Penang Hokkien on Life Support

By Julia Tan, Ooi Kok Hin

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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.

“People think there’s no benefit in learning or speaking Hokkien, which is not true,” says Ooi Kee How, secretary of the Penang Hokkien Language Association (PHLA). “Yes, you can survive if you do not speak Hokkien; you can get by with speaking only one language your entire life. But the thing is, something will diminish. Our creativity, our cultural identity, will decline. A lot of innovations will disappear, because different languages shape the way we think differently.”

Hokkien 101

Hokkien is a language – Ooi is passionately adamant about that. “Is Penang Hokkien a dialect? Yes. But Penang Hokkien is a dialect of Hokkien; not a dialect of Mandarin or Cantonese. Within the Hokkien family there are many different dialects, like Taiwanese Hokkien, or Singaporean Hokkien. The representation of Hokkien which can embody the entire Hokkien language is Xiamen Hokkien.”

Scene of Weld Quay circa early twentieth century. According to the first census from 1881, the Hokkiens formed the majority Chinese migrant group.

But in the first place, how did Hokkien reach our shores?

According to Dr Wong Yee Tuan, head of the History Department at Penang Institute, contrary to popular belief, it was not the British that brought in the Chinese. Rather, it was the Hokkien networks themselves who had both the resources and connections to do this, in a similar fashion to today’s local agents who bring in foreign workers.

There are two reasons for the widespread use of Hokkien in the northern region covering Penang, Kedah and northern Perak (Taiping). “Firstly, the majority of the Chinese migrant community has always been Hokkien. If we look at the first census from 1881, the Hokkiens were the most, followed by the Cantonese, Teochew, Hakka and Hailam,” says Wong.

“Secondly, trade played an important role. Hokkien merchants and traders were prominent not only here, but also in Rangoon, Phuket and Medan. The Hokkiens were active traders in the region, stretching back to the tenth century when the Min Kingdom opened a new port in Fujian to encourage maritime trade. But it wasn’t until the fifteenth century, when China lifted the ban on overseas trade, that the numbers really soared.”

The fact that Hokkien is spoken widely around the region gives it economic value. “We can communicate with the Taiwanese and mainland Chinese Hokkiens; with people in Medan, Jakarta, Singapore and Phuket. Our accents may be different but it does not matter,” says Ooi.

Children under 12 these days who can speak Hokkien are very few. It’s not their first language. It’s not even their second language. It’s not even a language they will speak outside. The world tomorrow will be English and Mandarin if we don’t do something today.

Locally, Malaysian Hokkien dialects can be further divided into north and south. “That’s the major difference,” says Ooi. “From the north from Perlis all the way to Taiping we have the same accent, syntax and structure. There should be one million speakers of northern Malaysian Hokkien. And of these one million speakers we’re even not including people from Medan; our accents are really somewhat the same.”

Catherine Churchman, a lecturer in the Asian Studies Programme at the School of Languages and Cultures in Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, states that Medan Hokkien bears the closest resemblance to Penang Hokkien. She has studied both the Taiwanese and Penang Hokkien dialects (and is fluent in the latter) and laments: “Penangites have become increasingly used to hearing Taiwanese Hokkien, but the Taiwanese are not used to hearing Penang Hokkien. Simply replacing Malay loan words with the Taiwanese equivalents does not turn Penang Hokkien into Taiwanese Hokkien either. The grammatical structure of Penang Hokkien is different.”

Dharmarajan Aiyakanoo speaks fluent Hokkien. He manages the flower stand at Pulau Tikus market and has been trading there since 1955.

There’s a special side to Hokkien as well: words that are lost in time in other dialects are still used – and very frequently. “One of my favourite features regarding Penang Hokkien is that it often preserves older vocabulary that has been lost in Taiwan and China. ‘Angmoh’, for instance, was a term used during Ming times from Japan to Malacca. That has died out – except in certain limited uses – everywhere apart from Malaysia and Singapore.”

It’s not just that some of the words are dying out; Penang Hokkien itself is endangered: “Languages often die the same way, and one of the reasons is simply the existence of a generation gap,” Churchman explains. “In the field of sociolinguistics there is the famous case of East Sutherland Gaelic in Scotland; it wasn’t until people were in their eighties that they realised that those younger than them had lost the language. And by then, it was too late.”

