Sinitic languages in Singapore

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From Coby Lubliner:

I have lately been watching an Australian TV series, "Serangoon Road," taking place in Singapore in the 1960s. The dialogue is mostly in English, but when it isn't it's in Mandarin, both among the Chinese and between them and the main character, an Australian who speaks it. I have so far heard no trace of any other Chinese. Is that realistic?

My reply to Coby:

Of course, it's not realistic, because on the streets and in the homes of Singapore you would also hear Hokkien, Cantonese, Teochew, etc., in fact, more so than Mandarin, I think.  And there would have been even less Mandarin in Singapore during the 60s than now, with the push to teach Mandarin in schools and the recent immigration of large numbers of people from the Mainland, though my own experience is that not even the latter are necessarily fluent speakers of Putonghua.  If the Chinese were interacting with the Mandarin speaking Australian, they would naturally try to communicate with him in Mandarin, to the extent they were able to do so.  The fact that this is an Australian TV series would constrain the availability of speakers of non-Mandarin topolects.  And the producers might not even be aware of the need to represent the other topolects.

Through a friend, I asked LEE Kok Leong for his opinion about the Sinitic mix in Singapore.  Just to introduce KL Lee, his blog is here.

Lee studies Singapore society and published an interesting book on Cantonese majie (female domestic housekeepers),《Guǎngdōng mājiě 广东妈姐》, a year ago.  Here's his take on the various Chinese languages in Singapore vis-à-vis English.

As  I did not watch the said Australian TV series, I am not in the position to comment. But for languages used among Chinese, it is rather complex. Using English to talk to each other in the good old days was not uncommon among the higher social class. For example, Lee kuan Yew, the first Prime Minister of Singapore, could only command English and Malay. He only learned Mandarin and Hokkien (one of the popular local dialects among the Chinese) in the much later years for general election purpose. English was his most powerful language because of his baba family background. When Lee and his colleagues founded PAP in 1954, the party had two camps: English speaking and Chinese speaking. Lee belonged to the English speaking group. For his successor Goh Chok Tong, Goh only learned Chinese and spoke broken Mandarin in 1990s.

For the general public, their ancestors came from the southern part of China and spoke 5 main dialects: Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka and Hainanese. The first three are the most common. Although Chinese schools taught in Mandarin, but dialects were still common among the Chinese. Dialects were their mother tongue.

This trend was changing in the 1970s and completely changed in the 1980s when Singapore became more industrialised, Chinese schools completely closed and government purposely curbed dialects. Since then, English is the working language up to today. In today's Singapore, Chinese families who communicate in English are more than those in Chinese. If you see another Chinese stranger, more often than not you would start the communication in English. China immigrants are adapting fast.

From Jane (Geok Hoon) Williams, a long-term reader of Language Log:

My parents' generation is called, endearingly, Pioneer Generation – the PAP government seems to pump lots of money to them (the elderly here are very happy I think as my mum can't praise the government enough). I remember in the 80s, 方言* was strictly prohibited – the consequences of the social policy were that fangyan speakers were looked down upon (remembering Taiwan when Taiyu** was 'banned'?). Fangyan programmes were suspended. The mass media propaganda pushed Mandarin (to unite the nation) by suppression of fangyan….  My mother – a Hokkien speaker, is a lost generation.

*VHM:  fāngyán ("topolects")

**VHM:  Táiyǔ 台語 ("Taiwanese")

To return to the topic of the Australian TV series with which we began, here are two pages of reviews of "Serangoon Road" — most of them are not very complimentary.

If you want to watch some episodes of "Serangoon Road" for yourself, you can find plenty of them here.

[Thanks to Geoff Wade]


  1. Christian Weisgerber said,

    July 24, 2016 @ 9:40 am

    I watched a few episodes of Serangoon Road, but as a drama it felt very old-fashioned, like watching an episode of Magnum, P.I. from the 1980s, not a modern prestige drama. (The show was produced by HBO Asia.)

    I can't comment on Don Hany's Mandarin. His English always sounds badly mumbled. Otherwise he is a very capable actor, somewhat typecast as the generic foreigner in Australia (he's played characters of at least Iraqi, Greek, and Bulgarian ethnicity).

  2. Jim Breen said,

    July 24, 2016 @ 9:31 pm

    @Victor: "The fact that this is an Australian TV series would constrain the availability of speakers of non-Mandarin topolects."

    Have you any statistics to back this up? My impression is that until recently in ethnic-Chinese-emigre circles in Australia one mostly heard Cantonese, and even now Mandarin is in the minority.

  3. John said,

    July 25, 2016 @ 1:42 am

    I don't know about Melbourne, but in Sydney Mandarin is certainly not in the minority, although the main reason you hear it more often is because it is spoken by tourists.

    Younger Australian Cantonese speakers usually speak English amongst themselves and a mix of Cantonese and English to their elders, whereas younger Mandarin speakers are more likely to be recent immigrants and prefer Mandarin. Near to universities, if you hear Cantonese spoken it is probably by students from Hong Kong.

  4. Lindsay Costelloe said,

    July 25, 2016 @ 1:59 am

    There are now more Mandarin speakers in Australia than Cantonese speakers (and certainly my experience bears this out) Here's what the Australian Bureau of Statistics says:

  5. Jim Breen said,

    July 25, 2016 @ 2:08 am

    @Lindsay Costelloe – thanks for that update. My impression was clearly incorrect, or at least rather out-of-date. Not that there's a huge difference between 1.2% and 1.6%.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    July 25, 2016 @ 6:48 pm

    From Toni Tan:

    Please allow me to preface my response with my disclaimer: Although I am from Singapore, I'm not an expert on this. Moreover, my experience is limited because I wasn't born yet in the 1960s and being Peranakan I only spoke English and Malay at home.
    So with that stated upfront, here is what I know:

    The push for Mandarin came only in the late 1970s, so dialects (Hokkien and Teochew more so than Cantonese, given the population distribution) would have been far more dominant.

    And yes, if the Chinese were interacting with an Australian who spoke Mandarin, they would speak in Mandarin to the extent that they could. However, many people of the time period spoke little, if any, Mandarin because the dialects dominated.

    There are so many possible reasons why the Australian TV series is not using non-Mandarin topolects: In addition to your reason of availability of speakers, it would probably be far easier to find translators for what is presumably a script originally in English and translate it into Mandarin (than Hokkien or Teochew). Until you told me about this series, I wasn't aware of it and I have not watched it (though I'm very familiar with Serangoon Road, having been there very often); however, I think it is laudable that they would have some of it in Mandarin when they easily could have had it all in English.

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