From my unkempt and crowded room, I hear those familiar noises. It starts with bright clicking sounds resembling a clapper board with intervals of short silence. Later joined by punctuating cymbals and rhythmic gongs, alternating, building towards a crescendo, then a still. What breaks the quiet are high-pitched and squeaky vocals. This is what I hear every night of a “大日子” (Deity’s celebration) or any festive period like the Lunar New Year or “土地公诞辰” (Birth of Lord of the Land) from my room in Singapore.

I lived across from a Buddhist temple for all my life. My grandmother is a devout Buddhist and had all the important gods and deities lined up on a 3-metre-wide lacquered wood household shrine. My grandfather was a construction worker for temporary gazebos and would often be commissioned to build them for the temple during religious events which included getai stages and Chinese opera.

The stages were included as entertainment to the people and also the gods and deities that we pray to. When I was younger I would always accompany my grandmother to watch Chinese opera, sung in Hokkien dialect, all the way till school exams until the general direction of life robbed me of time to sit with it. These simple stages are built with steel frames, covered with either a gaudy yellow or grimy white plastic tarp and laid with uneven grubby plywood.

The side of the stage was covered with satin curtains in a shade of brassy red and on the centre of the stage, it’s decorated with multiple layers of ornate embroidered and quilted fabric to denote the location of the play. Rarely any furniture is involved on stage and that might be due to the inability to transport them.

All Eyewear by Ju Mu


I’ve never understood a single word from the performance, due to the fact that I wasn’t taught the dialect. The method of singing also increased the difficulty for perceptibility. From the corner of my eye, I could see that the loud clatter and nasally-pitched voices brought a lot of enjoyment to my grandmother. She would sometimes point at the duelling actors on stage and tell me “你看他们怎么打架! 像 Power Rangers! “Look at how they are fighting! It’s like Power Rangers.” She knew I couldn’t speak Hokkien and couldn’t understand the dialect but knew that I was also deep in my “beating the shit out of every bad guy” phase. I have since outgrew that phase. My grandmother was born during a time where people like her, from kampungs (villages), are not expected to attend school and her position as a woman had sealed her fate as a homemaker.

She never learnt how to read and Hokkien was her main way of communicating. For her, these forms of entertainment were the only places that she didn’t have difficulty understanding. I knew they were dying out because the frequency of hearing these performances from my room gradually decreased as I grew up. They’ve become quieter and they now perform during high noon before the getai at night.

To be honest, I don’t know how to feel about it. It’s supposed to mean something to me but because I’ve never comprehended anything from it, it just felt like watching the passing of an acquaintance. I had an inkling that this tradition is dying out because of the lack of dialect education to the younger generation and, of course, the assimilation of TV in living rooms.


Since 1979, the “local” government has pushed for “Speak Mandarin” campaigns which have roots of insinuating dialects as second class languages compared to Mandarin. People like my grandmother have fallen through the cracks as their means of communication got phased out and, in turn, carried the “crass-labelled” baggage of her roots.

The campaign has continued till this day and has evolved over time. My father is Hokkien and my mother is Cantonese-Hokkien but both of my parents made no effort to teach me dialects. My parents probably felt disinclined to teach me their dialects because of how insistent those campaigns were, even though they speak it fluently and use it day to day to communicate with their parents.

By 2004, when I turned 6, the campaign is now promoting the dismal Mandarin skills of my generation. This is due to the “Speak Good English’’ movement, which was launched in 2000, had inadvertently implied Singlish and Mandarin are second class languages. Following the hierarchy, dialects have now been downgraded to another class.

By the time I attended primary school, most of my peers had lost the ability to speak their family dialects, with their skills reduced to parroting irate sentences from their parents when they were angry at them or the common crop of Singaporean profanities. We now have an entire generation that has grown up thinking that these dialects are uncultured, how will artforms like Chinese opera that use such dialects survive?

My grandfather passed away when I was 8 and death has always been a taboo topic in Chinese culture. I don’t have any memories of speaking about my grandfather with my family other than remembering how sick he was before he died. All these thoughts led me to talk to my father about my grandfather and his work with building stages for Chinese opera and why he didn’t make an effort to teach me Hokkien. What I learnt is that my grandfather loved grand events and knew that my grandmother enjoyed Chinese opera immensely. My father didn’t teach me Hokkien because there simply wasn’t time for him to do so. Both him and my mother worked long hours to keep a roof above our heads and he had to care for my grandfather’s declining health. Another reason he gave was that he didn’t think Hokkien would be applicable for me in the modern world and he is right about that.

My daily interactions with my schoolmates, teachers and service workers don’t require Hokkien. I still felt bitter about that. How can he make that decision for me? Control was stripped away from me. As indignant as I feel, I’m no longer a child and I have agencies on this Earth. If I wasn’t taught then, I’d try harder now to learn. I should have a conversation with my grandmother about Chinese opera and bring up my recent viewing of “Farewell My Concubine” (1993). Perhaps I could pick up simple Hokkien phrases like asking how her day was. It may not end up in fruitful or satisfactory conversations but it starts somewhere and at least it could be something the adult me can keep as a memory from my grandparents. My inability to speak my family dialects has left me frustrated during times of family gatherings, curious and nosy-minded as I am, I wish to know the traded family gossip that travels from one judgemental tongue to another.

Oftentimes, I was brushed off with comments like “Yi jiak kantang eh” (Hokkien & Malay: She eats potatoes) to tease my inability to understand Hokkien and how I grew up speaking fluent English. Frustrations aside, it has also impaired my ability to communicate with my grandparents on simple everyday topics like how my day went, what’s current and what’s bothering me. Mandarin does the job but there are times when it gets difficult. When I was learning to sew, I needed my mother or father as a translator to understand my maternal grandmother’s instructions. My grandmother used to alter clothes for a living and sewing terminology in Mandarin was foreign to both her and I. “The language barrier never changed how much they loved me but it would certainly bring our relationship closer. I can only think about how many thousands others who grew up like me are missing an important connection with their family but have been hampered by the nation’s language promotion campaigns.”

Beyond genes and family history, there are many of hands craft my identity without my knowledge and consent. I’ve lost familial connections by governmental decisions made before I was born. I am witnessing the death of an artform that I can’t understand. Like a dust mote floating through space, with no abilities to bring an effective action. However, if more of my peers are motivated simply by a little to have a small conversation with their grandparents to learn about their roots of dialects. Little by little, the dust collects and becomes visible. It may not be enough to bring the revival for Chinese opera but at least we’d understand what the actors on stage are singing about.