Brewing in Singapore

One man's adventure of brewing beer in Asia.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007


Singapore is a city of great diversity. Nowhere is that more evident than in the number of languages that people speak here. During an average day wandering around Singapore you will easily hear four, five or six (or maybe more) different languages. You might hear; Mandarin, English, Malay, Hokkien, Cantonese, Teochew, Tamil, Tagalag, Thai, Indonesian, Hindi, Javanese, Japanese, Korean, Hakka, German, Bengali, Hainanese, Foochow, Malayalam, Punjabi, Telegu, Vietnamese – and these are just some of the ones that you are likely to hear ! The official languagesin Singapore are English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil, and ANY government document can be had in all four of these languages. Pretty much any official or warning sign is in at least three, and usually all four, of these. And let us not forget about Singlish - a “pidgin-English” or creole mix of English, Hokkien, Malay, Tamil and a bit of Cantonese. The longer you are here the more of it you pick up - it's unavoidable. Checkout - the Coxford Singlish Dictionary at -

When I first arrived in Singapore I had a bit of trouble even understanding the English that was being spoken. At meetings where there were many people of different cultural (linguistic) background it took me about five to ten seconds to adjust my ear to their accents and of course by that time they had usually made their point. British accents, Malay accents, Indian accents, Chinese accents, Australian accents – my head was swimming in a sea of unfamiliar sounds and I could barely keep it above water. And then sometimes people would switch into their mother tongue to more fully explain a point to someone else. I was totally lost. I spent the first five or so meeting here wondering if I would ever understand anything anyone was saying. But eventually my brain makes new pathways and I got the hang of it.

So I thought I would learn Chinese.

Chinese (well, some Chinese) has four tonal “inflections”, or four different ways of saying one word. I am told that Thai has six and that Vietnamese has eight (wah lau! Like I was not confused enough with four). I will give you an example: I have a friend, his name is Xiau Chu, or "little Chu". Xiau (inflection down) means little, but Xiau (inflection up) means crazy, Xiau no inflection means … something else, I don’t know - and if you say it just right Xiau in Hokkien means sperm. So, I live in fear of calling my friend crazy Chu (or something worse). Luckily Chinese is also very contextual and thus few would make the mistake (regardless of how badly I mispronounced it) of thinking I was calling my friend sperm Chu (at least not on purpose). Xiau, like most words, has four different meanings (all pretty much seemingly unrelated). There are many examples of this, but this is the most vivid. On top of that Chinese it not written in Romanized characters, making learning it even more difficult. And hence the fact that I only know about 20 words in Chinese.

Singapore is surrounded by Malaysia (to the north and east) and Indonesia (the south and west) and these two countries share a common language or bahasa

Bahasa (both Bahasa Melayu and Bahasa Indonesia*) has no “inflections” like other Southeast Asian languages, and is written in Romanized characters, there are no tenses and the constructions is easier (at least for me). So when I admitted my defeat in my attempts to learn Chinese, I thought I might take a crack at learning Bahasa. From southern Thailand all the way south through Indonesia it is the native language of about 25 million people. It seemed like a no brainer.

I set out to teach myself Malay/Indonesian, first by reading up, then by listening to web sites and CDs, and finally by attempting to speak to people (one gets use to the strange looks while they slaughter the proper pronunciation). If I don’t get rattled and if I have not had too many beers I can convey the basics, ask and answer questions, or even catch a bit of a conversation. I have a long way to go. This was made evident during my last negotiation of pricing. After a greeting and some discussion I asked (instead of how much – berapa), I asked why (mengapa) ? He looked at me a bit oddly and told me the price and then (very kindly) took out his calculator and showed it to me as well. I realized my mistake and smiled weakly. I am sure as I walked away he was shaking his head thinking Bule Gila (crazy white people). I figure the best way to learn is try it out. I am trying, and maybe one day someone new to Singapore will be walking down the street and they'll hear me speaking Bahasa to a friend - and think wow Singapore really is a diverse place.

*bahasa literally means language in Malay/Indonesian. So technically I speak Bahasa Ingriss, but if you ask someone "do you speak Bahasa ?", most people will know what you are asking. Interesting Bahasa is related to Polynesia/Hawaiian and shares some cognates and concepts. Having grown up in Hawaii (and knowing a little Hawaiian) makes learning Bahasa a little easier.


At 10:07 PM, Blogger Nick said...


I am trying to contact you with regards to the Objects of Desire exhibition. Please can you contact me nick(dot)charnley(at)gmail(dot)com


At 2:02 AM, Blogger Monkey said...

ahha i think the high point of this post was while you were talking about how difficult chinese was, you inserted a very typical singapore expression - WAH LAU! haha ok i think that just officially made you singaporeanified :P

At 2:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am also learning Chinese language by a special and innovative service in Beijing Chinese School. I like to learn in live class with teachers from Beijing directly. I also like to practice Chinese with volunteers freely everyday. Watching Chinese learning TV on CLTV is also interesting and helpful to practice listening and learn more about Chinese culture.


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