Teo Cheng Wee

Growing Teochew roots

When I introduce myself to strangers, I seldom mention the fact that I'm Teochew.

It's not that I'm ashamed to be Teochew, but my dialect group has never felt like a big part of my identity.

I suspect that's how many Singaporeans feel as well as a result of the Government's effective - some say too effective - discouragement of dialect use through the years.

But the truth is, I'm as Teochew as it gets.

My mum is Teochew. My dad is Teochew. My four grandparents are all Teochew.

For that reason, I've always been able to understand Teochew. My command of the dialect is not fantastic, but I speak it well enough to hold a conversation.

Yet while I don't generally talk about being Teochew - nor do many people ask - I've been feeling more Teochew the older I get.

It culminated in me excitedly telling my extended family in our WhatsApp chat group in September that "we must all go down to the Teochew Festival" when it was first announced.

Must support gah kee nang okay, I told them, referring to the event's tagline "Teochew nang, gah kee nang" (literally meaning "Teochew people, our own people"), although the event website more broadly translates it as "We are one Teochew family".

What I wasn't expecting was how many gah kee nang would descend on Ngee Ann City that Sunday as the queue outside the tent snaked for 100m.

It was way too crowded to be enjoyable and felt more like a trade fair than a cultural experience. But so determined was I to make a day of it that we stuck around to catch a Teochew cross-talk performance.

It was at this point that I realised my so-called Teochew language ability falls miles short as the men bantered with a proficiency way beyond my grasp.

Yet there I stood, for 10 minutes, intently trying to grasp something, anything in their quick-fire conversations.

It underscores how much I've been trying to get in touch with my Teochew roots.

I suspect I do this because in some ways it makes me feel like I'm connecting to an earlier time in my life.

Much of my early childhood was spent in a four-room Bukit Merah flat under the watchful eyes of my maternal great-grandmother and grandmother, both of whom speak only Teochew.

I was probably more Teochew then than I've ever been since.

I spoke Teochew. I watched videos of Teochew opera. I had countless meals of Teochew porridge with pickled cucumber, fermented beancurd and salted egg - a meal combo which still frightens me today.

But the upside was the festive Teochew food my grandmother used to make.

I was only a few years old, but I remember she would toil for hours to make her delicious png kueh (rice cakes), filled with dried shrimp, mushroom, pork and peanuts, from scratch.

Sometimes, she would try to engage my help. I would knead the dough for five minutes and then feign fatigue. (Actually it might have been real fatigue. It was hard work.)

I also had to help dor bee, or sift rice grains, whenever the Dragon Boat Festival came around.

My grandmother needed pure glutinous rice grains for her Teochew kee chang dumplings and what you buy at the market invariably gets mixed with regular rice grains, so I would be sitting under a light, separating the white glutinous grains from the translucent regular ones.

My grandmother no longer cooks due to her old age. As such, this lives on only in my memory. And when I reminisce like this, I feel my Teochew-ness.

Language is the other major link to my roots.

For although Teochews make up the second-largest Chinese dialect group in Singapore, the language never really came close to displacing Hokkien as kopitiam lingua franca here.

This means even if someone else picks up a second dialect, it's unlikely to be Teochew, unless he grew up with Teochew neighbours.

With fewer and fewer people speaking the dialect, being able to converse in Teochew is a source of quiet pride for me.

Within my extended family, people around my age are probably the last who can claim some sort of speaking ability, even if our proficiency falls far short of those just a generation earlier.

My younger cousins can sometimes muster a few phrases, which are invariably followed by endless ribbing for their mispronunciation.

My nieces and nephews, meanwhile, can barely speak Mandarin, much less Teochew.

Teochew may not be really useful in Singapore today, but I did have a rare brush with it recently.

Over supper, a friend told me and another male friend that she had named her new dog Chubi. Our male friend gave a blank stare. I instantly knew "choo bee" is Teochew for adorable.

"That's cute," I said with a wink. And the two gah kee nang laughed.

chengwee@sph.com.sg