Friday, December 23, 2011

A Fairy-Tale Village

Travelling on a public bus up and down hills and through narrow lanes sounds like fun but after a couple of hours of doing this, I felt nauseous.  It didn't help when the bus stopped at the final destination, a dead town with all the appurtenances of a vibrant town but not a soul in sight.  It could very well be that we were two days to Christmas and the town folks had gone away.  From where the bus stopped, I had to walk 2km out of the town.  It was ominously spooky to walk through a town that had nobody at all.  But after 2km of walking, the sight that greeted me was well worth all the effort.  I had come to see a fairy tale village atop a hill that's only accessible by a footbridge.

This is what it looks like when the sun sets.  Yes I stayed till sunset.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

O Love that will not let me go

11th November 2011, Friday.

You may run in any direction but He's always there - 
looming and towering over every street corner. 

That's precisely how I felt this morning as I wandered through the narrow streets after breakfast in this cathedral city, the seat of my religion. I had intended for this to be a cycling trip but it's too cold and dreary to cycle. I will instead turn this trip into a pilgrimage of sorts. It's a time of reflection - from the time I was an acolyte to my current state. I have always joked that I'm a Cosmopolitan Christian. I've followed just about every single tradition of Christianity. I was even once a fundamentalist - in my turbulent teens.  But what I did not bargain for was to be an atheist and I did become an atheist once. My life has always been one big struggle with atheism which is of course perfectly logical and rational.  It's really tough for those of us who have a religion.  It's very hard to believe in a system that postulates something really fanciful but hasn't got a shred of evidence to prove the truth of its claims. But now is not the time to think and reason.  As Luther cleverly pointed out, "Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has" and elsewhere, he said "Reason is the Devil's greatest whore".

Whenever I visit a large cathedral, I can't help thinking how hard it must be for the altar boys. Most people who have not carried the candlestick to the altar do not know how heavy it is. It's huge, ornamental and made of silver and the aisle in a large cathedral is dreadfully long.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Hypercritical or humorous?

I have blogged before about this strange peculiarity I've encountered many times in Singapore of folks zealously making up their own grammar rules to trip others up. Click here 

One of the most irritating habits of these over-zealous folks is to pick on the less educated segment of Singaporean society and to make fun of them.  The cardinal rule that governs anyone who attempts to correct others is of course a rather reasonable one - he had better be right.  Alas, these revilers are often guilty of worse errors than the supposed errors they purport to embarrass their victims with.

A recent article published in the Catholic News under "Readers Contributions - General Viewpoints" is, at first blush, a disgraceful example of this.  The writer takes up the cudgels on behalf of the anti-Singlish camp and insists that Singlish speakers are incomprehensible abroad and should remain in Singapore.  At least, that is presumably what the writer intends to say but he lacks the necessary proficiency to accomplish this rather simple task and instead writes this:
Unless an individual or particular group plans on never leaving the warmth and security of the nest, of never venturing outside one’s immediate group, Singlish suffices.
This is one blunder no speaker of Singlish makes.

This article was brought to my attention by the New Nation.  Apparently, the Catholic News, sensing trouble from the article and desirous of staying away from further bad press (a US group is now seeking to have the Pope charged in the Hague for alleged crimes against humanity, ie paedophile crimes and cover-up within the Church), deleted it from their website but as we all know to our great delight, the internet is the internet and any deletion is bound to leave behind an indelible electronic footprint the link of which the New Nation cleverly published .     

I have since read the offending article more carefully and I'm now persuaded the writer is in fact making fun of the anti-Singlish camp by being overtly ridiculous.  Just take, for example, the first two sentences in the article:
The reason for the use of correct English is predicated on pragmatism and not on emotion or group convenience. For the purpose of dialectic let us categorise English into non-standard and standard. Non-standard will include, for example, variations like Appalachian English and Singlish. The refulgence of the differences lie, in general, in the grammar, sounds and vocabulary of the spoken “dialects”.
Leaving aside obvious grammatical errors including mistakes in what in my time was called "Agreement" or "Concordance" but is now more elegantly termed "Concord" by polished grammarians, the vocabulary is itself laughable.  How can the writer be serious?  I'm sure I'm right and the writer is merely indulging in some tongue-in-cheek humour.

