What I think about when I think about Singaporean Chinese culture

We were trying to practise texting in Chinese.

"Hao qi dai," she wrote, a phrase that has a kind of bright-eyed earnestness similar to "can't wait".

I told my friend, a Singaporean who has spent many years overseas, the phrase was a lot more likely to come out of the mouth of a Taiwanese than a Singaporean. It was just too effusive and thus unlike the Mandarin used here - what you hear in food courts, for example - which, I would argue, tends to have a gruff quality.

This got me thinking about what defines Singaporean Chineseness, a topic Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke about recently at the opening of the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre in Shenton Way.

Mr Lee said Singaporeans can speak of a Singaporean Chinese culture, just as there is a Singaporean Malay culture or a Singaporean Indian culture, 50 years after the country's independence. I agree. While the experiences of Chinese Singaporeans do differ based on age, class, religion and social backgrounds - such as whether one's family is Peranakan - there is a broad Chinese Singaporean culture which has been shaped by the media, the Speak Mandarin Campaign and the bilingual language policy.

As a child of the 1980s, and what turned out to be the springtime of homegrown Mandarin songs - xinyao - and Channel 8 dramas, these are what I immediately think about in terms of Singaporean Chinese culture.

In those pre-Internet days, TV broadcasts served as unifier and social glue. Many 1980s Channel 8 dramas focused on socio-historical themes that try and define the Singaporean Chinese identity.

The Awakening, the landmark series about Chinese immigrants to Singapore which made stars of Xiang Yun and the late Huang Wenyong, showed the progress of Singapore from an immigrant society to a newly industrialising nation. Likewise, Samsui Women, about the women from Sanshui, Guangdong, who worked as construction workers in Singapore, underlined the work ethic, thrift and selflessness of those pioneer migrants.

A simple way of life and an emphasis on social mobility through education was reflected in kampung-based dramas such as Son Of Pulau Tekong and Good Morning, Sir, while shows such as The Coffeeshop and Neighbours depict life and good community relations in the then-new HDB towns.

SONGS FROM SINGAPORE

As for xinyao, these made-in-Singapore songs, mainly in Mandarin, gave voice to what it felt like to come of age in Singapore in the 1980s and 1990s. There were songs of youth, romance and even exams. This folk-song movement paved the way for the success of Singapore singers such as Stefanie Sun and JJ Lin in the wider Chinese-speaking world, in a projection of Singapore's soft power.

On a more wistful note, the rise of Mandarin in tandem with the demise of dialects has led to a gradual loss of customs and traditions.

A 1957 census of Singapore's then population of about 1.4 million, found that the top mother tongues were Hokkien (30 per cent), Teochew (17 per cent) and Cantonese (15 per cent) respectively. Only 0.1 per cent spoke Mandarin and 1.8 per cent English. Now, these latter two are the most dominant mother tongues in homes here, especially English.

My birth year, 1979, marked the start of the Speak Mandarin Campaign and ushered in the gradual decline of Chinese dialects here, with dialect programmes largely banished from the air waves. I count myself lucky that I could speak simple Hokkien and Cantonese with my late grandparents, but many people cannot speak their grandparents' tongues these days.

While Singaporean and Malaysian Chinese cultures are quite similar, one difference has to do with dialects - younger Malaysian Chinese tend to be more fluent in these tongues.

In the one-woman play Actor, Forty by Malaysian actress Yeo Yann Yann earlier this year, for example, she switches between Chinese dialects and different varieties of Mandarin with great ease. I think few Singaporeans around the same age have the same fluency.

CHINESE LANGUAGE THE UNDERDOG?

This brings me to another aspect of Singaporean Chinese culture - the "anglicisation" of Chinese and its falling standards.

Most Chinese Singaporeans in their 30s or younger, like myself, stopped learning Chinese by the end of secondary school or junior college. And with many people hardly reading or writing the language after leaving school, Chinese has become more of a vernacular that one uses mainly to order food in coffee shops, for instance. The language is an underdog compared with English and often seen to be tied to a lower socio-economic status. There is a general impression that the Mandarin used here is simple and unrefined. It may be because many of us do not have the vocabulary to speak fluently about current affairs in Mandarin.

This can be said of my parents' or grandparents' generation, who were not as fortunate and might not have had many years of schooling. It can also be said of my generation and the next, as most subjects in school are taught in English. For many of us who went through the bilingual school system, English is often our dominant language. We think mainly in English, and our use of Chinese is affected by English. It means the way we think and approach problems tends to be different from that of the Chinese in China. That, in a way, may explain why we sometimes have hiccups in our relationship with the Chinese, be it over the Suzhou Industrial Park or the South China Sea.

Despite Singapore's much- lauded bilingual policy, it takes effort for many of us to string together a sentence in Mandarin without mixing in English. Just watch Channel 8 news and see how the average Singaporean stumbles in Mandarin.

Some 50 years after independence, a distinctive Singaporean Chinese culture has certainly taken shape. While there is much to be proud of, the general lack of fluency in the language and the loss of our grandparents' tongues are issues worth pondering.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 15, 2017, with the headline 'What I think about when I think about S'porean Chinese culture'. Print Edition | Subscribe