Essay
GROWING UP IN BABEL

This essay was written in Chinese by Lee Hui Min. It was translated into English by Ong Xin Er, Mabel Chua Pek Yee, Natasha Caroline Liu Mei Qi, Nian Zixin, and Clifton Lim Jun Kai.

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Since Singapore became a free port in 1819, the island has quickly developed into an important global hub. Traders and labourers from around the world have flocked to the island to make their living and sink down their roots. The languages and cultures that they brought with them have survived and thrived in their new homeland.

Yet in the five decades since Singapore became a nation, a distinctive local linguistic/cultural identity has yet to take form. This remains an enduring and insoluble problem to this day.

In the early days of nation-building, the language environment in Singapore was colourful and diverse. In particular, the languages of the Chinese community were a chaotic mix of northern and southern dialects. Our Chinese ancestors came to Singapore from various places. Among them were migrants from southern Chinese provinces, such as Fujian, Guangdong, and Guangxi. They brought with them different folk traditions and cuisines, as well as their respective native dialects. According to some sources, as many as twelve distinct Chinese dialects can be found on this this small island, including Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka, Hainanese, and Shanghainese.

Both my paternal and maternal grandparents were Hakkas from Guangdong province. Until I started primary school, the main language I was exposed to (and the first I picked up) was Hakka, so I consider Hakka my true “mother tongue”.

Although I spoke Hakka to my relatives as a child, my neighbours and friends were from other dialect groups. Hence, the languages that I came into contact with outside my home were mainly Hokkien and Cantonese. I had no concept of ethnicity at the time and was surprised to find out that people could be categorised into more than “adult and child” or “male and female”. They could also be Hakka, Hokkien, Cantonese, and so on. I remember thinking, “all Chinese look the same so why do they speak in so many different tongues? What a complicated world!”

Although the local language environment was indeed quite diverse and complex, and occasional misunderstandings did arise from linguistic differences, everyone still managed to get by and lead relatively happy lives. Some even picked up new dialects through their daily interactions with others. At the time, my family subscribed to the Rediffusion cable radio service. We had a box at home from which sound emanated. By paying a monthly subscription, we could listen to the programmes all day long. I remember that the uncle who sold it to my mother had told her, “You can just leave it on, even when you leave the house. It hardly consumes any electricity and thieves will think there’s someone home.”

During that time, Rediffusion had programmes in different dialects, which were especially popular with the older generation. Whenever my mother was home, the set would be on and I would listen along. at may have indirectly helped me develop my listening comprehension skills. After I started school, I realised that some of my school mates could not understand the teachers’ instructions not matter how hard they tried. I suppose I had an edge over them because of my early exposure to Rediffusion.

One of the most popular programmes on Rediffusion was the Cantonese programme – Li Dai Sor’s Storytime . Whenever Li Dai Sor narrated sword-fighting tales, he would use different voices to enact the various ways the characters spoke. His descriptions of the fight scenes were especially vivid. Although I could not understand everything, I was mesmerised by how he performed a story. I would imagine the scenes he narrated, the heroes and villains my constant companions through the many afternoons when I had nothing to do.

The local television station still broadcast Hong Kong drama serials and old movies in Cantonese in the 1980s. Dramas such as The Brothers, A House is not a Home, Gone with the Wind, and Chameleon captured the hearts of Singaporeans. Standing loyally in front of the television, I would find myself engrossed in the ill-fated romance of Chow Yun Fat and Carol Cheng.

The level of social development in Hong Kong and Singapore was comparable at the time. The food the television characters ate, the problems they faced, and even the way they scolded people were similar, stemming from the shared culture of southern China. The scenes on television felt familiar and intimate. Entertainment options were limited in those years. Whether you were Cantonese, Hokkien, Teochew, or Hakka, everyone would rush home before the programmes were broadcast, leaving the streets and lanes desolate.

Even though the television programmes were broadcast in Cantonese, there was no language barrier. It was like magic. The day after the programme, I would see my mother and our neighbours gather together, falling over themselves discussing the previous night’s storyline.

As for Hokkien, it was something I picked up in my daily life rather than from the media. A Hokkien family stayed at a corner unit on my floor. The Hokkien auntie did odd jobs and had a fiery temper. She always carried a fierce expression and because of that, we avoided her. Her raspy voice could be heard up and down our neighbourhood.

Yau siew, you short-life good-for-nothing! Come back for dinner now!” she would holler out the window at her son playing with us in the playground. Occasionally, she would let loose a string of expletives, and vivid descriptions of the genitalia of some person’s ancestors would reverberate throughout several blocks of our housing estate.

Immersed in such an environment, I picked up this special vocabulary; it is this type of Hokkien that I am probably most fluent in today.

Later in life, on a visit to Taiwan, I heard an uncle verbally abusing someone using these same “honorary terms of address”. The eyes of the woman next to me widened in shock at the epithets. Feeling that I should “hear no evil”, my Taiwanese friend quickly covered my ears. However, what I felt at the time was a sense of closeness when I realised that even the crude language we used was the same.

