Chinese Dialects - Uniquely Singapore

The Death of Dialects in Singapore

Singapore’s many Chinese dialects (Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka etc.) came about as a result of early settlers arriving from various provinces in China.

In the 1950s & 60s, Singapore, like many de-colonised countries, began a search for an independent national identity. The Chinese in particular, turned to the cultural products of film and music from Hong Kong as a source of inspiration. The fascination with Hong Kong was also seen as a reactionary and feudal ‘Yellow Culture’ that was set out to oppose the ‘Red’ culture still apparent in Communist China.

Canto-pop in particular, boomed because of its apparent lack of censorship and ‘sexy songstress’, and made its way to the hearts of Singapore with popular Hong Kong singers taking centrestage at the Republic’s newly established culture centre, the National Theatre.

Dialects' disappearing act


Madam Leong admits that she resents being robbed of her language heritage, but reckons there is little she can do about it. "It's the S'pore mould, you know. Most of the youngsters now don't even understand the various dialects," she says.

"Try talking to them - it's like gai tong ngiap gong," which literally means chicken and duck talking to each other.

Indeed. Do dialects still have a place in Singapore?

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How about learning some dialect to bond with grandma?

When author and blogger Grace Tan first met her boyfriend’s grandmother, she found herself tongue-tied. It’s not because the 29-yr-old is shy; it’s because she couldn’t chat with the 85-yr-old as the latter speaks only Teochew. “It was ridiculously difficult to communicate with her as she doesn’t speak Mandarin. So while she understands while I’m trying to say in Mandarin, she can’t respond to me at all,” said Tan.

But these days, Tan is able to use some conversational Teochew greetings such as “How are you feeling?” and “What would you like to eat?” thanks to the Teochew classes she attended at a community centre. Her efforts have been reciprocated by the older lady who would laugh and correct her pronunciation. Naturally, they’ve gotten closer.

Tan’s Teochew class was organised by a student initiative My Father Tongue, set up by Fiona Seah, Melissa Goh and Cherie Lim from Nanyang Technological University’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information as part of their final year project. These free Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese classes are held in community centres around Singapore in partnership with Viriya Community Services, which provides the teachers and learning materials.

Dialects help strengthen learning of Mandarin
Hokkien association, NUS launch Mandarin programme for adults
Use of dialects can bridge generation gap

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A ‘sibey’ fun way to learn dialect

How do you teach your 6-yr-old nephew Hokkien so he can converse with his grandparents? Social worker Koh Kuan Eng came up with an answer: He drew common objects on a piece of paper with the corresponding phrases and words to start his nephew off.

Then, the former advertising creative director decided to take it one step further: He created picture books with 50 everyday objects and the names in Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese. It proved to be a winner.

Before he knew it, his series of Sibey Nostalgic books became popular gift items (you can find them at retailers such as Books Actually and Naiise) and led Koh to produce a quirky range of merchandise; for example, posters identifying body parts in different dialects. Since the books were launched, almost 10,000 copies of all six titles - which includes Hainanese, Hakka and a book on dialect idioms and slangs - have been sold.

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Chinese Dialects — uniquely Singapore

I think the loss of Chinese dialects in Singapore is one of the saddest things to happen. It’s almost like the loss of an entire language, to me Many of the Chinese Dialects used here are supposedly also used in China, Malaysia etc. But really, no one speaks it the way Singaporeans do (Of course, no one speaks it quite the way the Malaysians do, but that doesn’t make our dialects any less unique.

In Singapore, much of our dialects, especially Hokkien and Teochew, 2 of the most commonly used, have adopted many Malay words. It’s become so integral to our unique Hokkien / Teochew, that we don’t even feel as if we are mixing 2 different languages. In fact, I never realised the extent to which we’ve made our Dialects our very own, until I started speaking it to the locals when I went to China, or until I started to speak with some of the recent immigrants from Xiamen, Teochew etc. And even though the Malaysians have also incorporated many Malay words into their dialects, we can always tell the difference when a Malaysian speaks any of the Dialects, including Mandarin.

The evolution of this Dialects reflects our history, at a very personal level. It reflects the journey our families’ ancestors took coming here, the friends they made here, their efforts at becoming Singaporean. I suppose the loss of these Dialects, also tells another part of our story.

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Use of dialects can bridge generation gap
Mr Lee Kuan Yew wanted the young to be bilingual — English and their mother tongue — for economic survival and the retention of cultural ballast.
Still, many of our parents and grandparents are conversant in their dialect and may feel alienated or marginalised if we simply use English and Mandarin.
When I was young, I learnt Teochew from my parents. Today, I can read the Chinese newspapers, as my dialect was a launch pad for me to acquire Mandarin in secondary school even though I did not learn it in primary school.
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We are speaking "Chinese dialects"?

