February 21st is International Mother Language Day, which was established to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism. The United Nations states, “At least 43% of the estimated 6000 languages spoken in the world are endangered. Only a few hundred languages have genuinely been given a place in education systems and the public domain, and less than a hundred are used in the digital world.”
National Geographic Explorer anthropologist Wade Davis coined the term ethnosphere to describe the sum total of all thoughts and dreams, myths, intuitions and inspirations brought into being by the human imagination since the dawn of consciousness. In his 2003 TED Talk, Wade points out the staggering loss of half of the languages on Earth, “What could be more lonely than to be enveloped in silence, to be the last of your people to speak your language, to have no way to pass on the wisdom of the ancestors or anticipate the promise of the children?”
Thanks to special readings by “The Last Hoisan Poets” – contemporary Chinese American poets Flo Oy Wong, Nellie Wong and Genny Lim – audiences have the opportunity to hear the sounds of the disappearing dialect that was spoken by many of the Chinese immigrants who first came to America. In the first part of the twentieth century, most of the Chinese immigrants came to America from the Pearl River Delta in China’s Guangdong region. The three poets trace their roots to China’s Toishan village, home of the Hoisan-wa (a.k.a. Toisanese/Taishanese) Chinese dialect.
For the 2020 Lunar New Year Celebration at the Oakland Museum, Flo and Nellie conducted a special poetry reading in English and Hoisan-wa to pay homage to their mother language.
Nellie read three poems: Ngoi Leng Gah Thlim, My Two Hearts (1981) (04:04); Poem for My Grandniece, Eva (2019) (12:46); Ode to Rice Crust Soup (2012) (15:39)
Flo opened with a New Year poem: Slin Nin Loy Luh, New Year Comes (2020) (19:26); followed by a poem about the family’s restaurant in Oakland Chinatown, Ai Joong Wah, Great China (2018) (20:12).
With “Song Siew, Two Hands,” (2020) (21:29), a newly written poem dedicated to her father, Gee Seow Hong, Flo invited the audience to follow her lead, as she taught the poem through gesture and call and response. To close the program, Flo and Nellie playfully demonstrated – Ah Jeong Doy, Clap Your Hands (29:11). El Gee Ngneck, Throw the Pig’s Neck (30:30), two traditional nursery rhymes that the sisters learned in childhood, growing up in Oakland Chinatown.
Watch the full Lunar New Year 2020 program by The Last Hoisan Poets: