The people of Penang, including those who are not Chinese, speak a distinctive Penang form of Hokkien. But due to the movement
of people and also the proliferation of Cantonese drama series on TV, is the island’s lingua franca under threat?
TAN SIN CHOW and YENG AI CHUN ask the experts and the ordinary folks.
PENANG-born Loh Nam Hooi makes it his mission to use Hokkien when talking to Chinese community leaders, be it during casual or formal occasions.
“We would greet each other lu ho bo (How are you?) or chiak ba boi (Have you eaten?) each time we converse in Hokkien. When we speak in Hokkien, the camaraderie and kinship is closer and punctuated with warmth and cordiality.
“For me, Hokkien is synonymous with Penang. That sums up everything,” he said in a telephone conversation recently.
He holds firm to this view because Hokkien was the common dialect since earlier Chinese settlers from the southern Fujian province in China populated Penang.
“Therefore, from what I’ve observed, the Hokkien dialect is still very much in command here,” he said.
Loh’s conviction is understandable as he is none other than the Penang Hokkien Association chairman.
But he acknowledged the slow but gradual infusion of Cantonese in the daily lingo of the people here.
“The emergence of Cantonese in Penang could be due to the influx of Cantonese-speaking students from Ipoh or Kuala Lumpur who study here.
“After completing their studies in local institutes of higher learning here, most of these students preferred to settle here after landing jobs.
“That is why, occasionally, we can hear some of them speak in Cantonese when ordering food in hawker centres.
“But in order to adapt themselves in a Hokkien-dominant population like Penang, they have to pick up Hokkien.
“That's why I say Hokkien would continue to be widely spoken here,” he said.
Echoing his sentiment was Penang Kwangtong and Tengchew Association chairman Datuk Lye Siew Weng.
A Cantonese himself, Lye, who is also the Deputy State Legislative Assembly Speaker, claimed that his mother tongue would never “uproot” the popularity of Hokkien in Penang.
“Hokkien, as far as I am concerned, will not diminish, especially in Penang,” he said.
“Although many seem to be drawn to Hong Kong Cantonese drama series, they are also well-versed in Hokkien.”
Lye said Penangites were always well known for their versatility in languages or dialects.
“At first, they can speak to you in English, Chinese, and Hokkien. And the next thing you know, they have switched to speaking in either Teochew or Hainan.
“And they have no problems doing that and they actually enjoy it! That's the distinctness of Penangites,” he said.
Lye, however, was quick to point out a breeze of change, which saw many switching their attention to the popular Taiwanese series Yi nan wang in Minnan (Hokkien) dialect.
“Besides, some of the foul words in Cantonese could be quite interesting,” quipped Lye, who added that both dialects would be on par as far as picking them up is concerned.
Picking up both languages is considered “a piece of cake” by many, he said.
For Johorean Chai Hui Choon, 27, who came to Penang to work, the inability to converse in Hokkien can be a handicap.
She had hawkers charging her a higher price for food because she did not speak Hokkien.
“Hokkien is very important in Penang because it is used by everyone. Though I do sometimes have problems communicating with certain people, it's not that hard to live in a predominantly Hokkien society,” she said.
“Penangnites are versatile in English and Mandarin. I just switch to those languages when I need to communicate with them.”
Chai, however, admitted that she’s slowly picking up the dialect and she understands some of the Hokkien words being spoken although she is not able to pronounce them.
Sherene Cheah, 25, who has been living in New York for more than six years, can’t help but stress that Hokkien is very much a part of a Penangnite’s life.
“We were raised to speak the dialect regardless of what dialectal group we were from. I spoke Hokkien every day at home and when I moved to New York, I still speak Hokkien with my housemate and sister,” she said.
And when she meets other Penangnites in New York, it's natural for her to revert to Hokkien, she said.
“Obviously, when you meet, you go back to your Penang roots. It might be a subconscious or conscious habit to just converse in Hokkien.
“Maybe speaking Hokkien in a foreign land gives you a sense of belonging and being home.”
Cheah attributed Penang's strong Hokkien identity to the community being rooted to the Hokkien cultural practices, which are part of the Taoist religion.
“Hokkien is here to stay. Look at the festive celebrations. It's part of the Penang-ness of Penang. Penang is Hokkien as much as Penang is famous for its hawker food,” she said.
Dialect peppered with Malay and English