24 October 2008

Cantonese Sydney

Unlike my usual solo travelling, I was in Sydney with friends. Albeit that the company was unrepresentative of Australians as a whole, going out with them showed me a side of Sydney that I might never have encountered myself - one with an amazing amount of Cantonese being spoken. Full essay.


Anonymous said...

Dear Yawning Bread,

Thank you for your thought-provoking article on the Chinese (or rather Cantonese?) diaspora in Australia. However, I would like to add to some of your analyses as well as correct a few incorrect conclusions on Chinese emigration from Malaysia.

Firstly, although I do not have the data with me, according to anecdotal sources KL's majority Chinese dialect group is actually the Hakkas. If you look at history, the founding Chinese leaders in KL including the most famous leader of all, Kapitan Cina Yap Ah Loy, were Hakkas, particularly from the Huizhou district in Guangdong province. The Hakkas probably grew even further after the victory of the Hakka-dominated Hai San secret society over the Cantonese-dominated Ghee Hin in the mid-1800's. However, the reason why the Cantonese dialect came to predominate instead might be due to the fact that gradually there were more Cantonese in business, government and artisanal trades in KL compared to the Hakkas who were at a lower statum in KL Chinese society. As such, Cantonese became the business language and the lingua franca. This is examplified in the fact that most of the famous Chinese business leaders after Yap Ah Loy's era like Loke Yew, Loke Wan Tho, H.S. Lee etc were Cantonese and not Hakka. Of course, KL Chinese (like myself) do not identify so strongly with our dialect groups anymore, due to Malaysia's national education which has become a social equalizer.

Secondly, were you describing the past when you wrote on the second filter of Malaysian emigration? I asked that because the dichotomy between the two groups of Chinese Malaysians, one of which speaks English but not Mandarin and the other which speaks Mandarin and Malay but little English is anachronistic. Although there are no longer English-medium schools in Malaysia, English is the business language in the urban areas, and there are plenty of English-language publications and TV channels. So, many Malaysians including those from Chinese-speaking backgrounds will have to speak English to gain employment.

On the other hand, nowadays, 98% of Chinese Malaysian kids go to Chinese-medium primary schools, so the large majority of Chinese Malaysians, especially those born after the mid-80`s can read, write and speak Mandarin. Even many of those who are older are taking an effort to learn Mandarin, due to the obvious advantage when dealing with China. Furthermore, because there is only one Malay-medium national secondary school system, nearly all Malaysian students advance to those schools which teach English and even Mandarin and Tamil formally (as a Pupil's Own Language or POL), though all other subjects except Math and Science are taught in Malay. Otherwise, they will have to go to private Chinese-medium secondary schools, of which there are only about 60 left in Malaysia. Therefore, simply because of our social environment and educational system, I believe the large majority of Chinese Malaysians at present can speak Malay, Mandarin, dialects like Cantonese and Hokkien AND of course, English. The only variation among us would be fluency in any of these languages (like in any country).

Lastly, again from my experience, I noticed that many Chinese Malaysians are able to speak Cantonese these days, even those from Hokkien- or other dialect-speaking regions. I think it is because of the influence of Hong Kong drama and entertainment programs which have been broadcasted in Malaysia for many decades. They are not dubbed into Mandarin like in Singapore. Again, there are also plenty of Mandarin-language programs in Malaysia, thus we are also able to have access to Mandarin entertainment too. And of course, the government never pressured Malaysians to abandon dialects or any other language in favor of another. In other words, we can have our cake and eat it too.

It would be a fallacy to categorize Chinese-Malaysians so neatly. Malaysia's social engineering was never as aggressive
and personal as that of Singapore (i.e. speak Mandarin and English campaign). The truth is, despite our regressive politics, Malaysia was and remains a multicultural and multilingual milleu where people face no barriers and have all the opportunity to learn many different dialects and languages from each other.

Take myself as an example, Although I went to a Chinese-medium primary school, I can speak fluent English AND Malay due to my years spent in a national secondary school. Apart from that, I can speak Cantonese, Japanese (as I am residing in Japan at the moment) and a little Hokkien from my mother. My multilingualism is far from the exception in Malaysia.

