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The Prominence of Hokkien in Medan, Indonesia

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Like many other Southeast Asian cities with a significant Chinese population, there are many Chinese subraces in Medan, such as Hokkien, Teochew, Hakka, and Cantonese. In such a city, you would probably expect members of the different subraces to communicate in Mandarin (consider the case of Singapore). However, this is not the case in Medan, where they would all communicate in Hokkien instead.

The Prominence of Hokkien in Medan, Indonesia

Hokkien has effectively served as a lingua franca in Medan amongst the Chinese people of different subraces. This, of course, can be attributed to “The Chinese Ban”. In short, “The Chinese Ban” outlawed the teaching, learning, distribution of Chinese materials in Indonesia for about 35 years from the late 1960s to the early 2000s. Many Chinese Indonesians had no access to learning Mandarin at the time, but were still able to exert the use of Chinese languages other than Mandarin since they were primarily spoken languages.

Another possible reason that made Hokkien the dominant Chinese language in Medan could simply be the fact that the majority of Chinese Medanese have historically been Hokkien. There have been no clear statistics on this, but these days, Chinese Medanese would use Hokkien primarily, and this holds true even amongst those who belong to other non-Hokkien Chinese subraces.

Medan Hokkien also is not exclusively spoken in the city of Medan. Other North Sumatran cities surrounding Medan with significant Chinese communities also speak the language, including Chinese people from the cities of Binjai, Lubuk Pakam, Tanjung Balai, Pematangsiantar, and many more. People dealing in local trades, businesses, schools use Hokkien predominantly and they switch to using Indonesian when necessary.

The Hokkien variant spoken in Medan and its surrounding cities is the same variant as the one spoken in Penang, Malaysia; it is a subdialect of Zhangzhou Hokkien. Singapore Hokkien is typically classified as a subdialect of Amoy and Quanzhou Hokkien and it is similar to the Hokkien variant spoken in Southern Malaysia as well as Riau Province, together with Batam and its surrounding islands in Indonesia. Both variants are distinguishable in terms of accent and the usages of some vocabularies, although they are still mutually intelligible.

Threats to the Survival of Hokkien

Like the fate of Hokkien in other countries such as Taiwan, Singapore, and Malaysia, Hokkien in Medan and Indonesia, in general, is now is facing a powerful threat: Mandarin.

After “The Chinese Ban” was lifted, a number of Chinese Medanese households begin to view Hokkien as a second-class Chinese language, and they strive to use Mandarin predominantly to become their perception of “elite” compared to the rest of Chinese Medanese who speak Hokkien. Some families even prefer to teach their children and speak to them in Mandarin in place of Hokkien.

However, a much more powerful threat actually comes from within: The use of Indonesian vocabularies when speaking Hokkien. Of course, there are Indonesian vocabularies that are not translatable because it is specifically intended for use in an Indonesian context, but there appears to be an upwards trend amongst Chinese Medanese, especially amongst the younger ones, to use Indonesian words when speaking Hokkien even when it is not necessary. For example, using kalau ‘if’ instead of nāsī, mana ‘where’ instead of talo'k, antri ‘to queue’ instead of pāituī.

This phenomenon is probably inevitable, since it is difficult for Hokkien to be a dominant language as it is primarily a spoken language, and it is rarely used as a language of formal instruction. Those in Singapore may also relate, where it is somewhat common for Hokkien speakers to occasionally mix in some English or Mandarin words into their Hokkien speech to fully convey their ideas.

In a society that uses Hokkien concurrently alongside more dominant languages, it is not an unlikely phenomenon that the use of Hokkien will decline and be corrupted in some ways. But if this issue is acknowledged and the use of the language is maintained, perhaps the language could be preserved for many more years to come.

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