A long time ago, a Chinese man saw some Malays eating a fruit. It had a spiky shell, but its insides were filled with large seeds covered by yellow, buttery flesh. He had never seen (nor smelt!) a fruit like it before, in his native village in Fujian. He asked them what the fruit was called.
‘Durian’, they replied. This was from the Malay word for duri, which means ‘thorn’. And so the Chinese man went back and told his friends about this new fruit. As the word spread, it became incorporated into the Hokkien vocabulary as loo lian.
Then one day, a new fruit made its appearance, native to South America, possibly brought in by colonial travelers. It was also green, with a spiky exterior. In English, it was known as ‘soursop’.
The Malays had a tendency to append the word belanda (meaning ‘Dutch’) to anything foreign that they had never seen before. Examples include the Dutch goat (kambing belanda, or sheep), the Dutch chicken (ayam belanda, or turkey) and the Dutch cat (kucing belanda, or rabbit). So they called the fruit durian belanda.
The Hokkiens, on the other hand, called it ang mo loo lian. Ang mo (roughly meaning ‘Western’) was also used for other edibles, like ang mo kio (tomato) and ang mo chai thou (carrot). Thus the word ang mo loo lian now carries traces of Hokkien contact with both Malays and Westerners.
The study of loan words has always fascinated me, because they give clues to the kinds of social interactions that occurred in the past. At the beginning of this article, I sketched a scenario of how a single word from one language entered another. But the process is definitely much more complex, and would involve long-term, sustained contact. The chain of transmission might even involve an intermediary, such as the Straits Chinese (or Peranakans), whose Baba patois contains both Malay and Hokkien words.
I have often felt a sense of loss at the fact that the lingua franca among Singaporean Chinese is no longer the Southern Chinese languages (such as Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese), but Mandarin. A little bit of research revealed to me the words that were borrowed from Hokkien into Malay. These include: (note that 'c' in Malay has the 'ch' sound): beca (trishaw), bihun (vermicelli), cat (paint), cincai (anyhow), gua (I/me), guli (marbles), kentang (potato), kamceng (close), kuih(cake), kongsi (share), kuaci (melon seeds), teko (teapot), taugeh (bean sprout), tahu (beancurd) and tauke (boss).
This process of linguistic exchange was two-way, as demonstrated by these Malay words that have penetrated Hokkien: agak (guess or moderate), botak (bald), champur (mix), gadoh (fight), gaji (wages), jamban (toilet), kachiau (disturb), longkau (drain), loti (bread), otang (owe/debt), pumchet (puncture), pantang (superstitious/taboo), pakat (conspire), pasar (market), pitchia (break), salah (wrong), sapbun (soap), sinang (easy), senget (crooked), sukak (like), timun (cucumber),tiam (quiet) and torlong (help).
There are even some Cantonese words that are now part of Malay parlance, such as pokai (broke or penniless), as well as samseng (gangster). Interestingly, it has been postulated that the word sam seng (three star) was derived from the fact that recruits from the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) used to wear caps emblazoned with three stars, each one representing one of the main races in Malaya: the Malays, Chinese and Indians.
In the army, one of the things that we were told by a sergeant was that ‘over here, Hokkien is your mother tongue’. But this was based on stereotypes: that Hokkien was a gendered, macho language (with the most pungent swear words) and the primal expression of working-class angst (as exemplified by the tattooed Hokkien-peng squatting and glowering in the yellow smoking box).
But considering how Hokkien words have entered the Malay language, I have realized that there is a larger truth to that statement. It’s like tracing a family tree and then discovering that I had a Hokkien great-great-great-great grandmother. As a matter of fact, since almost two-thirds of the Malay lexicon consists of borrowings, I definitely had Arabic and Indian (linguistic) ancestors too.
Malays have a saying, bahasa jiwa bangsa, which means, ‘language is the soul of a race’. But I’ve always noted a tension in the phrase. We tend to think of ‘race’ as something that is often bounded and rigid, defining it in terms of bloodline descents. But ‘language’ does not have such impermeable borders. Words of various origins pass through open checkpoints, undergo shifts in meaning, and become naturalized over time.