Sunday, May 29, 2011


Yesterday, I had a very pleasant lunch with members of my wind ensemble and a lovely couple, Viva and Joy.  Naturally, any conversation with me joining in had to turn light-hearted, frivolous and even vacuous.  I had to stop Teng Siong and Viva from talking about cars!  How anyone can dwell on the subject of cars is something really quite beyond me.  I can imagine having a perfectly enjoyable time talking about bicycles but cars?

Indra spoke with sadness about how he discovered through me that his school song was a flagrant plagiarism of a Canadian patriotic anthem, “Maple Leaf Forever”.  Last year, I posted a video of the Canadian anthem on my Facebook wall and he saw it to his horror.

To continue with the topic that Indra had started, I proceeded to explain how the obviously ungrammatical line in his school song came about: “Oldham dauntless hero came”.  Before I could continue, Joy insisted that the line was not ungrammatical.

At first blush, anyone can tell that the sentence lacks the definite article, “the”.   It’s obvious that the sentence should read “Oldham THE dauntless hero came.”  But what made Joy think that it was grammatical?  Joy has a perfect grasp of the English language and she isn’t the sort who would normally make a mistake of this nature.

The source of her confusion lies (I almost wrote “across the Atlantic” the way most grammarians do but of course my location is vastly different) across the Pacific in the USA.  Burchfield, the grammarian, has written on this peculiarity of Americans in leaving out the definite article that usually goes with an occupational title.  He gave as an example from a newspaper report: “... written by economist Sylvia Ann Hewlitt.”  Burchfield writes that this is “especially common in journalistic work.

Joy must have been confused by this development in American journalistic style which apparently has influenced the writing styles of the entire world.  But this does not excuse ACS (yes, it’s my pet topic – ACS-bashing) because “dauntless hero” is not an occupation.  Even if you take “dauntless hero” to be a profession, it should precede the name, not follow it if you are going to omit the definite article.  Taking Burchfield’s example, we can say something was “written by economist Sylvia Hewlitt” but we can’t say it was “written by Sylvia Hewlitt economist”. But “dauntless hero” is not an occupation in the first place.

On all counts, the sentence “Oldham dauntless hero came” is ungrammatical and ugly.

Why then did ACS have that line in its school song?  True to its school tradition, the person who “composed” (I place the word in inverted commas out of respect for real composers) the school song lazily copied not just the tune but the lyrics too from “Maple Leaf Forever”.  The corresponding line in “Maple Leaf Forever” is:

“Wolfe the dauntless hero came”.

Now you see it!  “Wolfe” is monosyllabic and because Oldham has two syllables, any ACSian will tell you to just drop the definite article which serves no purpose in ACS.  After all, in ACS, isn’t THE Best always a yet-to-be?

Friday, April 8, 2011

Just looking at some of my old pics

Signboards in China are pretty interesting.  On this sign, "delirious" has as much claim as "delicious" - both requiring a change of no more than one letter.  For all we know, the restaurant owner intends to warn his customers that the food has a high alcohol content and they might walk away delirious.

Friday, February 25, 2011

First decent meal?

Looking forward to a little break from my low cholesterol diet.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011


Coffee has no taste apart from bitterness. Those of us who drink it do so after adding lots of milk to it to dilute its bitterness. Isn't that silly? I cleverly drink the milk without the coffee and I've lived life beautifully without that ridiculous stimulant.  

But wait, recent studies show that coffee has curative properties. It's able to prevent dementia and Altzheimer's Disease in later life.

See these articles:

Click here for NYT

Click here for BBC

Click here for Web MD 

So, how does one drink this dreadful drink just to avoid getting dementia?  Milk comes to the rescue.  Add a little coffee to a large mug and pour milk more than ten times the amount of the coffee. You get a mildly contaminated mug of milk which of course doesn't taste as good as a proper glass of milk but who cares?  It's at least tolerable. 

Here's how you do it.

First, scoop half a teaspoon of coffee powder:

Next, you place it in a large mug:

Add just a little hot water to dissolve the coffee powder:

Fill up the rest of the large mug with milk:

This is what you get in the end - milk contaminated by a little coffee:

This is the best you can do to a beverage that has nothing to recommend itself apart from the newly discovered property it has that keeps dementia at bay.  I really didn't like it much. It took me a long time to drink it up. I could not manage a second cup and the three cups recommended in the articles are of course way too ambitious!  There are people who really love coffee (unbelievable though this may be) but I'm sadly not one of them.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Technical point

I just changed the time zone in my blog from -8:00GMT to +8:00GMT and because of this, some of my earlier blogs appear to be 16 hours ahead of its real time. I have tried to alter the time in each posting but there are far too many posts to alter. So if you find it odd that I go to church on a Monday, just remember this small technical detail.

