Hokkien and Singlish Expressions I Actually Use

By request of Kierstens of Suddenly in Asia, I am doing this post about Singlish words. This post is dedicated to you, Kierstens. Hope you like it.

Singlish is a very easy going form of communication and highly economical. You need just one word to express what another language would need a whole sentence to explain. It’s used to joke with your friends and family. It’s mostly only used in informal situations and close relationships. Hardly used with your boss for example. Often it’s uttered to chide people as you’ll see in the examples below. Singlish is checkered with Hokkien (Chinese dialect) phrases and words and these are some of my favourites, which I learnt over the years:

Paiseh: to say sorry as well as I feel embarrassed about that (pronounced pai say)

e.g. Paiseh la. I made you all wait for so long.

Hao Lian: proud and boastful (pronounced ‘how lianne’)

e.g. Don’t be so ‘hao lian’.

Ta Pow: Americans would say To go, which I really had to get used to when I travelled there for the first time. It just means whether you want your food to be packed for take away purposes (pronounced ‘tha pow’)

e.g. You want to ‘Ta Pow’ or eat here?

Suan: Mocked and teased in a sarcastic way – a light kind of insulting (pronounced ‘swaan’)

He just ‘suan-ed’ you

Kan Chiong: Do things in a hurried panicky manner as if you have no time, but you actually do. Like the event is months away, but the boss is so worried about it and driving everyone nuts getting his presentation ready. It’s sort of associated with being kiasu (afraid to lose out)

e.g. Don’t be so kan cheong. (pronounced ‘kan cheeong)

In Singapore we also tend to say things a little differently. Our education system has been British, but we’re increasingly becoming more Americanized in terms of the school system and with the influence of TV, movies and celebrities we love:

1. handphone instead of cell phone or mobile

2. ‘takeaway’ instead of ‘to go’ at Fast Food outlets.

3. parking lot to refer to one space (which is actually grammatically incorrect) instead of parking space

4. carpark instead of parking garage

5. shopping centre instead of mall (but in the last decade we’ve converted to mall and become more Americanized especially with the influence of TV and movies)

6. Can I have the bill instead of cheque please, when you’re reading to pay for your meal at a restaurant.

I am not sure whether most expats or foreigners know this, but sometimes when a local person speaks to an American or British native speaker, they tend to ‘slang’ or put on a fake accent. This is at the same time amusing and derrided by locals. It’s quite comical to us when we see touts putting on a fake accent when trying to hard sell stuff at areas like Lucky Plaza or Sim Lim. Another reason why we have a fake accent is to make ourselves better understood, but it always sounds so terribly fake and awful to locals. It’s akin to Angelina Jolie attempting to do a British accent on The Tourist and Tomb Raider, but loads worse.

Sometimes an accent is assumed just because people are trying to be atas. As you know atas (pronounced ah-thaas) is a Malay word literally meaning upstairs. It’s used to scold someone when they are trying to be pretentious, snooty or high class. If you know someone who refuses to go to hawker centers or take public transport you can accuse them of being atas. Just have fun with it and it’ll soon be part of your vocabulary.

Poor Dawn Yang. I was doing a web search with the key words, fake accent and Singaporean and got this video. It’s not too bad, but just an example of the accent I was talking about. Dawn’s actually pretty sweet in the video. I’ll try to look out for a better example and update this post with new words as well, when I am not feeling too lazy.


Kirsten of Funny Little World, just reminded me of animal references in Singlish – thanks Kirsten!

Blurr sotong which refers to squid or octopus in Malay (it’s not a complement and it’s used when you’re teased as being not sharp or unaware of things)

Kancheong spider (does everything superfast and hurriedly like they have a plane to catch, maybe because that’s the way a spider moves – basically meaning being very anal and uptight about things)

Besides la we like to use ya and ah as inflections of speech. Ah (meaning something like ‘oh is that so?’) comes at the end of the sentence for confirmation. Just listen to this hilarious taped phone conversation between a German Expatriate and a Singaporean Auntie. For the first minute or so even I have difficulty understanding what the aunty is saying.


But imagine a Singapore without Singlish….a lot less fun.


The coolest part about Singlish is that when you hear someone speaking Singlish over the phone can’t identify them by race, just that they are Singaporean. Eurasian, Indian, Malay or Chinese etc., Singaporean school kids these days sound the same to me.

About bookjunkie

Blogging about life in Singapore & recently cancer too.
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29 Responses to Hokkien and Singlish Expressions I Actually Use

  1. Maria says:

    As much as I loved reading this, I have to admit I’m a little disappointed — I was planning to ask you to help me write a post about Singlish for my blog! That’s what I get for not striking while the iron’s hot 🙁

  2. xinapray says:

    Hee hee. I was eagerly anticipating “kiasu” 😉

    Re: #2 – Americans also commonly use “takeout”…e.g., “I would like to order some takeout” (says me in my most atas American slang). 😉

  3. Kirsten says:

    Kancheong spider! Hahaha I don’t know where that came from but I’ve been using it ever since I first heard it. “Don’t be such a kancheong spider!”

