At a loss for words? Try Henghua

The Chinese dialect of Henghua has a trove of proverbs and sayings which never cease to fascinate 60-year-old Vincent Lim.

One of these, he said, is a saying used by illiterate people to poke fun at scholars.

Ta jee leng, eng you jeng, jeng qia qia, gei lou pia, low li kor, mou li tia.

Or, in plain English: "Fry the scholar in oil till he turns crispy, and hang him on the wall so he's nibbled by mice and torn apart by cats."

In some ways, Mr Lim, who has spent several decades finding out more about the spoken and literary aspects of Henghua, has become an informal scholar of the dialect himself. While he grew up speaking Henghua, this passion was sparked quite by accident later in life.

In the 1980s, when the Hinghwa Methodist Church where he worked was about to be rebuilt, he stumbled upon some long-forgotten hymn books and a 1912 copy of the New Testament in the archives.

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Flipping through their pages, he noticed they were written in an unfamiliar script - a form of romanised Henghua created by missionaries from the United States who wanted to spread biblical teachings to Henghuas in China.

It was then that Mr Lim, who has been teaching himself romanised Henghua, realised that he still had much to learn about the history and culture of Henghuas.

"It seems Henghua people have all the while been very proud," Mr Lim said, noting that this pride might come from their long association with scholarly achievement.

(From left) Hinghwa Methodist Church members Wilson Sung, 87, Sie Chin Hong, 86, and Vincent Lim, 60. Hinghwa Methodist Church, which was founded in 1911 by missionaries, is the oldest Henghua organisation in Singapore. Henghuas began migrating to Singapore in the late 19th century. Photo: The Straits Times

The Henghuas hail from present-day Putian in Fujian Province. There were more than 25,500 of them here according to the 2010 Census of Population.

The name "Putian" is said to have come from the idea of grass ("pu") and farmland with crops ("tien") growing in an area that used to be flooded by sea water.

Henghua and Hin Ann, alternative older names for Putian, were names bestowed upon the community by the emperor.

Henghuas began migrating to Singapore in the late 19th century. In the early days, many settled in Rochor Canal Road, Sungei Road, Arab Street and Queen Street, working as rickshaw pullers.

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They later came to dominate the transport industry before branching out to other businesses in the 1950s. Taxi companies, bicycle repair shops and spare parts shops were often run by Henghuas.

Hinghwa Methodist Church in Kitchener Road, founded by Christian missionaries in 1911, is the oldest Henghua organisation in Singapore. Others include the Singapore Hin Ann Thain Hiaw Keng temple in Geylang Lorong 33, and Kiew Lee Tong Temple in Jalan Tambur off Upper Thomson Road.

Notable Henghuas include the late property tycoon Ng Teng Fong, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, and group adviser of Hotel Royal Lee Chin Chuan.

Certain Hokkien and Henghua words might sound similar, but Associate Professor Yow Cheun Hoe, director of the Centre for Chinese Language and Culture at Nanyang Technological University, stressed that Henghua is very much "distinct" from Hokkien.

Singaporeans who speak Henghua, Prof Yow added, tend to speak it with a Singaporean accent, and often borrow words from Hokkien and Malay.

Ms Irene Lau, 28, co-owner of an IT company, said the apparent "similarity" between Hokkien and her spoken Henghua, once led to an unwelcome remark from a stranger.

"There was once when I was speaking to my mum in Henghua in the taxi," she said. "The taxi uncle was quite mean... He told me, 'If you can't speak Hokkien, don't force it, just use Mandarin!' I told him we were speaking Henghua, and then he said, 'Huh? What's that?'"

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Mandarin speakers might find themselves tickled by certain words in Henghua. "Wife" in Henghua is lao ma, which sounds like "old mother" in Mandarin. "Mother" in Henghua, on the other hand, is niao leh, which is pronounced almost exactly like "bird species" in Mandarin.

While the word "Henghua" might not mean much to many Singaporeans, some will probably still find the name "Putian" familiar, thanks to the popular Putien restaurant chain which began as a coffee shop.

Prof Yow said that in recent years, an influx of immigrants from Putian who have set up eateries here has led to a revival of interest in Henghua food.

Mr Peter Ho, 55, managing director of Ming Chung Restaurant, which his Henghua grandparents opened here in 1933, includes the Henghua pronunciations of dishes on the menu.

Brothers and co-owners of Ming Chung Restaurant Kelvin (left) and Peter Ho.
Photo: The Straits Times

"I think youngsters are getting interested in nostalgia, and heritage food," said Mr Ho, who remembers watching Henghua puppet shows outside the restaurant when it was still located in Sungei Road.

To keep abreast of Henghua news and culture, he follows a Facebook group called Henghua United.

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But keeping the language alive has been a challenge, said Mr Ho, whose father attended Hong Wen School, which was founded by Hin Ann Huay Kuan. His children, like most of the younger generation, do not speak Henghua.

Mr Sie Chin Hong, 86, a retired school principal who speaks English with his children and grandchildren, said: "The Henghua dialect is dwindling - it can't be helped."

Hin Ann Huay Kuan in Sam Leong Road, which is the largest of the three Henghua clan associations here with 600 members, said it plans to offer free lessons next year to encourage more young people to pick up the dialect.

And some Henghuas, such as Ms Serene Lee, who works in the heritage industry, are also thinking of having informal gatherings where older members help younger ones with their pronunciation.

Being part of a minority dialect group can come in useful, for instance when you want to scold annoying people without them realising it. One such phrase Ms Lee, 53, uses - "in an affectionate way" - is gor luay ming, or "backside face".

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Henghua, to her ears, "sounds a bit sing-song". Certain words are slurred when spoken together. For instance, the phrase for "having lunch", xie orh lao, is often pronounced as xielao.

Ms Lee, like many other Henghuas who speak the language, relishes how it is a binding force.

Said Ms Lau's mother, Madam Lee Siew Kim, 58, who works in sales: "When you meet other Henghuas, it feels very familiar and warm, like old friends talking. We speak very loudly, and we are full of energy."

This article was first published on Apr 06, 2017.
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