THE Chinese community in Malaysia has seven major subdivisions with their own dialects and customs. This means there are seven ways to pronounce the same Chinese words.
The seven Chinese dialects spoken here are Cantonese, Teochew, Hokkien, Hakka, Hainanese and Guangxi, dialects spoken in southern China, as the ancestors of Malaysian Chinese mostly originated from there, as well as Sanjiang which refers to the dialect adopted in Shanghai and surrounding areas.
These dialects are slowly disappearing with the prevalence of Mandarin as the lingua franca.
Hainanese, Guangxi and Sanjiang are even facing the threat of extinction, said Chong Keat Aun, 40, who spent 20 years collecting and archiving these dialects.
Chong knows what it is like to lose one’s mother tongue.
He said he feels “a suffocating void” as he no longer gets to hear Teochew and Cantonese being spoken after both his paternal and maternal grandmothers passed away.
“I grew up surrounded by these dialects and often followed my grandmothers to watch operas in Teochew and Cantonese.
“After their death, I was overwhelmed by the absence of these ‘voices’. I did not manage to record my grandmas’ voices so I resolved to record others speaking these dialects before it is too late,” he told StarMetro.
Chong’s penchant for sounds led him to become a radio deejay. He is now a film director and social activist. He also runs the Petaling Street Heritage House.
“When one speaks, especially in their dialect or mother tongue, it embodies one’s sentiments for the language as well as its cultural depth, history and fluidity,” he said.
Chong cited the familiar lai lai li tam plong which in Hokkien means “Come and play with me”, variations of which are found in other local languages.
“This is an example of how a language interacts with its surroundings and evolves, and in our country, it shows how the many cultures intertwine in a multiracial context.”
Chong has been interviewing senior citizens to get them to recount old tales, sing folk songs and recite poems in their dialects.
He has compiled and shared them with listeners on air in his popular programme The Classic Accents.
Now that he has left radio, Chong has turned the recordings into albums as well as exhibition and workshop materials at the heritage centre.
He has interviewed 300 senior citizens and what was evident to him through their conversations was the generation gap.
“Most were eager to talk to me as at home, their grandchildren can’t communicate with them in a common language.”
Chong normally approaches clan associations to look for the right interviewees aged above 70, or hangs out in areas frequented by the elderly in Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Melaka.
It is time-consuming work as each interview can take three to four hours and sometimes up to two days, and he may only get five minutes of soundbites clear enough to be aired.
Going through the materials is another daunting task.
Once, it took him six months to translate a three-minute Teochew song he heard in Pulau Ketam.
In the process, he has learned that dialects have their lexicons too, but many of these words have been lost over time.
Chong is often asked why he does not travel to China to trace the roots of these dialects.He said that this was not his main intention.
“I am not doing this for China, but for Malaysia. I want to document how these Chinese dialects have evolved in Malaysia through cultural amalgamation.
“China may be the source of these dialects, but how they have evolved in Malaysia, is unique to us.
“These Malaysian Chinese dialects have become part of our identity.
“In China, you may need to travel across provinces to hear these dialects but in Malaysia, you may hear all of that in one street. Walking through just one street in Malaysia equates to half of China as you come across people speaking different dialects.
“That is, if we manage to preserve the dialects.”
His crusade also involves changing the commonly held belief that speaking dialects is “low-class” and that Mandarin should be favoured.
Chong plans to continue his work but is aware that many of his interviewees will soon no longer be around.
He now spends more time organising and archiving the recordings in the hope that they will be published as audiobooks.
If all else fails, the last resort will be to keep them in museums as exhibits of dialects which have disappeared.