The Many Faces of the Hokkien-language Internet

Written by Sam Robbins

Image credit: Winertai, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons

This article was originally published by The News Lens. Find the original article here.

The internet is both a centralizing and decentralizing force. It allows a handful of companies located in Silicon Valley to amass more wealth, power, and control than most governments and kingdoms in history. Meanwhile, as the internet expands, groups form around large nodes on large social media sites. Countercultures and communities centered on hyper-specific interests have emerged. With the help of algorithmically-guided search results, individuals with all kinds of niche interests can find each other, build communities, and create new connections that extend across locales and time zones.

The ripple effects of this dual process has been felt in a range of fields, whether it be in the hollowing out of mid-tier music artists in favor of a handful of massive hits and masses of small names, or in the extremely unequal distribution of follower numbers of Twitter accounts. This trend is also true for languages online. As we increasingly connect across national borders, lingua francas have a clear advantage and tend to be massively over represented. As of January 2020, 25% of all internet content was in English.

As Daniel Cunliffe suggested in 2007, this is not to say that minority languages are simply “victims of the internet.” The internet has created new spaces for minority languages users to gather, to engage in minority language activism, and to create new resources for the preservation and promotion of their languages. Examples in Taiwan include the website itaigi.tw (愛台語), which crowdsources translations of Mandarin Chinese terms into Taiwanese Hokkien and the Amis online dictionary, both of which are extensions of the mengdian project of the g0v community. YouTube and Facebook have provided platforms for creators to produce content in a range of the languages native to Taiwan, and Taiwanese Hokkien podcasts have also been emerging.

Minority cultures and languages should not be viewed simply as victims of the Internet or as passive recipients of Internet technology, services and content. Instead it should be recognised that they have the potential to be active shapers of this technology, able to create their own tools, adapt existing tools to the local needs and to create culturally authentic, indigenous Internet media

Cunliffe, 2007, p147

Few have noted, though, the emergence of transnational Hokkien/Southern Min language communities online. In the Taiwanese context, we are perhaps used to thinking of the conflict between Hokkien and Modern Standardized Mandarin (hereafter, “Mandarin”), as a mirror of conflicting nationalisms. Taiwanese Hokkien used to be prohibited in public spaces by the Kuomintang government on a mission to “sinicize” Taiwan. In recent years, there have been growing attempts to promote and revive the language, but they have often been framed as efforts to desinicize Taiwan and establish a more “Taiwanese” identity.

This narrative overlooks the inherently transnational nature of the Hokkien language and culture. Hokkien, or Southern Min, refers to the mostly-mutually intelligible series of languages that first emerged in the regions of Modern-day Quanzhou, Fuzhou, and Xiamen in Fujian province. Successive and overlapping waves of migration have brought various varieties of Southern Min to Taiwan, (where it is often referred to as Taiwanese, Taigi, or Taiwanese Hokkien), Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, and North America. In contrast to the more dominant Mandarin, Southern Min tends to be highly receptive to loanwords, and due to a historical lack of a constant prestige dialect, Southern Min is an impressively diverse set of language varieties that are continuing to evolve. (For example, speakers familiar with Taiwanese Hokkien may be interested in the English and Malay terms used in the Singaporean-Hokkien show “Eat Already”).

In addition to the shared vocabulary and grammar, the nearly ubiquitous persecution and marginalization of the language seems to have united the users. Since at least the mid-twentieth century, Mandarin has been the preferred language of both Chinese-speaking regimes (the PRC and ROC) and of regimes wanting to standardize and institutionalize minority languages of specific ethnic communities (Malaysia and Singapore).

Despite such repression, Hokkien culture has traveled across borders and a range of media. In his study, Jeremy Taylor highlights the emergence of Hokkien-language films, pop music, and television content produced and consumed across the Hokkien speaking region after the war. Xiamen (Amoy) Hokkien film studios sprung up and filmed Hokkien operas in the Philippines and Singapore, seeking to capture a transnational market. The Taiwanese Hokkien film industry in the 1950’s learned to rebrand “Taiwanese-language films” (台語片) as the more transnational “Southern Min films” (閩南片) to appeal to audiences in Southeast Asia. Despite the history of these flows, as Taylor notes, such transnationalism is often absent from our cultural memories, and such cultural products are now only viewed as part of Singaporean film history or Taiwanese film history, for example, rather than part of a Hokkien film history.

