Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Is Hokkien my 'mother tongue'?

Sep 23, 2009

By Alfian Sa'at

A LONG time ago, a Chinese man saw some Malays eating a fruit. It had a spiky shell, but its insides were filled with large seeds covered by yellow, buttery flesh. He had never seen (nor smelt!) a fruit like it in his native village in Fujian. What was the fruit called, he asked the Malays.

'Durian,' they replied - from the Malay word duri, meaning 'thorn'. And so the Chinese man went back and told his friends about this new fruit. As the word spread, it became incorporated into Hokkien as loo lian.

Then one day, a new fruit made its appearance, native to South America. It was also green, with a spiky exterior. It was known as 'soursop' in English.

The Malays had a tendency to append the word belanda (meaning 'Dutch') to anything foreign that they had never seen before. Examples include kambing belanda (sheep), ayam belanda (turkey), kucing belanda (rabbit). So they called soursop durian belanda.

The Hokkiens, on the other hand, called it ang mo loo lian. Ang mo - roughly 'Western' - was also used for other edibles, like ang mo kio (tomato) and ang mo chai thou (carrot). The word ang mo loo lian carries traces of Hokkien's contact with both Malay and the West.

The study of loan words has always fascinated me, for they give clues to the kinds of social interactions that occurred in the past. I sketched a scenario above of how a single word from one language entered another. But the process is much more complex than that, probably involving long-term, sustained contact. The chain of transmission might even involve an intermediary, such as the Straits Chinese (or Peranakans), whose Baba patois contains both Malay and Hokkien words.

Here are some words that were borrowed from Hokkien into Malay: beca (trishaw), bihun (vermicelli), cat (paint), cincai (any old how), gua (I/me), guli (marbles), kentang (potato), kamceng (close), kuih (cake), kongsi (share), kuaci (melon seeds), teko (teapot), taugeh (bean sprout), tahu (beancurd) and tauke (boss). (Note that 'c' in Malay has the 'ch' sound.)

This linguistic exchange was a two-way process. Here are some Malay words that penetrated Hokkien: agak (guess or moderate), botak (bald), champur (mix), gadoh (fight), gaji (wages), jamban (toilet), kachiau (disturb), otang (owe/ debt), pakat (conspire), pasar (market), pitchia (break), salah (wrong), senget (crooked), sukak (like), tiam (quiet) and torlong (help).

There are even some Cantonese words that are now part of Malay parlance, such as pokai (broke or penniless) and samseng (gangster). Interestingly, it has been postulated that the word sam seng (three stars) was derived from the fact that recruits in the Malayan People's Anti-Japanese Army wore caps emblazoned with three stars, each representing one of the main races in Malaya: Malays, Chinese and Indians.

In the Singapore Armed Forces, one of the things all NSmen were told by their sergeants was that 'over here, Hokkien is your mother tongue'. This was based on the stereotypes that Hokkien was a gendered, macho language, with the most pungent swear words.

But considering how Hokkien words have entered the Malay language, I have realised that there is a larger truth to that statement. It is like tracing a family tree and then discovering that I had a Hokkien great-great-great-greatgrandmother. As a matter of fact, since almost two-thirds of the Malay lexicon consist of borrowings, I definitely had Arabic and Indian (linguistic) ancestors too.

Malays have a saying: bahasa jiwa bangsa, 'language is the soul of a race'. But there is a tension in the phrase. We tend to think of 'race' as something bounded and rigid. But 'language' does not have such impermeable borders. Words of various origins pass through open checkpoints, undergo shifts in meaning, and become naturalised over time.

Thus, as much as we may like to be essentialist about our race, we cannot escape from the hybridities already extant in our language. There is humility in the idea that no language is perfect on its own, and will borrow words to make up for its lack.

My Hokkien friends who travel overseas would often relate to me the sense of dislocation they feel when speaking to other Hokkien speakers. A friend who went to Taiwan, for example, was surprised to note that they did not understand what loti meant. Another friend shared a story about the nuances of pokai in Hong Kong.

At the end of the month, he moaned out loud at the office kam chi pokai le ('I'm broke this time') and all eyes turned on him. Pokai means 'broke' in Singapore. But in Hong Kong, pokai (literally, 'cast out on the streets') suggests something worse, like being destitute on the streets or being beaten up.

It is easy to interpret these instances as evidence that the Chinese in this part of the world have been 'contaminated' by other cultures. I happen to take the opposite view: The Nanyang Chinese have evolved an identity of their own, incorporating elements of other cultures. That this has been possible is a testament to their openness and curiosity.

Much ink (and tears) has been spilled on how the promotion of Mandarin here has resulted in what some have called the 'cultural lobotomy' of the Chinese community. In many ways, I sympathise with the late Kuo Pao Kun's observation that Chinese Singaporeans are 'cultural orphans', snatched as they were from their biological southern Chinese bosoms and placed in the laps of Mandarin-speaking foster mothers.

A familiar lament is that the declining use of the southern Chinese languages has resulted in the estrangement between generations of Chinese Singaporeans. I would argue that it has also led to some estrangement among the various languages. I do not know if I should worry about the fact that the traffic of loan words has almost ceased between Malay and Mandarin.

It is premature to theorise that this is a symptom of less interaction among the races. After all, there is English to mediate our communications with one another. But the fact remains that I do not know of a single Malay word that has Mandarin origins.

Somehow, our forefathers, of various races, knew how to pakat against common enemies, were able to kongsi their resources, and in the process of all that champur, became kamcheng with one another. The product of their alliances, friendships and inter-marriages is reflected in the languages we have inherited.

To lose this legacy is to sever a vital connection not only to the historical origins of the Nanyang Chinese, but also to Singapore's dynamic multicultural past.

The writer is a poet and playwright. He thanks Lai Chee Kien for his inputs. A longer version of this essay first appeared in The Online Citizen.

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