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.