When "Chinese" Doesn’t Mean Mandarin

The following is a guest post by Ty Lim, who served as president of Gaginang — a US-based nonprofit that promotes Teochew culture, language, and identity — from 2005 to 2009.

Outside of China proper, in cities around the world, what’s the lingua franca for communities of the Chinese diaspora? Your first instinct will be to say “Pshaw! In this globalized day and age, it certainly is Mandarin, 普通話, 國語, one people, one language bla bla bla.” This may be true for many cosmopolitan places such as Singapore, New York, and Paris but there are still many places where different dialects are the standard. Dialect number two, aka Cantonese, can be found, of course in Hong Kong, Macau, and arguably still has first preference ahead of Mandarin in places like San Francisco, Sydney, and Kuala Lumpur. What other dialects are spoken as community languages around the world? (oh and by community language I mean, a language that is used by the entire Chinese community of a given place.) Hakka 客家, for one, thanks to a far-flung diaspora covering places as distant as East Timor, Jamaica, Mauritius, and Reunion. Unfortunately, I’m not sure how prevalent the language is in these places. Its possible that Cantonese and then Mandarin, or the local languages have edged out Hakka. I can however speak about Teochew, which is my mother tongue. First, a little background on Teochew:

According to Wikipedia, Teochew 潮州話 is spoken by 12-15 million (I actually think it’s closer to 20 million) and is part of the Southern Min family of languages. In China, its spoken in the Eastern third of Guangdong province, bordering Fujian. The principal cities you’ll find it being spoken are 汕頭 Shantou, 潮州 Chaozhou, 揭陽 Jieyang, among others. Nowadays, many in China refer to the language as 潮汕話 which combines the 潮 from 潮州 and 汕 from 汕頭. Beginning in the late 1800s and peaking in the first half of the 1900s, many Teochew folks uprooted and left a famine-stricken and politically unstable China to try their luck in Southeast Asia. That was the first wave. The second wave came when Teochew folks living in Cambodia and Vietnam escaped more shitstorms in the wake of the Khmer Rouge and the fall of Saigon (both in the late 70s and early 80s).

Back to the topic of this post: Where is Teochew spoken as a community language? In Thailand, Teochew has historically made up a majority of the Chinese living in large cities like Bangkok. Today, you can still hear Teochew spoken in many levels of the Chinese community in Yaowarat, Bangkok’s Chinatown, and many other areas of central Thailand. Even for the many younger generations who don’t speak Chinese, they will still have grandparents whom they refer to in the Teochew way as 公 gong and 媽 mà. Some also say that there are so many Teochew-speaking members of parliament that meetings could virtually be held in Teochew. Another place is the cities of Pontianak and Ketapang in Kalimantan on the Indonesian half of Borneo. Singapore, unfortunately has been mostly successful in their Speak Mandarin campaign, otherwise, I imagine the mixed Hokkien-Teochew language (Hokkien is also from the Minnan branch) oft-heard by some would certainly be more spoken by the Chinese community as a whole. I mean, Hokkien and Teochew make up 62% of the Chinese population after all.

Growing up in New York City, my Teochew fluency level has never quite moved beyond the daily routines of home life. I’ve never been taught Teochew beyond a grade school level (if even that). Learning some Mandarin in college and with the help of Teochew-Mandarin/Mandarin-Teochew dictionaries I eventually was able to map my Teochew to Mandarin to glean more complex vocabulary. I suppose, this is not at all surprising given that it seems that there is no such thing as a Chinese school that teaches Teochew*. Right now in New York, Cantonese is on the wane as the Chinese community’s language of choice. This is also the case in San Francisco, where I’ve lived for the last five years. I think the issue is one of Chinese people buying into the one people one language ideal, and of kiasu 驚輸, which is a Minnan term popular in Malaysia and Singapore which literally means “afraid of losing”, and refers to the desire of many Chinese to not want to lose out in a competitive society. Certainly, this phenomenon is not limited to Chinese people alone – I do think it makes a good deal of sense for people to want to equip their children with languages which will help them survive in society. But, in terms of the survival of non-Mandarin community dialects, it seems more and more of my friends see their non-Mandarin “dialects” as home languages, and Mandarin as the language of upward mobility. Taiwan, and it’s non-Mandarin languages certainly come to mind. Nationhood, policy, hegemony, Han-identity: There are many factors as to why things are how they are today. Too much for me to write about here.