A Dialect in Danger

The Lost Generation

According to the Population and Housing Census of Malaysia 1991, 2000 and 2010, Hokkien is the top spoken Chinese language not just in Penang, but in Malaysia as a whole. However, that does not mean that all is fine and dandy.

When Saw Teong Hin, director of the film You Mean the World to Me, which was made entirely in Penang Hokkien, was searching for a 10-year-old boy to play the part of young Sunny, he ran into some difficulties: “Honestly, when we were auditioning for the role, it was a bit troubling that a lot of the kids couldn’t speak Hokkien. About half couldn’t, and the rest who could weren’t very fluent.”

I studied in a Chinese school, so when I was growing up, Hokkien language usage was not allowed in school. There was a lot of shame placed on the use of the language.

This is exactly the generational gap that Churchman mentioned. “Penang Hokkien is still spoken very widely, and it looks to be in a healthy state if you are in your forties or above. But just get on a bus or out in public and listen to what the children and teenagers are speaking to each other in; most of them will be speaking Mandarin,” Churchman observes. “Listen to what parents are speaking to their children and you’ll find it’s also Mandarin. Even if these children are speaking to their grandparents in Hokkien, there is not much hope of them speaking to their future partners in Hokkien, and therefore it is highly unlikely that they will be speaking Hokkien to their children. Assuming that the current trend continues, Hokkien won’t be immediately dead, but it won’t take much longer before it is.”

Ooi gives it another 50 years: “Children under 12 these days who can speak Hokkien are very, very few. It’s not their first language. It’s not even their second language. It’s not even a language they will speak outside; they have no connection to the language. The world tomorrow will be English and Mandarin if we don’t do something today.”

View of Xiamen University. Ranked as China's second-most liveable city, the Hokkien spoken in Xiamen can be seen as the representation of Hokkien which can embody the entire language.

There are several factors contributing to the waning use of Penang Hokkien among youngsters today, and where the dialect is still being spoken is one of them. One feature that makes Penang Hokkien special is that it’s colloquial, used by the people on the street. But this reliance on informal channels for Penang Hokkien’s sustainability is getting weaker: parents no longer speak to their children in their mother tongue, and with the rise of shopping malls and chain supermarkets less and less people shop at markets and bazaars today, precipitating Penang Hokkien’s decline.

Churchman concurs: “If you think about the lives of children nowadays, they have little to do with their families and spend more time in the education system. Simply relaxing rules around what language can be spoken on school grounds will alleviate a bit of the pressure. The rules around language in class make sense, but policing what children speak on school grounds – limiting their ability to express themselves – is very strange. The Taiwanese stopped doing it 30 years ago, but Malaysian Chinese schools are still doing it.”

What Churchman is referring to is the rule among vernacular Chinese schools forbidding the use of any language apart from Mandarin. Ooi, who studied at Chung Ling High School, relates that one was fined a small amount if one spoke in Hokkien or any other Chinese languages. This sadly contributes not only to the decline of the use of other Chinese languages, but to the negative perception surrounding them as well. John Ong, somewhat of a celebrity as the creator of possibly the world’s only Penang Hokkien podcast, which he started in 2005, relates: “I studied in a Chinese school, so when I was growing up, Hokkien language usage was not allowed in school. There was a lot of shame placed on the use of the language,” Ong laments.

Simply Marketed Wrongly

The iconic Hong Kong junk boat. In pre-1997 Hong Kong, Mandarin was considered a language spoken by backwater people. That perception is changing.

Too much emphasis is placed on speaking English or Mandarin, Ooi thinks. “We have the resources to be multilingual but why are we rejecting knowledge? That’s Malaysia’s mindset. People think speaking Mandarin is good, but if you trace things back to before 1997 – let’s take that as the starting point – Hong Kong people thought that Mandarin was a language spoken by mainland Chinese – backwater people. That’s changing right now. The notion of coolness and class depends on how we shape and market a language. Hokkien has its own coolness; Mandarin has its own coolness. Mandarin only entered Malaysia in the 1930s. Before that, there was no Mandarin education; teaching was done in Cantonese and Hokkien back then.”

