‘This is the identity of our ancestors’: Little Penang’s Tee Phee on nurturing Hokkien

‘This is the identity of our ancestors’: Little Penang’s Tee Phee on nurturing Hokkien

In this second instalment of the Chinese Languages in Aotearoa project, curator Grace Gassin and Tee Phee of Wellington’s Little Penang restaurant introduce Hokkien, a Chinese language originating in the southern Chinese province of Fujian.

Watch the video below to hear Tee share her story in Penang Hokkien – English, Mandarin, and Hokkien subtitles available.

Little Penang’s Tee Phee is the aunty every Malaysian Chinese Hokkien girl wishes she had. She happens to own one of the best Malaysian restaurants in town and is passionate about food, family, language, and culture. When I first met Tee, I was struck by her warmth and energy and familiar-sounding accent, a reminder of my own family.

Tee, who first came to live in Aotearoa New Zealand in the mid-80s and re-migrated here with her husband in 2008, is a fluent speaker of Penang-style Hokkien and was always determined to ensure that her local-born children grew up speaking the language.

“This is the identity of our ancestors,” she says. “Having migrated from China to Southeast Asia to Malaysia, and now we are in New Zealand, we think is really important, because then we know our roots.

“Unfortunately, a lot of migrants here who are of Hokkien descent don’t really speak the language anymore, so we have to take the effort to retain it. The good thing is that with technology these days it is much easier, but it is still a challenge.”

A woman adds noodles to a bowl on a stove in a restaurant kitchen
Still from the video, of Tee cooking at Little Penang, 2021. Photo by Arthur Hon Sheng. Te Papa

Hokkien and its hybrid variants

Hokkien is spoken by many people in Fujian, Taiwan, and various parts of South East Asia such as Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, and, of course, Aotearoa New Zealand. It is completely unintelligible with Mandarin, Cantonese, and other such Chinese languages and, indeed, there are even different names and variants of the language in each place Hokkien is spoken, reflecting the differing histories of Chinese settlement there.

Although I rarely speak Hokkien to people outside of my own family, Tee made me feel comfortable enough to try a little with her. Penang Hokkien is intelligible to me but there are clear differences between our variants as my family’s is spoken in the Malaysian port city of Klang, Selangor.

A woman smiles as she talks, with her restaurant in the background
Still from the video of Tee at Little Penang, 2021. Photo by Arthur Hon Sheng. Te Papa

We enjoyed musing over the linguistic variations together, each of our ‘Hokkiens’ being a unique mix of older strains of Hokkien, as well as English, Malay, and some phrases taken from other Chinese languages such as Cantonese. We wonder what speakers of other non-Malaysian Hokkien variants will pick up when they listen to Tee’s video, and this leads me to ask Tee how she feels when she hears others speak non-Malaysian varieties of Hokkien.

“It’s just like listening to another language,” she says. “In Penang, just in getting assimilated into the local culture there, people speak a lot of Malay, so Hokkien speakers tend to integrate that with their Hokkien — and then we come up with a new hybrid.

“When we listen to Taiwanese [who speak another variant of Hokkien] we tend to get a bit intrigued. Like, ‘oh my goodness, is that how you really say this?’ So it’s a learning process to me. It is intriguing to learn the actual original Hokkien word for something and think about how we pronounce it, why we pronounce it differently from the other places or areas where our ancestors have migrated.”

A selection of Polaroid photos showing a woman cooking in her restaurant kitchen and eating food with her family
Behind the scenes of the filming, with Tee in the kitchen and eating dinner with her family. Filmmaker Arthur Hon Sheng can be seen with Tee in the bottom-right photo. Photos by and courtesy of Arthur Hon Sheng

Connecting with food, family, and language

Unsurprisingly, food plays a big role in Tee’s life. She and her husband first opened Little Penang as a means to maintain their connection to their Malaysian culture and its two branches often serve as a kind of extension of the family home. On the day of the video shoot, to honour the special occasion, elders, aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews in Tee’s family all came together over a festival-worthy feast of deep fried fish, garlic shoots with prawns, braised pork, watercress soup, stir fried vegetables, and an Assam seafood dish.

“It was a time of revelation and a reminder to ourselves,” Tee says. “It gave us an opportunity to get together and recreate what we would normally have back home or even here when we have the patience, so it was really good for the younger ones.’

The restaurant is also something of an informal Hokkien language hub. Tee notes that most of Little Penang’s dishes have been given Hokkien names (there are also a few with Malay names) and she and her husband make it a point to speak Hokkien to those customers who can understand it.

“It’s definitely a way for us to feel very connected, like we have the same origins and share something unwritten. In fact, some of our customers come in mainly because there’s always opportunity for us to converse and interact in Hokkien.

“We are also planning to launch a ‘Learn a Hokkien word a day’ activity soon on our Facebook page. We take pride in the fact that we have customers who come in and order food in Hokkien, some spot on with their pronunciation, and we tell them that!”

A group of people sit around a table in a restaurant eating food from shared plates in the middle
Still from the video of Tee’s family eating at Little Penang, 2021. Photo by Arthur Hon Sheng. Te Papa

Reviving and sustaining Hokkien

Tee has also begun documenting the various customs practised by her family here and back in Malaysia, drawing on her own memories and those of her older relatives. She wants to ensure that the next generation has an appreciation of their ancestral culture and also enjoys sharing her knowledge of these customs with restaurant patrons.

However, she worries about whether the Hokkien language itself will survive the coming decades. There is a tendency among younger generations to discard Hokkien due to a misguided belief that Hokkien is somehow inferior to Mandarin, which is almost universally the language taught in Chinese language schools.

“I understand that they have, in Malaysia, like, [some movements encouraging] rebirth of the Hokkien language, how to retain it, that in Penang we have a movement called the Penang-lâng, and they are trying to retain the Penang Hokkien,” she says. “They have short video clips on YouTube or certain sites to encourage people to engage in that so that we don’t lose our mother tongue.

“So, how do we take this forward? Maybe we can do something like that here? I don’t know.”

I’m personally intrigued by the idea of a diaspora-led Hokkien language revival movement, especially one with local Aotearoa inflections. Growing up in West Auckland, I had always understood Hokkien language and culture to be largely invisible to ‘mainstream’ society and received conflicting messages about its value even within Chinese social contexts. Therefore, the very fact of finding myself speaking to Tee, in Wellington in 2021, about a possible future in which Hokkien is valued and celebrated gives me cause for hope.

What are your thoughts? Do you feel connected to Hokkien language and culture (perhaps you know it as Taiwanese, Hoklo, Holo, Minnan yu, Lang-nang-oe, Amoy, or Fukienese)?

Let us know in the comments or at asianlanguages@tepapa.govt.nz.

This blog and video are part of our Chinese Languages in Aotearoa project, which is part of a wider Voices of Asian Aotearoa initiative.

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  1. Dr Catherine Churchman from Vic Uni, just a walk away from little penang is compiling a dictiinary on penang hokkien. That would be a good follow up to this article and questions about restoration and preservation of the language

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