Sia suay (or xia suay): a Hokkien expression in Singapore English

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Here at Language Log, we are quite familiar with Singapore English, which comes in two registers:  Singapore Standard English (SSE) and Singapore Colloquial English (Singlish).  The term we are discussing today can be used in either register.

This multipurpose expression is featured in connection with the COVID-19 crisis in two recent articles in The Independent:

I

"'Sia suay should be the word of the year…' Netizens take a dig at Chan Chun Sing now that panic buying is happening in many countries

Many netizens went online to say that those words had become a kind of catch phrase. It implies something that is a disgrace or an embarrassment", by Anna Maria Romero (3/5/20)

II

"'Let’s not xia suay again, Singaporeans.' Netizens respond to Chan Chun Sing’s assurance that the country has enough food supplies

Many people commented thanking him for issuing the reassuring update in such a quick manner and called for Singaporeans to stand united at this time", by Anna Maria Romero (3/17/20)

In case you weren't paying attention, Hokkien is a Southern Min Sinitic topolect spoken by more than 40 million people in the province of Fujian (Fukien), Taiwan (where it is also called Hoklo), Singpore, and in overseas Chinese communities around the world.

Excerpts from the first article:

Some Singaporean netizens could not, it seems, resist taking a dig at Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing, who did not mince words at panic buyers in Singapore and Hong Kong in a speech he made last month.

Mr Chan expressed disbelief that Singaporeans were panic-buying not only rice and instant noodles but also toilet paper. 

He went on to say, “No paper, water also can. So why do we behave so idiotically? I cannot tahan*."

[*VHM:  (From Malay) Handle; tolerate, commonly used as 'I cannot tahan' meaning "I can't bear it" or "I cannot tolerate". (source)]

And now, netizens are repeating Mr Chan’s words back to him, especially about being xia suay,  which means being a disgrace or an embarrassment.

Excerpts from the second article:

…The country’s Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing was quick to comment over social media concerning the lockdown, to prevent any unnecessary panic. And it seems that netizens are hearing his message loud and clear.

Mr Chan wrote in a now-viral post that has been shared over 13,000 times that the Government has been at work to raise Singapore’s stock of food supplies, and he reassured the country that “This means that we are not in danger of running out of food or other supplies brought in by our retailers.”

Netizens were quick to respond.

Wiktionary is informative (with examples):

Etymology

From Hokkien 削衰 (siah-soe), from (siah, “to scrape; to remove”), as in the expression 面子 (siah lâng ê bīn-chú, “to scrap away one's face; to cause someone to lose face”) + (soe, “unlucky”).

Pronunciation

    • (Singapore) IPA(key): /sjʌ sweɪː/

Adjective

sia suay (comparative more sia suay, superlative most sia suay)

    1. (Singapore, colloquial, Singlish) Causing embarrassment or disgrace to others. quotations ▼

Verb

sia suay (third-person singular simple present sia suays, present participle sia suaying, simple past and past participle sia suayed)

    1. (Singapore, colloquial) To disgrace; to cause embarrassment for others. quotations ▼

[VHM:  Notice that "sia suay" takes the full complement of English verbal endings.]

Knowing all this, it seemed to me that Hokkien "sia suay" at least partially overlapped with Mandarin diūliǎn 丟臉 ("lose face; shame; be humiliated").

I asked Yilise Lin for her take on this expression.  She replied:

Yes, I'm familiar with this term, it's very commonly used in Singapore.

It's similar to diūliǎn 丢脸, but a little different with regard to usage. We generally use it in terms of disappointing performance or behavior for a group of people.

For example, when a classmate is going to represent the class in a competition, we might say to him, "do well! don't sia suey!", as in "do well, don't make all of us look bad!"

Interestingly, apparently "sia" is 削, as in siah lâng bīn-chú 削人面子 – causing people to lose face.

"Suey 衰" by itself is a common term in Singlish. We frequently say "so suey" as in "so unlucky" if anything bad happens. E.g., "So suey, I got a parking ticket today."

When spoken or written as part of Singapore English (no matter in which register), Chinese characters are far from the speaker's or writer's mind.

 

Selected readings

"English vs. Singlish" (7/28/18)

"Xinhua English and Zhonglish" (2/4/09)

"Pinyin for Singlish" (3/7/16)

"New Singaporean and Hong Kong terms in the OED" (5/12/16)

"Singlish: alive and well" (5/14/16)

"Singlish under siege" (7/1/18)

"The ethnopolitics of National Language in China" (7/2/18)

"Fluent bilingualism in Singapore" (5/28/19)

"Hokkien in Singapore" (9/16/16)

"Receptive multilingualism" (11/27/18)

"Eurasian eureka" (9/12/16)

"Hokkien in Singapore" (9/16/16)

"Hoklo" (9/18/16)

"Confessions of an Ex-Hokkien Creationist" (9/20/16)

[h.t. Ben Zimmer]



6 Comments

  1. unekdoud said,

    March 23, 2020 @ 3:31 am

    Quick reminder that Hokkien (and Singlish in general) has a lot of tonal variety, and some expressive power is lost by the Wiktionary entry only putting IPA in the pronunciation section.

  2. John Swindle said,

    March 23, 2020 @ 9:27 pm

    So it would be more collective and less individual than Hawaii Creole English "No make A!" ("Don't make an ass of yourself!").

  3. Pendekar said,

    March 23, 2020 @ 9:51 pm

    In Malaysia, where Hokkien is spoken just as widely as Singapore (or maybe even wider), even more cross-linguistic mixing is going on. Malaysians have tacked on Malay suffixes and prefixes to sia sui, to create such gems as 'mempersiasuikan' [to create a state of shame and embarassment], using the Malay prefix 'memper-' and the suffix '-kan' to create a causative verb.

  4. B.Ma said,

    March 24, 2020 @ 8:32 am

    Oh wow, my grandma used to say "sway" in English speech (that's how we spelled it) to mean unlucky but I did not know it was actually a Chinese/Hokkien expression, or that it had a written character, until this post.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    March 24, 2020 @ 9:11 am

    Just came upon this article on "Written Hokkien"

    http://wikipedia.nd.ax/wiki/Written_Hokkien

  6. Chas Belov said,

    March 30, 2020 @ 10:16 pm

    For "cannot tahan" I have also encountered "buay tahan" with the first word being from Hokkien and the the last, as mentioned, from Malay.

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