Half-Lives: Story of a Chinese Kantang

Who is a Chinese?

Yesterday at a reunion dinner (the kind of things Singaporean Chinese do in a desperate bid to retain some semblance of ‘tradition’), I sat next to my grandmother and her son, my father. In between teasing her about not eating enough (“Fat is good? Then how come you eat so little, Ahma?!”) and my marriage prospects (“what if i marry an angmohzharbor, can or not?”), I also mused how strange it was that I was, by paternal definitions (my grandfather), a Hokkien, but spoke Teochew, because she had been the one who had raised me. 

“Well, your grandfather also began to speak Teochew after a while, you know” she said. “Because he was surrounded by Teochew people.”

This precipitated a discussion between my uncle and my father about what kinds of Hokkien people we were, and where we came from.

“We are jiao-an nang,” explained my uncle, after he had asked me to pass the vegetables (soaked in a gleaming oily sauce that is so characteristic of Singaporean Chinese) in Hokkien. “Which describes a sub-group of Hokkiens who are sort of boundary Hokkiens” 

“The Hokkiens live at the Fifth Junction(??)” my grandmother chimed in. “But the Jiao-An people live at the Third, between the Teochew and the Hokkien.”

It made my head spin. I’d long thought I was already quite the special snowflake, living ina a family which still vaguely remembered its geographical roots in a faraway land. To learn even more specifically about where my grandfather had come from, via my grandmother, who spoke so nonchalantly about him, was to uncover yet another puzzle about this nebulous strange past that I was in somehow part of too, one particle in this swirling cloud of the Chinese radiation outward, into the Southern Seas (Nanyang), into the world.

First Worlds

I grew up in a middle-class Chinese family which imagined itself as “conservative” and “traditional”. My grandparents paid their homages and lit incense for the ancestors, local deities and saints on feast days, following the Chinese lunar calendar. I grew up in a neighbourhood that would (once, long ago; rarely so these days) explode in flamboyant, unbearable noise and colour and smell on big festival weeks, like the birthday of the Daoist Jade Emperor, or the Hungry Ghost Festival. Those things used to terrify me as a child, but they remain very fond, affective childhood memories.

I grew up listening to a pungent creole of Teochew, Hokkien, English, Malay and Tamil, (whose much-diluted successor is what is today celebrated as our ‘national language’, the much-studied ‘Singlish’). I grew up in what was, by all measures, a simmering stew of Singaporeana: of the cultures and traditions of my grandparents and ancestors, blended into the local cultural, ethnic, historical and linguistic climate of Singapore.

And yet I also lived a parallel life.

Alternate Universe

This was the orderly, sanitized existence of formal education: of white shoes and socks that were not allowed below the ankle; of white cotton, buttoned shirts and strangling ties on Monday – attires and attitudes which made no sense in a climate as hot and humid as Singapore’s.

This was also the universe that first taught me that I was not fully ‘Chinese’, in the sense that the Singaporean state had defined and expected. According to a whole succession of ‘Chinese’ teachers (who were, in reality, simply teaching a Northern dialect known as Mandarin; hwa gh, as the Teochew call it), I was told that being ‘Chinese’ entailed being fluent in Mandarin, and learning phrases and idioms subtitled by Romanized pronounciations. Being ‘Chinese’ entailed reading Chinese classics about legendary swordsmen, Condor heroes, and Journeys to the West (pun here unintended, for once). Being ‘Chinese’ entailed following the festivals and traditions laid out in school programmes.

Growing up in the Singaporean school system, I think many of us quietly felt guilty about our apparent half-Chineseness, our failure to be fluent in Mandarin.

And yet so many years later, having escaped the totalising orbit of these childhood giants, I see now that it was no coincidence many of us in ‘Chinese’ classes could not speak Mandarin fluently, and would never. It is entirely possible to pick up a language with pure grit and determination. But one does not discipline the mind nor the tongue in a vacuum. One cannot learn a language simply by writing words and characters ad nauseum. Rote learning works for dogs and horses and all manner of farm animals. But the human mind is far too active and alive for such straitjacketed discipline, no matter what we ‘remember’ about the Confucian Mandarins of the past.

A language may be viewed politely in the classroom, and nodded at. But learning a language requires its active usage. However, my parents never spoke Mandarin at home, short of a few choice sentences and phrases. My mother’s tongue, or at least the second language she learned in school, was Malay. I spoke to my grandmother in Teochew, and listened to my grandfather thunder on in Hokkien. My first few days at the kindergarten (and what a strange German word to be found in the heart of Singapore!), my parents fretted over my fluent Hokkien, worrying that I would never speak English capably.