Ooi, who works at a marketing agency in Seoul, South Korea, takes the Korean language as an example: “Ten years ago, did people think the word ‘sarangheyo’ was romantic? No. But it has become romantic today because you keep hearing it. Once you keep hearing it, you get used to it.

'Sarangheyo’ doesn’t mean anything to most of those who don’t speak Korean. To those who are following Korean culture, anything to do with K-Pop is romantic because the performers are very good looking. If we made a purely Hokkien romantic movie with super good-looking leads, trust me, it will change the whole thing,” Ooi comments.

While it may be encouraging that Taiwan and Singapore are making films and TV series in Hokkien, this surprisingly does not help promote the language.

Hua Hee Dai, available on Astro, is a channel that since 2007 screens Taiwanese shows such as drama series, variety shows, feature documentaries and the news. It is immensely popular not just among Chinese speakers, but with any who love a good soap opera as well. But there’s a slight criticism of the programmes aired: “There’s lots of spoken Taiwanese in place of local Hokkien,” Churchman observes. “People seem to look down on local Hokkien as something inferior. Can you imagine Australians refusing to speak in their own accent or use their own local words on the radio or TV? It needs to be used in the home and the community for it to thrive.”

MBLAQ, a popular South Korean boy band. The Korean Wave that took the world by storm propagated the Korean language.

It is this way of Hokkien being used that irks Ooi as well: “The Taiwanese TV series portray Hokkien as a very cheap language. Even in Singapore it’s the same: the characters who speak Hokkien in their films and TV shows are working-class people. Whenever they open their mouths it’s to swear in Hokkien; they’re not giving Hokkien a very positive image. If I were to make a movie, the gangsters would speak Mandarin, and all the professionals would speak Hokkien,” he says with a laugh.

Ooi, who was theatre manager at penangpac, says there has been an increase in interest in Hokkien-language performances of late, but laments that it is in the same vein as the Taiwanese and Singaporean shows – they depict the language’s harsher, vulgar side.

Changing Perceptions

Penang Hokkien is a unique dialect of Hokkien. Its lilting tones that rise and fall depending on how passionate one is about the subject at hand, along with its unabashed borrowing from surrounding languages, is endearing. But to many, it is also the connotations Penang Hokkien have in their lives that they love – a sense of nostalgia of a past that cannot be felt except through the use of the dialect.

“Penang Hokkien, in terms of the Hokkien family, is the nicest-sounding to my ears. It’s very melodious,” says Ooi. “The other thing is it’s linked to the memories of the place where I grew up. Whenever I hear Penang Hokkien I know that I’m home, or I am meeting someone from Penang.”

But feelings of nostalgia and affiliation aren’t enough to keep the language alive: “Ironically, those with a sentimental attachment to Hokkien do not speak Hokkien to their children,” Ooi observes. “That’s the funniest thing I’ve ever seen: people come up to me and tell me they’re so proud to be a Penangite and that they really like Penang Hokkien stuff, but the moment they turn to their kids they speak either broken English or broken Mandarin.”

Enter the Internet

To many, it is also the connotations Penang Hokkien have in their lives that they love – a sense of nostalgia of a past that cannot be felt except through the use of the dialect.

That’s where Ong’s efforts come in. For the Penang Hokkien podcast to come into existence in 2005 when podcasts were only beginning to take off showed that Hokkien could be hip.

Ong, who lives in Kansas City, went to the US to study and stayed on to work. “Being away from Penang and the language, I appreciated it more. When I started my podcast, I asked my friends to tune in. At first they felt it sounded odd as they’d never heard a talk show in Penang Hokkien before,” he says.

“I never imagined that I would create a community or create something bigger than what was basically just me and my friends talking,” Ong admits. “Only after the listenership started to build up did I think that I could make use of this platform to do something bigger. Podcast listeners back then were technologically savvy; so those who were listening to the Penang Hokkien podcast 11 years ago were already slightly more technologically inclined. In most cases they were a little bit more educated and a little bit more hip in a way – they embraced technology.”

Ong’s Penang Hokkien podcast has reached a broad audience and is not limited to listeners living in or from Penang; it has reached Taiwan’s shores and even China, especially in Xiamen.

