Sembang-sembang with Tan Choon Hoe
Malaysians are a lucky bunch, always well known for their versatility in languages or dialects. Take for example my late father who was Chinese could converse fluently in English, Bahasa Malaysia, Tamil, Hindustani, Mandarin, Cantonese and of course, Hokkien.
Hokkien until today remains the undisputed lingua franca of most Penangites, the dialect, which is a form of Min Nan (Southern Min), has been creolised ever since the early Chinese settlers arrived. Most of these settlers who arrived at the shores of Penang were mainly from Fujian. They brought the Hokkien dialect which has evolved ever since and can be said to have become quite distorted from the original. Penang Hokkien today is a dialect peppered with a little bit of Bahasa Malaysia and English, thanks to the Baba Nyonya community.
How recoganisable is Penang Hokkien globally? When I was in Sydney conversing to a fellow Penangite in our local dialect, a total stranger walked right up to us to inquire if we were from Penang. He was of course from Malaysia and noticed the distinctive Penang Hokkien we were using. Although Hokkien is widely used throughout the world, Penang Hokkien is somehow distinctive (and is usually comprehensible only to Penangites).
Having said that, we cannot deny the tragic truth that most dialects today are beginning to take a backseat as people prefer to speak languages which they believe carry economic value. As a result, dialects are often forgotten due to the lack of use by the younger generation.
One man however has taken a bold step to preserve and spread the use of Penang Hokkien. Tan Choon Hoe, the author of the best selling Learn to Speak …Penang Hokkien Dialect has made it his mission to preserve and document his native tongue as well as to educate and teach others how to speak it. With the launch of his second book, Mai Belajar Bertutur … Loghat Hokkien Pulau Pinang, Tan hopes to reach a wider audience, especially the Malay community in Malaysia and neighbouring countries.
Adrian: It has been five years since your first book Learn to Speak … Penang Hokkien Dialect. Why the long hiatus for the Malay version?
Choon Hoe: Work! I have to work for a living and it takes up a lot of my time. So, I wrote and rewrote the Malay version bit by bit and I am happy with the end result.
Adrian: Is the Malay version a direct translation of your English book?
Choon Hoe: Not exactly. I did a lot of 'home improvement' and structured the lessons with the learners in mind, to make the dialect easy to grasp. The improvement is obvious with the word for word literal translation and even more vocabulary added in. Furthermore, I have also included ingredients ala P. Ramlee to make learning fun! I am sure readers can easily identify with that.
Adrian: What are your aspirations and what do you hope to achieve with the Malay version of the Penang Hokkien Dialect (PHD) guidebook?
Choon Hoe: I hope my efforts on the Malay version will be equally if not more popular than the English book. By making the English and Malay versions available, I hope this local dialect will gain popularity. I also hope that both local and foreign tourists will find these books interesting and useful when visiting Penang. Not only can they sample the scrumptious cuisines here, visit historical places but now, also learn a dialect. Visitors from nearby Indonesia may opt for the Malay version while the English and American tourists may perhaps, prefer the English version.
On the local front, I hope to see better interaction among the various ethnic groups and the spirit of muhibbah kept alive as this dialect can add more vibrancy and hues to our colorful culture.
Adrian: Have you any message to convey to the tourists coming to visit Malaysia and Penang in particular (besides of course getting copies of your books from major bookstores)?
Selamat Datang ke Pulau Mutiara,
Sambil melawat, belajar loghat,
Loghat Hokkien kawasan utara,
Kebolehan berloghat menyuburkan lagi Tanah Muhibbah.
When in Penang … a dialect learnt is a dialect gained, and it will come in handy for future visits to Malaysia. Have fun and have an enjoyable visit!
Mai Belajar Bertutur ... Loghat Hokkien Pulau Pinang
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.
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.
In 2014, MPH Publishing redesign the book covers and re-published the series. These books are available today at most bookstores nationwide.
Written, 2006 and photographed by Adrian Cheah © All right reserved.
Updated, August 2017