Sounds Like Home

Every once in awhile, I hear the language of my parents, Toisanese, being spoken in Honolulu.

Illustration: Jing Jing Tsong

I love to talk Toisanese, although it is a dying language. It’s my mother and father’s native tongue, which hails from the mountainous villages near the Pearl River Delta, west of Hong Kong, China.

When I hear my native Toisan (also known as Hoisan) language spoken by the old Chinese ladies at Ross or Longs Drugs in downtown Honolulu, or at a Chinatown herbal shop, it makes me feel like I’m at home. This sense of comfort and familiarity sweeps over me, and I don’t feel like such a stranger on this island. 

If my family and I dine at Golden Duck in Honolulu or Mui Kwai Restaurant in Kaneohe, I’ll often hear the servers speaking Toisanese. I’ll ask them what village they’re from, in hopes that they mention Hoiping or Nam Cherng, which are my grandparents’ villages. But there are so many small villages in the backwoods of Toisan, too many to count. 

At Jun Bo Chinese Restaurant in downtown Honolulu, I discovered that one of the owners, Tammy, is a Toisan girl. Now, whenever I pick up my pork and string beans lunch, we’ll chat in broken Toisan/Cantonese or Mandarin (which I picked up from two years of study at UCLA, and on the popular Taiwan “Love Boat” study tour that all college students with a hint of Chinese descent should experience).

“The Toisanese dialect is still very widely spoken in Chinatowns with particular emphasis in New York and San Francisco, as the populations have been situated there so long,” says Bonnie Tsui, a writer and author of American Chinatown: A People’s History of Five Neighborhoods.

“The population streams have changed in recent decades, and people are coming from all over China and not just from the Guangdong province. In Honolulu’s Chinatown, since the neighborhood has become so mixed, it’s not just different dialects of Chinese—Mandarin, in addition to Toisanese and Cantonese, for example—but also other Asian languages, including Vietnamese, that are spoken.”

I have never been to Toisan. But I will make it a point to visit my parents’ village one day with my children. Relatives say my late grandparents’ homes are enshrined in the village, unoccupied. And when we pay a visit, we’re expected to bring gifts and lay-cee (not lychee, but red envelopes with money) to all our “relatives” in the village, in celebration of our homecoming.

The last time I conversed in Toisanese was on the phone with my grand-auntie in Maryland, after my mother’s funeral. She marveled that I could  speak Toisanese fluently and exclaimed, “You are a real Toisan girl.” 

Yes, indeed, I am.

Nancy Long-Usui is a second-generation Toisanese. She is working on her first book and blogs at