Bamboo Pole or Earth Born

by setohj

I have never heard of the term “jook-sing” while growing up in Canada until after the new wave of Hong Kong immigrants started to arrive and change the Chinese social fabric in Canada. “Jook-sing” is the Cantonese word meaning literally “bamboo pole” (竹升). In the Hoiping dialect, these two characters are pronounced zug sen. But I soon discovered that the word jook-sing is used more often than not in a derogatory tone to denote Chinese born in North America. It implies an ignorance of things Chinese. The current popular notion is that Chinese born in the US or Canada are hollow between the ears, like the hollowness between the joints in a bamboo pole. In contrast, the earlier Chinese in Canada use another term to denote a Chinese person born in Canada. In the Four Counties dialect of these early Chinese, a Canadian born Chinese is called a hu sang (土生) or literally “earth born”. In other words hu sang means native born. I like this term because it reflects a rustic nature of the Canadian born Chinese, like being the salt of the earth.

In the English speaking world, the spelling “jook-sing” or “jook sing” appears to be the most common transliteration of the Chinese characters 竹升, but it is a somewhat arbitrary spelling not based on any standardized romanization of Cantonese. According to Jyutping romanization of Cantonese it is spelt “zuk sing” and according to the Yale romanization it is spelt “juk sing.” (I am ignoring here the usual markings for tones.)

In this article, I examine the usage of this word “jook-sing” in Canada over the greater part of the twentieth century. A good source of how the Chinese language is used over almost a century in Canada is The Chinese Times newspaper 大漢公報. The Chinese characters of jook-sing 竹升 may be searched on the digital database of The Chinese Times found at The digitization of the hard copies and the microfilm of this newspaper is not entirely trustworthy as the scanning does not pick up all the characters accurately, but this database of pages from The Chinese Times does provide for a preliminary survey of the newspaper in order to confirm whether or not a page contains the search phrase, then the page may be examined more closely on a computer monitor or a microfilm copy. (I understand some of the original paper issues are still in existence but locked up in a vault on a university campus.)

The earliest appearance of jook-sing 竹升 that I have discovered in The Chinese Times is in a November 20, 1918 article about a man’s concubine using a jook-sing to assault his wife. It is clear in this article that a bamboo pole is used in the assault. But first let’s look at the literal meaning of each character of jook-sing. The first character 竹 means bamboo. The second character 升 means ascent or to rise as in the sun rising or a person being promoted. Despite the popular notion that Canadian born Chinese are hollow between the ears like the hollowness of a bamboo pole, it is not entirely clear how the meaning of “pole” could be construed from this compound word. Even more curious, how can this suggest something negative about the Canadian-born Chinese if bamboo traditionally suggest strength or resilience of the bamboo plant, and even more positive the second character suggest rising up the ranks.

A fellow under the pen name Uncle Rock (石公) wrote an article in the March 10, 1926 issue The Chinese Times entitled “Taboo” (忌諱) that explains the origin of the word jook-sing. He wrote:

『粵俗於語言上。。諸多忌諱。。如諱輸爲勝。。則名通書曰通勝。。諱降爲升  則名竹槓曰竹升。 諱劏爲順。。則名飲湯曰飲順。。諱死爲生。。則名打死人曰打生人。。姓黃者。。呼黃牛曰』

A somewhat literal translation of this passage using Hoiping phonetics is:

“In vernacular Cantonese there are various taboo words. Such as the taboo word xi’ (輸 ‘to lose’) is replaced by sen (勝 ‘to win’), then the noun hung xi (通書 ‘almanac’) is instead pronounced hung sen (通勝). The taboo word gong (降 ‘defeat’) is replaced by the word sen (升 ‘to ascend’). Thus the noun zug gong (竹槓 ‘bamboo pole’) is instead pronounced zug sen (竹升) [i.e., jook-sing]. The taboo word hong (劏 ‘to butcher’) is replaced by the word sun (順 ‘favorable’). Thus the verb phrase ngem hong (飲湯 ‘to drink soup’) is instead pronounced ngem sun (飲順). The taboo word lhei (死 ‘to die’) is replaced by the word sang (生 ‘to live’). Thus the phrase a lhei ngen (打死人 ‘to beat someone to death’) is instead pronounced a sang ngen (打生人)….”

