Penang Hokkien can survive

IT was interesting to read Wong Chun Wai’s “Fearing the death of a dialect” (The Star, Dec 3). I’m another hardcore Penangite. As the saying goes, “You can take a Penangite out of Penang; but you can never take Penang out of a Penangite”. And like Wong, I am a sentimental Penangite too.

I actually feel “offended” when I’m addressed in Mandarin when I am in George Town. I simply refuse to respond in Mandarin. Though I speak, read and write Mandarin, I always firmly and loudly, but respectfully, answer in true blue Penang Hokkien ­whether it’s the coffee shop, wet market or shopping malls. It doesn’t help that my father-in-law’s shop is right in the city centre. As we walk around the area, I’m frequently approached by the traders in Mandarin.

As Wong said, we cannot find any other version of Hokkien like the one in Penang. Though it sounds “rojak” (mixed up), Penangites are proud that our dialect contains many Malay words. Many thanks to the cul­tural melting pot that existed many centuries ago when people from various parts of the world converged in such a small place for trade and livelihood. It’s a unique dialect.

I could never imagine a Penangite not being able to speak Penang Hokkien. And because of this, I have been hard-headed when it came to having all my three children speak it as if they have spent most of their lives there.

When our first child was born, both my husband and I decided that I would speak English to our son while he would speak in Mandarin. When he reached five or six years old, I decided that I would speak to him in Penang Hokkien entirely. Of course, there were hurdles. He resisted and rejected my attempts, insisting that I speak in English to him. When asked why he had to do it, I told him he had to learn so he could speak to his great-aunt who was in her 70s then. I told them that she was illiterate, didn’t speak either Mandarin or English, but only Penang Hokkien and a fair bit of bahasa pasar (street Malay).

After he was much older, when we talked about our language tug-of-war days, I saw his eyes sparkling with pride that he was able to speak the dialect, even though he had only lived in Penang the first two years of his life before we moved to Petaling Jaya.

With all the hurdles and perseverance to make our children speak the dialect, some may ask, “Does it really matter, after all it’s just a dialect?”, “Is this really important?”

As far as I’m concerned, it does matter. It’s the same feeling of pride and sense of belonging Malaysians feel when we are able to pick out another Malaysian overseas when we hear our unique “Manglish”, especially if we have been abroad for a long time and there are very few Malaysians there. Speaking Penang Hokkien just makes us more “defined” as Penangites because all the Malay and Indian vendors who sell mee goreng, apom, laksa, pisang goreng and kuih talam speak the dialect.

We repeated our experiment with our son with our two younger daughters. Now, our 13-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter speak entirely in Penang Hokkien with me. They speak to their cousins and paternal grandfather in Mandarin when we are back in Penang but they speak “authentic” Penang Hokkien with my parents and their great-aunt. Our seven-year-old daughter has just started the switch from English to the dialect early this year.

So, Datuk Wong, at least for my family, all hope is not lost. I wish I could hear more of Penang Hokkien being spoken and used in Penang, but, as sentimental Penangites, we (including you) would never give up easily on something we hold dear.


Metro Manila, Philippines