It's 6:30 p.m. at a radio studio in Miaoli, a small city in Western Taiwan. Yin Chang is plugged in. Her headphones are on, and the microphone is adjusted close to her mouth. The lights are dim; a blue banner declaring "Voice of Hakka Radio 97.1 FM" hangs behind her.
Chang, 36, fixes her headphones and pushes a strand of her bobbed hair behind her ear. With a bright voice, she enthusiastically greets the audience: "Hello tegaho gaihei DJ Yin!" — "Hello everyone, this is DJ Yin!"
Chang hosts a program called Heinai, or "It's me" in a variety of Chinese known as Hakka, the language of a Han Chinese ethnic group scattered throughout the continent. Heinai is aimed at Hakka youth; it's part of Chang's efforts to reinvigorate the dying language.
Chang adjusts the knobs on the mixing console and selects a rhythmic piano pop tune, "Shan Gou Tai," by Liu Shao Xi, a popular Hakka artist based in Taiwan.
Chang grew up in Miaoli and, like 62.2 percent of the local population, is Hakka. In Taiwan, the Hakka are frequently referred to as ke jia ren or "guest family people" because throughout their history, Hakkas have been a migrant group, fleeing settlements to avoid one catastrophe after another. The Hakkas arrived in Taiwan during the 17th and 18th centuries when they escaped the Manchurian Armies that were taking control of China. The Hoklo people had already settled the fertile land of Taiwan, so the Hakkas were left to make do with the remaining infertile foothills, and, thus are known for their history of hardship and frugality. Hakka food reflects that reputation; they often stew and pickle their dishes for easy preservation. Notable traditional meals include tangy orange sauce, salty pork and sweet and sour fish with cilantro. But because the Hakkas are forever guests, it is their language that binds them together as a people more than anything.
Differences between various types of Chinese are comparable to the vast differences between Romance languages. For example, Mandarin and Hakka can be just as different from each other as Spanish and French. But the Hakka language is endangered. Taiwanese, which dates back to the Hoklo people, is widely spoken throughout the island, while Mandarin has now enjoyed 70 years of required teaching here. When the Republic of China took over Taiwan in 1949, it suppressed languages other than Mandarin, and, until the lifting of martial law in 1987, students could be punished for speaking their mother language at school. Today, most Hakka young adults, especially those who live in urban areas, did not learn their true native language as children.
Every year the Hakka Affairs Council — an organization established in 2001 and dedicated to preserving Hakka culture and promoting Hakka media — surveys Hakka people in Taiwan about the presence of language in their lives. According to a 2013 survey, 47.3 percent can speak Hakka fluently; however, most of those are elderly. Only 22.8 percent of people aged 19 to 29 speak Hakka, and that figure is even lower for children 18 and under.
Chang hopes that by presenting Hakka music to young people in her country, it will spark their interest in learning the language and spur more engagement in the culture, the same way it did for her about 10 years ago.
Like so many other Hakka young people, Chang did not learn the language as a child.
"At that time, schools didn't let you speak your dialect," Chang explains. "Your parents also spoke to you in Mandarin, and if you didn't live with your grandparents, then you couldn't speak Hakka." Chang became even more distant from the Hakka culture after leaving Miaoli to attend college in Australia.
While she was away in 2002, her parents, who are both journalists, founded the Voice of Hakka radio station. Worried that their daughter would decide to permanently stay in Australia, they asked her to come home and help design the website for their new station. Co-workers noticed her outgoing personality and suggested she consider DJ'ing a program. Since she couldn't speak Hakka, she ended up programming "Multivitamin," the station's 10 p.m. show comprised of popular Mandarin songs.
One night, a girl from Taiwan who immigrated to New Zealand called in to "Multivitamin" and performed an original song over the phone, singing in Hakka.
"As soon as I heard it, my entire body had goose bumps," Chang says. "This girl and I were around the same age, and she also studied in a foreign country...but she could sing in her own mother tongue and sing it so well."
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