It was also what helped Churchman learn Penang Hokkien: “In 2006 I found Ong’s Penang Hokkien podcast and began listening to it religiously every week for new episodes. I would go through the recording three or four times with a Malay and Taiwanese dictionary, noting down all the differences and collecting the words that were different from Taiwanese,” she says.

On top of that, the internet is unique in promoting use of the language because it is interactive – media can be disseminated very quickly and feedback is instantaneous. “We created a Facebook page called Speak Hokkien,” says Ooi. “Currently we’re posting videos and creating different kinds of animations. So far our animations have gone viral; a lot of people are sharing it on Facebook.”

Malaysia is a country hung up on social media. “We’re on Facebook all the time,” Ooi observes. “I think social media can play an important role. It’s where we collect people; it’s a platform. Using this platform, if we post something funny – at the same time positive – about Hokkien, it will be very useful. We are very serious about delivering the right message through video clips, animation and PowerPoint presentations.”

Penang Hokkien's first film You Mean the World to Me.

Social media’s power to teach is being recognised. Timothy Tye’s page, Learn Penang Hokkien, does exactly that. With over 5,000 members, Tye posts almost daily, with interactive quizzes and other useful tips to learn Hokkien among the content. “The bulk of discussion in the Facebook group is discussing words for the compilation of the online Penang Hokkien dictionary1, which now has over 5,000 words. The members appear most interested in this type of discussion, where they are challenged to provide definitions in English or in Penang Hokkien.”

Tye’s group appears to attract more people who are already speaking the language than those who are attempting to learn it. “Nevertheless, I am moving ahead to create free language lessons and tools so that those who are completely new to the language have an opportunity to do it and are able to receive assistance from people who have analysed the language and can describe its various parts clearly.”

However, he has hit a problem: “There is insufficient soft media material in Penang Hokkien,” he laments. To help ease the learning process, he has created an orthography specially for Penang Hokkien, based on elements from languages that most locals are familiar with (namely English, Malay and Mandarin). “It retains the spelling of words that are already familiar to locals but with added tone numbers corresponding to the four tones in Mandarin. It uses tone numbers instead of diacritic marks so that people can communicate using a standard keyboard, whether on a computer or a smartphone.” Beginner learners in the Facebook group have remarked on how easy and intuitive the system is in helping capture the correct tone for every word.

Penang Hokkien’s First Film

There is now a film that has got a lot of Penangites excited: You Mean the World to Me.

Filmed entirely in Penang Hokkien, it is the semi-autobiographical story of Saw’s life. “The primary intention of the film is to honour the memory of my mother and brother,” he says. “I look back at some of the things that have happened and I see them differently. When you’re young you might be more hot-tempered or selfish, but looking back, one admits one has made a fair share of mistakes – in my case, the unfair judgement of my mother and brother. In a sense, this film is for me to make amends and to honour their memory. If the viewer can somehow avoid the mistakes I made and appreciate their families more… that would be something I would love to see happen.”

Saw Teong Hin.

Staged as a play at George Town Festival in 2014, it was a huge hit. “After its success, we felt confident that it had a chance as a film,” Saw says.

People said if we did the movie in Mandarin it would reach a wider market. It might be true, but for me, especially since this story is semi-autobiographical, I felt that I had to stay true to the context. If I had made the film in another language it would not have been honourable to them.

But it was a risk as well to film it in Hokkien – a risk Saw bravely accepted. He wouldn’t have it any other way: “People said if we did the movie in Mandarin it would reach a wider market. It might be true, but for me, especially since this story is semi-autobiographical, I felt that I had to stay true to the context. My parents weren’t speaking in another language; they weren’t speaking Mandarin. If I had made the film in another language it would not have been honourable to them.”

Filming a movie in Hokkien wasn’t without its difficulties. The script was written in English and translated into Mandarin and Hokkien. Saw sought out PHLA to help with translating and Romanising the script, as well as creating a recording for the actors to refer to; every line was pre-recorded and the actors knew what the pronunciation was like.