There was another Hokkien family who lived in the same block. The mother was much friendlier, but she was lazy and often asked me to buy things for her from the shops nearby.

I remember one particular morning. I was bored and wanted to play at the playground opposite my block. She spotted me as I was heading out.

“You’re going downstairs, girl? Get something for auntie, okay?” she said in Hokkien.

Without waiting for my reply, she took out her wallet and quickly stuffed a few dollars in my hand. This was followed by a string of Hokkien words that were unfamiliar to me.

I concentrated on her words and stared at the movement of her lips but what she wanted me to buy still failed to register in my mind. Staring at my confused face, she used her hands to mime what she wanted me to buy and then spread her palm wide, signalling that she wanted five of that.

I was still clueless, but I nodded as if I understood, mimicking those clever children who drank cod liver oil in television commercials. I was too embarrassed to clarify (for even children could be particularly conscious of “face”).

Talking about cod liver oil, that was something that almost every child of my generation hated but still had to consume each morning. Singapore had already moved beyond third world status by that time, but some children still lacked proper nutrition. To promote healthy growth and ensure that the future pillars of the nation do not become sickly, all schools provided free milk to students at recess time, with different flavours every day.

Television commercials would tout the claim that a daily spoonful of cod liver oil is all it takes to make kids smart and active. On the orders of our parents, who wanted us to grow into dragons and phoenixes one day, many of us had to gulp down that disgusting substance every morning.

Although the manufacturer subsequently came up with an orange-flavoured version, it was not much better as one still felt the terrible shy aftertaste after each burp. To this day, I still cannot understand why foods that are good for you invariably have to taste horrible.

In any case, grasping tightly onto the money that the Hokkien auntie gave me, I prepared to dash downstairs while the memory of her how her lips moved was still fresh in my mind, even as I was puzzling over what she wanted me to buy. Before I could do so, the Cantonese uncle, another neighbour, stopped me in my tracks.

Oh no! It looks like he wants me to buy something too.

As I expected, he said to me in Cantonese, a cigarette dangling between his lips, “Buy this, the big one.” I did not need to understand the language. Looking at his finger pointing towards the brand on the cigarette carton, I knew exactly what he wanted.

With an additional ten dollars in my hands, I set off. My heart started beating fast as I threaded past my Hainanese neighbour’s door. I heaved a sigh of relief when I saw that the door was locked. Hainanese was an alien language to me. If she had tried to tell me what she wanted me to buy in that language, my child-sized brain would probably have exploded.

I trotted quickly to the provision shop which also sold cigarettes. The Teochew owner sported a pair of reading glasses and was never seen without a toothpick in his mouth. Of course, not all Teochews walk around with toothpicks in their mouths. However, as a child, I had the impression that was the case because of this Teochew uncle.

To my ears, the sentences emanating from this Teochew uncle sounded a bit like Hokkien. He spoke with a strong nasal twang and the lilting tones made one feel as if he was singing an aria from Teochew opera. The boss was peering at a newspaper through the spectacles perched on the bridge of his nose. Hearing footsteps, he looked up over his glasses. Seeing that it was me, he asked in Teochew, “What do you want, Hakka girl?”

I pointed at the cigarette carton displayed on the counter and said in simple Mandarin, “Give me one, yige.” I had only recently learnt about the existence of Chinese measure words such as yike (“a grain of”), yili (“a kernel of”), and yitiao (“a strip of”) and was still unsure of their use. My teacher had yet to teach what the correct measure word for cigarettes was, so I just used the generic “ yige ”, trusting that this could not be wrong.

The boss took a pack of cigarettes from the shelf behind him and joked in his nasal voice, “You shouldn’t be smoking at such a youthful age, Hakka girl.” It sounded like he was singing a stanza of a song. I did not respond. I paid quickly, made a face, and ran to the coffee shop next door. I tried to recall the Hokkien auntie’s lip movements and the sounds she made before concluding: she wants me to buy roti prata!

With that, I approached the Indian food stall and ordered five pieces of roti prata in my broken English. The Indian stall owner was drenched in sweat as he busied himself kneading the dough, Indian music playing from the radio behind him. He seemed to be bobbing his head in time to the music as he spoke to me, evoking in my mind the image of an Indian couple giggling and flirting in a garden which I had seen on television.

The forebears of Singapore Indians came mainly from southern India and most spoke Tamil, a language which, when written, looks like the dense grass script of Chinese calligraphy, and, when spoken, sounds like a perfectly performed tongue-twister.

I am often reminded how Indians have a flair for language. Though they may have an accent when they speak other languages, they are usually very fluent in English and I have even come across some who could speak Mandarin and Hokkien.

In contrast, not many Malays and Chinese can speak Tamil. Perhaps it is because the language is more difficult. Perhaps no one sees a necessity to be proficient in it or has an opportunity to pick it up. At most, I have heard some adults say “yuan de buneng na” when mimicking how Indians spoke. The words in Chinese literally mean “you cannot take the round one”.