Whenever I am in Singapore and speak with the taxi drivers there, I listen to the melangerie of languages they speak to me. Mandarin, Cantonese, Hokkien, Malay, English etc. It seems that the older generation of Singaporeans are far more multilingual than the younger generation!


Anonymous said...

I forgot to mention that in Malaysian Chinese-medium schools, simplified Chinese characters and not the traditional one is taught. Also, Mandarin is the medium of instruction, but I assumed that you already know of this.



jerng said...

Nice one!

Yawning Bread Sampler said...

Raymond -

Thank you for expanding on the issue re Chinese Malaysians. Indeed, I was aware that the Hakkas were probably more numerous than the Cantonese in KL, and most definitely in Ipoh, and yet, the Cantonese dialect gained ascendency. It's always been a bit of a mystery to me.

Re the English non-proficiency among many Chinese Malaysians, I stand by my observations. I have met many Chinese Malaysians -- working class ones -- who know virtually no English when they arrive in Singapore to look for work. They might indeed have had English classes in school, but (a) did they fail? (b) they did even finish school?

As for the Malaysians I met in Sydney, they would be spread over the 30 - 60 age group.

Anonymous said...

Dear Yawning Bread,

Thanks for your reply. I wrote the part on the English-language proficiency of Chinese Malaysians primarily as a rebuttal to your statement, "they have no formal knowledge of English". That is definitely not true for Malaysians, as we have had formal classes in English.

Also, I qualified my proposition by saying that the only variation is fluency. I think that one major reason is the urban-rural divide in Malaysia rather than nationality. Although both urban and rural schools teach English, the urban kids are much more exposed to English-language media and are thus generally more fluent in English. I do not know from where exactly do the "working-class Malaysians you have met" come from, but from my experience, most Chinese in KL can cpeak pretty decent English.


Anonymous said...

Yawning Bread,

Also, if you said that if they have failed the English-language exam or even failed to finish school, they would be considered lowly-educated in Malaysia. Every Malaysian needs at least a pass in English to advance to tertiary or even secondary education, and if they have failed school, they would be considered drop-outs. In those cases, they would definitely not be considered representative of Chinese Malaysians in general!

As such, apart from the urban-rural divide, we also have the factor of educational level as variables for judging general fluency in English among Chinese Malaysians.



Anonymous said...

The Chinese in Sydney will never want to learn Mandarin as they do not like to be associated with the Mainland Chinese. Its the same situation in Hong Kong where they shun speaking Mandarin with intense ferocity including those in their late teens & in their 20's! Speaking in Mandarin at mom & pop retail shops or at those food retail outlets eg char chan teng (or kopi tiams in our context) & you will definitely get the cold treatment because they assume you are from Mainland China. Try visiting HK Disneyland & other tourist attractions in HK to see why HK natives loathe the Mainland Chinese.

I agree with YB that Malaysian's standard of English is not up to par. For example, in the Woodlands area in Spore, you will see lots of Johor residents who are ferried in company buses to Spore to work at the factories. They are offloaded at the Old Woodlands Town Center so that they can buy food or supermarket stuff. They do not understand English at all, trust me, cause I have witnessed them not understanding a word of English at the nearby Cheers supermarket cos they don't understand the English labels. These factory ladies from Johor are aged around 20's to 40's. They always converse in Mandarin.

Also, a lot of home renovation contractors are day labourers from Johor & they do not understand English. I have to communicate in Mandarin or Hokkien to them.

I disagree with the Anonymous writer above who said that more Malaysians can understand Mandarin. I was reading a few blogs in the recent weeks & stumbled upon an expat Malaysian lady currently working in Shanghai who has absolutely no knowledge of Mandarin & is now learning it. She is in her 20's. Also a few travel food blogs from Malaysians who could not read any Chinese characters at HK's char chan tengs when holidaying there. And yes they are young.

Malaysia's education system is rather patchy, neither here nor there. You are either good at speaking & writing: English only or Malay only or Mandarin only. To read & write both languages is more of an exception.

Anonymous said...

Nice thoughts.

Actually, the Cantonese in Chinatowns in Western Europe, the US and Australia are rather fossilised versions of Hong Kong in the 60s-80s. Their accents would also sound strange to those in HK today. It is also because vernacular Cantonese in HK is changing so rapidly that some expressions may sound greek to those who have just been away for a year.

