Seeking out fellow dialect speakers on social media

Singaporeans look up others on social media and meet up to interact in their Chinese dialects

TeoChew Nang Facebook group members tossing yusheng at Lee Kui (Ah Hoi) Restaurant last Friday. The 12 spent the evening conversing in Teochew over a sumptuous meal with dishes such as Teochew-style braised duck and pomfret.
TeoChew Nang Facebook group members tossing yusheng at Lee Kui (Ah Hoi) Restaurant last Friday. The 12 spent the evening conversing in Teochew over a sumptuous meal with dishes such as Teochew-style braised duck and pomfret.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Over a sumptuous meal of Teochew-style braised duck and pomfret, a table of 12 Teochew nang (people) spent a Friday evening conversing in their native dialect.

The session was peppered with quips and anecdotes shared in Teochew.

"It's really great to be able to speak in our dialect over traditional food. The conversation flows as we find common ground eating the comfort food we've grown up with," said the event's organiser, Mr Goh Beng Yeow, 34. Mr Goh is also a council member of the Teochew Poit Ip Huay Kuan, the umbrella body of clan associations for people from eight Teochew districts in China's Guangdong province.

The 12 are members of the Singapore TeoChew Nang Facebook group, which was set up in 2012 by IT support officer Yeo Kia Liang, 42. It has more than 430 members.

They are part of a growing number of Singaporeans who find each other on social media and meet regularly to interact in their native dialects.

Participants say these meetings complement the limited social occasions for interactions in the dialect. Since the Government implemented the Speak Mandarin policy in 1979, the use of Teochew and other dialects has been on a steady decline.

"I only speak Teochew once in a blue moon - at extended family gatherings with my older relatives," said TeoChew Nang member Lewis Tan, 40, a stockbroker. He described himself as a novice Teochew speaker who is eager to improve his conversational skills in the dialect.

Mr Goh said the group serves as a stepping stone to encourage interested members to also join the Teochew Poit Ip Huay Kuan, where dialect lessons are offered every quarter.

While some groups, such as TeoChew Nang, are open only to Teochews and their spouses, other dialect-focused groups are open to the public.

These groups include the Singapore Hokkien Meet Up Group, which was started last December by businessman Michael Jow, 38, on Facebook and online portal Meetup.

It has 45 members so far and has organised two meet-ups to date, one of which was a trip to the Siong Leng Musical Association in Bukit Pasoh Road to listen to Nanyin - traditional music sung in the Hokkien dialect.

Said one of its members, Mr Victor Yue, 61, an engineer: "If we don't understand our own dialect, Hokkien art forms like Nanyin and Hokkien opera will lose their audience."

The Cantonese Meet Up Group has been going strong since 2006. It now has more than 700 members and its monthly meet-ups draw about 30 to 40 members each time. The group, which comprises people from their 20s to 70s, uses Meetup.

"Speaking in dialect has a way of bringing people closer and it's easier to get your ideas across," said one of the group's co-organisers, Mr Edwin Ralphael Wong, 41, an IT entrepreneur.

More than 40 per cent of Singaporean Chinese are Hokkien, making it the largest dialect group here, followed by Teochew and Cantonese at 20 per cent and 15 per cent respectively. Other dialect groups include Hakka, Hainanese and Foochow.

Dr Ian Chong, an assistant professor at the Department of Political Science of the National University of Singapore, said there are multiple benefits to learning dialects.

They actually help people to master Mandarin at an advanced level since their syntax and diction are similar to classical Chinese, which is "more literary than the contemporary vernacular", said Dr Chong.

Furthermore, using dialects to connect with people of the same dialect groups "help us stand out and have a sense of who we are as ethnic Chinese in Singapore", said Dr Chong.

Mr Tan, who joined the TeoChew Nang group about two years ago, said he enjoys honing his command of the dialect in an informal setting. "There's no better way to appreciate our commonalities and shared heritage over friendship and food, which open up our bellies, minds and hearts," he said.