The roots of multi-lingual society: A case study of history, community & identity of Chinese in Penang.

Socio-linguistic Background of the Penang Chinese
Most of Penang Chinese are competent speakers of more than two languages. The ability to communicate with different people using various languages is seen as an asset to inter-personal relationships as well as inter- and intra-community work and businesses.

The socio-linguistic background of the Penang Chinese is very complex. It is characterized by the presence of multiple overlapping languages and communities of multilingual speakers. The major languages spoken by multi-lingual educated adult Chinese in Penang include:
• Formal British English,
• Informal “Penanglish,” (Local Penang English)
• Manderin
• Penang Hokkien
• One or more of Chinese Provincial Dialects: e.g. Cantonese, Hokkien, Teow Chiew, Hakka, Hock Chiew, Hainanese and other district dialects
• Bahasa Malaysia
• Pasar Malay

Three important features of multi-lingual society of Penang Chinese are highlighted for the present Penang Stories.

(1)   Language Competencies of Multi-lingual Speakers
It is not unusual to find individuals knowing three or more distinctly different languages with a fairly high level of competence in most of them. Many leading Chinese personalities in Penang for the past 200 years were competent multi-lingual speakers. The stories their linguistic competencies in various fields serve as examples for the present and future leaders of Penang. For Example, the celebrated Penang’s leader Cheong Fatt Tze (1840-1917) had his business ventures in China and many parts of the world; Dr Wu Lean Teh combated the dreaded plague in China in1911, Prof Wu Tek Yew of Fenn-Wu Report of Chinese Education in Malaya (1952) worked in United Nations.

Penang was sea port with people coming from various parts of the world. More than a hundred years ago, there were Chinese organisations established in Penang to cater for the needs of learning different languages. For example, the Hu Yew Seah was established in the turn of the century to enable the English educated to study Manderin classes. Other society like the Philomatic Society was established by Dr Sun Yat Sen’s supporters as reading club in 1908.

Presently, efforts have been made to document the Penang Chinese celebrated writers, novelists, poets and other language / literary experts. Focus on efforts in nurturing language, culture and civilization of ordinary people such as traders, craftsmen and builders is equally important as the multi-lingual environments provide ideal sites for the multi-cultural development. Insights from oral histories and narratives may help in revealing some of the secrets of how Penangites developed their excellence in communication within the community and with the outside world.
The history of Penang between 1800-1877 reminds us about the period when the two big Chinese rival groups: the Hokkien’s group “Kean Teik” and the Cantonese’s group ” Ghee Hin” controlled the secret societies networking of different dialect communities. The two groups created fear among the Chinese and after 1877 more clanship and kinship associations; social clubs and trade guides were established. The main aim was to cater for the needs to live in peace and harmony among the various Chinese dialect groups. These trans-dialect organizations provided opportunities to work cooperatively and to learn from one another the differences in communication.

In the study of the Penang Chinese, it is not only important to investigate the characteristics of Chinese communities who came to Penang and lived closely with their clansmen; but also pertinent to understand other Penang Chinese, the peranakan, the babas and nonyas who settled down in Penang and integrated with the local Malay communities.
It is noted that there are researchers like Raymond Kwok ( issues 13) who are interested in finding out the characteristics of the various groups of Penang Chinese. For example, Raymond Kwok wrote on how to identify a Baba—-and pointed out some of the general characteristics of an English educated Penang Baba. With regard to language approaches, the following characteristics are noted.
• Speaks “King’s English” with a mixture of Hokkien / Malay words.
• Able to write and express himself well in English, some speak with cultivated English accent
• Not interested in learning, speaking Mandarin or writing Chinese. Prefers to speak Hokkien (his mother tongue) with a mixture of Malay and
• Snubs or avoids the Chinese educated and despises other Chinese groups privately calling the Chinaberry sinker (newcomers).
• Has knowledge of the Animal of the Chinese Lunar Year in which he was born. Ability to calculate another person’s age if he knows the Animal
year in which the person was born.