Ooi was roped in to help coach the actors. “Non-Penangites have two problems: the first is being unable to speak Hokkien. This is not such a bad thing – if you work on memorising your lines, you can overcome the language barrier. The worst thing is the performer speaks southern Hokkien – the accent difference between northern and southern Hokkien was the biggest technical problem I faced. It was more difficult than coaching someone who doesn’t speak the language,” Ooi reveals.

But overall, Saw is happy with the performances. And with the film to be distributed in Singapore and Taiwan, Saw is understandably anxious about how it will pan out locally. “It’s the sort of story that you don’t stand up to applaud: instead, it makes you silent and contemplative, and it makes you think about parallel situations in your lives. Most people have families and relationships with their parents and siblings, and there will surely be an element in the story that you can relate to,” he says. “I hope that people will make the time to take their family members – their mothers particularly – to see the film. We are so busy with our daily lives – with work and making money – but it shouldn’t be to the extent of forgetting the important people in our lives.”

Keeping it Alive

There are those whose efforts at preserving Penang Hokkien have been more traditional in approach. Lee Siew Har has been doing her bit to keep the language alive by teaching the popular Hokkien class at YMCA Penang since 2005. Each class has 12 lessons and is divided into various levels (Beginner, Level 1, Level 2, etc.). She divides her lesson into three parts: the first 30 minutes to learn vocabulary, then role play to practise conversation, and finally sentence construction practise. “The learning process must be fun for them. I always tell my students that by the end of the class, they will surely be able to speak Hokkien,” Lee says.

Lee worked at a multinational company as an IT specialist. After retirement, a friend suggested that she do something interesting with her time. Taking over from Tan Choon Ho, whom she credits for pioneering the Hokkien class, she has taught at least 300 students of various ethnicities and nationalities. “It has been a very rewarding experience and I enjoy seeing my students pick up the language. For example, there was an old Japanese uncle and a deaf person in my class who were eager to learn Hokkien.” One of her students, Luc de Gijzel, even published a Penang Hokkien dictionary.

For traders, numbers are all-important. Ismail Saad can count in Hokkien, on top of being able to speak smidgens of the language.

Noting that many of her students are from the sales line, she expressed concern that people would lose the incentive to learn the language once the older generation is gone. “Many students learn Hokkien because their customers or patients are middle-aged or elderly citizens who only speak Hokkien. So if they can speak a little Hokkien to their customers, the customers would be happy to open up and trust them.”

Churchman cites Māori in New Zealand as example: “The Kohanga Reo movement of the 1970s created a generation of children who could speak Māori simply by employing the most fluent speakers as kindergarten teachers. I don't think Penangites will do that, though. I think the important thing to remember is that Hokkien is not a fringe language yet, but it will be if people insist on treating it like one.”

Penang Hokkien dictionaries – both online and print – seem easy to find. De Gijzel’s is one of them, and Tan Siew Imm’s is another. PHLA is working on a dictionary for the Chinese-educated and an input method so that people can type in Hokkien. The association counts a linguist, a videographer, a musician, a computer science expert, a lawyer and podcast creator Ong as its main members. “I feel that if we do something each day, we can do a lot; we have a task force which we haven’t fully utilised. Unfortunately, none of us live in Penang because the economy doesn’t really allow that. It’s heartbreaking,” Ooi says.

And Hokkien can be a literary language as well. Local poet Yasmin Bathamanathan has done her fair share of promoting Penang Hokkien when she translated a rare Hokkien poetry book, Found in Translation (originally written in Hokkien by Ooi), which was launched during World Poetry Day last year.

The project took two and a half years. Yasmin says, “It took us longer than expected, and when we sat down to go over it, we realised that we were not only translating between Penang Hokkien and English, we were translating between cultures and worldviews.”

That Hokkien has room not only on the streets and at home but in literature, film and on stage is something that more artists and performers may take note of. The Taiwanese do it; the Singaporeans do it; Penang most certainly can, too.


Julia Tan

went to primary and secondary school at Convent Pulau Tikus before continuing sixth form at St. Xavier’s Institution; any other school was out of the question. She misses the fried rice at the school canteen, and laments the passing of the wan tan mee lady.

Ooi Kok Hin

is an INTP who lives to write and writes to live. Follow him at https:// ooikokhin.