My two cents on being Hainanese

This Hainanese kueh is known as ibua, a glutinous treat with roasted coconut and gula melaka.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

SINCE I was a child, my parents constantly reminded me that I am Hainanese.

This is not atypical, because people belonging to this dialect group are usually bound by tradition and family values. Both of them are Hainanese, so I am perhaps one of the few who are "pure" Hainanese.

But what does being Hainanese really mean? I don't understand the dialect and neither do I speak it.

The only Hainanese thing about me is that I know how to cook chicken rice - thanks to my wonderful dad who is a great cook - and other food related things which I remember are the unusually gigantic deep fried sesame rice balls and glutinous rice kueh, filled with brown sugar coconut fillings that are wrapped individually in banana leaves.

Besides that popular rice dish which we have on a regular basis, what else constitutes this dialect and culture that makes us different from others? What is it about being part of this dialect group that makes us unique?

And why is my dad always asking me to make a trip to Hainan island in China?

Well, my questions were answered when I attended the Congress of the World Federation of Hainanese Associations at the Singapore Expo on Thursday. This was where I saw loads of Hainanese gathered under one roof.

These delegates, who hail from Asia, Australia and even France, were in town for their 11th World Congress meetings, in which they spoke about their roles in promoting economic prosperity, culture, legal assistance and overseas clan associations.

Being very curious about what the Hainanese culture entailed, I attended a discussion session on the evolution of Hainanese culture and this was when I found out why my parents would often drill the "you're Hainanese" mentality into me.

It is because being Hainanese, family ties are a matter of great importance. Our traditional customs, language and ancestral lineage are a big deal for overseas Hainanese, and we don't usually move out of the house to live on our own.

Mr Han Tan Juan, Head of Cultural and Education at Singapore Hainan Hwee Kuan, said that the Hainanese prioritise relationships with families and relatives much more than other dialect groups.

Speaking in Chinese, the 67-year-old, who has been with the Hwee Kuan for over 20 years, raised an example: "Go to a chicken rice seller and speak to him in Hainanese. He'll offer you more meat for a lesser price.

"That's how bonded we are."

Perhaps being one of the few 220,000 Hainanese in Singapore, we tend to feel a stronger sense of camaraderie.

I also learned why the Hainanese immigrants were never rich - family ties were so important that they were always sending money back to Hainan island and never really had the opportunity to prosper.

The Hainanese arrived in Singapore around 1841 - much later than other dialect groups - and mainly as workers and coolies. Most of them congregated and lived around the Beach Road, Seah Street and Purvis Street area, which soon became the hub for commercial and social activities for the Hainanese. The Hainan Hwee Kuan, first built in 1857, is currently located along Beach Road.

At that time, the other dialect groups had already settled on this island, established trades and businesses, and eventually became rich.

Hence, it was rather difficult for the Hainanese to start a trade here, so many were forced to work in the service industry, usually as servants to colonial masters of that period.

"People used to laugh at us, saying that we were subservient to the 'ang mohs'.

"But this is no longer the case. These days, top executives, government officials, businessmen and artists are Hainanese," said Mr Han.

He went on to explain that this was because Hainanese value education and knowledge on top of family ties.

"Tell someone you're a Hainanese and the first thing they'll think of is that you're educated, cultured and intelligent.

"That's the impression of Hainanese Singaporeans in the present day," said Mr Han in a confident tone.

I smiled a little when I heard that.

After the discussion session, I asked Mr Han what can young Singaporeans like me do to get in touch with our roots and traditions.

His advice was to join activities that are organised by the Hainanese associations in Singapore. He said that there are at least 40 such centres in the country which hold seminars on culture and history on a regular basis.

Mr Han also said that there were other fun activities as well and told me to explore them.

"Youths these days don't know much about their own culture and traditions," said Mr Han.

I couldn't help but think that the person he was talking about was me, after revealing to him that I don't speak the dialect.

I then recalled a friend - who is also Hainanese and speaks the dialect at home - saying, "The language is dying."

Having learned all that I did today, I must say that I'm proud to be Hainanese, yet ashamed that I know so little.

Maybe it's time I ask my parents to teach me Hainanese. I guess it's also time I book that flight to sunny Hainan island.

This story was first published on Oct 29, 2009.

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