My grandmother used to live in a village on the island of Penang, off the west coast of peninsular Malaysia. Whenever I visited her, I would usually find her sitting in the kitchen, drinking a strong cup of local coffee.
I would greet her in Penang Hokkien, a local dialect. “Ahma, lu ho bo? (Ahma, how are you?)”
She would reply, in a thin, wavering voice, “Ho, ho. (Good, good.)”
Often, we would find ourselves stuck briefly in a wordless impasse until one of us changed the subject. Sometimes—and this is embarrassing to admit—I pretended to understand what she was saying, even if I didn’t.
My grandmother died three years ago. But her frustration at being unable to communicate with me—and my corresponding sense of shame and regret—left me questioning if others in my generation also struggled to speak Penang Hokkien, and if so, why.
Origins of Penang Hokkien
The island of Penang, together with a thin strip of land on the peninsula, make up one of Malaysia’s 13 states. Historically, Penang has had a predominantly ethnic Chinese population, an outlier in a country whose majority demographic is Malay. According to the last Malaysian Population and Housing Census conducted in 2010, Chinese make up 43% of the population of Penang.
The Chinese people in Penang, including myself, are mostly descendants of Hokkien migrants from Fujian province in Southern China. The Hokkien community was the earliest, and subsequently largest, ethnic Chinese community to establish itself in Penang once the British established an outpost on the island in 1786.
By the time Malaysia achieved independence in 1957, the population census that year noted that there were 113,943 Hokkien people living in Penang, representing the largest sub-group (38%) within the local ethnic Chinese population, followed by the Cantonese (16.5%) and Teochews (9.8%).
By sheer population size and economic dominance, Hokkien became the lingua franca among the various ethnic Chinese migrant communities in Penang. Today, you will hear Hokkien being spoken in Penang’s bustling markets, food courts, and kopitiams (cafés).
For my grandmother, speaking Penang Hokkien was part of her family’s Peranakan heritage along with her sarongs, beaded manik shoes and delicious nyonya dishes.
Penang Hokkien is similar, yet different, to other variations of Hokkien in Malaysia. As an older import, it is closer to the Tang Min dialect, rather than Standard Amoy, which is the type of Hokkien spoken by newer migrant Chinese communities.
It is also unique for its assimilation of the Malay language, such as the frequent use of Malay particles such as lah, pun, and nya, as well as the use of Malay loan words, such as nouns (senduk, balai) and verbs (tarik).
The use of Malay in Penang Hokkien can be traced back to the Peranakan Chinese community in Penang, also known as Baba-Nyonyas, who were the descendants of intermarriage between Chinese migrants and local ethnic groups. I am at least a fifth-generation Peranakan Chinese through my mother’s side of the family.
The early Peranakan Chinese in Penang spoke Baba Malay, their own version of the Malay language. However, Penang Hokkien eventually replaced Baba Malay as the dominant language within the community.
The reason why this happened is unclear, but Teoh Boon Seong and Lim Beng Soon of the National University of Singapore suggested in a 1999 study published by the Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, that the Hokkien lexicon may have gradually been absorbed into Baba Malay as the Peranakan Chinese assimilated into mainstream Chinese culture.
Penang Hokkien under threat
There is currently no official data on how many people in Penang, or Malaysia for that matter, are able to speak Hokkien.
Ong Wooi Leng, head of the social science and statistics programme at the Penang Institute think-tank, explained that data from the past three national censuses (1991, 2000, 2010) records Hokkien as the largest Chinese dialect group in Penang and Malaysia.
However, whether people of Hokkien descent can speak their native dialect is a separate matter, said Ong, adding that data on language has not been published.
The Penang Institute published an article in May this year titled “Penang Hokkien on life support”, in which it noted observations by academics and language enthusiasts that young Penangites are mostly speaking Mandarin and English, rather than the dialect.
The media has, similarly, produced numerous reports on the issue, the most recent one being, “Has Mandarin replaced Hokkien in Penang?” in Malay Mail Online on 19 August.
