Dialect Messaging

Published on 28 February 2018

Chinese dialects seem to be resurfacing in Singapore’s art and entertainment landscape. Which is a good thing, say arts practitioners.

By Jo Tan

WALKING THE TALK Various Singapore film-makers took their Chinese-dialect films to the Busan International Film Festival as part of Singapore’s first dialect film anthology 667.

Last year, film-maker Royston Tan produced the anthology 667 — featuring short films in various locally spoken Chinese dialects — at the Busan International Film Festival. Thomas Lim’s restaging of Grandmother Tongue, a play about a young man trying to reconnect with Teochew and thus with his grandmother, was sold out months before its opening date.

Dialect series Eat Already? returned for a second season on Mediacorp’s Channel 8 after the first season’s warm reception in 2016, and this month, award-winning playwright/director Goh Boon Teck presents brand-new Hokkien musical Sometime Moon.

Despite the Speak Mandarin Campaign that has lasted almost 40 years (the late Lee Kuan Yew launched it in 1979) and the continued Media Development Authority restrictions on dialect use in broadcast media, it seems dialects in the arts are far from forgotten.

Says Goh, “Mandarin is an official tongue to integrate people. But while a common language is practical, I don’t think dialects can be fully replaced. Your dialect is an essential part of your heritage, providing a clear image of how its speakers communicate and live that would be hard to recreate in any other tongue. Before writing Sometime Moon, I visited my ancestral village in China and spoke to relatives in the regional Hokkien… imposing Mandarin on that situation just wasn’t a good fit. After that, I felt a belonging, a fleshing out of where I came from, why I became the person I am. Knowing your dialect helps you connect to that part of your past which makes you three dimensional.”


SPEAKING THE LANGUAGE Original Hokkien musical Sometime Moon follows the stories of Quan Zhou immigrants to Singapore over several generations.
FREE SPEECH As a Chinese dialect drama series, Eat Already? was an anomaly on Singapore’s free-to-air channels.

Yeng Pway Ngon, an internationally prolific Singaporean author, poet, critic and Cultural Medallion recipient, wrote his latest novel Opera Costume in 2015. While written in Mandarin, it also featured substantial Cantonese dialogue. He says, “This novel was about Cantonese people coming to Singapore in the 1930s to make a living. Of course, it is necessary to write their conversations in Cantonese.”

While he acknowledges that there are successful Mandarin dubs, translations and adaptations of various stories about particular dialect groups, such as Channel 8 drama serial, The Guest People (about Singapore’s early Hakka migrants), Yeng opines, “If you use Mandarin to express dialect content, you cannot represent certain characters’ personalities, lives and backgrounds with full accuracy, and the dialogue between them is less vivid.”

This is also why Goh, a Young Artist Award recipient, is electing to use mainly Hokkien text for Sometime Moon. “The plot, for the most part, is about the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan. Young people see the clan associations around Singapore and they think of them only as old buildings, but I want to remind audiences that to the new Chinese immigrants, the clan associations were everything: their political party, their town council… when they came alone to a foreign land, they had these people who spoke the same language as them and would help them.”

Yeng believes that the complete disappearance of dialect would not only be a loss to specific dialect groups, but to Chinese people in general. “The version of Mandarin we speak now is a much newer version of Han Mandarin, with a much shorter history than most dialects. Cantonese, Teochew, Hokkien all maintain many old words, phrases and influences from China’s ancient past, especially the Tang era, which is why they have a richer content and colour. Using dialect such as Cantonese to read Tang poetry makes for a much more vivid and evocative experience than doing so in Mandarin. The erosion of dialects is a loss to wider Chinese culture.”


MIND YOUR LANGUAGE Author Yeng Pway Ngon does not feel that using Mandarin dialogue in place of Cantonese would have done justice to the characters in his novel Opera Costume, a tale of Cantonese opera performers in 1930s Singapore.
REVISITING THE PAST Eva Tang’s short film The Veiled Willow explores the Cantonese sounds and expressions that Singaporeans might have lost together with our fluency in the dialect.

Naturally, there are difficulties in preserving dialect in the arts and entertainment. In shooting The Veiled Willow — one of the films in dialect film anthology 667 — film-maker Eva Tang shared that it was hard to find Singaporeans who could speak fluent Cantonese to make up the cast. Moreoever, speakers of the same dialect don’t always sound the same.

Says Goh, “Unlike Mandarin, which is more standardised, some dialects, such as Hokkien, come in numerous versions depending on which region you hail from! When I staged Titoudao, actors would often find there were various possible pronunciations for a single word and different ways to express a single idea. It was hard to agree on what was right or wrong. But for Sometime Moon, all the characters come from a particular region. We will have the guidance of a master in that regional dialect, and what he says goes.”

However, Yeng believes that in the long term, the Mandarin that might seem sterile now will gain its own unique Singapore flavour. “In China and Taiwan, where Mandarin is generally considered the national language, people have been using it to learn about culture and express their thoughts and feelings. The cultural background of Mandarin there is much deeper than in Singapore, where English is the primary language under our education system. But instead of taking China or Taiwan’s Mandarin as a standard, I believe that as long as there are still people in Singapore creating in Mandarin, our Mandarin will absorb and include meaning from the other dialects and languages used here. Over time, it will develop its own unique linguistic and cultural style.”Creating in dialect means using a medium that is less widely understood.

“The words and characters are different in dialect and I really needed to work hard to produce the Hokkien script. Also, I previously worked on a show titled Spirits with five types of dialects used. We had to rely heavily on the surtitles and worked very hard on it to connect with what was happening on the stage,” says Goh. “When I watch operas in Teochew, which is supposedly quite similar to my dialect of Hokkien, I do drift off because I don’t fully understand it. Dialect shows require making good subtitles part of the creative process. Even then, you might still lose some audience members, so you sometimes have to weigh accessibility and authenticity.”

Meanwhile, the effort put in to reconnect with one’s dialect heritage often seems to pay off. Tang shares that making The Veiled Willow — named after a Cantonese dish which has now disappeared from Singapore — helped her rediscover “the beauty of the Cantonese language and culture” and reenact a soundscape she feels has been lost from our island since the 1970s. Goh holds similar views. “Revisiting the dialect, there are many aspects of Hokkien lifestyle and culture I realise I have forgotten, from the dishes my grandmother used to cook, to colourful proverbs and sayings that I really love. I believe we need to know all this, and to keep passing it on.”

Sometime Moon plays from 29-31 March at the Victoria Theatre.

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