Friday, February 18, 2011

I got this in my letter box on 15 February and the first thing I thought was that it was an ad from an estate agent. Estate agents do this all the time - sending unsolicited mass letters addressed to "The Resident".

Is it right for doctors to resort to the same advertising ploy? Does the ethics code allow a doctor to be a nuisance to an entire neighbourhood by sending out mass letters? What impression will the recipient have and would he really go to such a doctor for a consultation? I personally would not. I would never go to a doctor who has that sort of need to advertise.

When my kids were young, they were seen by Dr Ngiam Thye Eng. I just did a search again and he's now practising on the 3rd floor of Gleneagles. He used to be from the same clinic as this doctor but from what I found out on the web, all the doctors left that practice and started a new one called International Child and Adolescent Clinic. Tel: 64711077

Anyone with young children really ought to see Dr Ngiam Thye Eng. He's really an EXCELLENT paediatrician.

Now, isn't it much better to be a really good doctor and your former patients highly recommend you on their personal blogs than to irritate an entire neighbourhood by sending mass unsolicited letters to them? I trusted my kids to Dr Ngiam and he took excellent care of them and I'm not the only one. I just did a search for Dr Ngiam Thye Eng and there are numerous parents who view him as a must-have paediatrician for their precious kids. And they are absolutely right!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Fetch a grammarian!!!

In the onlinecitizen today (which I read from my facebook newsfeed), there is this letter which I have screen-saved:

As I have said many times before in my blog, I get riled up whenever I see self-righteous pedantic morons trying to put down someone else because of what they claim is the person's incorrect grammar. It is much worse when they get it wrong.

While it is true that Miss Zarinah may not be very comfortable with writing long sentences and her unfortunate letter is not without some errors, I take exception to Lee Kin Mun's manner of "correcting" her grammar. "Mr Brown" is the pseudonym of Lee Kin Mun, a Singaporean blogger and comedian.

I have neither the time nor the interest to read the entire letter and Lee Kin Mun's purported corrections but I will just comment on the first "error". According to Lee Kin Mun, "fetch" is a term "used mostly for dogs". This is outrageous. I proceeded to read the comments on facebook and strangely, most of the readers are clueless as to how "fetch" may be used legitimately. Many offer explanations that display their ignorance of the word, which is surprising since "fetch" is a very common word.

Here are some examples of the comments I screen-saved:

The word "fetch" carries the idea of the "fetcher" going somewhere to pick up something or someone (in the case of Miss Zarinah's letter) and returning to the same place. You can tell a dog which happens to be standing next to you to fetch a stick. Similarly, you can fetch a doctor and return with him to your feverish child. You can fetch a stick, a dog or a doctor. "Fetch" is not a class-conscious or species-conscious word.

I'm sure Lee Kin Mun has no intention of humiliating Miss Zarinah with his antics but it's still in bad taste. Lee Kin Mun should get someone to fetch him a grammarian before he attempts to correct anyone else.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Say NO to mediocrity

I bought this yesterday and I'm determined to do the etudes and practices daily and kiss mediocrity goodbye. I am a lazy man and playing scales and arpeggios is something I find quite impossible to do. But the key to good performance lies in consistent hard work. I used to work on Baermann and Otto Langey but I'm getting tired of them. A change of scene is what I need. And although they say you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, I think this cover is pretty good. It encourages me to pick up my clarinet. At least for now.



Have you ever wondered what goes on in the mind of a solo performer at the start of a concert as he is bowing to the rapturous applause of the audience? As the applause dies down, he looks to the conductor and nods his readiness. The conductor turns to the orchestra and the music begins.