Thus, as much as we’d like to be essentialist about our ‘race’, we cannot escape from the hybridities already extant in our language. There is humility in the idea that no language is perfect on its own, and will borrow words to make up for its lack. If I’m feeling schmaltzy I’d even imagine this as a scene from the movie Jerry Maguire, where Tom Cruise utters to Renée Zellwegger the words, ‘You complete me.’ I also imagine her replying, ‘Shut up…just shut up. You had me at hoh boh.’
In Royston Tan’s getai musical, ‘881’, the main song started with ‘jit lang jit pua, kamcheng buay sua’ (one half for each [friend], relationships will not dissipate). The following line was ‘jit lang jit su ku, kamcheng jia eh ku’ (a quarter for each, relationships will endure). I had always wondered why Hokkien often resonated with me much more than Mandarin. And my guess is that this has to do with my recognition of some words, like kamcheng and su ku (which means ‘quarter’ in Malay).
Similarly, the well-loved comedians Wang Sa and Ye Fong not only switched among the different languages with ease, they expected audiences to do so as well. Malay idioms and phrases were common. Their trademark remark, whenever a situation was deemed to have gone out of hand, was: ‘Ah di ah, aga aga jiu hor ar’: ‘Hey [brother], you would do well to act in moderation (aga aga)’.
My Hokkien friends who travel overseas would often relate to me the sense of dislocation they feel when speaking to other Hokkien-speakers. A friend who went to Taiwan, for example, was surprised to note that they did not understand what loti meant. Another friend shared a story about the nuances of the word pokai in Hong Kong. At the end of the month, he moaned out loud at the office kam chi pokai le (‘I'm broke this time’) and all eyes turned on him. Pokai meant ‘broke’ in Singapore, but the reason why his colleagues reacted was because pokai (literally, ‘cast out on the streets’) in Hong Kong meant something worse, like being destitute on the streets, or being beaten up.
Because we are inundated by messages that often emphasise cultural purism, it is easy to interpret these instances as cases where the Chinese from this part of the world have been ‘contaminated’ by other cultures. I happen to take the opposite view: the Nanyang Chinese has evolved an identity of their own, incorporating elements of the other cultures that surround them. That this has been possible is a testament to their openness, curiosity and lack of insularity—a far cry from the global stereotype of cliquish and ethnocentric Chinese immigrants.
Much ink (and tears) has been spilled on how the Speak Mandarin Campaign has resulted in what some have called the ‘cultural lobotomy’ of the Chinese community. In many ways, I find great sympathy with the late Kuo Pao Kun’s observation that Chinese Singaporeans are ‘cultural orphans’. After all, they were forcibly snatched from their biological Southern Chinese bosoms and placed in the laps of Mandarin-speaking foster mothers.
A familiar lament is that the declining use of the Southern Chinese languages has resulted in the estrangement between generations of Chinese Singaporeans. But I’d also argue that it has also led to some kind of estrangement among the various races. I don’t know if I should worry about the fact that these days, the traffic of loan words has almost ceased between Malay and Mandarin. It is perhaps premature to theorise that this is a symptom of lesser interaction between these races, as compared to the past—after all, there is English to mediate our communication with one another.
But the fact remains that I don’t know of a single Malay word that has Mandarin origins. Which is why I feel it’s all the more urgent to preserve the variety of Southern Chinese languages spoken here (I refuse to call them ‘dialects’). They are reminders of the mingling and blending that has occurred here in Singapore; the very metabolism of what we understand not simply as ‘multiracialism’ but a deeper, more engaged ‘interculturalism’.
Somehow, our forefathers, of various races, knew how to pakat against common enemies, were able to kongsi their resources, and in the process of all that champur became kamcheng with one another. The product of their alliances, friendships and inter-marriages is reflected in the language they have passed on to us. To lose this legacy is to sever a vital connection not only to the historical origins of the Nanyang Chinese, but also to Singapore’s dynamic multicultural past.
(My profuse thanks to Lai Chee Kien for input into this article)