Family bonds in Mandarin

(From left) Ms Hazel Chong, Mr Tom Tan, Jed Tan Jie Yu, Tan Li Yu, and Tan Kai Han. Ms Chong and her two older children won first prize for two years running at the Speak Mandarin Campaign Parent-Child Talent Competition.
(From left) Ms Hazel Chong, Mr Tom Tan, Jed Tan Jie Yu, Tan Li Yu, and Tan Kai Han. Ms Chong and her two older children won first prize for two years running at the Speak Mandarin Campaign Parent-Child Talent Competition.ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

Playing Chinese chess got Tan Kai Han, 11, and her brother, nine-year-old Li Yu, to learn to enjoy speaking Mandarin - and speak it well, too.

The two children, together with their mother, Ms Hazel Chong, 41, won the first prize in the Upper Primary category at the Speak Mandarin Campaign Parent-Child Talent Competition 2015, held earlier this month. Their winning skit involved singing part of a Jay Chou song and using characters which are puns on terms such as "real Chinese" and "fake Westerner".

"When we play Chinese chess, we use certain phrases in Chinese such as jiang jun (checkmate). When the children hear the word, which also means 'general', in the ancient Chinese dramas they watch, it helps them remember it," says Ms Chong.

Kai Han, a Primary 6 pupil at Raffles Girls' Primary School, and Li Yu, who is in Primary 3 at Rulang Primary School, have been playing Chinese chess since the age of five.

It was the second consecutive year that the family took the top prize in the competition. After Ms Chong and Kai Han won last year, Li Yu wanted to take part this year. The family members speak Mandarin and English at home.

Ms Chong and her husband, Mr Tom Tan, 42, are interior designers who run their own firm. Their youngest child, Jed Tan Jie Yu, is four.

"When Kai Han and Li Yu were younger, they couldn't speak Mandarin well with their grandparents. That's not really right," says Mr Tan.

While Kai Han and Li Yu prefer speaking English, both like reading Chinese comics.

Besides playing Chinese chess, how else did you encourage the children to love the Chinese language?

Ms Chong: Making it fun is the most important thing. On holiday driving trips to Malaysia, we play word games during the long ride, taking turns to add to a made-up story in Mandarin, stretching it as long as we can.

We make the story ridiculous, about things that wouldn't happen in real life, such as a story about Daddy wearing a skirt.

I also read to them in both languages from when they were one. Now we see them reading Chinese books on their own, without us pestering them to do so.

What is your parenting style like?

Kai Han: Dad is more free and easy. He gives in to our requests such as to buy tidbits and to play Chinese chess with us.

Li Yu: Mum is very strict. Usually she asks me to work on a lot of revision papers. Dad buys me betta fish (Siamese fighting fish). I have five now.

Ms Chong: I'm more authoritarian. I make sure they follow the rules, such as completing their homework before they enjoy themselves. We're very particular about character development, more so than about grades.

Mr Tan: I can be fierce, for example, if Li Yu is not obedient, speaks too loudly to us or fights with his brother. We got them pets to teach them responsibility. Besides fish, Li Yu has a frog and two lobsters. Kai Han has a terrapin. I have nine songbirds.

Kai Han and Li Yu, how would you describe your childhood?

Li Yu: I like to go prawn-fishing with the whole family, which I started to do when I was about six years old.

Kai Han: I like to read. Dad taught me to solve the Rubik's Cube when I was five. The fastest time I took was 55 seconds in Primary 2 or 3.

Ms Chong: They're inquisitive and obedient. Kai Han is more interested in languages. Li Yu is hands-on and creative. He likes origami and creates his own Lego structures such as vending machines.

What are your views on caning?

Ms Chong: The cane is too harsh. It's too painful and psychologically scarring. I use timeouts, for example, if they are rude. I've spanked them with my hand.

Li Yu: It's not painful. Once, my friend had a scar on the forehead after being caned, I was shocked and scared.

Mr Tan: I've only talked about using the cane just to frighten them. I believe that when you tell them the reason, they should understand and change their behaviour. I'll also talk to them about character-building, traits such as not giving up.

If the parent-child roles were reversed, what would you do differently?

Kai Han: Nothing. I think their parenting style is pretty good.

Ms Chong: Nothing much, especially with regard to Kai Han. She's so much better than I was when I was younger, in terms of the respect she shows us, for instance. She is also self-motivated when it comes to learning.

Li Yu: I'll take revenge (for disciplining me) and beat them.

Mr Tan: Nothing. They're quite fortunate in having a loving and nurturing home.

Which parent are you closer to?

Kai Han: I'm close to both of them. I tell them about what happens in school and random jokes from Reader's Digest.

Li Yu: I feel the same. Usually I ask Dad when I have problems folding origami. When I want to buy toys or have problems with school work, I go to Mum.

Ms Chong: I'm quite fair. I try to spend equal amounts of time with each of them. I might take Kai Han out and her dad would take Li Yu out. It can be hard to concentrate on all three kids at the same time.

This is the last Relatively Speaking column.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 28, 2015, with the headline 'Family bonds in Mandarin'. Print Edition | Subscribe