The above literal but rather cryptic translation lacks background information for the reader who is not familiar with a Cantonese dialect. A broader interpretation that includes some background information for this passage follows:

“In the Cantonese vernacular there are various taboo words. The Cantonese don’t like saying words that suggest something negative or that calamity might ensue. The offending taboo word is replaced by a less offensive word. In the Hoiping dialect (i.e., a Cantonese dialect), the word xi meaning ‘book’ (書) rhymes with the taboo word xi (輸) ‘to decline or wane,’ and in a certain word combination, it is exchanged for sen (勝) which means victory. The lexically correct word for ‘almanac’ in Chinese characters is 通書, pronounced hung xi, but since xi is considered taboo in common speech, the word for ‘almanac’ is instead pronounced hung sen (通勝).

“The word gong (槓) meaning pole in the compound word for “bamboo pole” zug gong (竹槓) is replaced by the word sen meaning “to ascend” (升), because the character for pole (槓) is homonymous with the character for ‘to descend’ or ‘to surrender’ (降) which suggests something negative and therefore a taboo word. Therefore, the lexically correct compound word of zug gong 竹槓 meaning “bamboo pole” is replaced by zug sen or in standard Cantonese jook-sing (竹升) which avoids saying aloud the taboo word gong (降) meaning defeat.

“Another example is the taboo word hong (劏 ‘to butcher’). The lexically accurate phrase ngem hong (飲湯) contains the word for ‘soup’ (湯) which is a homonym of the taboo word hong (劏 ‘to butcher’). It is replaced by the word sun (順 ‘favorable’). The phrase “to drink soup” ngem hong (飲湯) should be replaced by ngem sun (飲順) “to drink favorable.”[1] In the final example, the word lhei- (死) “to die” ought to be replaced with the word “to live” sang (生) in the phrase da lhei ngen (打死人) meaning ‘to beat someone to death’ and say instead da sang ngen (打生人), literally, ‘to beat someone to life.’…”[2]

To summarize then, Cantonese people do not like saying aloud certain words that rhymes with other words that mean something bad or unlucky. Such words are considered taboo to say aloud. In the case of jook-sing or “bamboo pole” (竹升) replacing the lexically correct compound word zug gong (竹槓), I suppose the seriousness of the taboo is also doubled, because the Chinese word for “bamboo” (竹) happens to rhyme with the word zug (祝) meaning to wish something on somebody. The dictionary correct term for bamboo pole zug gong (or “jook gong” in standard Cantonese) 竹槓 would sound like 祝降 meaning to wish defeat on the person you’re speaking with.

So it is evident in this 1926 newspaper article that the Chinese characters for “jook-sing” have come to mean bamboo pole. This is also clear in the subsequent news articles in The Chinese Times that this compound word is used in the literal sense of “bamboo pole” until the 1980s. After the shift of immigration from the original counties (especially the Four Counties) in China to that from the British colony of Hong Kong, “jook-sing” came to mean a Chinese person born in Canada (or America) with the emphasis that such persons have no or limited ability to speak Chinese, and therefore also lack any sufficient understanding of Chinese culture. Curiously, there is a fellow named 竹升炳 who kept cropping up several times in The Chinese Times in the 1930s and again in the 1950s, most notably under a column entitled “Chinese Famous Legends” (『中國民聞傳奇』) in the 1950s. I suspect it is coincidence that this person happened to have a surname “Jook” 竹 that shares the same character meaning bamboo, and one of his middle name happens to be 升 “sing.” It is just pure coincidence that his name is Jook Sing.

Most of the articles published prior to the 1980s that I have looked at use “jook-sing” 竹升 as a compound word. There is an interesting exception, in a sentence from the July 27, 1940 issue of The Chinese Times that uses the characters 竹升 in their separate meanings. The sentence is: 『我俾枝竹升你。』 Here the meaning is: “I use a section of bamboo to hoist you up.”

