Hai Ki Xin Lor: Acknowledging Penang Hokkien


This August, the George Town Festival will close with an original play that celebrates the Penang tongue.

“Penangites are an eccentric and distinctive bunch,” says Saw Teong Hin with a grin. He’s talking in regards to his own play. At its launch in June, Saw revealed that he believes “Hai Ki Xin Lor”, or in English, “You Mean the World to Me”, is relatable to everyone, but would resound especially with Penangites. His creation will be the closing event of the George Town Festival, and promises melodrama, comedy, romance and, above all, a display of family values and sacrifice for the common good.

And it’s all performed in Penang Hokkien.

The dialect may not be a problem for Saint Xavier’s Institution boy Saw or the local cast such as Chelsia Ng and Chin Teo, but for Malaccan Frederick Lee (of In Laws and In Laws 2 TV series fame) and Singaporean Neo Swee Lin (perhaps better known as "Ah Ma" in TV series Phua Chu Kang), there’s apprehension about whether or not they will be able to manage the accent. Will Penang accept them?

“My Hokkien is not there yet, but I’m not worried,” says Neo during the launch. “I still have time to practice and learn.” The actress, who has known Saw since their varsity days, is confident that she will be able to pull off the dialect. “I recently did a Malay play, and I’ve also done a film in Thai, so I should be able to do Penang Hokkien,” she says with a smile. “Besides, it’s more important to tell the story and keep the audience engaged.” Lee, on the other hand, can understand Hokkien although he doesn’t speak it himself, and he is confident that his familiarity with the dialect will be a positive influence.

Then again, what is a play in Penang Hokkien trying to achieve? Besides telling an almost-autobiographical story (Hai Ki Xin Lor is also the Hokkien term for Lebuh Victoria – the very street where Saw grew up), it can be seen as an attempt to preserve the dialect and encourage its use among the locals, many of whom are turning to Mandarin in their daily lives rather than Hokkien. “Kids nowadays cannot speak Hokkien,” laments Chin. “I hope that this play will inspire audiences to teach the younger generation the dialect.” Saw shares similar sentiments – he sees the play as a tribute to Penang Hokkien. “I never realised how different the Penang dialect is from other variations.

When I was studying in Singapore, I used to get laughed at – people would ask if I was talking or singing! I’ve since come to acknowledge how special Penang Hokkien is.”

But how much of the story is true? “It’s a question that I’m often asked,” says Saw. “It’s as autobiographical as I remember,” he admits, “but memory is self-serving. It’s not reliable – I want to make that clear. Each of us remembers things differently.” He reveals that although the play is based on his life, he has taken dramatic license and collapsed incidents and characters. “In real life, I’ve got six siblings, but in the play, Sunny has only three.” It’s interesting to note that when he was young, Saw was also called Sunny. “The story is not purely autobiographical, but the source definitely is.”

Hai Ki Xin Lor, which has an 18+ rating, is set in the late 1970s through the 1980s to the present day, and how it switches between timelines will be something to watch out for. “The staging will be spectacular,” says Saw. “There will be a two-storey platform akin to Hungry Ghost festival stages, set in the beautiful courtyard of Khoo Kongsi.” Saw is reluctant to reveal anything further about this concept, and instead urges the public to come and see for themselves.

It is not Saw’s first time taking part in the George Town Festival. He directed the dinner theatre Emily of Emerald Hill for the inaugural George Town Festival in 2010 at Town Hall, and the dance drama SILAT in 2012 at Fort Cornwallis. This time around, when asked about why he chose Khoo Kongsi as the venue, Saw replied that he felt it would be more meaningful if the venue reflected the immediate context of the event, that is, the George Town Festival and the Unesco heritage listing.

The play is co-produced by Saw’s production company, Real Films, and Noise Performance House. Since some of the cast members are not based in Penang, co-director Jason Ong Han Yee will work with the Penang-based actors while Saw will work with those living in KL, and both parties will then stitch

their performances together. In fact, cast members finally got together for their first script reading the day before the launch of the play. “It’s weird,” confesses Ong about the unconventional rehearsals, “but it can work. Our cast members are professional actors and actresses, and we already have the script and everything.”

The cast and crew of Hai Ki Xin Lor.

“I’m excited to see what they will do on stage,” says Saw. He left Penang in 1981, but admits that he is unable to shake off his love of his hometown. “You can take the boy out of Penang, but you can’t take Penang out of the boy,” he declares with a smile. “After all, at the end of the day, all roads lead home.”

So come late August, the George Town Festival will end with a linguistic expedition, down to the bottom of our hearts.

Hai Ki Xin Lor will run from August 28-31, with English and Chinese subtitles. Tickets are priced at RM20 for students and RM80 for adults, and can be purchased at www.redtix.airasia.com. For enquiries, call +603 8775 4666 or visit www.facebook.com/HaiKiXinLor

Julia "Bubba" Tan is assistant editor for Penang Monthly. Her mother tongue is Hokkien, and she likes how you can almost always tell where someone is from by their accent.

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