I was elated to see Chinese New Year ads using “Gong xi fa cai” (SM Malls) and “Kiong hee huat tsai” (Insular Life). Those are the correct greetings, not “Kung hei fat choy,” which has become a source of irritation for local ethnic Chinese. Instead of writing about good luck charms and predictions of a snake year, I thought I’d use today’s column for a language lesson, mainly the right way to greet local ethnic Chinese, and explaining why language matters so much.
“Kung hei fat choy” means “Wishing you prosperity” in Cantonese, which is spoken mainly in the province of Guangdong (or Canton) in southern China, and in Hong Kong. Like our Ilokano, many Cantonese were pushed by difficult living conditions to migrate overseas. Most overseas Chinese in north America and parts of Europe are Cantonese, but among the Chinese who migrated to the Philippines, the Cantonese are a minority, probably not more than 10 percent of the total, many of them arriving during the US colonial period and ending up in Benguet, where they helped build Kennon Road and set up the vegetable industry.
Most of the local ethnic Chinese come from another southern province called Fujian. The language used by local ethnic Chinese is often referred to as Hokkien or, more accurately, Minnan (which means south of the Min River, where most local ethnic Chinese have their roots).
You’re probably dizzy by now with all the language names, but here’s one more important clarification. China’s national language is known by its older name “Mandarin,” which the Chinese communists changed because of its elitist connotations to “Putonghua,” which means “ordinary language.” Mandarin or Putonghua was originally a northern Chinese language but is now widely spoken throughout China. In the Philippines, it is taught in schools that offer Chinese, such as St. Stephen’s, St. Jude’s, Grace Christian, Jubilee, and Xavier.
The Chinese government insists, for nationalistic reasons, that there is only one Chinese language with many variations or dialects. In reality, the differences can be quite significant, with Cantonese and Minnan as different as Tagalog and Ilokano.
Let’s get back to the New Year greetings. The preferred Minnan greetings are “Kiong hee sin ni” which means “greetings for the new year” or “Kiong hee huat tsay” which is “wishing you prosperity.”
In Putonghua, the corresponding terms are “Gong xi xin nian” (pronounced “gongsi sinnian”) for “new year greetings” and “Gong xi fa cai” (pronounced “gongsi fachay”) for “a prosperous new year.”
Why all this fuss over the terms? As an elderly family friend explained to me many years ago, “kong hei fat choy” is imported, most probably from Hong Kong or even the United States. This family friend also said the preferred Minnan greeting of “kiong hee sin ni” is for a good new year, not for prosperity. And the latter, she scoffed, is probably more a product of “Hong Kong materialism.”
There’s more, though. For local Minnan Chinese to say “kong hei fat choy” is to be out of our element. For the local Minnan, language is of paramount importance. If you speak Minnan you are “lannang,” which means “our people.” The Cantonese are “hiongchin,” a term suggesting a kinship bond, but still isn’t the same as “lannang.”
The older I get, the more I realize how integral Minnan is to my identity as a Chinese Filipino with roots in Fujian. “Lannang?” I ask a stranger who I suspect is, well, lannang, and when his or her face lights up, a bond is established. You’d be amazed at how that opens the door to bargaining when you’re in a store but, lest I be accused of materialism, too, I’ve also used it during graduation ceremonies as I hand out diplomas. I’ve seen, too, how patients’ faces light up when they realize a doctor is “lannang. ”
Not surprisingly, Minnan is sometimes referred to as “Lannang Oe,” or “our people’s language.”
Last year in Taiwan I agreed to be interviewed by a journalist, and in a reckless moment I told her I could speak Mandarin. But after a few minutes, I realized I was being terribly inarticulate searching for Mandarin words and I asked if we could switch to Taiwanese, which is almost identical to the Minnan we use locally. The interview flowed more smoothly and I understood what it meant to be “at home” with a language.
From childhood, I was told by teachers and older Chinese that China has one written script that is used for the national language and all the “dialects.” We were never taught how to write in Minnan and it was assumed the characters were exactly the same as in Putonghua. Only in recent years have I learned there are many differences.
In some cases, there aren’t even written Chinese characters available for Minnan, my favorite example being “q”—yes, the Roman letter “q,” which is used to describe a desired quality in noodles, a kind of “pull” similar to the al dente for pasta. You’ll find instant-noodle packs from Taiwan proclaiming the superiority of their product’s “Q.” It is pronounced as it is spelled, “q,” like you’re about to say “cute.”
Then, too, there’s the Minnan of local ethnic Chinese, which has absorbed so much from Philippine languages. A Chinoy friend of mine laughs at describing how her children grew up thinking that “ka nieng” was the Minnan term for rice, because that was the term used by her mother-in-law (the Tagalog kanin pronounced with a sing-song accent). Likewise, in my junior year in high school when our school brought us to Taiwan, my classmates and I were always running into trouble using Minnan Filipino terms, from “ba su” (a glass) to “me jas” (socks)—terms we always thought were Chinese!
Tessie Ang See, the country’s foremost scholar on matters Chinoy, has many mutant Minnan terms to share, her favorite being an expression for food that is bland, without taste. The original Minnan is “bo bi, bo so” (from “bo” meaning “no” and “biso” meaning “flavor”). Local Chinese say “bo la, bo sa,” the “biso” having given way to the Filipino “lasa.”
Exhausted from our long language lesson today? Just remember abbreviated greetings which can mean “best wishes” as we do for the new year, as well as “congratulations” for a new baby, a new house, or, passing the UPCAT. (The results are out, in case you were on the moon.) In Putonghua, that’s “gongxi” (pronounced kongsi) and in Minnan, “kionghee.” For good measure, “gongxi” or “kionghee” twice, with feeling, hugging optional but encouraged for that Pinoy touch.
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Announcement: Elmer Nochesada of “Palaspas” fame e-mailed me an announcement for “Pateros,” a hardbound coffee-table book that will be launched today at 4 p.m. at the Pateros Catholic School. After today you can get the book at the San Roque parish office on B. Morcilla. Learn about balut, penoy, Santa Marta (patron saint of duck raisers), the pasubo ng buwaya and how Pateros has responded to its changing environment. I haven’t seen the book yet but wanted to plug it because I’m always thrilled by initiatives concerning local history, this one from Fr. Roy Rosales and Mayor Joey Medina.
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