The first appearance of “jook-sing” in a derogatory sense in this search through The Chinese Times is found in the October 2, 1985 issue. The article is entitled 『陳欣健找來「竹升女」翁雅韻演唐人街故事』 or “Phillip Chan Finds ‘Jook-sing Girl’ Weng Yayun to Act in Chinatown Story.” The Hong Kong movie actor and producer Phillip Chan (陳欣健) casts a young woman Weng Yayun (翁雅韻) in a film entitled Chinatown Story. The young actress is a Chinese woman who immigrated to the US when she was a little girl. The reporter calls her a “jook-sing girl”. She was raised and educated mostly in America. There are a number of articles published in the rest of the 1980s that uses the word “jook-sing” in the sense of a young man or woman being born or raised outside of China or Hong Kong. Many of these articles are related to stories about the television or movie industry.

The perspective of how the Hong Kong native sees the Chinese born in North America can be gleaned from the January 29, 1990 issue. The article is entitled 『阿貞移民的故事,』 or “The Story of Ah Jen’s Immigration”. The journalist writes, “Ah Jen brought his children back to Hong Kong to live, with the hope the children would be in contact with the things of their homeland, study their national culture, and not become a jook-sing of ‘yellow skin and white heart.’” His sense of the term jook-sing is pejorative. A more detailed discussion can be found in the June 6, 1991 issue entitled 『美國社會中各式各樣的華人』 or “Chinese of Every Stripe in American Society”. A representative excerpt follows:

『老一代的華僑稱在美國出生的一代為「竹升」,這句說話的意思暗示這一群「竹升」兩頭不通,即不懂中國文化。但目前這個「竹升」綽號已漸漸被廢棄,這乃是因為土生的一代近年有幾會接受高深教育,而且還漸漸出人頭地,在這樣的情況下,又有誰人敢說他(她)們是「竹升」呢!? 』

“The Overseas Chinese of the older generation calls the generation born in America ‘jook-sing [bamboo poles],’ the meaning of these words suggest a group of bamboo poles plugged up at both ends. That is, the American (Canadian) born Chinese do not understand Chinese culture. But presently this ‘jook-sing’ nickname is already gradually being abandoned. This is so because the native born generation of recent years has the opportunity to receive higher and deeper [Chinese] education, moreover still gradually rise above their peers; under the situation of this kind, will any person be a ‘jook-sing?’”

I believe the writer of this article is a Hong Kong person. In my opinion, he (she) is wrong in assuming the older generation of Chinese in Canada (as of the early 1990s) would call a native born Chinese jook-sing. My preliminary survey of articles in the venerable Chinese Times suggests that the early Chinese in Canada most likely did not use “jook-sing” as a nickname in a derogatory sense to mean Chinese born in the Americas until the 1980s when the new immigrants from Hong Kong outnumbered the immigrants from mainland China who are mostly from the southern counties of Guangdong province. Linguistically the two groups (that is, Hong Kong and the Four Counties) are very different. I believe it is the confusion between what is considered true Chinese language or culture—Hong Kong or Four Counties—is one of the major reasons native born Chinese abandon more and more things Chinese. I believe Hong Kong stereotypes of the native born Chinese is as detrimental to Chinese Canadian identity as Canadian stereotypes of them, and this may partially account for the Canadian born Chinese’s lack or loss of interest in things Chinese. But that is a topic better saved for another essay. Meanwhile, I prefer to be called an “earth-born” rather than a “bamboo pole.”


[1] Why the phrase ngemhong’ (飲湯) is considered taboo is not entirely clear to me in the Hoiping dialect (also in Four Counties generally). People speaking standard Cantonese do not seem to have any problem with saying it when they want to say, “Drink soup,” except that they would say “tong” instead of “hong.” However, in my circle of Hoiping speakers in Canada, normally we use this phrase only sparingly among ourselves; we instead use the phrase ngemgang’ (飲羹). Gang’ also means soup and appears sometimes on Chinese menus, but rarely used in conversation in Cantonese or Mandarin. Is this a result of the earlier Four Counties speakers of the early twentieth century viewing the phrase ngemhong’ as taboo? My parents do not see any taboo in saying ngemhong’ (飲湯).

[2] Prior to reading this article by Uncle Rock, I have not been familiar with his examples of taboo words or phrases as he described them. I am familiar though with other taboo words such as the number four (四) pronounced lhei, a homonym of the word meaning “to die” (死). I guess the original taboo words were simply replaced with more pleasant sounding words and the origin of the change forgotten in Canada. I highly suspect this is the case with the term for “drink soup.”