Alec: What’s that Hokkien way of describing a business tycoon again? Tau huey? Tau kwa?

Me: Um, I think you mean “towkay”. The other things you’re mentioning are forms of beancurd.

Alec: Ah.

Me: Also, you should be aware that for some reason, if this big boss person is female, they might be called a “towkay neo”. But the term I hear used more these days is “ladyboss”.

Alec: That’s actually quite refined for a Singlish term.

Me: True. If it were left to someone like me I’d probably have come up with “cheebye-E-O”.

Alec: ……

Somehow my attempts to teach Alec Singlish always end up in the same place. I don’t think I’m a very good teacher.

Date Night

We had a date night. It involved Burger King and Bruno, and so gave rise to numerous jibes from me that we suck at date night. On the way home, we had this conversation:

Alec: I love Hungry Ghosts month. Yesterday when I was walking home with our ta pau [1. Takeaway], the guys at the bike shop were setting up their little altar outside. It had a bike wheel as its centrepiece. The boss was very strict with his employees, very particular about how he wanted the altar set up.

Me: Well of course he was! If the ghosts think you don’t give a fuck then they’ll get fucking pissed off lah!

Alec: Dear, I think maybe the Taoists would have a more sophisticated way of explaining thi…

Me: No lah! I bet if you could just understand what the boss was telling his employees in Hokkien…

Alec: He’d be saying “This altar looks like you pulled it out of your wife’s cunt”?

Me: Your mother’s smelly cunt. [2. Explained in full Hokkien glory here.]

Alec: Oh yah, sorry.


Alec: Okay, you’re right. We really suck at date night.


I thought Tamade was a one-off occurrence of a Japanese restaurant here with a name which is a swear word in another language (Mandarin), but today my family had dinner at Nabeya.¹ It appeared that I was either the only one who knew which swear word it sounded like, or the only one puerile enough to be secretly amused by it.

Sample conversation in the run-up to dinner, and I am so not kidding:
My mum: So, where are we going for dinner?
My sister: Nabeya.
My mum: Nabeya?! No, I don’t feel like it. Let’s go somewhere else.
My sister: But I only feel like Nabeya.
Me: Yah, mum, why not? Nothing wrong with Nabeya what.
My mum: Okay, fine then. Nabeya.

¹ Tips as to meaning can be found here and here.

Cross-Cultural Potty-Mouthing 101

In conversation the other day, Alec described how one of his colleagues’ favourite jokes was to gradually wind him up by piling on more and more stressful tasks and demands until he’d finally lose it and let fly with a flurry of curses. For some strange visceral reason (given that his Irish accent is mostly so Anglicized that I can actually understand most of what he says these days), this swearing would occur in his broadest Irish brogue.

A phrase that featured often in these outbursts is one I wasn’t previously familiar with, but must now share with everyone. “I will a’me bollocks!” is apparently short for “I will, in my bollocks!” which is apparently short for “No, I won’t do this thing you are asking me to do!”

Such elegance and charm, these Irish colloquialisms. I think Alec will pick up Singlish/Hokkien more easily than I first expected.

(While searching the Talking Cock dictionary for the above definitions, I came across this glorious expression which I must confess to having never heard before. Am I just hanging out with the wrong people?)

Freudian Slit

Tamara posted the following comment in response to this entry at Little Yellow Different:

“Something similar happened when I went back to Singapore and tried to ask for “more chilli” in Chinese [after not speaking any in 2 years]. The mandrin is “lah jiao”, but I came up with “lan jiao”, Hokkien for dick, thereby begging the nice hawker stall lady for more dick. Nice.”

Bursting out in laughter in a quiet law library is rather embarrassing, as is walking down the hill to the bus stop later unable to keep one side of your mouth or the other from quirking upwards as you try to keep the broad grin off your face. In the first situation you either appear inconsiderate and attention-seeking, or just the weird person with no inner monologue who everyone else avoids unless they are unfortunately assigned to the same project group. In the second situation you either look lecherous, tic-laden or capable of inspiring New Paper (a Singapore tabloid) articles on Elvis living in Kent Ridge.

Note to self: remind Alec when he comes to Singapore that if he ever wants to order steamed chicken rice rather than roast, the correct term is “bai ji” (white chicken). Getting the words mixed up and asking for “ji bai” with an ang mor accent has great potential for disaster.

So anyway, thanks for that, Tamara. I’ll think of you the next time I feel tempted to appear like a total nutcase to the public at large.

Kanina Moment

I got called a cunt yesterday.

I was walking home with Gwen from our customary Wednesday night post-IP-law girlie dinner (which Alec calls the Short People’s Club for some offensive reason of his own). A big black man waiting at a bus stop turned as we passed and said, quietly but distinctly, “Cunts.”

I was obviously not going to make an issue of it, since I wouldn’t have stood a chance in a brawl even if I scratched eyes and pulled hair (maybe if I kicked groin though), and we ignored him and kept walking. All the same, part of me desperately wanted to turn around and shriek “SI MI LAN CHEOW? KA NI NA BU CHAO CHEE BAI!” but that would have been descending to his level. Or perhaps considerably lower. Hokkien is the best cussing language ever.