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February 26, 2021

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Dialects are important for carrying on traditions

I am writing this after reading Emma Leaning’s article titled “Mother tongue: Why your language matters” on February 20. As far as I am concerned, I would define mother tongue as the language that we are brought up in the family.

In Singapore as well as in various overseas Chinese communities, various dialects predominate in the oral discourse between the people of the same region or province.

For example, among Chinese residents in Kuala Lumpur and Ipoh, Malaysia, it is Cantonese, and in Bangkok it is Teochew (Chaozhou dialect), while the majority of Chinese-Singaporeans are originally from Fujian Province.

Some very old traditions are still kept alive among Chinese living overseas. For instance, on February 20 this year, which was the ninth day of the Chinese New Year, those who are Hokkiens and Taoist would pray to the Heavenly God for good blessings. One of the key items at the altar would be the sugarcane plants. One would be placed on each side of the altar table.

Legend has it that the sugarcanes are instrumental in saving the Fujian ancestors from being attacked by their enemies in ancient China. On that day, sugarcanes are sold at the markets and supermarkets for those who need to use them for prayers.

Interestingly, no other dialect (or mother tongue) groups, to my knowledge, would pray on the ninth night. Thus, dialect groups do help the passing down of culturally distinct traditions and customs from generation to generations.

When I was still in primary school, some 70 years ago, a southern Chinese opera was available over the radio. This Fujian dialect was high-pitched in opera but low-pitched in conversation. Most of us found it hard to understand.

Throughout ancient China, the many dialects have provided the cultural foundation for the daily routines, norms and customs, from the cradle to the grave. Each milestone would be solemnized in unique ways.

As the dialects give way to Putonghua, those cultural symbols would be more obviously noticed in the cuisines distinct to each dialect group, though some overseas Chinese are still witnessing some rituals brought by their forefathers.

In a sense, overseas Chinese do not have less claim to being Chinese than those born in China.

The author is a retired trainer and consultant in Singapore. The views are his own.


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