Penang Hokkien On Life Support

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Alarm bells are sounding that Penang Hokkien will be forgotten in a generation or two. Should we be concerned?

Step into a market, any market, in Penang and there’s a high chance you’ll hear people speaking – sounding almost as though they’re singing – in the distinct northern-accented Hokkien. Tradesmen, regardless of race or background, hawk their wares and bargain with shoppers in the singsong dialect. You know you’re not in KL, or Kota Bahru, or Miri. You know you are in Penang.

But the moment you step inside an air-conditioned mall, the situation changes. If you even look remotely Chinese, you will very likely be spoken to in Mandarin by salespeople. It doesn’t matter if you initiate the conversation in English or Hokkien; chances are they will respond in Mandarin. You can catch them off guard if you spoke Malay (and do try it – if only to see the expressions on their faces), but the shiny shopping malls are very, very Mandarin. And this is worrying.


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