Profile: Koh Kuan Eng

Published on 9 December 2014

Koh Kuan Eng keeps dying dialects alive with his series of playful pictorial books.

BY pamela ho

“Dialect in Singapore is like a potted plant that’s been ignored. Since the ‘Speak Mandarin’ campaign rolled out in 1979, we stopped watering it, we stopping putting fertilisers, it wasn’t even near the sunlight, so it started to wilt and nobody took notice,” says Koh Kuan Eng, 47, author of a popular series of dialect pictorial books. “I think with these books, I’m just saying, ‘hey, look… dying already!’ ”

Presented flash-card style, these books are not targeted at kids — Koh is quick to qualify — and many of his buyers are in fact nostalgic adults. “From a design perspective, I wanted to make it look ’70s old school, from the way it’s drawn to the choice of fonts,” he explains.

And design is his forte. As a graduate of Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, Koh worked in the advertising industry for 20 years before making a dramatic career shift in 2008, completing a diploma in counselling and a degree in Social Work.

He is currently a social worker in prisons, running support groups for inmates. Beyond prison walls, he also conducts dementia-awareness workshops and art classes for the elderly. “Speaking dialect to them really helps build rapport. They open up to you because you’re suddenly kaki lang (one of us),” he says.

His dialect books were birthed from an earnest desire to teach his nephew, then aged six, some basic Hokkien vocabulary. Seeking a systematic approach, Koh resorted to drawing pictures, scanning them and posting them on his nephew’s Facebook page.

Little did he expect these posts to be shared or to catch the attention of popular local podcaster Mr Brown and some local radio stations. What ensued was a series of five dialect books — in Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka and Hainanese — released in 2013.

This month, Koh releases a new book, featuring 100 dialect idioms and slangs. His research entailed months of eavesdropping on conversations at coffee shops and bus stops, and secretly typing phrases into his phone. “At first, I thought, how many can I find? At most 20? But after just a few weeks, I collected about 300!”

On a more sombre note, Koh reflects, “I want Singaporeans to reconnect with their roots. I think it’s very important to be in touch with our linguistic heritage. The ‘Speak Mandarin’ campaign encouraged us to speak more Mandarin and less dialect. It was never an either-or thing — it can be both.”

My Pictorial book of Dialect Idioms & Slangs is available at www.sibeynostalgic.com and all Kinokuniya outlets.

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