Sociologically speaking, the diluting influences of the influx of new Chinese migrants from the non-traditional coastal provinces is inevitable, in not just the Chinatowns, but Singapore as well.

Kai Khiun

yuen said...

>in Hong Kong where they shun speaking Mandarin with intense ferocity

that is not quite correct; those who want to rise in government or do business have been learning mandarin "with intense ferocity" (my sister lives in HK and works as a Mandarin tutor); getting the cold shoulder in shops and restaurants is also not just a mandarin issue; if you speak with a philippino accent, you want be enthusiastically treated either

Anonymous said...

To "Anonymous" who wrote an entry on 25 October, 2008 18:20 ,

Firstly, let's talk about your observation of Malaysians who aren't fluent in English. You used only one example of Malaysian laborers crossing into Singapore daily. In order not to show selection bias, you must always compare with something else of the same class/category. I was not sure whether you were comparing Malaysian laborers with Singaporean laborers, or with Singaporeans in general including the educated ones. If it is the latter, you have committed a logical fallacy.

Secondly, let's talk about your conclusions from your observation of Malaysians who can only speak Chinese but not English on one hand, and those who can only speak English and not Chinese on the other hand. In the former category, if you have generalized ALL Malaysians as not being up to par in English language fluency just by using one example of Malaysian laborers in Singapore, then it is a false generalization. In the latter category, if you have generalized ALL English-speaking Malaysians as being unable to communicate in Chinese just because of some Malaysian bloggers you have encountered, again that is a fallacy you have committed.

I am giving you the benefit of doubt as to whether you have really intended to commit such fallacies. But the fallacies I mentioned are plain to see in your comment.



Anonymous said...

Dear Raymond,

I still stand by what I say that Malaysians tend to be monolingual being able to read & write ONE language only. By that I mean one of the following languages: Malay, Mandarin or English as stated in my earlier post.

So let's compare the same occupational profile in Spore & Malaysia. That of executives. Particularly Malaysian executives working in Spore.

There are lots of Malaysian executives working in Spore whom I know as colleagues in present & previous jobs across various age groups: young out of universities, mid levels to senior levels. The majority are only capable of speaking & writing English. Mandarin is still an exception. Spoken Chinese dialects are passable but the majority do not recognize Chinese characters. Malay is just so so among some of these Malaysian Chinese having spent the bulk of their working life in Spore. There is a portion of Malaysians who spent their high school years in Australia or Canada. For them Malay is a distant memory.

A Malaysian high ranking executive heading Spore's Goldman Sachs could not pass his Mandarin literacy test to take up a post in China's Goldman Sachs GM position. He was learning the language from scratch as an adult and was featured in Spore's Business Times. He was the best chap for the job but unfortunately China required him to sit for a test as its mandatory for those taking up high positions in finance. In the end, the post was given to a mainland Chinese.

My post is not to trumpet Spore's education system but to point out that Malaysia has a very patchy education system that does not provide language consistency in the students who enter into working life. I see that very frequently among Malaysians working in Spore. I always have to make a 50-50 judgement that a Malaysian who has just entered the company may or may not speak Mandarin and/or recognize Chinese characters. It is not a contest to see whose level of education system is more superior.

Anonymous said...

Dear Anonymous (27 October, 2008 19:05),

Thanks for your reply. I shall list out my disagreements in point form below.

1) "I still stand by what I say that Malaysians tend to be monolingual being able to read & write ONE language only"
Hmm. Until and unless I see proper substantiation that is representative of Chinese Malaysians in general (like a poll), I will not buy your argument. Firstly, you never rebutted my argument that was based on some facts I have mentioned (compulsory pass in English test for all, preponderance of Chinese-language media etc). Your claim above is categorical, and a categorical claim does not allow ANY exceptions. Although fluency will vary, all Malaysians have had formal English-language education, and on other hand, in the past 20 or more years or so, 98% of Chinese go to Chinese-medium primary schools.

