Suukee Nang: What it Means to be Hainanese

Beyond its mouth-watering cuisine, Hainanese identity is marked by its unique history and language.

Nineteenth century illustrative map of Hainan Island.

Several factors spurred the Hainanese to pack their bags and make their way to fertile Malaya in the nineteenth and twentieth century. These included widespread poverty, war, the Qing government’s rescindment of its ban on Chinese leaving the empire, the Japanese invasion, and the rubber and tin boom in Malaya.

But their late arrival meant that the Hainanese were pushed into less-than-desirable occupations: lucrative trades and businesses had already been monopolised by the other Chinese groups. Many had to rely on their skills as farmers and fishermen to survive. In Kemaman, Terengganu, the Hainanese toiled on pepper farms while in Penang many found employment in the fishery business and as labourers and domestic help for European and wealthy Straits Chinese families.

The Chinese back then preferred to conduct business dealings in their respective languages. This, coupled with their low numbers, hindered the Hainanese’s foray into more profitable trades. Instead, they were confined to “demeaning” occupations which led to the marring of their social standing within the Chinese community.

Today, occupational specialisation is no longer practiced. But even so, the Hainanese community in Malaysia is still a small one. According to Economic Development in South-East Asia: The Chinese Dimension, a census conducted in 1980 showed that the Hainanese formed only 5-5.3% of the total Chinese population in Malaysia. Since then, the Hainanese community has remained an insufficiently researched subject.

Apart from the Penang Hainan Association that was established in the 1870s, there are no notable landmarks marking the Hainanese community’s early settlement in Penang. “When the Hainanese first came here, they shared lodgings with the other Chinese language groups. But they were pushed around because they were the minority. Most Hainanese immigrants hailed from Wanning, a county-level city in the south-east of Hainan Province. So the clansmen, including the former president of the Penang Chinese Chamber of Commerce Datuk Seri Choot Ching Khoon, decided to form the Penang Wanning Association in the late 1940s,” says the current association president, Kah Kau Kiak.

“In the early days, the association acted as a hub for the Hainanese to gather after a hard day’s work. Some came to Malaya when they were only in their pre-teens. To cure their homesickness, they made frequent visits to the association as the place provided some semblance of home. The association had only 325 members at the time, but after its relocation to 136, Jalan Hutton in 1958 the number swelled to 700.”

Close-knit Ties

Datuk Seri Choot Ching Khoon (seated, sixth from right) helmed the Penang Wanning Association for over 40 years.

Suukee nang, literally meaning “neighbour”, is an important Hainanese trait. It denotes a strong sense of looking after one’s own people and is especially distinct among senior members of the community. “The Hainanese put great emphasis on cultivating strong kinship ties between our brothers and sisters. Fundamentally, we are all responsible for our community’s welfare,” says Kah.

It was not uncommon for jobs to be filled based on referrals by friends or fellow immigrants from the same province. When the Hainanese began opening kopitiams (coffee shops) and bakeries around Penang, it was this suukee nang characteristic that motivated them to employ fellow Hainanese.

Interestingly, the Chinese bang (帮) structure also played a pivotal role in shaping the community’s venture into the food and beverage industry, which forbade non-members from obtaining jobs in a trade dominated by a specific language group.1 The strict adherence to the bang structure meant that job opportunities in the service-oriented sector were aplenty for the Hainanese immigrants to fill. However, it also heightened the stereotyping of the group.

The suukee nang culture is equally strong among members of the Penang Wanning Association. Kah explains, “Previously, when an association member needed to urgently return to Hainan Island but had no means to do so, all the other members would chip in to help finance his trip home. Additionally, when a member’s loved one passed away and the member or his family was too poor to afford the burial costs, the association members would help raise funds to send back to his family as well. Today however, the suukee nang culture revolves around the hosting of events like Family Day and the planning of excursions to our sister associations around the country as well as the scheduling of visits back to Hainan Island to reconnect with our roots.”