Today, "Singaporean Chinese Dialects" are the only lects that are prohibited to be broadcast in TV programs. They are actively persecuted. When I was studying,  all MOE schools treated our lects as something of a vulgarities, liable to incur punishments. Every other dialects are abled to be air except that of Chinese. Linguistic scholars knew that English, Dutch, are examples of Germanic dialects. French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italians are dialects of Latin. Russian, Polish, Czech, Ukranian, Yugoslavic are dialect of Slavic languages. Everyone of them are able to be aired to be relished as exotic foreign language programs.

Other than that, we have exotics Japanese, Korean, Arabic cable channels. The programs forbidden by PAP are those that speaks Hokkien and Cantonese.

In short, all minorities have access to their own language TV in Singapore, our Singaporean Chinese has no access. "Speak Mandarin" program is a noise, and ranting by PAP that does not affect an iota of our minorities, but is a cultural genocide to Singaporean Chinese. Unfortunately, many minorities seize the chance, and use it to attack Singaporean Chinese, who themselves are the greatest victims of cultural genocide.

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Calls to rethink 'sacred cows' in nation-building

Several participants, who were Zaobao readers ranging in age from 20 - 47, also asked for a relaxation of the rules on the use of Chinese dialects in media.

They also said the utilitarian approach to teaching Chinese would strip away the beauty of the language. Mr Heng noted that the gradual decrease in dialect speakers can be seen even in Chinese cities like Shanghai. Singapore already has a "complicated language environment" with its current focus on English and the mother tongue "first and foremost", he said.

Those keen to learn dialects can do so at a later age, he added. Zaobao editor Goh Sin Teck said a younger group of bilingual readers were specially invited as their views would add value to the national conversation. For instance, they feel more strongly about language and the humanities, he added.

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Re-introduce dialects back into Singapore

For years, English and Mother Tongue ruled the media, while dialects were kept to private conversations at home with one’s elderly grandparents and neighbours.

Back in 1978, The Goh Report, an evaluation of Singapore’s education system by Dr. Goh Keng Swee, showed that less than 40% of the student population managed to attain the minimum level of competency in two languages. The government attributed the poor mastery of Mandarin among the Singaporean Chinese to the home use of non-Mandarin Chinese languages, better known as ‘dialects’ in Singapore (principally Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese and Hakka).

As such, they began to ban dialects from use on media programmes, and the “Speak Mandarin” campaign was started to encourage Singaporean-Chinese to speak a common second language: Mandarin, instead of dialects.

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Dialects will burden school kids more

Ensuring that children have a sound grasp of English and the mother-tongue language will remain the focus of the Education Ministry for now, said Education Minister Heng Swee Keat yesterday.

Learning dialects, he added, is something for people to consider later, when the foundation for those two languages has been built. He was speaking to reporters after a Mandarin dialogue organised by Lianhe Zaobao at S'pore Press Holdings' News Centre.

The 2-hr session was attended by more than 30 students, parents, teachers and other working professionals.

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Who says our kids can’t learn dialects and multi-languages at the same time?

Are our kids incapable of learning dialects and Mandarin at the same time? Our government thinks so. Education Minister Heng Swee Kiat said recently at a dialogue session that learning “dialects will burden school kids more” which makes it clear that the authorities will not be encouraging our kids to learn dialects any time soon. His rationale for this is because he wants to ensure that our Singapore children have a sound grasp of English and the mother-tongue language. He also said it is best for the kids to learn dialects later on in life if they wish.

The government’s stand on dialects is built on fallacies that must be demolished.  Firstly, they are assuming that Singaporeans are unable to handle anything more than two languages competently. This is a fallacy. I have witnessed numerous older generations of Singaporeans, who grew up in the early 1900′s through to the 50s, 60′s and 70′s, who are able to speak not one but a few dialects, some Malay and reasonably good English and Mandarin.  My entire family including my elderly aunts and uncles are multi-lingual. Personally, I can speak three dialects and am fluent in English and Mandarin.

So unless Singaporeans have grown more stupid over the years, I do not see why the kids of today can’t learn dialects too. In fact, ain’t the kids getting smarter through the years with better education, nutrition and early learning opportunities?  And isn’t our education system better and more advanced now in its pedagogy and teaching of languages?

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Dear Mr Heng, what has being nurtured in our own dialect got to do with learning Mandarin in school?

I am sure Mr Heng, the MOE minister, meant well when he fielded those questions on the ban on Chinese dialects.

But I find it disconcerting and mighty strange that he had equated the use of dialects which is the means by which ethnic Chinese Singaporeans access their heritage, roots and ethnic origins, with the formal teaching and learning of a second language (Mandarin) in MOE schools. IMHO, the conflation of the two is neither proper nor logical. Let me explain.