The questions surrounding Penang Hokkien parallels a larger discussion about Chinese dialects in Malaysia. A recent move in 2013 by radio station Ai FM to cancel the last of Chinese dialect news broadcasts on Malaysian radio sparked a controversy, with Singapore’s The Straits Times describing the shutdown as “a stark reminder that dialects are slowly, but surely, on the decline”.
The programmes were eventually kept on air in response to public pressure, but debate over the longevity of dialects remains.
There is an ongoing local movement to preserve Penang Hokkien, mostly in the form of increasing the public’s literacy and oracy in the language.
Sim Tze Wei, president of the Hokkien Language Association of Penang (HLAP), believes that Penang Hokkien is a language in decline.
“The evidence can be observed from the linguistic behaviour of most children in Penang,” he said.
Sim claims that the majority of children below 10 years of age spoke Hokkien with each other 50 years ago, but “in 2017, it’s a rare sight to see children doing that”.
The HLAP, which was established in 2014, launched a “Speak Hokkien Campaign” in 2015. It aims to promote the use of Hokkien, and, as Sim explains, encourage people to “consciously change their behaviour to keep the language alive”.
The campaign runs an active Facebook page with almost 20,000 followers, and publishes educational posters and videos on Penang Hokkien. It also has a website that teaches the public to read and write in Penang Hokkien, which, according to Sim, receives 200–400 visitors weekly.
The publication of Penang Hokkien dictionaries has also marked a step forward in formalising Penang Hokkien and widening its use. There have been at least two Penang Hokkien-English dictionaries released in the past four years, while HLAP is working on a version that targets Mandarin-speaking audiences. The association is also developing a Hokkien input method for smartphones.
Khoo Salma, co-founder of Areca Books in Penang, says that the publishing company has sold almost 2,000 copies of Luc de Gijzel’s 2013 Penang Hokkien-English dictionary, while a newer one by Tan Siew Imm has sold 300 copies.
“The numbers are not huge, but we are happy that these books are in the market,” she said, adding that the company is planning to publish another dictionary on the subject by New Zealand academic Catherine Churchman next year.
However, outside of educational purposes, examples of Penang Hokkien being used in “new domains and media”—a criterion for language vitality set by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO)—have been noticeably harder to find.
The first feature-length Penang Hokkien film You Mean the World to Me, which was released to wide acclaim this year, is a prominent example of the dialect’s use in an artistic form.
In addition, HLAP members have also been using Hokkien in innovative ways. One example is a weekly podcast by HLAP committee member John Ong, which has been running for over a decade. The podcast, conducted wholly in Penang Hokkien, follows a chat show format and invites guests to discuss topics ranging from ghost stories to drag queens and durians.
Additionally, a unique poetry book was published by HLAP secretary Ooi Kee How last year in collaboration with Penang writer Yasmin Bathamanathan, which featured poems translated from Penang Hokkien to English and vice versa.
The root of the problem
A number of factors are responsible for the decline in use of Penang Hokkien among the young. One such element is the informal policy banning students from speaking dialects in Malaysian Chinese schools.
In my school, the only Chinese language we were allowed to speak was Mandarin. Disciplinary marks were deducted for speaking in Hokkien, Cantonese, Hakka, or any other fang yan (dialect).
Penang artist Chew Win Chen, known professionally as Okui Lala, remembers the strict enforcement of the ban on fang yan in our school. A prefect caught her speaking Hokkien to a friend, and punished her by deducting disciplinary marks.
“In high school, I was rebellious. It was ‘cool’ to speak Hokkien, so that’s why I would put in some Hokkien phrases when speaking with my friends,” said Chew.
The lack of institutional support for dialects, and the dominance of Mandarin, can be attributed to the 20th-century evolution of Malaysian Chinese identity.
