Chaozhou – The Free-wheeling city

Chaozhou is the ancestral home of many of the Chinese in South-East Asia.

While in China earlier this year, I met a fellow traveller form Japan in the trip from Guilin to Guangzhou. He wanted to go to Chaozhou, and I could not tell him much about it except that it is north of Guanzhou and close to Fujian province.

Here’s a recent write up from fellow traveller Ziying who has a fortnightly column in The Star.  It seems that the Teochew and the Hakkas were living in rather close proximity, as Chaozhou and Shantou are about 100 over kilometres away to Meixian county and Dabu, which are the ancestral home to a number of Hakka people.

Wednesday July 16, 2008

BEWARE of pickpockets.” That was the first thing our guide said to us as we entered Chaozhou (Teochew) city in the easternmost part of China’s Guangdong province, not far from the border with Fujian. Of course, he was quick to add that the pickpockets were not local Chaozhou people but migrants from other less developed regions attracted by the wealth of China’s richest province.

The other thing to watch out for, he said, is the traffic which is probably the most unruly I have experienced in China, “and remember to check your purchases to make sure you get what you paid for.” Our introduction to the 1,600-year-old city with an intact 2.6km-long Ming dynasty wall may not have been the most positive but perhaps it is this free-wheeling, maverick spirit that has made the 2.3 million Chaozhou émigrés, especially those in South-East Asia, such successful merchants and traders.

Chaozhou people proudly refer to their city as the “hometown of overseas Chinese” and their undisputed No.1 son is none other than Asia’s richest man — Hong Kong’s Li Ka Shing who was born there and whose philanthropic presence is felt throughout the Teochew-dialect region and beyond.

Our small group was, of course, taken on an obligatory tour of the narrow lanes in the old quarter around Li’s birth home. Past a jumble of motorbikes and bicycles and small vegetable stalls, our trishaw driver pointed at a wall and said Li’s old abode is “right there”.

Not only did Li donate generously to rural schools, universities, hospitals and public housing, he also contributed to the restoration of cultural sites like Chaozhou’s 800-year-old Song dynasty Xiangziqiao, considered one of the top four ancient bridges of China.

Originally a pontoon bridge supported by 86 boats, Xiangziqiao had by the Ming dynasty evolved into an early pedestrian “mall” with shops in the 24 pavilions and piers along its half-kilometre length. The refurbishment of this span across Chaozhou’s Hanjiang River was completed last year, with Li apparently responsible for restoring six of the pavilions.

The Hanjiang River is central to the life of Chaozhou city and its folklore.

“In ancient times, the river was infested with crocodiles that terrorised the locals until Han Yu of the Tang dynasty built an embankment between the river and the lake where the reptiles bred and blocked their access to the waterway,” said our guide.

Han Yu was a poet-official exiled to Chaozhou 1,200 years ago for offending the Tang emperor and crown prince. A more whimsical version of the story says he banished the crocodiles all the way to Thailand where they continue to flourish today.

Han Yu was in Chaozhou for less than a year, but his brief stint clearly had a deep impact on the lives of the people there. They credit him with introducing new agricultural methods as well as new plants and teaching them about their medicinal qualities.

Our guide told us that even now: “Chaozhou people don’t take medicine; we believe in curing illness through food.” In fact, Chaozhou people appear to believe in food, period, particularly the city’s famous goose with vinegar garlic dip and different permutations of soy-sauce dofu.

It is said Han Yu also taught the local people ways to preserve fruit and vegetables. The preserves of Chaozhou, like the ubiquitous suanmei (sour plums) and bittersweet candied citrus do indeed have a more delicate flavour than those found elsewhere.

But the item considered to have the highest medicinal or nutritional value is the Buddha’s palm gourd or foshougua, stored for years in ceramic jars until it becomes a pulpy, coal-black lump. The locals claim an infusion of just a few bits of this mild-tasting preserve will settle stomach upset, hypertension and other health issues.

We arrived in Chaozhou from Fujian’s Yongding county by way of the rural Hakka homeland of Meixian in the north of Guangdong province. The 250km-coach journey took over five hours across hilly terrain and winding, bumpy roads.

Some parts were hardly more than dirt tracks, and some so narrow one could reach out from the coach window and touch the walls of the village houses or the makeshift stalls selling dog meat by the roadside. Meixian is evidently not affluent, in contrast with Chaozhou, just 150km to the south.

According to a government website, Chaozhou’s wealth comes from ceramics, clothing, food and electronics which comprise 80% of the city’s exports. Moreover, nearby Shantou’s Chenghai district accounts for a large chunk (some claim 70%) of Guangdong’s toy exports, worth US$14bil to the province in 2006, and equivalent to 79% of the nation’s total in the industry.

China’s toy manufacturing has suffered setbacks in recent months and makers of the other products are also under pressure to upgrade their quality, but the resourceful people of the region will no doubt rise to the challenge.

Ziying can be reached at


About kchew

an occasional culturalist
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