Anyway, I myself went to a Chinese-medium primary school, and later to a Malay-medium secondary school. You might consider me an "outlier" case, but THIS MALAYSIAN is effectively trilingual (can read and write Chinese, Malay, English fluently) and I speak Chinese at home. My own experience shows that I am far from the exception among my secondary schoolmates in Malaysia (I am using anecdotal evidence now as you have done). Just something to ponder: young Chinese Malaysian politicians nowadays will not go far if they are not at least trilingual! Good examples would be MCA's Wong Nai Chee, DAP's Teresa Kok etc. There is a reason for this.

(2) Your example of that Malaysian Goldman Sachs executive made me ponder for a while. My own father went to an English-medium school, and could speak only English and dialects. Those who went to Chinese schools before then could not speak English well. I believe that the older generation who went to school before 1969 are less multilingual than the ones after that because (I think) (1) Malay and English were not compulsory, (2) there were fewer people who went to Chinese schools due to their bad academic reputation and supposed Communist infiltration, (3) less Mandarin media programs etc.

Lastly, I never touched upon Singapore's education system. I thought you were only talking about Malaysian's language ability, and as such I limited myself to that parameter. However, I have to say that I often find the command of Mandarin (and sometimes even English!) among many Singaporeans sorely lacking (another experience of mine, thus anecdotal evidence). That means at least holding a conversation in Mandarin/English without having to resort to using English or even dialects in the middle.



Anonymous said...

I would like to summarize the numbers, for the sake of convenience:

For the past 20 or so years,
(1) around 98% of Chinese Malaysians go to Chinese-medium primary schools
(2) however, 90-95% of the same population go to national secondary schools where English is the medium of science and math and is compulsory, while Malay is the medium of everything else.

You can check the numbers (it is a rough number based on my memory) at sites like Merdeka Centre or the Department of Statistics.

I have to agree that there is no planned national education for all from primary to pre-university level, but Malaysians just happened to have been able to enjoy a multilingual education due to a fortuitous turn of events.


Anonymous said...

I think Malaysians who have studied English in school, as a second language, are far more proficient in standard English than the vast majority of supposedly "native-English" Singaporeans, who can't escape Singlish even if they try.

Gentle Lamb said...

Well done.... very good article.

In the mid 80s, when the shop owner in Hobart Tasmania spoke to me in Cantonese as a young child I replied in English. It was an awkard moment. The next generation speaks less Cantonese.

The house that we rented in Hobart the early 80s were from Chinese descendents (cantonese) speaking. The rent was cheap - they even did not want to accept it - to help new comers. But what struck me was they spoke no Cantonese - but very good English. They were also very rich.

At school in Hobart/Sydney, I tried to speak cantonese to my chinese school mates, but the reply was in English. We do not have Chinese/mandarin as a second language. It was not available. So we did Indonesian.

It was a world of tension, between being chinese and being Australian. When you were in the shopping centres, people stare at you in the 80s. Later, there was the tension of being gay and going to church.

Now, most of my Chinese friends now only speak English. That is sad.... even my relatives.

My recent visit to Sydney bring amongst my gay friends - very interesting - no one speak cantonese - for we have been there so so long.

Did you manage to visit the Asian Gay scene there... very unique.

Anonymous said...

very interesting post, and very relevant. Without reading all the of comments, I will observe that Cantonese dominates most Chinese communities overseas due to cultural imperialism by years of successful Hong Kong media. The movies are cool, so it's cool to speak Cantonese like our HK idols.

Actually, if you speak with the younger generation of Singaporean Chinese, they tend to identify more with the Hong-Kongers and/or the Taiwanese culture, when in reality we are surrounded geographically by Bahass Malayu and Bahasa Indonesian speaking people.

I also want to say that speaking Putonghua is no longer ignored in HK retail establishments. Normally they ignore others and serve the ones speaking mainland accented Putonghua because the new rich mainlanders typically go into a shop and buy everything expensive.

yuen said...

>Cantonese dominates most Chinese communities overseas due to cultural imperialism by years of successful Hong Kong media

I dont think this is accurate; Australia had more HK immigrants than Taiwan ones, and till recently few mainland ones, hence the Cantonese character of Sydney Chinatown; the Malaysian immigrants to Australia also has high Cantonese representation; this is also noticeable in Vancouver and London though less than Sydney; Cantonese is less prominent in New York, SF, LA, Houston, etc especially as in recently years Mainlanders began to arrive in large numbers