Toisanese turned into music

Author William Poy Lee is trying to get some respect for the Toisan Chinese dialect by setting it to music.

My friend Lisa Chung reports in the San Jose Mercury News that Lee reconnected with the language of his childhood while researching his memoir, The Eighth Promise.

William and I once worked together at the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, and I enjoyed his book.

As someone who also grew up speaking a peasant dialect (my family is not from Toisan but nearby Enping county, pronounced “yun ping” in Cantonese), I can identify with how the language is looked down upon.

You kind of have a double whammy if you lived out in the boonies. You feel like an outsider being the rare Asian American, and you’re also ridiculed when visiting Chinese friends and family in San Francisco, speak the more proper Hong Kong or Cantonese dialect.

I am still very mindful of letting “yun ping wah” words or ways of saying things slip in when I speak Cantonese. When I visited relatives in Guangzhou, they really noticed when when it happened.

And some of these dialects are a language onto themselves. I’ve visited Toisan and some nearby areas, and at times I couldn’t understand anything the locals were saying. Some dialects had this lisp to it and others had totally different vocabularies.

As Lisa points out in her story, there’s long history of these peasant languages in the United States. Chinese Americans are a far more diverse group nowadays. We may not want to hear those harsh tones all the time, but there’s a heritage there we shouldn’t forget.

A version of this post was originally published on Hyphen magazine’s blog.

2 Replies to “Toisanese turned into music”

  1. why do you call the sze yap dialect a “peasant dialect”? What is so “peasant”about it?? All languages and dialects are unpleasant and strange to others who don speak it. And you seem to have an inferior complex being a Sze yap?? Please don feel embarress about your heritage. I am behind you buddy. I am of Sze yap ancestry myself. Last but not least, here’s wishing you and your family a Happy and Prosperous Chinese New Year. Jonah Woo.

  2. Johan, these dialects are spoken out in rural areas out in the countryside by peasants, meaning people living in small villages who are primarily farmers. That’s the background of my family. I don’t mean it in a derogatory sense, just stating a fact.

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