Tan Choon Hoe – the crusader of Penang Hokkien Dialet

Tan Choon Hoe

The Digital Age and today’s globalised world has been a boon for the spread of Popular Culture. Popular culture – Western or American, is slowly but surely seeping into our way of life. Predictably, even Asian youths are dressing and gesturing like their hip hop or boy band idols from MTV. Even the way we speak is being MTV-nised and you will find certain youths who are more at home going “Yo, dude” or "Whassup” than greet you in their native tongues.

One man is bucking this trend, striving to preserve and spread the colourful nature of his native tongue. Tan Choon Hoe, author of 'Learn to Speak... Penang Hokkien Dialect' has made it his mission to preserve and document this uniquely Penang language as well as to educate and teach others how to speak it.

Penang Hokkien Dialect by itself is a curiosity, a hybrid of Chinese Hokkien with Malay and English words, originating from the Baba Nyonya community in Penang. Tan describes Penang Hokkien Dialect (as spoken by the man on the street in Penang today) as “a diluted or corrupted form of the original Penang Baba Nyonya dialect”.

Unlike the other Chinese ethnic groups who spoke their Mother tongue and Mandarin, the Penang Babas and Nyonyas (of Hokkien descent) mainly spoke in Hokkien sentences punctuated or sprinkled with Malay words. Common Malay words often used include 'tumpang', 'sembang', 'tuala', 'kasihan', 'suka', 'tapi', 'batuk', 'jamban', 'geram', and 'sampah'. The result of this amalgamation is a strange sounding yet colourful dialect which is comprehensible only to those living in Penang.

Tan himself grew up amongst the Baba Nyonya community in Hye Keat Estate on Penang island. He finished tertiary education at La Salle Secondary School after which he went through series of interesting vocations which include stints as a bill collector, van driver and limousine driver that took him as far south as Johor Bahru before returning back to Penang as a tutor of English language for both adults and children.

A chance encounter with Lowell Soriano, a Filipino lady who worked in a cyber cafe in Penang led to Tan teaching her Penang Hokkien Dialect at her request. This helped give impetus to Tan’s desire to publish a book on his native dialect and when subsequent checks in bookshops show no existing publications on the subject, he made it his mission to give the world one.

What followed was three months of research, compilation and writing which included Tan waking up in the middle of the night to quickly jot down random thoughts here and there. Once completed, Tan contacted several local publishers but their responses were unfavourable. Undaunted, Tan dug into his own pockets and with the help of several loyal friends, made it a self-published effort.

On February 2002, 'Learn to Speak... Penang Hokkien Dialect' was born and made its debut among publications of the world in local nookstores. This book is meant for just about anyone who wishes to learn the Penang Hokkien Dialect which has long enchanted both locals and visitors alike through its "rojak" simplicity and smoothness.

Tan Choon Hoe

Not one to rest on his laurels, Tan has since then written a string on books in the same vein. These include 'Loghat Hokkien Pulau Pinang' (2006), 'Penang Hokkien Dailect for Tourists & Penangites' (2008), Penang Hokkien Dialect Conversation' (2010). These books were designed by Adrian Cheah with cartoons by Chin Mun Woh.

Books by Tan Choon Hoe

In 2014, MPH Publishing redesign the book covers and re-published the series. These books are available today at most bookstores nationwide.


Written by Chin Mun Woh, 2002
Photographed by Adrian Cheah © All right reserved.
Updated, August 2017