Hokkien and Bisayang Dako

Patricio N. Abinales
Hokkien and Bisayang Dako
This plural existence of different tongues did not in any way divide us from one another

I regret not seriously adding Hokkien to the languages of my early childhood. All I remember now are phrases that became part of our conversations: cha lo (let’s eat!), kam sha (thank you), and lai-lai (come, come). The others were wonderful expletives taught to me by Chinese grandmothers. 

But my grandfather – a Chinese-mestizo – did. 

He grew up in Jimenez, Misamis Occidental, the love child of a Pinay and a Tsinoy. While they never married his parents raised him well: he grew up bilingual way into his adult life. That was what being Filipino meant to him; that was how we, his children and grandchildren, understood it to be. 

One of my aunts reminisced recently that her father would bring her to Ozamiz supposedly to play with friends and relatives. However, she was just the excuse that he gave his wife so he could go to the larger town. Once they got to Ozamiz he would leave her with her friends. He then went straight to the local Chinese store – if I remember it right, its name was Misamis Soap and Candle Factory – to converse in Hokkien with his Chinese friends for the whole day. 

My aunt and her siblings saw nothing wrong with what their father spoke. Hokkien, after all, was part of the local linguistic scene. Speaking it at the village level was not eccentric at all. It was normal.

This was also how we understood being Chinese meant in my town. I had a couple of good friends and basketball buddies whose parents were Tsinoys, and when I called Anggo Tan Intsik, I did so not because of his race or ethnicity but because he spoke Hokkien. It was the same of the other non-Bisayan friends: Tagalog to refer to a new classmate exiled by his parents to Ozamiz; Ilonggo to a medical representative who became our drinking buddy; Ilocano to the son of a judge; and Waray to the nephew of a good family friend. 

It was linguistic differences that defined my friends and me, and it was language – Bisayan – that brought us together. 

This plural existence of different tongues did not in any way divide us from one another. In fact, we knew that at home we spoke the languages of our birth, but we were also aware that once we saw each other at the tindahan ug tuba, we would converse in the language we were all comfortable with.

That said, there was no reason one could not learn the other’s language. I mentioned in another essay how smugglers in the southern Philippines are polyglot, easily shifting from the two major Pinoy languages (Bisayan and Tagalog) to the three Moro Mindanao tongues (Tausug, Maguindanao and Maranao), to Bahasa Malaysia and Hokkien, in order to succeed in their businesses. 

Value of second language

And it turns out that it is not only the denizens of the illicit world that value learning one or two languages.

A friend reminded me that the Aboitiz family, one of the richest Cebuano families, Spanish-mestizos, fluent in Visayan and Spanish, also required their children running the business to learn Hokkien and putonghua. These were and continue to be essential in working with Chinese and Tsinoy partners.

My grandfather, however, never taught his children Hokkien. It was not for ethnocentric reasons, nor was it racist (a far cry from the way that bookshop owner F. S. Jose wants us to treat his fellow Tsinoy kababayan). It was straightforward pragmatic. He knew that by the eve of American colonial rule, English had already established itself as the language of upward social mobility.  Hence, he sent them to school to learn English and other subjects; back home he spoke to them in Binisaya.   

The grandchildren, us, were no different from their parents. We aspired to excel in English in elementary and high school and when home easily switched to Visayan (of course we had failing grades in Filipino).  

However, we were kept abreast of some of the funny and acerbic Hokkien argot courtesy of our Tsinoy friends.

As a child, I always thought that we celebrated two New Years (the Filipino and the Chinese) that were closely connected to each other. During Chinese New Year, my family would be invited to my father’s Chinese golf buddies. And, as the adults savored the whiskey and the pulutan, and complained about their children, the grandmothers – usually ignored and placed in the corner– would beckon us with an offer of a new Chinese phrase.

And they would whisper to us these terms and tell us to shout it out as we merrily went around the living room: “tsao he!”, “pai si!”, and “yan sui”! (this third one the grandmas’ favorites). The shocked adults promptly let out a loud rebuke while the grandmothers just smiled impishly from their corner.

These days I’d be more than happy to deploy these idioms when dealing with the racists among us. I am sure the grandmothers and my grandfather will approve from the Great Beyond. And snigger. – Rappler.com


Patricio N. Abinales is an OFW.

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