All ethnic Chinese Singaporeans are born to parents who belong to one of several dialect groups here. There isn’t any ‘formal’ schooling or training (as in formal lessons conducted in a classroom) wherein our children are taught to speak the dialect of his or her parents, grandparents, and elders. Rather, it is quite literally by word of mouth that from birth we are inducted, nurtured, taught and ‘immersed’ by our parents into the cultural mores, values and habits of our respective dialect groups. Meaning, this comes about very naturally especially and particularly between mother and child (hence, the real origin of the term ‘mother tongue’ to describe this intimate nurturing relationship. Regrettably the term has been quite brazenly hijacked by the MOE to describe the compulsory learning of Mandarin by all ethnic-Chinese Singaporeans).

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Teochew dialect
A Teochew Chinese temple in Ketapang, West Kalimantan, Indonesia on the island of Borneo

The Teochew variety also known as Teoswa(Chinese: 潮州話or潮汕話; pinyin: Cháozhōuhuà or Cháoshànhuà; Vietnamese: Triều Châu, Chaozhou dialect: Diê⁵ziu¹ uê⁷; Shantou dialect: Dio⁵ziu¹ uê⁷) of Southern Min is a variety of Chinese spoken in the Chaoshan region of eastern Guangdong and by the Teochew diaspora around the world. Teochew is sometimes spelled Chiuchow in Cantonese.

Teochew preserves many Old Chinese pronunciations and vocabulary that have been lost in some of the other modern varieties of Chinese. As such, many linguists consider Teochew one of the most conservative Chinese dialects.

Teochew is a member of the Southern Min or Min Nan dialect group, which in turn constitutes a part of Min Chinese, one of the seven major dialect groups of Chinese. As with other varieties of Chinese, it is not very mutually intelligible with other dialect groups of China but is mutually intelligible with some other Southern dialects, such as those of Zhangzhou and Quanzhou. Even within the Teochew varieties, there is substantial variation in phonology between different regions of Chaoshan and between different Teochew communities overseas.

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Teochew people

The Chaozhou people (commonly known as Teochew) are Chinese people, native to the Chaoshan region of eastern Guangdong province who speak the Teochew dialect. Today, most Teochew people live outside China in Southeast Asia, especially in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia. They can also be found almost anywhere in the world, including North America, Australia and France.

The Teochew speak Chinese Teochew dialect; Teochew cuisine is also distinctive. The ancestors of the Teochew people moved to present-day Chaoshan from the Central Plains of China in order to escape from a series of civil wars during the Jin Dynasty.

Teochew can be romanised in a variety of schemes, and are known in Mandarin as cháo zhōu rén and Cantonese as Chiuchao yan. In referring to themselves as ethnic Chinese, Teochew people generally use Deung nang (唐人; Mandarin: Tangren), literally Tang Dynasty people, as opposed to Hang nang (漢人/汉人; Mandarin: Hanren), which means 'Han Dynasty people'. Teochew people of the diaspora would generally use Hua nang (華人/华人; Mandarin: Huaren) to indicate Chinese heritage in a cultural sense. Huanang and huaren are broadly used by Chinese people living outside of China, referring to their maintaining a substantial cultural identity they consider to be Chinese.

Teochew people also commonly refer to each other as ga gi nang (自己人; Mandarin: zijiren) which means 'our own people'.

related: Teochew cuisine

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Do we have enough Teochew nan in SHC?

Teochews should also be able to understand Teochew jokes.  I think it is fun if not memorable to view some video clips from youtube, using search words "Teochew joke" or "Teochew language" or "Teochew show".  So, knowing at least two Teochew jokes, comedies or songs would be the second criteria for someone to be a Teochew.

The third criteria is if one of your parents is a Teochew, I also think we can classify you as a Teochew.  But, must have evidence.

The last criteria is the Teochew clan must recognise you.  I guess if you can get two Teochews to certify you as a Teochew, this should be good enough.

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Teochew clan leader brings hope to unity

George Quek, founder of the BreadTalk Group chain of bakeries, restaurants and food-courts, has his work cut out for him as the new leader of Singapore's Teochews.

Last Monday he became president of the Teochew Poit Ip Huay Kuan, the umbrella body of clan associations for people from eight Teochew districts in China's Guangdong province. Numbering about 560,000, they are Singapore's second-largest Chinese community group after the Hokkiens.

Mr Quek, 57, has taken over at a time when the Teochews are looking disunited, and their relations with the bigger Hokkien group are strained.

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Myfathertongue - Teochew
The Teochews originated from the Chaozhou prefecture in the Guangdong province of China. The first Teochews who arrived in Singapore after 1819 were known to have come from the Riau Islands of Indonesia and Siam (now called Thailand).

Some Teochew immigrants made their homes along Singapore River and around Fort Canning. As they were living near the sea, many started working in the fishing industry. The Teochews went on to dominate the fishing industry.