I have never had the honour of playing a concerto accompanied by a whole orchestra before a live audience but I can very well imagine what hell the performer goes through at the start of each performance. I have been through, however, something on a much more modest scale but which was no less harrowing an experience but I will come to that in a minute.
Just the other day, I was listening to this on youtube (click on it and enjoy!):

It is of course a most delightful performance of Mendelssohn’s Fingal Cave Overture but as I approached 7:36 on the video, I was seized by a strange palpitation, my breath became shorter and more rapid, the palms of my hands turned clammy and I found myself perspiring. That’s because I used to take the ABRSM and Trinity College examinations a long time ago and in one of my technical tests, I had to play an orchestral extract of that same piece.

These orchestral extracts are different from the usual three period pieces that a student has to play. They are meant to examine the student’s technical ability, especially when he’s playing in an orchestra. I recall there were two orchestral extracts I had to play for the technical test in that examination – one was this piece by Mendelssohn and the other was a Wagner’s extract. The Wagner’s piece was extremely fast and I recall slowing it down because I didn’t want to stumble and make mistakes.

Here is what the examiner wrote about my performance of the orchestral extracts. We’ll ignore the comment on my performance of Wagner in which I admit my tempo was way too slow but let’s look at the comment on my Mendelssohn:

“There was a clear line if the tone lacked projection. This was however at about half the original tempo.”

That’s music exam for you – there is always something wrong or not quite right with your performance. But I suppose the examiner must be right. He’s a renowned wind player in a well-known orchestra in the UK and he’s got impressive credentials that filled a whole page in fine print.

I don’t know if it’s just me but do you notice that praises in music exam results always end with a “But…” or a “However,…”?

I will give an example of that same exam I took. In one of my three period pieces (it’s always 3 period pieces in all graded exams), the comments begin in a rather promising vein. This was Wiedemann’s Romance which has some rather technical parts in the piece and is played unaccompanied.

“The tempo was well judged and the pulse was well maintained.” Wow! Finally, I was exonerated – my tempo which was judged to be at half the original was now declared to be “well judged”. But of course that’s not all. The judgment goes on: “ALTHOUGH there was a tendency, now unaccompanied, to tap the foot”. The examiner now comments on my foot!!!

I have a lot more to say but I will post Part 2 another day. For now, I hope that all of us will look at professional concert musicians with a great deal more respect. This is particularly important in the less “cultured” countries like mine where 99% of the population can’t play an orchestral instrument to save their lives. The next time you see a performer on the stage in a concert hall with his or her instrument, applaud a little louder because if any one of us music flops (and I have already excluded the 99% non-musicians) were to stand in his shoes with our instrument, we’d be seized by a strange palpitation, our breaths would become shorter and more rapid, the palms of our hands clammy and we’d be perspiring most pitifully.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Me reading a RELIGIOUS BOOK!!!

This is a remarkable book. After having read about half of it, I put it aside, thinking I couldn't learn anything new from it. But boy, was I wrong! There is so much information packed in this book that it should be required reading for all Christians and not just theological students (which is what the recommendation at the back of the book suggests). Anyone who wants to know more about the New Testament and more about Jesus should read this delightful book. It's not heavy-going at all.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Happy New Year

Here's wishing everyone a Happy Chinese New Year,
this year of the Rabbit

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Whodunnit - How did Judas Die?

My greatest hobby as a boy was to read books on how true the Bible was.  A great favourite was books that seek to reconcile APPARENT contradictions in the Bible.  All these books have one thing in common – they claim that all errors, inconsistencies and contradictions in the Bible are only apparent; they’re not really what they appear to be.  If you place them under the searchlights of truth, you will see that they harmonise beautifully with the rest of Scriptures which are after all the Word of God and how can God be wrong?

The earliest contradiction that I read about was concerning Judas’ death.  Remember, I was only a boy of about ten and I knew too little about the Bible to know there was an APPARENT contradiction here.  The writer brought this contradiction to my attention and he sought to dispel it.

In Matthew 27, we read this:
3 When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. 4 “I have sinned,” he said, “for I have betrayed innocent blood.”
   “What is that to us?” they replied. “That’s your responsibility.”
 5 So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself.
 6 The chief priests picked up the coins and said, “It is against the law to put this into the treasury, since it is blood money.” 7 So they decided to use the money to buy the potter’s field as a burial place for foreigners. 8 That is why it has been called the Field of Blood to this day. 9 Then what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: “They took the thirty pieces of silver, the price set on him by the people of Israel, 10 and they used them to buy the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.”

That would have been fine.  But in Acts 1, we read something different:

18 With the payment he received for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out. 19 Everyone in Jerusalem heard about this, so they called that field in their language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.

