Friday, 24 March 2017

Keeping Hainanese culture alive

Singapore is a tapestry of languages, each with its own unique syntax and history. Some are endangered and others are thriving. In the ninth instalment of a weekly series, we look at Hainanese.
By Abigail Ng WY, The Straits Times, 23 Mar 2017

In some ways, things have not changed all that much at Chin Chin Restaurant in Purvis Street.

After half a century, it still serves up traditional Hainanese favourites such as chicken rice, pork chops and mutton soup.

What has changed is the language one hears as servers take orders and kitchen staff call out that a dish is ready: It is Mandarin.

It was not like this 50 years ago, according to Mr Kenneth Sng, 68, who helps run the family business.

"All our staff were Hainanese until around 30 years ago, when it became difficult to find Hainanese to work in our restaurant," said Mr Sng. He is married to Madam Janet Lim, 67, the third-generation owner of Chin Chin, whose grandparents started the business in 1935.

"Now, though the family still speaks the language, our staff communicate in Mandarin."

The restaurant is situated along what was previously known in the Chinese community as "Hainan Second Street", as many immigrants settled there.

Middle Road and Seah Street were "Hainan First Street" and "Hainan Third Street" respectively.

The Hainanese form the fifth-largest Chinese dialect group in Singapore, numbering more than 170,000 in the 2010 census.

Originating from Hainan island, a province in southern China, the Hainanese arrived in Singapore later than other dialect groups such as the Hokkiens and Teochews.

In the early days, they gained a foothold in the food and beverage industry and remain associated with it.

While Hainanese influence lives on in dishes that have become national favourites, such as chicken rice, Hainanese culture has not fared as well.

In its heyday, Hainanese puppet troupe San Chun Long could be booked for shows every night for a solid month leading up to the seventh lunar month.

Now, it is one of two remaining troupes in Singapore and its members are in their 50s and 60s.

Mr Peter Chew, 51, who leads the troupe with his older brother, said that they now receive invitations to perform at about 10 events a year at temples here and abroad.

This year, they also performed at the River Hongbao event.

The brothers took over the troupe in 2002 from their father, who was one of its early members.

Active since the 1920s but officially established only in 1947, San Chun Long has been part of Mr Chew's life since he was nine years old.

"My father would take us with him when he went to perform, and we picked up some skills," he said.

Mr Chew said that young Singaporeans, unlike their Malaysian counterparts, seem uninterested in Hainanese puppetry.

"In Malaysia, we have very young audiences coming to watch our shows," he said, adding that local Hainanese associations could play a role in exposing young people to these traditions.

Singapore Hainan Hwee Kuan president Francis Phua, 58, said that one issue is providing opportunities to use the language.

His own children grew up understanding Hainanese, as their grandparents spoke it, but would respond in Mandarin.

It was only when they took a two-week trip to Hainan in the 1990s that they had no choice but to speak Hainanese as well.

"If they did not, they would not have many people to speak to," Mr Phua said.

The association sponsors half of the airfare for young people to attend summer and winter camps held annually on the island.

The camp is targeted at teenagers, and its greatest challenge is the clash of schedules, as Hainan's school terms differ from Singapore's, said Mr Phua.

"We usually have a good response from students who are better at Mandarin, as they enjoy it," he said.

The association also tries to be accessible to the younger generation in a few ways.

To encourage young Hainanese to participate in association activities, it organises sports competitions with Malaysian Hainanese associations.

Some management meetings are also conducted in three languages - English, Mandarin and Hainanese.

"If we don't do so, they won't be willing to attend and contribute," said Mr Phua.

While he believes the use of Chinese dialects will eventually peter out in Singapore society, he hopes to persevere in keeping Hainanese alive for now.

"We will still try to get people interested and hold on to our culture," he said.

One way to bring the Hainanese together, he has found, is through food. The association organises a food fair every year.

Back in Hainan Second Street, Chin Chin Restaurant seems to be proving Mr Phua right.

Said Mr Sng: "Many families have been patronising our restaurant over the years. When they come here, they speak in Hainanese.

"After all, our dishes are still cooked the same traditional way."

Facts and figures


Hainanese is the term used to describe people who live on Hainan island.

They include Hainanese-speaking Han Chinese, who are in the majority, as well as other natives to the island.

Most Hainanese Han people were originally fishermen from the Fujian, Guangdong and Guangxi provinces. They later settled in Hainan.

More than eight million people live on the tropical island.


According to the 2010 census in Singapore, there are more than 177,000 Hainanese living here.

However, many in the younger generation are not fluent in speaking the language.


Official classes at the Singapore Hainan Hwee Kuan were stopped four years ago due to dwindling numbers.

However, those interested in learning the language can contact the association and make arrangements for private lessons.


Hainanese opera troupe Hymn Rhyme Sing Opera Club celebrates its 60th anniversary this year. It has around 250 members, whose ages range from the 20s to the 70s.

The club will stage a performance involving more than 60 people at the Kallang Theatre in August. English and Chinese subtitles will be available.

Puppet troupe San Chun Long will be performing in Chinatown in May. The troupe has eight members - three act, three sing and two play instruments.

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