  4. kierstens says:

    YES! I’m so glad you did this – thank you so much!! When I moved here a year ago, people were looking at me so funny when I said “to go” but then once you get the hang of some local terms, communication becomes much easier! For example, “no need” is more more effective here than “no thanks” or “i don’t want that.” Also, I love that when people say “five” they move their hands the same way we move our hands in the US to mean “too much talking” hehehehe.
    Great post!

  5. LL says:

    While I was in Singapore, I was disappointed I wasn’t able to really mingle with the locals as much as I’d wanted. I had no idea that there were so many people who spoke Hokkien until after I returned home and watched Top Chef’s visit to Singapore. My household speaks Fukienese. I am probably wrong but I think Hokkien is pretty close to Fukien? I don’t know any people speaking Hokkien or Fukienese here 🙁

    Anyway, I do remember being confused when I was supposed to “meet in the carpark.” And I think I tried to correct the waiter when he asked about takeaway: “No, don’t take it away, I want it to-go.”

    I hope Singapore doesn’t become too Americanized. I find the British accent much more charming, and I was disappointed I only encountered a handful of those people. Is it true you can choose schools based on what kind of english accent you want to learn (American vs British)?

    • bookjunkie says:

      about the accent thing…not really, but I wouldn’t be surprised if people chose colleagues for that reason!

      Dialects are discouraged in Singapore and all Chinese kids are made to learn Mandarin in school instead.

      I think Singapore is becoming more Americanized, because I hardly see any British tv shows being shown on the local channels or being as popular as the American ones. British pop music used to be very dominant in the 80’s (Wham, Sting, Duran Duran, Depeche Mode etc.) and we were not very familiar with country music or Bruce Springsteen then.

      • LL says:

        ooh, so I am curious as to what is popular music there now?

        • bookjunkie says:

          According to the radio station for young people…these are the top 10. Yikes Taylor Swift & Justin Bieber!! I’m old and I’ll stick to my 70’s music.

          1 2 Taylor Swift
          Back To December
          2 1 Justin Bieber
          3 3 Miley Cyrus
          Who Own’s My Heart
          4 8 David Guetta Ft. Rihanna
          Who’s That Chick
          5 12 Tokio Hotel
          Hurricanes And Suns
          6 4 Greyson Chance
          Waiting Outside The Lines
          7 6 Michael Jackson Ft. Akon
          Hold My Hand
          8 11 Adam Lambert
          9 9 Pixie Lott
          Can’t Make This Over
          10 15 Good Charlotte
          Sex On The Radio

  6. notabilia says:

    Thank you for this post. I am familiar with other English variants (Hinglish, Spanglish) and I find Singlish so fascinating. I can also understand those Singlish words that are drawn from Malay’s Sanskrit roots, so it becomes such a fun verbal puzzle for me when taxi drivers start chatting with me in Singlish ;).

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  8. 365days2play says:

    British shows…now becomes british movies. HARRY POTTER!
    I prefer to follow the British system though. I can’t get used to the americans referring to prawns as jumbo shrimp. Shrimp to me are tiny things, no matter how jumbo them, they don’t become prawns!
    As for the accent thing, I have to admit I am one of those who can change accents with the snap of a finger, but I’m not choosy. Depending on who the speaker is, the accent will change automatically. Eg if I’m talking to a Malay person, I will some how end up with a malay twang.

    • bookjunkie says:

      Yeah I sometimes too end up doing that unconsciously…also later I feel a tad conscious about it and wonder if I sounded weird. I find myself using more and more American words these days…..I think my vocabulary is a mix of Singaporean, British and American terms like most older Singaporeans.

  9. Guus says:

    Having lived in Singapore for a couple of years now, I have heard most of the vocab you cover, but wasn’t so exactly clear of the meaning of many. So this post serves as a great help to expand my Singlish vocabulary!

    Those American expressions are also just that – American expressions. If you go to the UK, Australia or another English speaking country, you’ll find that each of them have their own slang.

    I believe Singlish and its slang will stand the test of time. There are so many people here who take pride in it!

  10. Dear BJ, Hello my favorite Auntie!

    I’m so paiseh to try Singlish, but I’m just playing ya ~ my bloggie friend. 🙂 I hope you don’t think I’m suaning you.

    I’ll write more because I’m a bit Kan Choing now. Kisses. I’m running off like a Kancheong spider, ya!


    • bookjunkie says:

      Julie, Julie …that was sooo darn good!!!! No need to be paiseh at all. You got it…you really got it!!!!

      I’m laughing my ass off 😉 thanks for that!!! 🙂

      Please teach me some American or Italian slang.

  11. Okay Auntie Girlie:

    I have only California surfer slang and Italian Bolognese under my belt. Here you go:

    Californian Surfer:
    Totally Rad means super cool, like a totally radical wave.
    Gnarly means super cool as in amazing as in Man, that was a Gnarly wave (g isn’t pronounced).
    Stoked as in I’m totally stoked means I’m super happy.

    Italian Bolognese Dialect

    Sa vut da me means what do you want from me?
    Sa fet means what are you doing?

    Have fun, ya? Again, I’m a bit Kan Choing now. Kisses. I’m running off like a Kancheong spider, ya!


  12. floramoreno says:

    This post is great! I think ‘kiasu’ deserves a post all to itself. Took me a while to figure it out, but once I understood it I became less frustrated living here.

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