Our family has been living in Penang for over 2 years now, and we’ve come to realise that Penangites are a proud bunch. They love their home, they’re obsessed with their food, AND they love their Hokkien.
If you live in Penang but aren’t originally from here, you’ll find that it’s easy to get around surviving on English and Mandarin or other Chinese dialects. However, if you happen to call this home (or even if you plan to hang around for a few months), then why fight it?
Embrace Hokkien. You might get a discount out of it. Or at the very least, you’ll elicit more than a grunt from Uncles and Aunties out there who prefer communicating in their own language.
With that idea in mind, I decided to write a post showcasing some phrases in Hokkien that I wish I had in my pocket to whip out when the many situations called for it. And since this is Penang we’re talking about, there are 2 very obvious categories for these situations: Food Related and Non-Food Related.
Situations are framed around a Mr Bob. Bob is cool. He’s suave. He’s lived all around the world, and recently settled in Penang – and absolutely LOVES it, by the way.
Guess what? YOU ARE BOB.
(For your benefit, I’ve prepared these in printable card-like form for you to bring around town! Now if this doesn’t make you a crowd favourite at the local coffee shop, I don’t know what will.)
So without further ado, here are 11 Must Know Food Related Hokkien Phrases you will Actually Need in Penang.
People don’t really say ‘please’ in Hokkien. I guess you could say “to long” but I believe that’s more for the word help. For example, “Can you help me with something?” becomes “Eh sai tor long wa cho something?”
Yes, I don’t know the Hokkien word for ‘something’.
Penang Hokkien borrows a lot of words from Malay. Here are some of my favourites:
- To long (like tolong, meaning help)
- Pun (like pun, meaning too)
- Ba lu (like baru, meaning new)
- Ta pi (like tapi, meaning but)
- Ge li (like geli, meaning… gross? disgusting? ticklish?)
Of course knowing how to say something doesn’t mean that you’ll understand what’s being said to you in return. But that’s not the point! The point is to make an effort with it in the first place.
You can do what I do when they reply you with a barrage of words that you have no clue of.
Just smile, and say, “SOLI, WA EM SI PENANG LANG… WA EH HIAO TAMPOK HOKKIEN ONY.” When you say that, man, these people really light up. They might give away some spring onion for free, or throw in some pork liver, you name it.
So there you go.