Alienation can occur between and among groups of Penang Chinese as language orientations, educational background and cultural differences may put them apart. However, the differences do not surface unless there are conflicts on pertinent issues related to educational policies and political ideological differences.

It was common for family members to be educated in different medium of instructions (in Chinese, English and Malay schools) before the abolishment of English schools in Malaysia in 1969. Thus, siblings may have different educational backgrounds and language orientations. As a result, the language competencies among the family members differ. However, it does not create difficulties as communication among members of the family is often in Penang Hokkien and not in the languages of formal education such as English, Malay or Manderin.

It can be seen that one of the qualities most valued in leadership and communication is multi-lingual competency. In terms of human resource development, the multi-lingual competent work force is one of the strengths which Penang has over the past two hundred years. The continual development of quality and competent multi-lingual society is essential for Penang to have an edge over other developed countries.

The identity of Penangites; especially Penang Chinese who are competent multi-lingual speakers can be easily identified in the global market not only in terms of the intellectual capital in the business organizations; but also capacity building of human cultural development.

The challenges ahead is to sustain the multi-lingual society with more vigor and to make social investments in areas of languages which can generate more cultural interchanges, create expressive art venues and develop international understanding.

(2) Roots Multi-lingualism: the Formal, Informal & Non-formal Education System
The major languages of English, Malay and Mandarin are taught formally in the school curriculum. The roots of these bilingual or trilingual schools dated more than one hundred years old (see home pages of Penang schools and history of schools in

For the past one hundred years, the Penang Chinese communities and the networks of more five hundred registered societies, associations, guilds and social clubs supported the establishment of bilingual and trilingual education through various means of fund raising and community projects. The Penang Chinese Town Hall and Penang Chinese Chamber of Commerce together with the various educators’ associations (e.g. the Tung Tsiao Jung, the Penang Chinese Teachers Associations) work collaboratively to ensure the education of the Chinese children keep pace with the latest development in the world and the aspirations of the Chinese in Penang and the world.

The stories of Penang Chinese community’s support for multilingual education are well-documented by several researchers. Since the establishments of the first Chinese school (the Nam Hwa school) in 1904; continual efforts had been made to build new schools and to improve the quality of education for the pupils . The identity of Penang Chinese education takes the shape of multi-lingual education system is globally known. However, efforts to improve learning in the three languages are still very much desired as the system encountered many difficulties; notably the training of qualified teachers to teach the languages competently, the under enrolments in some small inner city urban schools and the over enrolment of pupils in some elite schools. Generally, the quality and standard of performances of the Chinese pupils in the 89 primary schools and the 16 secondary schools are closely monitered by the Chinese communities in Penang. Besides the formal education, the non-formal education such as the newspapers, television and other forms of media to some extent play an important part in promoting the multi-lingual competencies. Research on the early editions of Chinese newspaper such as the Penang “Sin Pao” (1899) and “Kwang Hwa Jit Pao” gives an insight into the numerous debates of various political struggles, revolutionary movements, social networking, business news and some of the major campaigns to popularize the “KUO YU”, the national language of China, the Manderin language movements .Besides the Chinese newspaper, there were the English newspaper, the Government gazette, Prince of Wales Island (1805), the Straits Echo (1903). During the Japanese occupation (1942-1945) the Pinang Sin Boon was published.

Multilingualism among the Penang Chinese in languages other than languages in the school curriculum; such as Penang Hokkien and Penanglish, pasar Malay is acquired mostly through indirect and informal means (e.g. personal interactions of family, friendship and neighborhood ties; and community work). The networking of many Chinese clan houses, kinship associations and social clubs (more than 500 of them in Penang) help to promote the use of Manderin, Chinese dialects among the communities as well as multi-lingual education by providing scholars and awards for high achievers in schools, loans and grants for higher education.

(3) The legacy of Penang Hokkien, the principal base language of Penang Chinese
Although most of Penang Chinese are multi-lingual speakers, Penang Hokkien remains the principal base language for almost all of them. It is an oral language evolved from a number of languages and dialects. The Penang Hokkien according to Hugh Lewis (1994) can be traced from the Schematic Diagram (see Diagram 1). The base language of Penang Hokkien is the Amoy Hokkien dialect.