Where do we find the most contradictions in the New Testament?  In many books of the Bible, it’s very difficult to find contradictions because each book has a monopoly of the stories it tells.  There’s nothing to contradict if each book tells a different story. But the Gospels are different. All four books tell roughly the same story – the story of our Lord.  Scholars have shown that Matthew and Luke obtained their sources from Q and Mark and so, these 3 Synoptic Gospels tend to share more with one another than St John’s Gospel.

There are various ways Bible reconcilers attempt to harmonise the Bible:

1.  If the error is geographical, they insist that the name used in the Bible was a variant name of the town at that time.

2.  If the error is numerical, they tend to be more accepting that it is an error.  It’s a scribal error, they say.  The scribes made an error copying the figure and the Holy Spirit allowed the error because it was not critical and it was obvious to the faithful that there was an error.

3.  If there is an inconsistency between two passages and the inconsistency arises from a difference in numbers, eg. one passage says 5 women observed Christ’s crucifixion and another passage says only one woman did, the harmonisers will always pick the higher number as historically correct and explain that the writer in the other passage was simply zooming in on one of the 5 women and because he didn’t see the need to talk about the other 4, he left them out. He can’t be talking about everybody, can he?

4.  If two passages tell different stories about what is the same event, harmonisers will insist they are two separate events. If the event is indisputably one single event, such as the Resurrection of our Lord (it’s heresy to argue that there are 4 different resurrections to suit the 4 different Gospels), harmonisers will say everything reported in all four Gospels took place one after the other. This can achieve quite a ludicrous result.

5.  If a passage says something that does not come to pass and it’s supposed to have happened much sooner, theologians will come up with new doctrines that sound respectable to hide the error.  One of them that comes to mind is the doctrine of compression in prophecy.  It is used to answer questions like why Christ did not return in the 1st century although he promised to do so?  I will have to write a separate post on this.

Now, let’s look at the death of Judas again. Two passages tell different stories about Judas’ death.  Which solution should harmonisers come up with?  Solution No. 4 of course. Now, Judas’ death can only be one event and so they’ve got to say Judas “hanged himself” and “he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out”.

And believe me, that’s what they are saying!  I’ve heard a few versions:

1.  Judas hanged himself on a tree in the desert.  After a few days, his body became bloated from gaseous emissions as it always happens to a corpse.  The branch broke and his body fell to the rocks below and all his intestines spilled out. But that does not take into account the Field of Blood.

2.  This takes into account everything.  Judas hangs himself.  The chief priests found his body and threw it onto the Field of Blood. It bursts and all his intestines spilled out.

But read Acts again. “With the payment he received for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out.”

He fell headlong.  That’s not the same as tossing a dead body in the field.  But I tell no lie if I say that a lot of Christians I know actually believe that the verses should be read in a way that can harmonise them both.  Obviously, we all desperately want to believe and are prepared to believe anything, however ludicrous.

Acts also makes it clear that Judas bought the field with the payment he received for his wickedness.  Matthew says Judas was remorseful and he threw the money at the feet of the chief priests who used the money to buy a field.

Harmonisers say the field must have been bought in Judas’ name and so when it says in Acts that Judas “bought a field with payment he received for his wickedness”, what is meant is the chief priests bought the field in Judas’ name.

Are you satisfied with such an answer?  It really depends on how desperate you are.

But it troubled me for a long time how St Luke could get it so wrong in Acts. Judas fell headlong in the Field of Blood and his body burst?  And all his intestines spilled out?

It wasn't until I read Bruce Metzger and FF Bruce on the canon that I discovered that there was an ancient Christian tradition about Judas. We know from Papias that the Christian community told a tale how Judas, because of his treachery against our Lord, swelled with each passing day until there came a time when he was so swollen and fat that he could not pass through a road that a carriage could go through. In those days, roads were narrow but Judas had become fatter than even a carriage.  One tradition says that he was knocked down by a carriage and he exploded and all his intestines spilled out. Another tradition says that he became so fat that his legs could not support him and he fell and his stomach burst and his intestines spilled out.

