Saving the Penang Hokkien language, one word at a time

Penang Hokkien Language association secretary Ooi Kee How says people need to speak their mother tongue to keep it alive. — Picture by KE Ooi
Penang Hokkien Language association secretary Ooi Kee How says people need to speak their mother tongue to keep it alive. — Picture by KE Ooi

GEORGE TOWN, July 14 — “Lu chiak pa bueh” (Have you eaten?) may be a common phrase heard among Penangites — even the non-Chinese understand and sometimes use it — but when was the last time you actually heard it?

Today phrases like these are seldom heard as more Penangites use Mandarin or English in their daily lives.

The Hokkien dialect, a language believed to have originated from the Fujian province in China, has long been identified with Penang where almost everyone speaks the language, including local Malays and Indians.

Back in the old days, children from Chinese homes, particularly the Hokkiens, grew up speaking their mother tongue and singing Hokkien rhymes like “thnni oo oo, bueh loh hoo” (the sky is dark, it looks like rain) but today, most households have adopted either Mandarin or English as their main spoken language at home.

In the past decade, the familiar nasal dialect has been dying a slow death with many in the younger generation unable to converse or even understand Hokkien.

It has become so alarming that a small group of concerned Hokkien-speaking people decided to band together to form the Penang Hokkien Language Association.

The association secretary, Ooi Kee How, personally saw the death of his mother tongue — Hainanese — and strongly believes the Penang Hokkien is also heading that way if nothing is done to preserve it.

The mother tongue, be it Hokkien, Cantonese, Hainanese, Hakka or Teochew, is often demonised in most Chinese vernacular schools where students are prohibited from speaking any other languages except for Mandarin, English or Malay.

“So, generations of students in these Chinese vernacular schools speak only Mandarin in school and when they go home, their parents also speak Mandarin to them and they had no chance to learn their own mother tongue,” he said.

He said Mandarin may be an “official” language of China but it is not the mother tongue like Hokkien, Cantonese, Hainanese, Hakka or Teochew which has been spoken for generations.

“In Penang, Hokkien is our very identity and our living heritage. In fact, the first ever Hokkien people to come to Malaysia were the Khoos who arrived in Penang,” he said.

Mother tongue languages have been demeaned and demonised by Chinese vernacular schools for so long that Ooi believes this has set in motion the slow death of these languages as society evolved and become modernised with the belief that only Mandarin or English is “worthy enough” to be spoken on a daily basis.

Ooi pointed out that a dialect is also a language and it is as worthy of learning and keeping alive as any other languages because it is not only a means of communications but it is the identity of each specific ethnic group.

“Penang Hokkien is what makes Penang stand out and in Malaysia, we actually have more Hokkien speaking people than other Chinese dialects and yet, Cantonese is more prominent now as compared to Hokkien,” he said.

The association recently presented a proposal to Khoo Kongsi — a project to revive and revitalise the dying dialect through community programmes and various activities to encourage more Hokkiens to speak the language and pass it on to the younger generation.

The proposal was shot down by the clan association but this will not stop the Penang Hokkien Language Association from pressing on urgently.

“Singapore is already recognising Hokkien as an important part of their culture and heritage and yet, here, we used to speak more Hokkien and we don't seem to want to preserve it, promote it or package it as something inherently Penang,” he said.

Penang Hokkien contains traditional phrases and usage of words that can't be found in Taiwan Hokkien or China Hokkien so it is something that should be preserved at all costs.

“All we want is to encourage more families to speak their own mother tongue at home, to pass on the language and for schools to stop demonising mother tongues and local dialects,” he said.

The association was formed late last year but due to a shortage of funding, it was unable to proceed with many of its planned projects.

Their goals are to promote the use and literacy of Hokkien and to increase the number of activities in Hokkien while at the same time to “rebrand” Hokkien to get rid of an impression that it is a “minor” language not worth learning.

They also have plans to set up a Hokkien Language Resource Centre, to have a Speak Hokkien Campaign, to teach Penang Peranakan or Baba Hokkien poems in nurseries and kindergartens and next year, they also hope to start crowdsourcing for old Hokkien sayings, words and proverbs and to organise a World Mother Language Day Short Film Festival to encourage more ethnic Chinese film-makers to make short films in their mother tongue instead of only Mandarin.

“What we are looking for now is for funding to implement all these programmes so that people know how important it is to preserve the Hokkien language,” Ooi said.

To find out more about what the association does, email to [email protected].

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