Although there are numerous loan words from Malay, English and other Chinese dialects, the Penang Hokkien has a defined vocabulary, idioms and colloquialisms of the parent language and the presence of neologisms that are not borrowings from Malay or English (see Hugh Lewis’s published works on the websites)

According to Hugh Lewis (1994) who made a very comprehensive studies of the Penang Hokkien language, points out that ” This dialectal variation is significant in understanding the restructuring that a local language goes through, and significant dialectal differences in the replacement of basic terms, form of grammatical construction and sound shifts can be demonstrated even between sister communities of Hokkien Chinese within Malaysia.”

On the use of Penang Hokkien, Lewis (1994) asserts that, “…it should be remarked that the Penang variety of Hokkien as an oral language is inherently bound up in trading and marketing activities, in practical affairs of the home, kinship, domestic management, cooking, familial relationships and in religious practices and beliefs. It is not a language to be used for intellectual abstraction, scientific theorization, refined discussion of the more subtle or sublime feelings or resonance’s in the world, or for the romantic elaboration of the affairs of heart”.

When Hokkien Chinese wish to talk about these things, they invariably “switch-out” of Hokkien and easily slip into other codes–Mandarin, English, Malay, for the sake of expressive elaboration. To underscore this facet of Hokkien is not to belittle the language–such elaboration and sophistication is possible and probably has been worked out by some people–but it is not commonly found among the average speaker.

More recent work of Raymond Kwok in the Penang File websites prvide interesting insights on the use of Hokkien expressions and rhythms

e.g. Expressions of the heart

Bo sim Disinclined, cautious
Bo peh sim Unfair, biased
Ch’eng sim Religious, pious
Chin sim Truthful, sincere
Ch’ow sim Wicked, evil
Ho sim Kind, good hearted
Jip sim Involved, keen
Kean sim Tenacious, industrious
K’ooi sim Happy, overjoyed
Kek sim Unhappy, sad
Kh’ua sim Worried, anxious
Leong sim Conscience
Nui sim Soft hearted, compassionate
Oo sim Considerate, thoughtful
Or sim Evil, wicked
Pang sim To be at ease
Pean sim Change of heart, a change of feelings
P’ai sim Cruel, wicked
Sio sim Careful. cautious
See sim Indifferent
Soon sim Confident
Teng sim Cold, not compassionate
Tok sim Cruel, spiteful
T’am sim Greedy
Popular Rythms Translation
chia ang ee eat red glutinous rice ball
th’arn chee and get money
chia ang koo eat red turtle
th’arn hooi kh’oo
and get estates
chia ang th’a n eat red mussels
keh ho ang and get good husband

There are many expressive idioms and sayings, belief systems and value orientations which are encapsulated in the Penang Hokkien. They are evident in Penang Chinese culture. It is time we celebrate it and learn more about it before it disappears. To many of us who grew up in the environments listening, repeating and learning these Hokkien language, it brings us back to the days when our parents and grand parents were talking to as Penangites. We feel we have the identity of Penang when we speak the language. We feel we belong to Penang, Wherever we may be, when we hear the language being spoken, we know there is a Penangite around us. Sadly speaking, I observe many of the young Chinese children in Penang are unable to speak Penang Hokkien. . Why ? The young Penangites now speak Malay, English and Mandarin as required and practiced by their teachers, parents, mass media…………..

I hope more researchers, like Raymond Kwok and Hugh Lewis can devote more time to document and codify the Penang Chinese Hokkien. as living heritage that we cherish.

Penang Chinese has many roots which nurture the multi-lingual society. It gives Penang a solid foundation of multi-cultural education anchored in Chinese, Malay and Western culture. It provides the Chinese communities in Penang an identity which is distinctively Penang. In the midst of globalization and Malaysianization, to promote the identity of Penangites, especially the Penang Hokkien linguistic heritage is very important. Efforts must be made to sustain the Penang Hokkien speakers to use more often the language and to use it efficiently and competently to express the livingculture and tradition adequately.