Now, this makes a lot of sense why Acts reported Judas' death in this manner.  In the days of the writing of the Gospels, the church was not so organised and communication was a problem. The writer of Matthew (who incidentally is anonymous) could not email the writer of Acts (purportedly St Luke himself) to tell him to get his story consistent with his.  But this error must have caused some of the ancient scribes a lot of headache as they sat in their cold monasteries transcribing the Bible because our record of manuscripts shows that some scribes left out the account of Judas' death in Acts altogether.  Why did they pick to axe Acts and not Matthew?  They revered the Bible and it's less sacrilegious to cut out one verse in Acts than to remove a large segment of Matthew's Gospel.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Mandarin is not my mother tongue


For those who are not familiar with the history of Chinese dialects, I should say from the outset that Mandarin (as it is historically known), or more accurately, the Beijing dialect, has never been a dialect of national importance or universal acceptance in China before the 20th century. Confucius was known to have spoken one of the Southern dialects which he himself referred to as “elegant language”.  Some have postulated that he probably spoke an ancient form of Cantonese but I have reason to believe that it was more probably the precursor of our present-day Hokkien.  True, he did not speak the coarse language of the Hokkien peasants but he spoke a refined form of Hokkien, akin to the Hokkien spoken today in the island of Penang.  Whether he spoke an ancient form of Hokkien or some other Southern dialect, history tells us that he certainly did not speak the Beijing dialect.

From ancient times to the 19th century, many other dialects held sway as the lingua franca of the land we know as China today. Of note is the Nanjing dialect which was the official and most popular dialect used in China right up to the early 20th century.  It was only in 1909 when the dying Manchu Dynasty which wasn’t even Chinese ruled that the Beijing dialect became the “guoyi” or national language of China. But there was not much effect in the ruling and the Beijing dialect continued to be sidelined by the literati and the movers and shakers of China. It was only after Communism, that noxious poison that destroyed the soul and dignity of the Chinese people, infected the whole of China that the Beijing dialect, under the edict of the Communist Party of China, became the “putonghua” or “common language” of China.

The more vociferous Chinese people in the Greater Diaspora were Communists in those days.  They too championed the dictates of the Communist Party of China and before long, the Beijing dialect became synonymous with the Chinese language.

The Chinese Government has since 1949 when Communism’s venomous tentacles gripped the whole of China systematically discouraged the use of non-Beijing dialects in China.  Of course we all know what it means when the Communists discourage something – they ban it with an iron fist. They have no qualms about sending in the tanks if that is necessary as the world has seen them do in the late 1980s to quash peaceful student protests in Tiananmen Square. The photograph above was taken in 2008.  A banner in front of a school asks readers to speak only the Beijing dialect. It is a “polite” or “civilized” language and one should use it if one were “sincere”.  The words are couched carefully so that it can be translated as simply, “Speak Mandarin. Use polite language to express sincerity”.  But anyone who has lived in China knows that the Communist Government has ensured that the people understand that this “polite language” or “civilized language” is none other than the “putonghua” or universal language or the people’s language which in Communist-speak means no other dialect but the Beijing dialect.  There’s no dispute here – any honest Chinese is bound to admit that this is so.

It is a fact of Chinese history even before the Boxer Rebellion that anyone who had the courage to enter a Chinese village in the South speaking the Beijing dialect would have been lynched and killed by angry mobs and accused of being a Northern infiltrator. How can I, whose ancestors hail from one of the Southern states of China, accept Mandarin as my mother tongue when I would have been killed for speaking it in my native village just barely 150 years ago? How can this foreign dialect be forced down my throat as my mother tongue when my mother does not speak a word of it and neither did her mother or her mother’s mother. You can trace that line all the way to Eve and not one of them spoke a word of the Beijing dialect.

Is there anything inherently attractive or superior about the Beijing dialect that can perhaps recommend it as a more suitable dialect to represent the entire Chinese people apart from the fact that the Communist politburo in 1949 all spoke it?  Let us look closely at the Beijing dialect and compare it in every linguistic detail with the Southern dialects and for simplicity, I will pick Hokkien, the most melodious and expressive Chinese dialect.

