Sunday, September 16, 2012

Asian Eyes' China - Minnan Guangnan

         My ancestors came from South China. I always thought I am some sort of linguistic expert as I can conversed well in major Chinese dialects - Hokkien, Hakka, Teochew, Cantonese and Mandarin. However after my travels to China, I realized my knowledge on those dialects were just skin deep. There are more dialects that I can imagine.
          Fujian province attracted a lots of migrants from elsewhere in China, and they brought along with them their own local dialects. Over the years, in Fujian province, only left a handful who spoke Hokkien. I had always assumed if someone were from Fujian, they all spoke Hokkien, which is mostly not true. The Hokkien that I grew up with, spoken as my mother tongue, is actually a local dialect spoken only in Xiamen and its vicinity in the Fujian province. This Hokkien dialect is part of bigger dialect grouping called Minnan (闽南语), which also include Teochew and Hainanese dialects. Minnan are also found in Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore due to immigration from South China in the early immigrant days. In China most places are named based on objects and things. Therefore we have Hubei, Hunan, Jiangxi and Henan, to name a few. Minnan was so called since it is south of the Ming dynasty capital. Beside Minnan, there are also Minxi and Minpei, meaning West of Ming and North of Ming, all of which dialects that cannot be understood by someone not from the same area. I had a chance to converse entirely in 'Lau Hokkien (Old Hokkien)' when I took a taxi from Marco Polo Hotel to Zhongsan Lu couple of years back. The taxi driver was amazed that a 'Haikui (海亏 - sea turtle)', a  term they used to call oversea Chinese, still able to speak Hokkien even though I was not born in China.
Many people do not know that Hokkien was 
part of a larger language group called Minnan. 
Other dialects under Minnan language are Teochew and Hainanese
         The Hakka dialect I grew up speaking is 'Feichiew Hak' which I learnt from my neighbours. As I moved out from my small village I encountered 'Kaying Hak' in Taiping, Chemor and Ipoh and 'Hopo Hak' in Kuala Lumpur, but none prepared me for my conversation with the elders I met in Yongding when visiting the Hakka Tulou. I was told they spoke other Hakka dialects called 'Meichiew Hak' and 'Chiewchou Hak. I kind of understand a bit, do not understand a bit, and had to inter-sped with Putonghua (Mandarin) when conversing with my colleague's dad. My Cantonese dialect is more fluid than my other two dialects encounter. I can hold lengthy conversation in Cantonese with my Guangdong and Hong Kong colleague, no problem. However I did not get the chance to practice my Teochew dialect in China nor I had a chance to visit the heartland of Teochew dialect i.e. ChouZhou in Guangdong province. My Teochew would have been rusty because I hardly get to use them nowadays.
A Teppanyaki chef eavesdrops
our conversation
        Once there was a hilarious communication incident when Mr. Tang and I visited Dalian, Liaoning province. Together with a few Dalian colleagues, we had dinner in a Japanese restaurant and ordered Tenpanyaki. The chef was a middle aged guy, preparing our dinner as we sat around his hot plate. As usual, Mr. Tang and I, being Malaysian, were at eased using combination of Hokkien, Mandarin and English, with bits of Malay interjected into our conversation. I noted that the chef tried hard to concentrate on his work, but at last he could not contained his curiosity and asked me in Mandarin, "Sir, I am sorry to be intruding, but I am curios to know where you guys are from. Your look and intonation sounded from the south but your dialect is very weird to me". I looked at Mr. Tang and then replied him, "Oh, we are from Guangnan province". The chef nodded and gave a nonchalant reply "Oh, Guangnan!", and continued frying the big prawns he had spread on the hot plate. It took him about a minute before he paused again, lifted his head up and asked "I am from the Guangdong but I have not heard of Guangnan province before". A big laughter erupted between Mr. Tang and me, and we started to converse in Malay and told him how a Guangnan dialect sounded like. We finished the meal with a smile to our face, but before we left, we confided the fact to the chef. We have invented a new state in China called Guangnan (广南), a new province south of Guangdong! Of course there is no such state, we were just pulling the chef's leg.

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