The Death and Life of Hokkien: How has ideology changed identity and wiped out a language?
2020, Visual identity, exhibition design, type design—Hokkien is a language with around 25 million speakers mainly living in mainland China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and Indonesia. It has gradually declined since the beginning of the 20th century. The exhibition is aimed at countering the mainstream narrative that the decline of Hokkien, alongside other southern Chinese languages, is ‘inevitable’ due to social progression and the force of globalisation. A visual identity has been developed to guide the design of posters, flyers, textual displays, videos and installations. A font has also been designed to support the display of tone marks in Romanised Hokkien on computers.
The exhibition which was scheduled to be held on 31st March 2020 has been postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Client:Hokkien Language Association of PenangCreator, curation:Sim Tze WeiVisual identity, exhibition design, type design:Angelo Stitz, Dominik LanglohTranslator and voice-over:Ooi Kee How, Ahmad Fadli bin Mohd NazariMotion graphics:Dania Mah, Lai Thing ShengConsultants:Catherine Churchman, Qi Jiayao, Tom Hoogervorst
Hokkien has begun to decline in the beginning of the 20th century with the rise of Hàn Chinese nationalism. Over the past hundred years, the language has come to be seen as a ‘dialect’ or ‘corrupted version’ of Mandarin and that has become the prime mover for it to be banned in schools and discouraged in other public domains.
The Hokkien Language Association of Penang, which kickstarted the Speak Hokkien Campaign in 2014 is stepping up their effort in language revitalisation by debunking myths about language and ethnicity that underpin its decline. The exhibition seeks to clarify the ideologies about language, race and ethnicity. Visitors will be able to see the changes in identity and the ideology of its speakers about their mother tongue over the past hundred years. The exhibition brings theories that have largely been confined to academic discussions to the public, providing visitors with an opportunity to reflect on their own beliefs.
The Malaysian state of Penang is one of many places in Southeast Asia where the Hokkien language is widely spoken as a result of migration from southern China between the 18th and the 20th century. The exhibition will be held at the historic centre of George Town, a UNESCO world heritage site since 2008. Malaysia with warm weather all year round is the 17th most ‘megadiverse country’ in the world. It is not only rich in biodiversity but also diverse in cultures.
Cheah Kongsi is one of the oldest Hokkien clan associations in George Town and is planned to host the exhibition. The traditional Hokkien clan house was built in 1858 serving as a congregational place for the Cheah clan.
The aim of the Hokkien Exhibition lies in demystify the origin and historical development of Hokkien. Furthermore, to reveal that the rise and decline of Hokkien language is not necessarily a natural evolutional process. As seen in this case instead, language can be a manifestation of political power. Simplifying this quite controversial relationship between authority and society actually means to be aligned. Either to one or another political direction. To define the visual identity this first parameter was applied to written text. A simple but fundamental aspect where each word is aligned separately on its predecessor.
The second design parameter of the visual identity relates to the process of how language evolves through time. A growing process which has no specific start or end, because its historical trajectory can always be seen as an ongoing nested structure similar to a root. For the visual identity, this relationship has been adapted on paragraphs. A paragraph that relates to another, is type set smaller. A layout emerges with multiple branches growing from its predecessor. Its a visual play between changing reading distance. Metaphorically speaking, to dig deeper into Hokkien language by reducing the reading distance to it.
The key visual on the poster is placed on the left and right side of the introduction arranged in the root shape. The design is illustrated in a playful way to attract attention and to evoke curiosity amongst passersby.
To tell the story of Hokkien, we have to delve deeper into linguistics. Not only its words, writing systems and grammar have to be demonstrated to the visitors, the socio political aspect of the language is also difficult to illustrate through tangible means because they are mainly abstract concepts. To enhance the understanding of visitors, five interactive objects have been created to provide hands-on experience alongside the textual presentation.
The timeline visualises the chronical order of media events how the official Chinese language Mandarin gradually overtook Hokkien language. Each event is described on the back of the event cards. These show how in particular Hokkien was substituted by Mandarin through publishing books as eg Mandarin dictionaries or how Hokkien was banned as a common language for radio speakers or movie actors.
The Language Trees make a contrast between the nationalist view and the scientific view on how Mandarin and Hokkien are classified. The installation is inspired by Jalousie windows that can be found throughout the city and other parts of Southeast Asia. The two opposing views are fixed on the front and back of the panels. Visitors will be able to observe the narrative promoted by the Hàn nationalists in contrast with the scientific one by pushing the lever.
This installation makes a comparison between Chinese languages and their European counterparts. The purpose is to demonstrate how European languages are, in some ways, similar to each other and yet referred to as ‘languages’. But, at the same time, the Chinese ones which appear to have much bigger divergence are referred to as ‘dialects’.
This exhibition piece encourages the visitor to write down any comments or experiences on a stripe of paper how they speak Hokkien. Visitors are encouraged to place the papers on a metal mesh held with magnets while a fan blows air through the mesh to create a fluttering effect. The fluttering papers on the exit door signify that the future of the Hokkien language could be bright if people could reassess their ideas about Hokkien.
This installation aims to clarify the myth of China as an ethnical and geographical homogenous nation. Multiple layers of acrylic have been printed with the main different ethnic groups and their territory. It illustrates that actually different people are literally merged together by being described as Chinese, who in some cases can not speak even the same language.
The exhibition is presented in three languages namely Hokkien, English and Mandarin. Hokkien is placed prominently at the top, English comes second and Mandarin is placed at the bottom. This arrangement applies consistently throughout the whole exhibition. They are hung very close to the wall with strings and binder clips which allow the cardboards to be taken off easily should there be an update in the future.
Many fonts in the market do not support diacritics in Romanised Hokkien (Pe̍h-ōe-jī and Tâi-lô). While the four tone marks in Romanised Mandarin (Pinyin) are well rendered by most fonts, Romanised Hokkien still lags behind in terms of font support. For that reason, a Hokkien font is specially developed to allow the exhibition to indicate pronunciations on top of the Hokkien characters.
Diacritics usually play a secondary role in the European languages because they are not as important to convey meanings. In contrast, tones play a much bigger role in tonal languages such as Hokkien. This font is specially designed to give prominence to tone marks. It has an unusually small capital height in order to allow bigger space for tone marks. This font supports all seven tone marks in Romanised Hokkien.