Photo by Lee Xian Jie
“My family is descended from Confucius”, said the chubby Year 12 Boy to me when I didn’t ask about his pedigree. I must have doubted him or given him some dismissive look prior to that statement that prompted him to reveal that fact.
This was some years ago in Sydney, when a friend asked me to give tuition to his son (the Year 12 boy) who had been struggling with some of his HSC subjects.
“So, his full name is Confucius Chan?”, I said, before asking him how he and his family found out this fact, and whether it had been orally handed down (son, I am your father) through generations, or whether some Chinese genealogist had told his family their glorious past and then said thank you after a cheque was written out.
Yes, it was after a consultation, Year 12 Boy said. That made him and his family about the fourth group of “Confucius Descendants” I had met in Sydney alone. That Chinese genealogist/fengshui/kungfu master must be living it up in Vaucluse or somewhere similarly awash with money, while several of his clients languish in their fair dinkum fortune cookie businesses.
I’m not sure if it’s the same guy’s work, but a distant Chinese-Australian cousin I met at uni told me her father told her that her grandfather participated in the Long March. A check with my dad later revealed that the only march that cousin’s family ever did was around the Katong area, together with the other wealthier Hainanese families who, I’m told, populated that district back in the day.
There was also another Hainanese enclave in the Upper Thomson area, which was known alternatively as the estate with 800 (terrace) houses or Hainan Hill.
I’m not sure whether that’s really true, as I know of only two Hainanese families who used to live there, and the same Hainanese relative who told me this also told me that the embattled Malaysian PM has Hainanese blood, as does the wife of Cambodian PM Hun Sen. Lubricate this relative a little with some traditional Hainanese drink, and he’ll tell you how Hainanese the Soong Sisters were, and how the Americans should vote for Hilary Clinton because she has Hainanese blood.
I understand why so many diasporic ethnic groups yearn for some connection to some glorious ancestry (excepting of course, the Anglo-Celtic Australians). This is especially so if you happen to be ethnic Chinese. You have some of the universe’s most common surnames, like mine, and there’s not much distinguishing you from the other 1.4 billion lookalikes.
Take Peranakan Chinese for instance, they’re immensely proud of their heritage, even if it means they’re only Baba through marriage via second cousins thrice removed. I’ve heard of some boasting of a genealogical line dating to Admiral Cheng Ho (Zheng He), notwithstanding the fact that he was a eunuch. At the temple to Cheng Ho in Malacca (known as San Bao Kung), hundreds of Malaysian and Singaporean Chinese pilgrims pay their respects each year to that great Muslim eunuch admiral for planting the um… seeds of their rich Straits heritage.
My ethnic relations, on the other hand, made a world famous cocktail drink, and I’m rather proud of that, and I wouldn’t have wanted a lineage of warriors and other martial heroes. Eating is always better than fighting, as a Hainanese saying would go, if there was such a saying.
And so we were eating together some time during the fifteen days of Chinese New Year, at a non-Hainanese restaurant, when the topic of Hainanese greatness was brought up. A scientifically inclined cousin who is a very high-ranking office bearer at a local university thought it sensible to burst our collective bubble, lest we conjured glorious but unrealistic images of past Hainanese Heroes.
“Hainanese is not a race, lah!”, he said.
“Yah I know, but”… I said.
“It’s just a dialect group from south of China, that’s why it’s called Hai Nam – South Sea”, he said.
“Yah I know, but why do people say Hainanese men have a flat patch at the back of their large heads and have high foreheads?”, I said.
“Rubbish”, frowned Scientific Cousin, rubbing the flat patch at the back of his large head.
“And there’s one more. Chicken Droppings Dessert. That would have been a great national dish if they changed the name”, I said some more.
“Chicken Droppings Dessert?”, asked Scientific Cousin, at which point, the rest of the Cousins triumphantly explained that it was a traditional Hainanese dish made from some unknown herb, and that if you were to ask any old Hainanese timer what the herb was, he or she would simply tell you, “Chicken Droppings Plant lah! Don’t ask so much, just eat the shit cos it’s good for you.”
I’ve only ever tasted the dish, Guay Dai Bua, literally translated as “A Bowl Of Chicken Droppings”, once, on a trip to Hainan, and I was chuffed to discover another Singaporean-Hainanese make the pilgrimage and sample from the holy grail of sorts.
Lee Xian Jie has documented his trip with many photographs of the Old Country, and his blog is a good place to visit if you’re ever interested about Hainan and her peoples (with large heads and high foreheads).
It makes me all proud and queasy at the same time, which is what being Hainanese is all about.