One of the most beautiful aspects of Hokkien that stands out when you set it next to Mandarin is the versatility of expression. One is able to express just about any emotion in Hokkien even when one is seized by a sudden surge of anger and one needs a loaded expletive to express oneself immediately. In this, Mandarin is sorely lacking. The closest one can come up with in Mandarin is “ta ma de” which literally means “his mother’s”.  But that hardly conveys the point, no, not by a long shot.  You can’t even make it more directly pertinent by changing it to “ni ma de” or “your mother’s”.  The Communist rigidity of the Mandarin dialect just does not permit this.  Hokkien, on the other hand, has an expletive for every occasion.  Again, this is beyond dispute and I don’t have to give illustrations of Hokkien’s superiority here.

Next, let us look at the comparative beauty of the two dialects.  Admittedly, the beauty of a particular language is very much subjective.  But linguists have other more objective ways of measuring and accurately calibrating a language. One of the easiest methods is to look at the consonants available in a language or dialect and to see how these consonants can be attached to the various parts of a word.  I won’t go into the technicalities but I’ll give illustrations which will explain my point more clearly.

All languages have a fixed number of consonants which differs from language to language. Roughly the number of consonants in the different languages do not differ significantly.  What is different is where these consonants appear. I’ll pick a simple example.  Let’s look at the letters “S” and “I”.  We have the consonant “S” in front and we place a vowel immediately following it, in this case, it’s an “I”. We’ll then see how many legitimate syllables can be made by adding a consonant at the end of the two letters.  We will have SICK (it’s the sound that matters and not the actual letters), SIT, SIN, SIM (which is necessary to construct words such as “simple”), and the list goes on.  That makes English highly versatile.  Hokkien is the same. You can have consonants of all kinds that end a syllable.  Mandarin, however, is different.  Apart from the consonants “n” and “ng”, there is ABSOLUTELY NO consonant that can appear at the end of a syllable.  For those of you who are familiar with Mandarin, go ahead and think about it and see if I’m right. And if you know Hokkien or one of the other Southern dialects, you can try this test on it and you will see that you can end the syllable with a great number of consonants. For example, in Mandarin, you can have a word such as "wan" or "fang" because they end in "n" and "ng".  You can't have words or syllables that end in "k" such as "pak" (found in Hokkien) or in "p" (as in the Hokkien word "sip") and other consonants.

That makes Mandarin a highly limited dialect.  There are only so few phonemes you can make with it.  Because of this shocking limitation, Mandarin has to go tonal in order to have enough phonemes for words.  For example, “tang” can be sugar or soup, depending on how you voice it.  True, Southern dialects too are tonal but because we have an adequate supply of consonants that can begin and end a syllable, our tones add more to the melody of our speech.  The tone is more like a flavour enhancer in Hokkien.

Why, you may legitimately ask, is Mandarin so crippled in its linguistic capabilities?  I have a theory but it is merely a personal theory and I must beg all Beijingites to treat this post as no more than some lighthearted chatter.  We all know that the Gobi desert sits just next to Beijing and for most months in a year, it spews relentlessly desert dust and sand into Beijing.  Just check with any hospital in Beijing and you are sure to hear stories of people choked by the dust during a sand storm.  Because of the poor quality of air in Beijing, it is hardly surprising that the Beijing dialect closely resembles what you will expect of a population that is usually gasping for air. Consonants at the end of a syllable will have to be dispensed with because they demand a large intake of air.  Why then do we find only “n” and “ng” endings in the Beijing dialect.  The answer is quite simple.  These are consonants that are nasal in nature and they act more as a means by which the speaker can clear his nasal passage.  They don’t add to the speaker’s burden as far as air intake goes.  The Beijing dialect or Mandarin is highly suitable for those who speak it in Beijing, given the harsh conditions there but to export it to the rest of China or worse, the rest of the world is madness.

I have nothing against the Beijing dialect.  I find the dialect quite beautiful.  But given the historical and environmental background in which the dialect comes about, it is not appropriate to insist that this dialect should be viewed as the mother tongue of everyone of Chinese descent.  It is as alien to me as Urdu is.  I’m sure Urdu is a beautiful language but it’s quite another thing to insist that I should speak it.

Let me conclude with an ancient Hokkien poem (the imagery is only comprehensible if you understand ancient Hokkien):

My eyes, hooded with grief, stared into space,
As I sat by the river where the willows weep,
I cast my mind to my good old days,
In Hui’an county with the gorges deep.

Where ang ku cakes were sold with Hokkien mee,
And pandas roamed as far as the eyes could see;
Oh, Min River, my dearest Min River,
To thee, my soul flies, from my heart to my liver.