Readers, do you know of towns, cities, or countries outside of China proper, where you find that a non-Mandarin Chinese dialect still serves as the lingua franca in the local Chinese community?

*One exception can be found here.

16 responses to “When "Chinese" Doesn’t Mean Mandarin”

  1. Andre says:

    This article from the NY Times just came to mind.

  2. Ty Eng Lim says:

    Andre: Yes, that article was probably in my subconscious mind somewhere when I was writing up the post! Not sure if the article mentions, but there is also a significant Fuzhounese 福州 population in New York City.

  3. Kevin says:

    I had a friend who came to Houston, Texas. We went to the Chinese/Vietnamese grocery store and she asked one of the workers where something was located. First she tried English, then Mandarin, then finally she found that Cantonese works.

  4. Chris Waugh says:

    Following Kevin’s anecdote: In February, my wife and I were in the souvenir shop of Rainbow Springs in Rotorua, New Zealand. I put our large pile of little souvenirs on the counter, the cashier, to whom I had not paid the slightest shred of attention, rang up the bill. She told me the price in Putonghua – with a slightly, but vaguely non-standard accent. The look of surprise on my face prompted her to say, still in Putonghua, that she’d heard my wife and I speaking Chinese (and I’m pretty sure that the word she used was something vague like 汉语 or 中文). Makes sense, I guess. Turns out the cashier was from Guangdong. I don’t know what that adds to the discussion, but it seems to follow on with what the NYTimes wrote about the increasing shift to Mandarin in US Chinatowns.

  5. Air Phloo says:

    Cantonese is definitely way more common in Kuala Lumpur than Mandarin. I was also told that all business is conducted in Hokkien among the powerful tiber industry in Sarawak – the large Malaysian state on Borneo.

  6. Tan Wang says:

    The Indonesian archipelago has many pockets of ethnic Chinese, particularly in on Sumatra, Borneo and the Riau Islands. For many, “Chinese” is the first language they learn, though, as the article points out, Mandarin is probably the least common of the Chinese dialects. In Medan – Indonesia’s third largest city and the major city with the largest concentration of ethnic Chinese in Indonesia, in North Sumatra, for example, “Chinese” means Hokkien. Teochew and Mandarin are virtually unknown. The province of Bangka-Belitung, the province with the largest percentage of ethnic Chinese is one major exception. Many Bangkanese speak Mandarin.

  7. Elliott says:

    The steamrolling of dialects by Mandarin is a sad and inevitable. Only the largest dialect groups like Wu, Sichuanese, and Cantonese are going to survive albeit more and more altered with time. I once brought this up to my students. Shockingly, many of them said they didn’t really care. I myself have a mixed relationship with Mandarin. I am utterly thankful for it’s power to open up all of China to me, but despise it for being so goddamn formal and boring compared with other dialects such as Cantonese.

  8. Syz says:

    @Tan Wang: interesting stuff, I’m especially surprised to hear about a Mandarin-speaking pocket there.

    @Elliott: I agree that “steamrolling” feels like the right word. The lack of lamenting doesn’t really surprise me; in a sense people are too busy to notice.

