Yesterday while waiting for the bus, I overheard two schoolboys moaning about failing their Chinese spelling test (听写; “ting xie”) again.
It made me recall how I frequently failed ting xie during my own school days, and how one particular week when my secondary school teacher scolded me, I remarked that aiyah, it wasn’t such a big deal, I’m not pure Chinese what.
His rejoinder? “You are part Chinese. Whatever few ancestors you have in China, they’d roll in their graves if they could see your ting xie marks!”
I was a horrible Chinese student at school, mainly because I had little interest in Chinese culture.
When my sister and I were growing up, we rarely spoke Mandarin or any other Chinese dialects at home. This was partly due to the fact my parents preferred English-language entertainment and, by extension, so did we. My father, especially, also chiak kantang¹ and only spoke English around us. He never taught us our dialect (Henghwa; 兴化话²) and only uses it to speak to his mother and other relatives who don’t speak English, Mandarin, Hokkien or Malay.
I only started appreciating the Chinese language after I graduated from secondary school when my paternal grandfather (Gong Gong; 公公) showed me our family tree.
He was only half-Chinese, and his Henghwa ancestors had long immigrated from Fujian Province (福建) to Borneo at least a hundred years ago to escape from poverty and seek a better life. So he had no compelling reason to be homesick for China.
But he told me that he had been keeping in touch with our ancestral village in Putian (莆田) for several years, and that one of his greatest wishes was to visit there. He even included the full address of our ancestral home at the bottom of his family tree, and had already planned which coach to ride from Xiamen (厦门).
I was equally excited. I became invested in my Chinese heritage, especially after he told me that the four original Henghwa families we were descended from were nearly deported back to China in the 1800s by the White Rajah of Sarawak because of treason (ooh, scandalous!).
I told him how I’d bring him to Putian after I graduate and start working. He smiled when I wondered aloud if our Mainlander relations would even think we’re Chinese with our deep brown complexions. Better improve my Mandarin and Henghwa before I go to China. Scarly want to laosai cannot ask people toilet where then how?³
He never got to visit Putian. He was killed in a hit-and-run accident during my last semester at uni.
When he died, I felt part of my own connection to Putian and my Chinese heritage — and a part of myself — wither and die too.
My interest was recently renewed when the founding outlet of Putien, a local restaurant chain serving Henghwa food4, was awarded a Michelin star.
So I went to Putien with friends two weeks later. It wasn’t the award-winning outlet unfortunately; ever since the announcement, reservations had skyrocketed.
But when I ate the stir-fried yam cubes and the Henghwa mee sua — our Henghwa mee sua, I whispered quietly to no-one and to Gong Gong in particular — I couldn’t help but smile and feel something in my heart bloom again.
I’m now trying to pick up the dialect again, this time from a Facebook group called Henghua United.
Remember hor, 100% effort is required for ting xie even if you’re only 75% Chinese.
1 Literally “eating potatoes” in Hokkien. A pejorative expression used to describe an Asian person who speaks with a Western accent or has affected Western mannerisms.
2 Pronounced as “hing hua ua”, or “xing hua hua” in Mandarin. The last character (话) means ‘language’.
3 Singlish: What if I get diarrhea and I don’t know how to ask the locals where the toilet is?
4 Henghwa fare is uncommon in Singapore. There are relatively few Henghwa people in Singapore, and most people who consider themselves Henghwa are actually children from intermarriages with other dialect groups or races.