Though the phrase does sound like Tamil to a non-speaker, not a single Indian person understands what it means.

“Jibber jabber jibber jabber jibber jabber…OK?” As I came to my senses, I realised that the stall owner had just asked me a question.

As a child, I was never good at understanding English words. Combined with the speaker’s strong accent, I simply could not decipher what he was saying no matter how hard I tried, even after he repeated himself. I was so frustrated that I thought of saying, “yuan de zhende buneng na?” (are you sure I really can’t take the round one?). I managed to hold back the temptation to do so. Had I not, who knows if my small head would have ended up like the balls of dough he would slam onto the hot griddle repeatedly.

Fortunately, there was an older Chinese man nearby who explained to me that the stall owner wanted to know if I could wait a little longer since there were many customers.

After waiting for roughly half an hour, the stall owner wrapped the perfectly flattened pratas in paper and placed them in a plastic bag. I carried the warm bag in my hands as I left happily, thinking that the Hokkien auntie would surely be appreciative. Who knows, I may even end up with a bit of extra pocket money for my labour.

I skipped towards my at and ran up the stairs without stopping until I finally arrived at my door. The first flat I walked past was the Hainanese family’s. The door was still locked. Perhaps the family was out having Hainanese chicken rice. at was my favourite dish. I loved the subtle aroma of chicken rice coupled with the taste of the tender and fragrant steamed chicken, garnished with grated ginger and garlic. It was out of this world!

I was feeling somewhat hungry as it was near lunch time. However, my mother did not know how to make this famous dish. My lunch would probably be just a simple one of steamed white rice from Thailand and a few home-cooked dishes.

I could imagine mother saying, “Be thankful for your good life, you foolish child! Don’t be picky. You won’t find even a grain of rice on the ground if I send you to Africa. You’ll learn your lesson when you die of starvation!” She would reprimand me this way whenever I got too particular in my choice of food or when I couldn’t finish my rice.

She was right. Although my family might not have been wealthy, I have never really experienced starvation growing up in independent Singapore, except for the time I dieted in my teens to lose weight. Even though Singapore did not have its own farmland, we were often reminded of the backbreaking work that Thai farmers had to do as they hoed millets in the mid-day heat. We could understand the hardships involved in getting food to our table. In our well-fed state, we were taught to think about the plight of those suffering famine and not waste our food.

Very quickly, I arrived at the Cantonese uncle’s house. He was listening to a Cantonese broadcast on Redifusion. He was so absorbed in it that he did not realise I had been standing at the door for quite some time. Hearing me knock, he hurriedly got up and walked over. He happily took the cigarettes from me and thanked me several times in Cantonese. His manner of speaking and his tone sounded just like the voice emanating from the Rediffusion box behind him.

With my first task completed, I felt a sense of relief. I walked past two more doors before I arrived at the Hokkien auntie’s flat. The Hokkien auntie was sitting on the sofa in the living room, staring into space.

When she saw me standing at the door, she quickly walked over and asked me in Hokkien why I took so long. I was surprised and I answered in Mandarin, “There were many customers.”

She looked puzzled. She took the plastic bag from me suspiciously and took a sniff at what was inside. Her eyes widened and she exclaimed in Hokkien, “Aiyah! You bought the wrong thing!”

My face immediately reddened. There would be no reward for me now. I quickly handed her the change and dashed home to hide.

I assumed that the Hokkien auntie would not trust me to run any more errands for her after this incident but as she was often too lazy to go downstairs, she would still ask me to help her buy snacks or bread whenever I walked past her house.

Even though she continued to insist on communicating with me in Hokkien, she also learnt to repeat the instructions in her poor Mandarin to ensure that I would not get her wrong again.

This was the environment in which I spent the first decade of my life. It was just like the local street food, rojak, a mix of sliced pineapples, cucumbers, turnips, you tiao, tau pok, prawn paste, and crushed peanuts. The ingredients seem to have little to do with one another but, combined, they become a unique Southeast Asian invention, a salad of the people of Nanyang, the Southern Seas.

But it would not be long before this rojak of local dialects disappeared. As Singapore’s language environment became increasingly “standardised”, what we have today is just a plain and bland western salad.

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This essay was featured in the anthology Living In Babel, published by Canopy.

Lee Hui Min holds a BA in Chinese Language and Literature from Nanjing University, China, and an MSc in International Relations from Nanyang Technological University. She has a strong interest in East Asian current affairs and international relations. She is currently a freelance journalist and writer.

Mabel Chua Pek Yee, Clifton Lim Jun Kai, Natasha Caroline Liu Mei Qi, Nian Zixin, and Ong Xin Er are students in the A-level Translation programme at Jurong Junior College. They worked on translating a selection of works by Singaporean authors as part of The Select Centre’s Mentorship Programme during their mid-year internship in 2017.