Letters

Monday, 9 January 2017

The disappearing Fuzhou dialect

I FIRST heard the Fuzhou dialect when I was posted to Yong Peng in 1978. When my landlady spoke to me in the dialect, I was stunned, stumped and struck dumb by the alien sounds that seemed to come from the digestive juices of her innards. How could such inscrutable sounds be strung together to convey meaning?

To the untutored ear, the Fuzhou dialect sounds like cascading nasal sounds of nga, nge, nyi and nyu. Yong Peng is a town in central Johor and many of the local Chinese are Hockchews or Foochows. They can be identified by surnames such as Diong, Ding, Ling, Ting, Nyeh, Nga, Nguang and Nyeow.

The dialect’s intrinsic characteristic is in the nasal calisthenics to produce just the right punchy, guttural sounds. I have lived in Yong Peng for more than 30 years now and even married a thoroughbred Fuzhou man who speaks unadulterated Fuzhou and can cook traditional Fuzhou dishes to the hilt. Yet it remains an insurmountable challenge for me to speak the dialect beyond the basics:

> “Siek par mui?” (Have you eaten?)

> “Nguai ai kwong min.” (I want to sleep.)

> “Put tien!” (Crazy, ah?)

During the early years of my married life when distractions were few, I attempted to learn the dialect. Hubby taught me to say 1-10 in Fuzhou but I always tripped on the number “six”. Finally when I thought I had made a monkey face by contorting my lips and curling my Hokkien tongue to get the right sound, hubby exclaimed: “Yeah, you’ve got it. Mei ngai (not bad).”

The Foochows are localised in Yong Peng, Sepang (Selangor), Sitiawan (Perak) and Sibu (Sarawak). According to my reliable source (hubby), the Fuzhou dialect can vary in intonation and end syllables from one Fuzhou town to another.

While the older generation persists in using Fuzhou, the dialect is losing its appeal among Gen-Y and the millennials who prefer to speak the ubiquitous Mandarin. To the young generation, speaking the Fuzhou dialect is so old-school while in some families, like mine, the children speak either Mandarin or English. You almost never hear the Fuzhou dialect being spoken by the Chinese teenagers here.

If you are a Chinese living in Yong Peng, a town where every Ah Huat, Ah Choo and Ah Gu speak Chinese, and you do not speak the language, you will look wacky in your light yellow skin. You might be pejoratively labelled as a “banana” – yellow on the outside but white or ang-moh or English on the inside.

While the Fuzhou dialect is waning, Fuzhou dishes are gaining popularity among tourists who take advantage of the accessibility of two entry and exit toll gates to make a quick stop in Yong Peng. Food tourism is highlighted in Kah Lieu Yong Peng which means “play” or “have fun” in the Fuzhou dialect.

Yong Peng is well known for its Fuzhou mee, Fuzhou fish balls, Fuzhou egg soup, Fuzhou red soup and the much-sought-after “Foochew piang” or Fuzhou biscuit (pic). Tour buses also make it a point to make a pit-stop at Yoyo – a commodious building which houses an array of freshly baked cookies and local delicacies.

If you have never been to Yong Peng, why not zoom down from Kuala Lumpur? It takes about two hours via the highway from the Sungai Besi toll gate. The food here is really hor lieh or delicious in the Fuzhou dialect.

MARY EU

Yong Peng

Tags / Keywords: letters , Fuzhou

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