What does it mean to be Hainanese?
I recently came across an article on this subject matter in a local magazine in Penang, which did not answer this question to my personal satisfaction. So I decided to ponder on this question and sought advice from my parents. This piece explores what that mean to me, apart from my Chinese heritage; perhaps as you read this you may discover what makes being Hainanese different from the other dialects or clans.
I wonder if being an overseas Chinese makes a difference, as in I was not born or raised in Hainan. Would another Hainanese person answer this differently, whether born in China or in another Asian or Western country? This may be very interesting to know.
I know that this piece does not cover much in detail, but I hope that this would give you an idea from my own musings. If there is a fellow Hainanese reading this, I would love to hear your thoughts and own tales.
I have often been reminded growing up that I am a “purebred”, as my parents are both Hainanese, as were their parents. This is said with great pride, although I do not automatically identify myself with this label, nor being Chinese or Malaysian for that matter.
I believe there is a family secret about the purity of our lineage, one which my paternal grandmother refused to discuss and took the secret to her grave.
My parents have visited their family/ancestral homes in Hainan several times, and I hope to go there one day. My family came from the north east region of Hainan Island. There is a particular way of identifying which specific village one hails from, so I have recorded it here for reference. For my Mom: Hainan Tau; Boon Sio Kuai Wen Chang; Hou Wan See (head garden); Seh Tua Sui. According to some research, my father’s family originally from came from Henan province in China but later migrated south: Hainan Tau; Heng Tua Kuai; Wui Boon See; Au Lia Sui (back of mountain)
When I was in my twenties, my mother used to tell me how wonderful it would be to have me marry a Hainanese man. Match making brought my parents together, so I relented to their request to look for a suitable husband for me within our community. I went through with it to honor my parents as a filial daughter and had thought, why not? Hainanese men as supposedly known to be good husbands – and by good I mean obedient, which greatly appealed to my dominant side *grin*.
Well, as it happened, this guy’s grandmother or mother, who knew my grandparents, had enquired around about single Hainanese girls, so lo and behold, a meeting was quickly set up. I endured a lunch meeting where I met a potential candidate with his parents and made some effort to talk to this man, even though I knew at first sight he would not be The One.
Hainanese men are considered “liang chai” or handsome/fair as in the old days (i.e. hundreds of years ago) they would just study, “kia kia” and not really work or do manual labor. Quite the pampered lot I imagine.
One common trait about Hainanese is their ‘flat’ head, where the back of the head is flat. This comes from being placed in cradle as babies when mothers are working in the paddy field and to prevent the baby from tossing and turning in the cradle to escape, they would be secured with bamboo. After a long time without being able to move and on its back, a child would thus develop a ‘flat’ head.
I have grown up speaking Hainanese at home with my parents and grandparents. I am relatively fluent despite being able to read or write only a handful of Chinese characters. Speaking Hainanese at home is (and was) a necessity as my grandparents could only communicate in this dialect. In family gatherings, it was considered polite to speak in dialect to have inclusiveness, so that my grandparents would understand what we were discussing, and to have them join in the conversations. Nowadays with my grandmother, particularly during meals, if I struggle to say what I want in Hainanese, I would speak in Mandarin or English, and my mother would translate the sentences or words for my grandmother.
I think Hainanese dialect has many colorful phrases, and many lose its nuance when translated. Here are some examples:
“Bo jung beh cheh. Bo teo meh”. Do not be argumentative (to disagree and to stir things up, but not in a heated way). Do not be quarrelsome. And yes, there is a distinction between the two.
“Bong kang. Sor chai.” Two kinds of stupid or crazy/mad. But the meaning is not vicious and is often said with a smile. Or smirk, like when you call someone an idiot.
A lesser used term for ‘be careful’ is “chee teng” instead of “toi tiem”. For instance, you say that as a cautionary comment when you see someone handling a hot kettle.
When you meet someone, you comment or ask them if they are “ngeh lang” or healthy. Another version of “how are you?”
The major factor is our cuisine. Oh, glorious food. Chicken Rice automatically comes to mind! My grandparents cooked this well and my father’s chicken rice – both chicken and rice – is considered to be the best, as attested by friends and family who enjoy this treat on many occasions. He is such a master at it, and claims there is a science to choosing the right chicken, which still eludes me to this day. To me, home cooked chicken rice (with its condiments of dark soy sauce and specially prepared chili and ginger sauces) is the ultimate comfort food. Whenever I feel homesick, I go out to my favorite places to eat chicken rice, along with the delicious side dishes of ‘char siew’ and ‘siew yuk’.
As with all dialects, the look or names of select dishes are meant to evoke prosperity, longevity, etc. My mother recently cooked a special dish during my last visit home – stir fried pig skin (which was soft and chewy like fish maw) with pineapple, so overall it looked golden, like gold “kiem” – in Mandarin this dish is called “pien ti huang jin”, which means to cover the ground in gold; and when you add leeks, it is to represent jade –“ jin yie man tang” – a room full of jade mixed with gold, i.e. with all things precious.
Purple is considered good luck, or for attracting good fortune; perhaps that is why during celebrations like Chinese New Year we eat brinjal or eggplant. Eating “keng woon” or glass noodle is also considered delightful – there is a saying: “keng woon liang pi”, which means to have laughter or a sense of humor.
For Chinese New Year, our ang pows must be different, “sut how” so to add a bit more, as it cannot be an even number, for example RM11 or RM10.10 instead of RM10.
To wear purple or “keo kueh”, is to signify to have a year ahead better than the last, or in another general sense is to be better than others.
The sense of community, in having the need to belong, is universal. Like other clans, we would tend to help support others from our own clan first. For example to buy from Hainanese businesses or regularly patronize cafes or restaurants owned by other Hainanese.
Often when we meet other Hainanese, there is an extension of generosity or a sentiment to help more readily. I remember when I was in boarding school, after I spoke Hainanese to the cooks dispensing the food, they would slip me extra treats, such as extra lychee or serve me bigger portions, when other students would be given baleful looks.
Hainanese Associations are formed in many cities and towns all over the world and the purpose (among other things) is to have a common place to gather, share, and to help those from the clan. In the past such as during the migration waves in the 19th century until the 1950s when Hainanese migrated from Hainan island to other countries, for example in South East Asia, Hainanese Associations would help these migrants, particularly the poor, to provide them with a place to stay, to feed them, to provide scholarships for their children’s education, and even to help bury those whose families could not afford funerals. When I was in primary school, I remember receiving small monetary rewards from our local association for doing well in school, along with attending their annual Christmas parties and large prayer celebrations at our “tien how kung”.
My parents actively serve our local hometown Hainanese Association, following a tradition of service. My paternal grandfather was one of the founders of the Hainanese Association in Kuala Belait, Brunei. I served our local Hainanese Association as an officer in the Youth Section during the few years when I lived and worked in my hometown. I remember my time there fondly, as many friends were made, and the experience of fundraising during Chinese New Year when we followed our own association’s lion dance troupe (visiting from house to house in the heat for days), made me realize at the time, of the pride, dedication and purpose we have for our community.