Precious Water

Precious Water
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Friday, 19 April 2013

Dialects, mandarin and hanyu pinyin

There I was giving a safety briefing to 12 CEOs before we set off on our discovering Singapore on bicycle tour a few months back. I highlighted several points of interest along the Western Adventure park connector. For the uninitiated, you may like to know we have 210 km of park connectors where you can walk, roller blade, cycle safely. Refer to: for Western adventure route, a circuitous route of 23 km. Do visit for all other park connectors.

Points of interest within Western Adventure include 小桂林 (Little Guilin, China), Wallace Centre, farmlands of Sungei Tengah, heartlands of Choa Chu Kang, Bt Panjang, Pang Sua park connector and finally the rustic, narrow, undulating turns within Zhenghua park. The last section of Zhenghua is high-octane stuff, exhilarating for those looking for an adrenalin fix.

As an aside, this year is the centenary of Alfred Russel Wallace death. He spent eight years travelling New Guinea and the Malay Archipelago, including Singapore. Without him, it can be argued that maybe Darwin would not have surfaced. The centre is located about 8 mins walk from Diary Farm carpark.

Back to the topic of dialects, I have always thought “Pang Sua” park connector in Hokkien (one of several dialects) to be “releasing sand” as in “Pang” (release) and “Sua” (sand). A learned CEO from public sector corrected me at that briefing saying it should be “Fragrant Hill”; as in “phang suah” pronounced in a particular intonation and valid across several dialects. 

So momentarily, I had my tail between my legs. If it’s “fragrant hill”, so be it. I quickly moved on to another point of interest. 

That same week end, I just had that burning desire to get to the bottom of this after being publicly bruised. I was not completely convinced it is “fragrant hill” in Hokkien. So I googled and lo behold “fragrant hill” turns out to be a common name for many popular places in the world. But I could not find any reference of “fragrant hill” to Singapore, only fragrant hotel! 

In terms of intonation in Hokkien, “Pang” or “Phang” could well be “fragrant or release”. I asked around and someone more suitably qualified in Hokkien said. If it is “fragrant” then maybe “Phang” is more accurate; I felt vindicated. Likewise in mum’s native Teochew, “Phang” would be more acceptable than “Pang” for “fragrant”.

Then again in Mandarin, the unifying language for all dialects, “fragrant” is and pronounced Xiāng; nowhere near “Pang”. And if it is “Phang”, then there is no hanyu pinyin equivalent. Going by “Pang”, there will be 4 intonations to the same word. So which to pick? The 4th tone would read as Pàng ( as in fat!).

As a digression, using Chinese hieroglyphs to explain Chinese characters is logical on most occasions. In this instance, the character (fat) consists of two parts, left and a right representation; (moon) and (half). Take a half-moon or full-moon and you still get a rotund figure!  

Let us move on to “Sua” (hill or sand). In both Hokkien and Teochew, “Sua” is good enough for both “hill” or “sand”. In Pinyin, we will be hard pressed for “Sua”. It would be as if two words instead. In Mandarin, hill would have been , pronounced as Shān in the 1st tone. Sand would have been , pronounced as Shā, also 1st tone. Likewise (kill), shares the same tone as sand. Then again, “Shan and Sha” is nowhere near “Sua”!

It is, therefore, not surprising to have standard Mandarin Chinese as a unifying mechanism to get all dialects onto same page. Thanks to Hanyu Pinyin, good standard pronunciation is achievable. Of course, there is still the complexity of same tone for different words. 

Extracted from e-guide

I then went back to the e-guide from NParks on URL provided. It said “Pang Sua” means “weighing sand” in Hokkien. In the early 1900s, there were lorries transporting sand all over the island. Lorries suspected of carrying more than stipulated weight were escorted to this location for a weight test.

So it’s back to the drawing board with the word “Pang”. I again asked around both native and hybrid Hokkien. No one can explain “Pang” as “weighing”. A smart Teochew said maybe it is “Pong” which then evolves to “Pang”! “Pong” is colloquial and our guess is that it came from the British ‘pound’ (as in weight pound). Anyway, we are still none the wiser.   

I went back to NParks. It drew a blank. I am told it’s now escalated to National Heritage Board awaiting their response. At this rate, they are scratching themselves bald on one side. I will, for now, accept “Pang Sua” to be “releasing sand” and NOT “weighing sand” or for that matter “fragrant hill”. If a lorry is overweight, then sand has to be “released” to bring it down to stipulated weight. So I am satisfied to have “Pang Sua” as “releasing sand” as long as it is not “Pang Sai” (defecate). We will leave that for another day

So while it is true that hanyu pinyin (romanised alphabets) is great for learning Mandarin, there is another argument that it conflicts with learning English. Take for example, the word “bang”. There are at least 25 different words in Chinese across four intonations. In doubt, google translate is good! 


  1. Very interesting interpretations on PangSua. Let's preserve the heritage, nature and most importantly, our unique Singaporean concoction of Chinese dialects. It is a regret that dialets are diminishing in our so-called advanced educational and upbringing system. Only Gen X and 'silverer' could understand Sua.

  2. Thank you 'sua' for your sentimental reasons. Here's 2 more inputs on this subject. Meanwhile, I am on to Telok Ayer Road. Why 'Telok Ayer'?

    It's bad form to use "Pang" in Hokkien, it's not release but to let go....the Taiwanese would never use it unless they're talking about toilet things. Nonetheless, good thing you got the phang, higher tone, for fragrant.

    my mother used to cringe listening to the SEAsian Hokkien but it has its charm :)

    Best Wishes from Li Li

    Can I add to your confusion? In my Penang Hokkien, 'pang sua'
    could mean, let down the line (as in line fishing). Another meaning could be 'putting sand' on or in. Another, where the 'sua' ends with a slight 'k' tone, would mean 'let it go' as in an situations such as a quarrel, disagreement, or even a fight. Enough to confuse you Jok.


  3. Eleanor,

    thanks for your additional insights. I like the 'suak', which I totally agree is a good strategy for happy marriage ;)
    Thanks to my father who mispelled my name from SaiKeong to
    SuaKeong ;)