The Unseen Legacy of Hokkien Language Studies in Southeast Asia


In the vast and intricate tapestry of Southeast Asian languages, Hokkien holds a unique position. Despite being one of the most widely spoken Chinese languages in the region, both historically and in contemporary times, it has not received the academic attention it deserves. This is surprising given that ethnic Hokkien Chinese are estimated to make up about 1 percent of Indonesia’s population, translating to approximately 2 million people.

A major gap in the study and preservation of the Hokkien language is the absence of comprehensive Hokkien-Indonesian or Hokkien-Malay dictionaries. Even Hokkien-English dictionaries are rare and often outdated, with notable examples dating back to the 19th century. These include Walter Henry Medhurst’s A Dictionary of the Hok-këèn Dialect of the Chinese Language (1832), missionary Elihu Doty’s Anglo-Chinese Manual with Romanized Colloquial in the Amoy Dialect (1853), and Carstairs Douglas’s Chinese-English of the Vernacular or Spoken Language of Amoy (1873).

The most recent and significant works include the Penang Hokkien Dictionary by Luc de Gijzel, published in 2013, and Chiang Ker Chiu’s Practical English-Hokkien Dictionary (1950). However, a critical historical effort has often been overlooked: the compilation of the Hokkien-Dutch dictionary during the Dutch East Indies era.

Het Koninklijk Bataviaasch Genootschap van Kunsten en Wetenschappen, the Dutch Royal Society for Arts and Sciences, was instrumental in this endeavor. Founded on April 24, 1778, this institution aimed to scientifically explore and document the natural and cultural riches of the Dutch East Indies. Their headquarters shifted multiple times, from Het Huis Reinier de Klerk (now the National Archives Building) to Sociëteit De Harmonie, and finally to a new building at Koningsplein (now Medan Merdeka, Jakarta).

The Hokkien-Dutch dictionary, titled Chineesch-Hollandsch Woordenboek van het Emoi Dialekt, was authored by J. J. C. Francken and C. F. M. de Grijs and published by Landsdrukkerij in Batavia in 1882. The term “Emoi” in the title refers to the Hokkien dialect spoken in Amoy (now Xiamen, Fujian Province).

This dictionary was born out of practical needs, driven by both scientific and political motives. The Dutch East Indies government recognized the importance of understanding and controlling the various Chinese ethnic groups—Hokkien, Hakka, Cantonese, Teochew, and Hainanese—who played significant roles in trade, culture, and politics in the 19th century.

In 1856, C. F. M. de Grijs was sent from Batavia to China to study the Chinese language. Knowing that most Chinese people in Java and its surroundings came from Emoi, he decided to stay in Amoy to master the local dialect. Later, J. J. C. Francken and G. Schlegel joined him. They faced significant challenges due to the lack of an adequate Amoy dictionary, slowly compiling vocabulary with the help of native translators.

Upon their return to Java, local Hokkien speakers enriched their vocabulary and understanding of the Amoy dialect. J. J. C. Francken, in particular, was passionate about creating a representative Hokkien-Dutch dictionary, spending significant time in Surabaya interacting with the Chinese community. Unfortunately, Francken died before completing the project, which was then continued by Dr. Schlegel and ultimately finalized by de Grijs.

The dictionary’s authors viewed the Emoi dialect not merely as a dialect but as a language in its own right, encompassing various sub-dialects. They provided detailed linguistic features, such as sounds (im), writing (dzi), and pronunciation, as well as nasal and aspirated characteristics. The language’s tonal system, fundamental to all Chinese languages, was meticulously described, breaking down the basic four tones into eight distinct patterns.

The dictionary stands out for its extensive content, spanning 796 pages with 42 lines per page in two columns. This compares favorably to other Hokkien dictionaries in European languages, such as Medhurst’s, which has fewer lines per page due to the larger font size, and Doty’s, which is much shorter.

Each Hokkien word in the dictionary is presented with its Chinese character, orthographic representation, and context. For instance, the word “ang” means husband and can also be a family name. It includes contextual phrases like “ang bo/ang po” (husband and wife) and “ke ang tsiah ang” (if a woman marries, the expenses are borne by the husband).

The Hokkien-Dutch dictionary remains a valuable resource for understanding the connection between the Hokkien Chinese in their homeland and the Dutch East Indies. It sheds light on how they perceived their world in the late 19th century and offers insights into their language and daily lives.

Despite its historical significance, the dictionary’s impact on language learning among the Hokkien community remains unclear. The influence of past political policies, particularly during Indonesia’s New Order era, has led to a decline in Hokkien language proficiency among Indonesian Chinese. In contrast, Chinese Malaysians often marvel at the fluency of Indonesian Chinese in Bahasa Indonesia while themselves struggling with Malay.

The renewed interest in learning Mandarin among Chinese Indonesians highlights a gap: their ancestral language was not Mandarin but Hokkien. The existence of the Hokkien-Dutch dictionary should inspire efforts to compile an updated Hokkien-Indonesian dictionary with modern orthography, referencing existing Hokkien-English and Hokkien-Mandarin dictionaries. Additionally, a Hokkien grammar book in Indonesian would be invaluable.

Hokkien is not merely a language of the past; it is still spoken by millions in Southeast Asia, Mainland China, and Taiwan. Understanding this language is crucial not only for the Hokkien ethnic group but also for anyone interested in learning a strategic foreign language.

The Hokkien-Dutch dictionary, a product of over a dozen years of effort by the Bataviaasch Genootschap van Kunsten en Wetenschappen, represents an important yet overlooked legacy. It offers a rich linguistic and cultural heritage that deserves recognition and preservation, highlighting the enduring relevance of the Hokkien language in understanding the historical and contemporary dynamics of Southeast Asia.