Saturday, January 18, 2014

Spring in other dialect

I must write down this Chinese verbal example that I heard while having breakfast in a market-cum-hawker centre before I forget. The reopening of the market place near my house in Jan. 2014 after it underwent renovation for nine months was a relief, especially for people like me who wanted a fast and nutritious breakfast before going to work. Breakfast is never complete without a glass of hot coffee or hot tea in good old Southeast Asian style.

Hot tea served in the heartland coffee shops in Singapore
The image is taken from

As I was sipping my tea one working morning, I overheard the guy serving me coffee talking about somebody acting in a silly manner by sticking the Mandarin word [chūn] meaning /spring/ in English on the back of the wok. As some background information, it is perfectly fine to see this Chinese word stuck on the doors and in selected corners of a Chinese house to symbolise the arrival of spring for ushering in Lunar Chinese New Year. (Spring is a symbolic concept in a tropical country like Singapore) It is a traditional as well as a current practice for invoking the sense of festivity by putting up red strips of spring- and fortune-related Chinese words among many Chinese household in Southeast Asia.

                                                      The Mandarin Character for Spring
                                 The image is taken from 

According to the coffee seller, however, sticking the Mandarin word /spring/ on the wok at the hawker centre is not a good commercial-cultural strategy, not least the word is also sound symbolic to the word /chuun, tonal marking excluded/, which means /remain/ in Hokkien, another Chinese dialect spoken in Singapore, Malaysia and some parts of Indonesia. Playing by a Hokkien ear to the Mandarin /spring/ in a food business context would simply beget a possible situation whereby the food prepared for sale will remain as leftover in the stall. The three patrons including me had a hearty laugh while eating our breakfast, paying little interest to the validity of the cultural hypothesis, at first.
Instantaneously speaking in Hokkien, one male patron responded in a rather logically manner that it would definitely be the accurate move to stick the word in the kitchen at home, for at least there would be leftover every day. Of course, having leftover is not a good practice in the critical eyes of a nutritionist who would be insisting on all the meals served fresh. However, to a common Chinese mind, (cooked) food available in a kitchen is a sign of abundance and indexical to some form of basic happiness with hunger kept at bay.
While I am not sure if anybody would pay too much attention to the cultural semiotics underpinning the traditional practice of putting up auspicious Chinese words, I bet nobody in a normal mindset would dare to stick an inauspicious phrase or evil-sounding word at home, in the car or one's bedroom. We did have popular rock bands singing out loudly unauspicious words in their songs and in the case of one rock group, the lead singer wound up in a self-inflicted tragic ending.
The moral of the lesson is to offer good words to our loved ones no matter how redundant or insignificant they may seem to be at first. I remember seeing loving words in the Christian households, religious reminders in the Malay households, encouraging words in my hostel mates’ rooms and, of course, wealth-related words in Chinese commercial sites. There must be good reason if not symbolic-semiotic reason to be surrounded with good words in whatever language that speaks to our heart and soul.

Jyh Wee Sew
Centre for Language Studies
Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences
National University of Singapore

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Chinese Lion Twerking

This morning, my brother-in-law, KT, updated his Facebook status with a video clip of a Chinese lion dance. Indeed, it is an apt move in the remaining two and half weeks leading up to Chinese New Year. Upon clicking the video clip, I felt a sense of festivity looking at two Chinese lion masks styled by two youngsters, respectively prancing around in unison mimicking lion-like moves.

Suddenly, to my horror, the drumming and beating of cymbals turned into an upbeat English tune blaring a familiar song I knew from The X-Factor Show. The Chinese lion dance teams suddenly took to the English tune with the dancers swaying into a modern dance performance re-hatching a typical roadshow scene that has become a common sign of out-door jamboree in this part of the world.

While fusion as a means of survival was the only consolation I could think of, I would at least like the modernistic mediation to incorporate an upbeat Chinese pop song by the songstress A-Mei, or the pop band Wu Yue Tian, both of whom are Taiwan-based Mandarin performers who have a massive following in the Chinese world. The video simply showed an example of global force unpacking a local tradition (although at the back of my mind I heard Walter Mignolo saying….it’s glocalization).
I am not pointing fingers, nor am I taking a purist stand against Chinese lion dance twerking; I myself prefer listening to Rihanna rather than Fish Leong. For me, no Karaoke session is complete these days without Pink’s Just Give Me A Reason with Nate Ruess. But at the same time, I would not stick in English phrases when I sing 爱以成往[Dang Ai Yi Chen Wang Si (lit. means when love becomes a thing of the past), the theme song of Farewell to my concubine, for which Leslie Cheung acted in the movie and sung the theme song.
Authenticity becomes all the more important with the threat of globalization or glocalization. We need to safeguard certain qualities in traditions that took decades if not centuries to evolve. Although languages may be an exception to this point, as they thrive with the introduction of calques, coinages, and loans, the transformation is really based on the need for naming rather than a fanciful change of heart (although slang and certain street cultures are counterexamples).
For example, the word /twerking/ is a case in point. It seems to me /twerking/ sounds like a calque of the word /twist/ and /jerk/; although the Oxford Dictionaries' record says it is a twenty-year old American English word that originates in bounce music scene from New Orleans, USA (see the reference below). The point here is that something remains best in its original taste/form, just as we would not change our fish and chips, Chinese chicken rice, Malay satay, chocolate cake, etc. when they have achieved gold standard in our hearts.
Accessed on 13 Jan. 2014
Jyh Wee Sew
Centre for Language Studies
Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences
National University of Singapore