Cantonese speech and food in Kuala Lumpur: culture shock

The photo above is of Kuala Lumpur all dressed up to celebrate Merdeka Day. The Federation of Malaya gained its independence on 31 August 1957. That was also the time when Singapore aspired to merge with it, which it did for a short while from 1963 to 1965.

In that era, almost everyone felt that Singapore and the peninsula formed a natural nation. Many people had friends and family across the causeway. Hardly any distinction, in culture and beliefs, could be made between the Chinese in Singapore and the Chinese in Malaya, and likewise for the Indians and Malays. Each felt their community spanned both geographic areas. 

Six decades on, things are different. I get a bit of culture shock each time I meet Chinese Malaysians in Kuala Lumpur. The communities have grown apart. They do things differently there. Politics have shaped culture.

I remember quite vividly a moment from a few years back: A Singaporean friend and I were in the backseat and two Malaysians (his friends) were in front. The guy who was driving said he’d take us somewhere for lunch.

“Why don’t we have lunch somewhere here?” my fellow Singaporean said. “Why drive so far?”

“There’s nothing to eat here,” replied the driver, cruising on.

It was an strange reply since we were driving past a long row of restaurants. However, by this point I had become accustomed to this quirk, and I said nothing.

Many of the Chinese Malaysians I have met — those over 40 especially — only think of Chinese restaurants when it comes to deciding where to eat. Since none of the restaurants along that row were Chinese restaurants, I was not surprised by the reply, “There’s nothing to eat here”. The huge signboard above one of the shops that said “Pizza” made no dent in this culinary bulwark.

Another circle of Malaysian friends — together with their friends — often hang out at “mamak stalls”. They tend to be younger and more racially inclusive, with a sprinkling of Malaysian Indians and Malays among them. Mee Goreng, Roti Canai and Nasi Kandar are what they tend to order.

The two groups represent two major paths taken by the Chinese community in Malaysia. The first stayed rigorously, defensively Chinese while the second continued the Malayanisation that began in the 1940s.

Both groups trigger memory in me.

I have childhood memories of relatives who only ever ate Chinese food. To even taste a dish from a different dialect group was a bit of an adventure. I had an aunt who proudly proclaimed, “I can never feel full until I’ve had a bowl of rice”, and a grandmother who couldn’t stand the smell of butter.

But I also remember a time when going out for Sup Kambing (mutton soup) or Roti John was something I as a teenager and my friends did every month or so. These alfresco places were not only affordable, they were where we could hang out late into the night.

That was then. Now, each time I go to Kuala Lumpur and meet Malaysian Chinese there, I feel like I am going back in time. I don’t mean to say that Kuala Lumpur is any less modern a city, but the people’s ways remind me of Singapore’s long-gone Malayan period.

Today, I don’t know anyone around me in Singapore who is exclusively into Chinese food, and I don’t think mine is a unrepresentative observation. Just look around our food courts and shopping malls. There’s sushi, pho, doner kebab, pizza by the slice, baguettes, bibimbab… as well as a range of northern Chinese dishes. There is obviously enough custom to keep these businesses viable. I look at the take-out lunches that my younger office colleagues bring back to their desks to eat; there’s considerable variation from one day to the next.

As for the Sup Kambing places, they figure in very few people’s options anymore. As the Malayan dream died, our interest in Malayan lifestyles faded. We’ve gone cosmopolitan instead.

Then there’s language.

Just last Thursday, a fifty-ish man seemed a little lost while travelling on Kuala Lumpur’s LRT; he was suddenly unsure where he should get off to change to another line. He then leaned over to ask a younger man (around 35 years), posing his question in Cantonese.

Three days later, back in Singapore, I saw an elderly woman on Smith Street seek help from a much younger man. She was perhaps 65 or 70, he no more than 25. She spoke to him in Mandarin.

Malaysian Chinese in Kuala Lumpur seem to be most comfortable in Cantonese, though a younger generation (below 30) use Mandarin as their default language when speaking among themselves. As has been the case for many years, only a small minority use English as their main language. That said, what I’ve been observing have been social situations; in professional circles, English may be more common. Overall, however, there is much greater use of Chinese (whether dialect or Mandarin) than English.

This pattern was typical of Singapore too in the 1960s and 1970s. We would have heard a lot of dialect around us — chief among them Hokkien and Teochew — and less of Mandarin and English. But no more. In Singapore, the Chinese dialects have almost all disappeared from the public sphere. It was long ago replaced by Mandarin, but even Mandarin is noticeably giving way to English (or Singlish). In homes and other private spheres, dialect may still be used, especially if speaking to someone of an older generation, but Singaporeans now think it inappropriate to use it in public. Another possible reason is that their fluency in dialect is much weaker; speaking it is a struggle they’d rather avoid.

As for Malay, my sense is that all Malaysians can speak it. It may not be the main language for Chinese Malaysians, and I suppose fluency varies, but it is completely opposite to the situation in Singapore where hardly any Chinese Singaporean under 60 knows more than five words.

These are the effects of the decision in the mid-1980s to adopt English as the first language and medium of instruction in all Singapore schools. More subtly, we are also seeing the effects of state policy to promote Mandarin at the expense of dialects and to drop Malay as a school subject for ethnic Chinese.

The Department of Statistics reported in 2015 that among Singaporean Chinese, the language most frequently spoken at home was

46.1% Mandarin
37.4% English
16.1% Chinese dialects

(Source: Page 18 of General Household Survey 2015)

This graph (taken from this site), which only goes as far as 2009, shows the long-term trend more starkly.

(click to enlarge)

In 2004, there were, for the first time, more Chinese pupils registering for Primary One from English-speaking families than from Mandarin-speaking families. The gap has widened since then. The percentage of pupils coming from dialect-speaking homes has been negligible since around year 2000. In other words, there is hardly any young family left that mainly uses dialect in the home.

As more and more Singaporean Chinese adopt English as their main language, their identity changes. With English, they are exposed to Western and international culture. It’s not surprising then that Singaporean Chinese are a lot more cosmopolitan in their food tastes. We may have grandparents who only ate Chinese food, but for us to do the same would be masochistic.

Malaysia never promoted English the same way that Singapore has. While I can’t find any statistics, I’d wager that only a tiny fraction of Malaysian Chinese have English as their dominant home language. Their identity as Chinese (in addition to their identity as Malaysian) has remained strong. If at all there has been blending, it is a continuation of the Malayanisation process dating from much earlier in the 20th Century: being fluent in Malay, and being open to Malay and Mamak Stall food.

Singapore too had a Malayan period, roughly from the 1940s to 1960s. And then we decided to be different. Half a century on, I experience a mild culture shock each time I go to Kuala Lumpur.


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