    Re Mandarin: there’s nothing inherently “formal and boring” about it, but maybe I get what you’re talking about. Tell me if I’m wrong. Are you saying that folks tend to squeeze the playfulness and variability out of a standard language like putonghua in order to enhance communications or make it easier to learn? Maybe this is true to some extent. It might be true of English in some contexts too. But it’s not at all generally true. Try listening to this recording and tell me it’s formal and boring 😀

  9. Paul Go says:

    In the Philippines, the lingua franca of the Chinese community is the Lan-nang dialect of Hokkien which is based on the Quanzhou and Xiamen dialects with some Tagalog (or whatever Philippine language is spoken) and English thrown in. Lan-nang speakers tend to conflate ‘L’ and ‘J’ sounds into ‘D’ so 你 becomes and 日頭 ji̍t-thâu becomes di̍t-thâu, and substitute some words with Tagalog such as 因為 in-ūi with kasi and 不過 m-ko with pero.

    Although most of the older Philippine Chinese learned Mandarin from Chinese school, Lan-nang is still the preferred community language for social and business conversations among the older generation. Even the native Cantonese people speak Lan-nang while Mandarin is only spoken with people from mainland China. Unfortunately, Lan-nang is dying out in the Philippines because most of the younger generation of Philippine Chinese prefer to speak Tagalog. The language is usually not spoken at home due to the fact that most households hire Filipino maids who help take care of the children. In order to speak with the maids, they must speak Tagalog and parents do not speak Lan-nang with their children because they fear they will have a hard time communicating with maids. Children who do know how to speak Lan-nang will encounter peers who do not know how to speak and end up speaking Tagalog with others. This creates a chain reaction as they all end up speaking Tagalog without practicing their Lan-nang skills. As far as I know, schools do not teach Lan-nang and even the Mandarin education is not very good now.

  10. […] When “Chinese” Doesn’t Mean Mandarin […]

  11. johnleemk says:

    In Malaysia, Hokkien is still the dominant form of Chinese in Penang (a state/city — much like Singapore, except it’s a state of Malaysia). Although tussles over Chinese medium public schools in the public eye have focused on Mandarin as the medium of instruction, my Penangite friends who attended Chinese schools in Penang tell me they grew up speaking Hokkien in the classroom.

    As a native of Kuala Lumpur, I can attest that Cantonese is still very dominant, although Mandarin is slowly eroding its importance. The Chinese public schools all use Mandarin as the medium of instruction. I am Chinese, but my parents come from traditionally Hokkien families; my mother knows no Chinese (she’s Filipino, part Chinese) and my father’s first language is Hokkien. His Mandarin is pronounced with such a heavy Hokkien accent, it’s almost incomprehensible. I unfortunately know little Mandarin, and even less Cantonese and Hokkien. Most Malaysians find it astonishing that I don’t know either Mandarin or Cantonese; if I lived in Penang they’d probably be astonished at my ignorance of Hokkien too.

    I’ve pointed some Malaysians who are more familiar with our Chinese languages to this post. Perhaps one of them will have more to add.

  12. Andrew says:

    Penang is very heavily Hokkien, to the extent that Chinese with Cantonese or Teochew ancestry will often speak Hokkien, even at home. The Hokkien in Penang is the same as in Medan, and different from the Hokkien spoken in south Malaya and Singapore.

  13. […] more pieces not entirely relevant, but still distantly related to my last post: First is a post on Sinoglot about Teochow – a language I am most unfamiliar with. The second, via the comments on that Sinoglot post, […]

  14. Chris says:

    Definately Cantonese and some Fujian dialects in Antwerp and Brussels’ small chinese communities.

  15. erwin says:

    7.3 million chinese indon, as census tell us hokkien 48%,kheh 21% ,teocew 13%,cantonese 8%,others 9%.hokkien majority in sumatra,java,bali,celebes,indon eastern…kheh majority in lampung,bangka bliton,west borneo,south borneo…teocew majority in riau isles,south sumatra,pontianak…cantonese and others spread out everywere in minority…nowaday hokkien dialect speaker around 1.3 million,kheh 700 thsnd,cantonese 180 thsnd, mandarin 590 thsnd ,teocew 390 thsnd ,hopeful this above useful

  16. Ty Eng Lim says:

    Thanks Erwin, that’s very useful information! Maybe folks from other countries can give some stats.

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