Chinese schools in colonial Malaya were initially bang-oriented (“bang” refers to a dialect and geographical entity). The divide in schools reflected the larger inter-bang rivalry and conflict in the British Malayan Chinese community
However, growing nationalism in China after the formation of the Chinese republic in 1912, and the May Fourth movement in 1919 inspired Chinese community leaders in British Malaya to adopt a more unified approach to education, which included standardising the use of Mandarin in classrooms.
The ban on dialects in Malaysian Chinese schools seems to have been introduced gradually, although no one seems certain when it was introduced.
Concerned by the decline in dialect use, one school has now instead begun encouraging its students to converse in Penang Hokkien.
“We allow students to use dialects in school events and competitions like drama and singing,” says Chung Ling Private High School principal Ng Jooi Seah.
The initiative, pioneered in conjunction with the HLAP, began last year because Ng was concerned about the decline of “traditional languages” among young people. He emphasised that the school is not just focused on encouraging the use of Penang Hokkien, but any other dialect as well.
My former high school principal Yeoh Loy Cheow disagrees with the claim that schools are to blame for the decline of Penang Hokkien.
She staunchly believes that Mandarin should be taught in schools, while “it is the responsibility of parents to practice speaking dialects at home”.
In a survey of 100 mothers of urban Chinese families in Penang, it was noted that mothers appeared to strategically incorporate Mandarin and English into their child-rearing practices.
Moreover, the mothers used dialects significantly less often with their children, with 21% of them speaking Hokkien, compared to 73% who spoke English.
This corresponds with what Wang Xiaomei, a sociolinguist from Xiamen University Malaysia, has found in her own study of another Chinese dialect group, the Hakka, in Penang.
She calls it “family language policy”, with Mandarin being seen as the most important language for Chinese Malaysians to preserve their identity, and English as an international language for their children’s future careers.
“All dialects just don’t have the mark of prestige to compete with ‘big’ languages like Mandarin and English,” Wang said.
As for myself, I grew up speaking mostly English at home and Mandarin at school, and mainly used Penang Hokkien when speaking to my grandmother and older people.
The choice to send me to a Chinese school was heavily influenced by my mother, who specifically wanted me to learn Mandarin. She had attended an English-medium government school when she was young and often told me that she wished she had learnt Mandarin, because “it’s such a useful language”.
I recently probed her about what she meant by “useful”.
“Well, I’m Chinese, and I’m proud to be Chinese,” she replied. “If I learnt Mandarin then I can go to China and speak it there.”
A paradoxical attachment
Artist Chew recently exhibited a video installation at the National Art Gallery in Kuala Lumpur, titled My language proficiency, in which she conducts a panel discussion with herself in four languages—Malay, Mandarin, English, and Penang Hokkien.
At the start of the video, she wonders aloud if the conversation should be conducted in Penang Hokkien, the language she is most comfortable with. I ask her what she means by “comfortable”.
“It means the language I feel most at home in; it makes me feel rooted,” she said.
However, she added that out of the four languages, she is least fluent in Penang Hokkien.
“In the video, I campur (mix in) a lot of words from other languages when I was speaking Hokkien,” she notes.
It is a strange paradox. My generation does not speak Penang Hokkien well, yet it is the language we are most likely to associate with our families, and a sense of “rootedness”. It is this emotional attachment to Penang Hokkien that makes our own incomplete knowledge of it bittersweet.
“It’s like that Malay saying—tak kenal, maka tak cinta (if you don’t know it, you won’t love it). If it’s not taught, it’s easily lost,” said Chew.
If you enjoyed this article and would like to join our movement to create space for research, conversation, and action in Southeast Asia, please join New Naratif as a member—it’s just US$52/year (US$1/week)!
Koh Aun Qi
Koh Aun Qi is a sub-editor at Malaysia's first independent online news portal Malaysiakini. She is interested in post-colonialism and the politics of ethnic identity in Malaysia. In her spare time, she enjoys making desserts and believes pandan should be substituted for vanilla wherever possible. You can find her tweeting about current affairs and cake in equal measure at @AunQiKoh.