! Let us work together to preserve our vernaculars and to give Taiwan’s cultural diversity a chance to survive.