Today, the Teochews are second largest dialect group, making up 21% of the Chinese population in Singapore.

related: Teochew Food

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Reconnect with Dialects

While you "jiak-kantang", don't forget your roots.

Many of us grew up learning and speaking dialects – at home, at the playground, and especially in kopi tiams. However, with time, we are progressively losing touch with the dialects that once played a big part in our childhood.

Dedicated to reconnecting individuals with dialects, this site is a reminder that dialects are very much a part of Singapore’s heritage, and our roots.

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Teochew Federation - Our Origin / 总会缘起
The ancestors of the Teochews in Singapore came from China and to meet the needs then, they formed clan associations to socialise with and offer mutual help to fellow clansmen.

The Teochews came from Southern Guangdong, China, i.e.: Chao'an (Teo Ann), Puning (Pho Leng), Jieyang (Kit Yang), Chenghai (Theng Hai), Huilai, Chaoyang, Raoping counties, Nan'ao and Dapo (Hakka district). Language differences led to Dapo being separated from the Teochew region, leaving the Teochew region with only eight districts, commonly known as "Bayi" or "Poit Ip". However, after the 19th century, the Chinese government further divided the eight districts into 11, whereby Jieyang was divided into Jiedong and Jiexi; and Chaoyang into three district, namely, Chaoyang , Chaonan and Haojiang. Nevertheless, in Singapore, Teochew organisations were already set up based on the initial eight districts. Thus, up till today, the number of Teochew clan association and guilds remain unchanged.

The first Teochew society set up by the early immigrants is "Ngee Ann Kongsi". Its main objective is to contribute to the community through charitable works and education. At the same time, in addition to the clan associations that represent the eight districts, there are subsidiary clan associations according to towns and surnames (family name).

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Singapore Teochew

In celebration of Singapore Teochew poit 85 years of the Town Hall, Hall held "Chaozhou, family man" sections in Chaozhou, and aims to increase community awareness and understanding of Chaozhou culture Hall.

"Chaozhou, family man" is a Chaozhou dialect, meaning "Chaozhou people." Logo is based on a unique Chaozhou food-rice cake, as the design theme. Eight rice cake tightly linked, forming a family reunion, a symbol of harmony, community, trade unions, and family relationships.

Chaozhou section will be a rich and colorful history and cultural exchange. Club want the public through inspiring exhibits a glimpse of the Chaozhou people daily, as well as Singapore one important aspect of Chinese culture. ”

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Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan

Founded in 1840, the Huay Kuan’s main objectives are to promote education, provide social welfare and preserve and promote Chinese language and culture. From its founding leaders: Tan Tock Seng, Tan Kim Ching, Tan Kah Kee, Tan Boo Liat, Tan Lark Sye, Wee Cho Yaw to the present President, Chua Thian Poh, the Huay Kuan has steadfastly held on to its beliefs and continues to contribute towards the community and nation building.

In the 19th century, trade winds fanned the flames of diaspora from China’s Fujian province to many parts of South East Asia. One of these promising lands is the free trade heartland of Singapore. Many of these early settlers arrived in this foreign land alone and thus brought about the rise of clan associations. The Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan was no different. It provided critical assistance in securing accommodations, jobs and burial services for the early immigrants.

While adopting many customs of the foreign land, these new xinke (新客) also brought with them their native traditions and cultures. This heritage legacy is something which we should all be proud of.

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Time for me to brush up on Hokkien

I can still remember my futile efforts in trying to comfort my maternal grandmother 3 years ago, when she was lying in a hospital bed, recovering from an ulcer in the small intestine. My grandmother does not understand English but has a decent command of Mandarin. However, she is most comfortable speaking in the Hokkien dialect.

On the other hand, I am proficient in English, illiterate in dialects, and have a very uncomfortable relationship with my mother tongue, Chinese.

My handicap led to us spending hours staring at each other in silence, because I could not really communicate with her beyond the usual "How are you feeling?" and "Have you eaten?"

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My Father Tongue

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Singlish - Uniquely Singapore

Singapore's famous spouting Merlion statue - in Singlish "merlion" means to vomit profusely

Singapore's government has long insisted that everyone in the island nation should speak English - it's the language used in schools, at work, and in government. But in practice many people speak a hybrid language that can leave visitors completely baffled - Singlish.

Singapore is known for its efficiency and Singlish is no different - it's colourful and snappy. You don't have a coffee - you "lim kopi". And if someone asks you to join them for a meal but you've already had dinner, you simply say: "Eat already."

Singlish first emerged when Singapore gained independence 50 years ago, and decided that English should be the common language for all its different races. That was the plan. It worked out slightly differently though, as the various ethnic groups began infusing English with other words and grammar. English became the official language, but Singlish became the language of the street.