This linguistic transnationalism has never died. In the digital era, online content distinctly aimed at promoting Taiwanese Hokkien within Taiwan abounds, but there is also a wide range of content created by communities interested in Hokkien generally. Hokkien-speaking populations across national borders also found each other and formed groups on social media. They share, remix, and collate content in these spaces rather than promote particular types of language use. For example, “Min Peoples, Min Languages” (閩人閩語), a Facebook group with almost 20,000 members from Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, and China, is dedicated to “sharing everything relating to Southern Min (folk) culture, (folk) songs, and Southern Min languages.”

These groups represent a new type of transnational language exchange fit for the digital era. To quote Cunliffe again, Hokkien-language internet users have created “their own tools, adapt[ed] existing tools to the local [or translocal] needs” and created “culturally authentic, indigenous Internet media.”

The diversity of language uses often poses a dilemma to language activists: promoting a singular variety of the language risks harming others. Some online tools like Itaigi deal with this problem by allowing users to provide and vote for Hokkien translations of Mandarin words. In “Min Peoples, Min Languages,” such language diversity is turned into a kind of game. Users share with each other how they say a particular word in Hokkien in the place they live. They also post videos from TikTok or YouTube and ask people to identify which Hokkien language variety is being spoken.

Notably, the vast majority of content in the group is not produced by the users themselves, but rather shared from YouTube, Tik Tok, or other Facebook groups. Also, all types of content are welcome: people singing in Hokkien, comedy sketches, videos, religious festivals, links to historical texts, and even language tests. A group like “Min Peoples, Min Languages” only exists as an aggregator of Min-related content circulating on the internet.. Within the last 24 hours of the time of my writing, users shared a video arguing (in Mandarin) that Sun Wukong was born in Quanzhou, a Malaysian Hokkien song, a post celebrating Mazu’s birthday, and an almost two-hour video of a woman singing Hokkien karaoke.

Rather than building community, “Min Peoples, Min Languages” is more of a way for users to integrate more Min content into the facebook feeds and to share Min content from across the internet. Despite the number of members, most posts receive only a couple of comments, and even when a question is asked, there are usually only a handful of responses.

But faster internet speeds and new computing technology have been a strong force behind the growth of these groups. Many posts in these groups contain audio-visual content since the number of Hokkien speakers who are fluent in the language is much higher than the number of those that are literate in one of the language’s many writing systems.

Groups like “Min Peoples, Min Languages” allow users to easily and conveniently dip out of minority language spaces and integrate them into their web experience in other languages. With the number of similar groups and more language activism focused groups growing, it also becomes easier for internet users to decide how much time to spend on the Hokkien-language internet. Just like offline, the Hokkien language web is one that exists in a set of interrelated clusters, whether that be with Hokkien content appearing an a majority Mandarin feed, or with Mandarin comments discussing a Hokkien-language video on a page like Min Peoples, Min Languages. What is important is that this online form of code switching differs from its offline form in one crucial way: when Hokkien language users engage with the Hokkien-language internet, they can find content specifically from their locale or country, or enter a transnational space of content originating from multiple places and including a polyphony of language varieties.

I don’t want to suggest that the sites emerging in the Hokkien-language internet represent the future of language activism, nor that they will revive the Hokkien language. The site promotes shallow engagement with content and encourages language consumption but not necessarily language use.

Min Peoples, Min Languages isn’t trying to save Hokkien (although many groups online are), but it reflects the transnational flows of Min languages and cultures in the digital age. The group promotes the plurality of Hokkien cultures, cross-pollinating and interacting with each other across East, Southeast Asia and beyond. Crucially, the group also shows the creative power of Hokkien users to create content, build new forms of connection, and use digital tools to find new ways to engage with their language and common and intertwined histories.

Sam Robbins is a researcher and writer on the intersections of tech and politics in Taiwan. He is an editor for Taiwan Insight and a participant in Taiwan’s g0v community

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