Culture Vulture

On the cultural nostalgia of the Western-educated Chinese Singaporean

Our multilingual exchanges enrich us, not divide us

Linguist Max Weinreich once famously opined: "A language is a dialect with an army and a navy." One might add that a language is an accidental standard, birthed from a coincidence of historical, cultural and, maybe most importantly, ideological factors.

I have been thinking a lot about that last aspect because of two thought-provoking, and very entertaining, plays which I saw recently at Wild Rice's excellently programmed Singapore Theatre Festival.

Grandmother Tongue, written by 25-year-old playwright Thomas Lim, painted a vivid portrait of the relationship between a Teochew-speaking grandmother and her Western-educated grandson who is more fluent in English and Mandarin than Teochew.

The play, which ran for a brief five days in Lasalle College of the Arts' tiny Creative Cube venue, was an eloquent evocation of the linguistic, cultural and emotional ghetto of an elderly woman who is cut off from a society which regards her native tongue as substandard.

I found the play particularly emotive as my Teochew-speaking maternal grandmother was my babysitter in my childhood and, like the play's protagonist, spoke only Teochew.

Although I understood what she said, my inability to respond fluently in the dialect killed any chance of a meaningful dialogue. The same is true of my Hockchew-speaking paternal grandmother, with whom I was able to converse only in stuttery Hokkien because I failed to learn Hockchew as a child.

As a child growing up in 1970s Singapore, the message, thanks to the Speak Mandarin campaign, was that dialects were spoken only by the uneducated, that they were impediments to social communication, that Mandarin was the "better" option for economic and social progress. The insidious cultural subtext was also that dialects were "inferior" languages, that Mandarin was the classier cultural option, spoken by a better, that is, educated class.

As I struggled with Mandarin classes and barely scraped through O-level examinations with a piddling C6 pass, there were also conflicting messages I received about language ability.

On the one hand, my facility with English was praised in school while on the other, my Chinese-educated dad regarded my struggles with my "mother tongue" with dismay as he saw his daughter becoming more Westernised and "rootless" with each passing year.

Watching Grandmother Tongue brought all these conflicting impulses back to the fore and reminded me of the loss I felt when both my grandmothers died without me being able to truly connect with them, to ask them questions about their life stories and to tell them about my life experiences.

The play made me wonder too, if this sense of romantic nostalgia about dialects is a peculiar affliction of English-educated Singaporeans. Quite a few of my "banana" friends and I loathed Mandarin as we had to struggle with examinations, often barely scraping by with a passing grade.

Our relationship with dialects, however, is less complicated, given the oftentimes warm associations of dialects with grandparents and the caregiving roles they played in our childhood.

Grandmother Tongue captures this ambiguity well, the sense that many of us are stranded in a linguistic no man's land, able to speak a coloniser's language well, but unable to communicate in, literally, our grandmothers' tongues. I would be curious to know if the Indian community, with its multiplicity of languages, also felt this disconnect when Tamil became the official mother tongue language.

It is easy of course to blame it all on government campaigns which sought, painfully effectively, to replace dialects with Mandarin as the lingua franca of the Chinese community.

Yet, if the recent spate of plays which include dialects as a topic or as a language is any indication, official campaigns have failed to root them out entirely, even among the English-educated community most likely to reject them.

Ironically, the demonisation of dialects - banned from public broadcast for decades except in very restricted contexts - has succeeded, in a way, in giving these languages a subversive edge. Forbidden territory has always provided fodder for art and Grandmother Tongue mines this field for rich rewards.

Even as the play highlights the language losses incurred by Singapore's mother tongue policy, another one reminds me that one of the richest veins of Singapore's multiculturalism is its Babel's tower of languages.

Hotel, co-scripted by Alfian Sa'at and Marcia Vanderstraaten and directed with slick pizzazz by Ivan Heng and Glen Goei, features dialogue in Cantonese, Hokkien, Japanese and Malay. Besides admiring the technical ability of the cast, who switched effortlessly between languages while juggling multiple roles during a marathon running time, I also delighted in this babble of different tongues.

During the break between part 1 and part 2, my friends and I had a lively discussion about languages and the language slippages which enriched the layers of meaning in the play. For example in scene 4, which told the tale of Japanese officer Matsuda and his Malay lover Sharifah during the Japanese Occupation of Singapore. A line of dialogue recounts how Sharifah's "abang" was killed by Japanese soldiers. Abang can refer to an older brother, but it is also a term of endearment for a husband.

Another vignette presented three chambermaids, two Chinese and one Malay, talking to each other on the day of Separation. The Chinese women speak to each other in Hokkien, but switch easily to Malay when their colleague enters the scene. And there is a hilarious bit where they teach their Malay friend how to say "buttocks" in Hokkien.

I remember similar exchanges in school where schoolmates of different ethnicities got a giggle out of teaching each other cuss words in the other's language. Juvenile and superficial though this sort of thing may seem, it is still a cultural exchange that can happen only in a multicultural, multilingual society such as Singapore.

Hotel revisits a past in which Malay and dialects co-existed comfortably and easily in daily life and imagines characters who bridge ethnic differences by learning the languages of the other. And this vivid evocation of a past also presents a vision of a future in which this sort of easy multilingual exchange will continue to enrich us rather than divide us.

I may never overcome my ineptitude with languages beyond English. But even those broken pieces of languages I picked up in my childhood now allow me some access to other cultural worlds. However tiny that window may be, it is something that I will forever appreciate as part of my Singaporean heritage.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 19, 2016, with the headline 'Do you know your Grandmother Tongue?'. Print Edition | Subscribe