The Complicated Past

I have long grown up thinking I was only half-Chinese; a kimjio (banana) with yellow skin and white tongue. As I inch daily through the immense vistas that is the study of History, i begin to realise how complicated ethnic identity can be; how it is a vast, intertwined and imbricated and interwoven tapestry rather than a single, red thread. I stumbled into this seemingly irrelevant discipline and craft of History because I was more interested in the stories of great white men, and how their exploits forged weapons with the power of ten thousand suns.

But this Craft is also about making, unmaking, and remaking narratives to suit contemporary needs. About scrutinising sources, watching for the blanks, listening for the silences, feeling for the gaps, tasting for the bitterness.

Leaves of the Same Tree

In a way, that has led me in one full circle back to the songs and stories of my grandparents, the last living links to a universe that is gradually being reclaimed by the tides of time, and the winds of change; a majestic glacier vanishing quietly beneath the salt seas of posterity.

The ‘Chinese’ people have a long and rich and complicated history, one that stretches a long way back, in one deceptively continuous succession. It is a history I have never really studied in much depth. The disappointment of my Mandarin teachers cut too deep, and reading Chinese history in English always reminded me of my inadequacy. I always felt like a cultural traitor. So unlike some of my more ‘educated’ friends, I am unable to reel off the dynasties in a lilting mnemonic (it all sounds like Qing Zhang Zhong or chingchangchong to me).

There is a vague, cloying shame somewhere at the back of my mind when someone proudly proclaims how proud they are to be Chinese, and brandish their Mandarin credentials. I am bilingual! they exclaim. (Although sometimes they can barely speak to their grandparents. At least can manage a sentence or five… #sour)

But of late, I am reminded of one slim thread connecting me to this vast ocean of history, culture and language. It is the story of my grandparents. It is not much, since they were never aristocrats in any sense. Like Lee Kuan Yew apparently once remarked to Zhou Enlai, we Singaporeans are largely the children and grandchildren of Southern Chinese peasants. Brilliance was never really in our heritage (apparently).

The past of my grandfather is not the thrilling story of kings and battles. It is not the tale of epic heroes and great deeds. But it is the story of someone who, in part, I also am. It is the story of my family, and my people whatever that word may mean. Listening to the mundane banalities of my grandparents is to know, with a strange certainty, what it means to be rooted, to be the leaves of the same tree. This is how we learn to speak a language. This is how we want to learn more: by being fully immersed and enthralled and connected to a past that is also yours.

At a recent speech delivered during the opening of an NUS Museum exhibition, Wang Gungwu, the world-famous historian of the overseas Chinese “diaspora”, lamented how a once-diverse Chinese galaxy had now condensed into a largely homogeneous’Chinese’ identity. The vibrant and vivid Hokkien, Cantonese, Teochew, Hakka plays and debates that once animated and electrified an entire Malayan peninsula, before the Singaporean State decided that Mandarin was to be the essence of the Singaporean Chinese experience.

So Who is a Chinese?

I have previously reflected on this topic, and pointed out peoples and their pasts are far too complex to be put into simple boxes; even a term like Chinese is riddled and charged with various connotations, depending on the context in which you lob that word into.

All I know is that I am not “half-Chinese”, nor am I a kimjio, a ‘white’ ‘Westerner’ hiding in the yellow skin I was born into.

My linguistic ‘identity’ – English-fluent, Mandarin-rusty and Teochew-mixed – is no simple accident nor coincidence. It is the product of many historical, geographical and societal forces, acting on the individual, in a particular historical moment. This strange tongue is in part  the result of English-educated parents and “Southern Chinese peasants” who learnt as they went along, and were fluent in a dynamic, vital mix of pasar Melayu and the ‘coarse’ speech of the Teochew/Hokkien/Jiao-an working class.

I am at once Chinese and not-Chinese; I am mongrel because I am Singaporean; and yet because I am Singaporean I am not-Singaporean, too diverse to be coalesced. I have no center, because the center has always been a comforting illusion. I am the stories I chose to believe, and the memories I make, un-make and remake, consciously and unconsciously.

I am the story of my people – but like all narratives it is a story that changes with every telling, because we can never step into the same river twice. I am kimjio, I am kantang, (a Malay word adapted into the Hokkien, describing a Western tuber); I am also Singaporean, I am also Jiao-an Nang and T’ng Nang, brought here by Chinese peasants and raised on English myths of progress and prosperity.

We are, in the end, the songs we choose to sing, the words we want to write.


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