Out and about

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 January, 2011, 12:00am

Toi Shan, located at the southwestern extremity of the Pearl River Delta, has long-standing international connections that many much larger Chinese urban centres lack. Much like the Hong Kong region, Toi Shan district combines hilly scenery with scarce arable land.

The city itself is unremarkable - whatever the local tourist literature would have one believe. Among Cantonese cuisines, Toi Shan's is distinctive. Extensive use of fish sauce adds an immediately recognis- able local touch to many home-style Cantonese staples.

Landlessness and poverty impelled thousands of people from this corner of Guangdong to venture overseas from the mid-19th century onwards. The first wave of migrants went to California as gold miners in the late 1840s. The next entrants to 'Gold Mountain', as California - and by extension the United States - was dubbed by the overseas Chinese, went as contract labourers to construct the transcontinental railways.

While grinding poverty at home was the principal reason why many Toi Shan people emigrated, inter-ethnic discord was also a factor. Hakka and Cantonese had rubbed along uneasily for centuries but, by the 1850s, the West River's chronic overpopulation and resultant landlessness had turned perennially tense relations into a powder keg.

Open warfare flared in West River districts in the early 1850s, evolving into the Taiping Rebellion - sometimes described as the most devastating civil war in history. Initial disturbances occurred around Toi Shan, with inter-ethnic economic rivalries the principal underlying cause.

Until mass migration from Hong Kong and other parts of the mainland altered the intra-ethnic balance in the late 20th century, more than 75 per cent of all Chinese in North America claimed at least one ancestor as a Toi Shan native. Before the early 1980s, and the popularisation of Hong Kong pronunciation due to radio, television and videos, Toi Shan-accented Cantonese was the predominant language spoken in America's many Chinatowns.

Notable Toi Shan 'natives' include Adrienne Clarkson (formerly Adrienne Poy), the former governor general of Canada, Julius Chan, the former prime minister of Papua New Guinea, actor Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah.

Enough migrated elsewhere in the delta for a once-remote neighbourhood in northern Macau to be named Toi Shan by immigrants; Hong Kong's connections to Toi Shan also remain strong; Wan Chai has a Toi Shan Association Building, and the association operates a primary and secondary school in the New Territories.

To get to Toi Shan from Hong Kong, you can travel by ferry to Jiangmen, then take a bus. Alternatively, you could head to Zhuhai and take a bus from there.