Penang Wanning Association's president Kah Kau Kiak (left) and honorary secretary Neoh Kee Chong.

Education is similarly valued by the Hainanese community as a means to improve their social status. In 1966 the association set up a scholarship fund for children of members who showed outstanding academic achievements. As of 2015, a total of 4,434 children have been given scholarships valued at RM165,237.

Despite its small size, the Hainanese community has churned out several prominent figures, most notably Datuk Seri Choot Ewe Seng, the son of Ching Khoon. Like his father, Ewe Seng helms the Penang Chinese Chamber of Commerce and formerly the Penang Wanning Association and the Penang Hainan Association. He is also regarded as one of the key players in boosting Penang’s economy by bringing investors in from Hainan Island.

Zhu Zhen Hua was another influential figure. Academically inclined, he was the first Hainanese to be accepted into Peking University. Upon his arrival to Malaya, he spearheaded the Chinese Studies department at Han Chiang High School and was the founder and honorary president of the Selangor Wanning Association.

“The Hainanese community has come a long way since we first came to Malaya. We wouldn’t have been able to accomplish much had we been more self-seeking, as is the case today. Our legacy was built predominantly on our suukee nang culture, of protecting and helping our fellow Hainanese. I hope this will continue long after we are gone.”

A Language under Threat

The slow disappearance of the Hainanese language in Malaysia has set off alarm bells for its native speakers. Young Hainanese today seem to prefer conversing in other major Chinese languages such as Hokkien, Cantonese and Mandarin. The Hokkiens constitute the largest Penang Chinese population and control the city’s economy, and therefore play an active role in influencing minority groups to adopt Hokkien as their common mode of communication.

“The percentage of Hainanese language speakers in Penang has been on a steady decline. During my father’s time, the Hainanese in Malaya communicated solely in their tongue. When it came to my generation, about 75% of us were still able to converse in Hainanese. Now, only a handful are able to speak the language and I’m not certain if it is able to survive to the next generation,” says Kah.

The reason for this, Kah explains, is that Hainanese men used to inter-marry. As Hainanese women were banned from joining their male counterparts overseas, the men who chose to remain in Malaya married women from other groups instead. “Since our wives couldn’t speak Hainanese, we communicated in the lingua franca of the state. Our children grew up speaking Hokkien, Cantonese, Mandarin, Malay or English – sometimes all five. There is a tendency for children to pick up their mother’s tongue as well since the fathers weren’t around much of the time to teach their children Hainanese.

“What’s more, most – if not all – of our children’s friends today converse in Hokkien or Cantonese, or in Mandarin, Malay or English. Plus, you can hardly find a Hainanese TV show to watch in Malaysia.

The Penang Wanning Association is still very much a hub for the old folks to while away time.

The Penang Hainan Association along Lebuh Muntri.

I believe that these are the principal factors that have cemented our children’s preference for other languages,” Kah says.

Penang Hainanese, much like Hokkien, is peppered with loan words from Malay. “Whenever we go back to Hainan Island for visits, we have no problem understanding the Hainanese spoken there, but they struggle to understand us because Malay words like suka (“like”) have made their way into our everyday vocabulary. It leaves them baffled.”

Conversing in Hainanese strengthens kinship ties in the community. As such, Kah says plans for the Penang Wanning Association to organise Hainanese classes for children of association members are in the pipeline. “Our objective is to acquaint Hainanese children with the dialect and to educate them about their rich heritage. I am aware that it will be a steep uphill battle but ultimately, we want the children to know how their grandparents and parents came to Malaysia for a better chance at life and how speaking the Hainanese dialect can act as a link to connect the children to their roots.”

1 Eileen Lee, Shin Pyng Wong, Lyon Laxman, “Language Maintenance and Cultural Viability in the Hainanese Community: A Case Study of the Melaka Hainanese”, 2014, Athens Journal of Humanities & Arts Vol. 1 No. 2

Regina Hoo is a Broadcasting and Journalism graduate from the University of Wolverhampton. She has a mania for alliteration and Oscar Wilde.

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