Sinophone Cinemas

The term Sinophone is a relatively new paradigm of the four major critical ones in identifying Chinese films. It was a result of multiple disagreements to how people should define or view Chinese language films—what constitutes as a Chinese film and what are the tools and methods that one can utilize to categorize these films. The four critical paradigms are national cinema, transnational cinema, Chinese-language cinema, and Sinophone cinema (Lu, 2012). Sinophone first emerged in Shu-mei Shih’s essay about acknowledging literature written outside of China, like Hong Kong, Taiwan, and other areas of Southeast Asia. She coined the term “Sinophone” as a way to address Chinese-speaking communities outside China, about the “long-standing but marginalized critical tradition that critiques the hegemony and homogeneity of “Chineseness” (Shih, 2011, pg. 710). Scholars like Emilie Yueh-yu Yeh and Sheldon Lu rose to agree with her by providing another way of interpreting her definition. In their essay, they emphasized Sinophone as not to exclude China from its geographical and linguistic range and would include China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the Chinese diaspora. They further elaborate Sinophone cinemas as “field of multilingualism, multi-dialectal articulations that constantly redefine the boundaries of groups, ethnicities, and national affiliations” (as cited in Lu, 2012, pg. 22).

Many scholars who study Sinophone films have different opinions on what should be studied. Lim (n.d.) focuses on the phonic dimension of both Sinophone and cinema. She was interested in the human voice and how there appears to be an imbalance in film productions where the image is prioritized more than voice, leaving the voices of actors unexplored. According to the author, Michelle Yeoh, an actress in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon who is an ethnic Chinese but does not speak Chinese, was coached by the film director for three months to learn the accent and emotive expression of the language used in the film. Due to the director’s dissatisfaction with how she sounded, the final product was mechanically composed word by word by an American sound engineer. The film director was trying to “eradicate traces of imperfections and impurities in the actors’ voices” (Lim, n.d., pg.71). 

“Sinophone exists only to the extent that these [Sinitic] languages are somehow maintained”

By Shih (as cited in Groppe, n.d., pg. 150)

In this paper, I will focus on Sinophone and the multiple local dialects that are embedded in a language. There are uncertainties to what counts as a Sinophone as Shih claims in her essay that “Sinophone exists only to the extent that these [Sinitic] languages are somehow maintained” (as cited in Groppe, n.d., pg.150). However, like Groppe questioned in her paper, to what extent must the Sinitic languages be maintained for a population to be considered part of the Sinophone world. Her final remark before proceeding to the next subchapter was a quote from Shih’s essay, claiming that the purpose of the Sinophone studies is to investigate how the relationship becomes but one of the many relationships that define the Sinophone in a “multiangulated and multiaxiological contexts” within the local and the wider interaction with the global world, especially in everyday practices (as cited in Groppe, n.d., pg. 151). For this paper, I will further support this argument by providing examples from films like Crazy Rich Asian and Ice Kacang Puppy Love. To do this, I will be looking at the dialogues of these movies and analyze the multiple dialects in their conversation that is supposed to reflect the authentic local speech. As pointed out in the earlier part of this paragraph, I will analyze how these Sinitic languages are maintained in these cultures and are qualified to be considered as part of Sinophone cinemas. Finally, I seek to answer if multilingualism in the Sinophone world is a form of adaptation or assimilation. 

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

Crazy Rich Asian is an American romantic comedy adapted from a novel about a Chinese-American Economic professor, Rachel, who travels with her boyfriend, Nick Young, to Singapore to attend his friend’s wedding. Little did she know that her boyfriend belongs to one of the wealthiest families in Singapore. The plot thickens when Rachel was invited to a dinner party at the Young estate, only to be introduced to Nick’s mom, Eleanor Sung-Young, who disapproved of her Western self and style. To add on to the already existing tension between Rachel and Nick’s mom, Eleanor hired a private investigator to search for Rachel’s family background, only to discover that she was conceived through an adulterous affair, after which her mother abandoned her husband to flee to the United States. With this information, Eleanor demanded that the couple stopped seeing each other for fear of a scandal. After a few confrontations between Rachel and Eleanor, she finally received her blessing to proceed with Nick’s proposal to Rachel. 

The cast of the movie Henry Goulding is a Malaysian-English actor and Michelle Yeoh is a Malaysian-Chinese actress while Pierre Png (Astrid’s husband) and Tan Kheng Hua (Rachel’s mom) are Singaporean actor and actress. It is heavily-centered around the lives of Asians, by all-Asian and Asian American actors and actresses, and their culture: food, languages, and traditions. Referring back to my central idea of this paper, I will demonstrate how multilingualism involves the usage of local dialects and how these Sinitic languages are maintained through everyday conversations that are reflected in the film, hence, qualify to be part of the Sinophone world. On top of that, the main purpose of using this film in my analysis is because I want to take advantage of its fame across the global market and film industry to attract audiences about the content (i.e. Sinophone in local dialects) that I will be analyzing. 

Hawker stalls scene

Nick speaks four language

Nick: You know this is one of the only places in the world where Street food vendors actually earn Michelin stars.

Uncle 1: Ehh how are you, son? (Singlish)

Nick: Uncle!

Uncle 1: Long time no see, my friend! (Singlish)

Nick: Satay dua puluh, sepuluh ayam, sepuluh daging. (Malay, literal translation: Meat skewers twenty, ten chicken, ten beef).

Nick: Laksa 两碗,一碗不要辣椒。(Mandarin, literal translation: Laksa two bowls, one bowl no chili).

Nick: *after paying vendor* Kamsia. (Malay, literal translation: thank you).

Interaction with grandma scene

Mainland Mandarin vs. Singaporean Mandarin Communication

Grandma: 乖孙子,你回来了。这么多日子没回来看看阿妈。还好我还活着。你吃了吗?你怎么瘦了?(Mainland Mandarin, literal translation: Good grandson, you came home. Why did you not come home for so many days to see me. Luckily, I am still alive. Have you eaten yet? Why are you thin already?)

Nick: 我想念你煮的菜。阿妈,这是我的好朋友, Rachel Chu. (Not Mainland Mandarin, literal translation: I miss your cooking. Grandma, this is my friend, Rachel Chu).

Rachel: 阿妈, 谢谢您邀请我来您的家。Nick经常提起您。他说您包的水饺时全世界最好吃的! (Not Mainland Mandarin, literal translation: Grandma, thank you for inviting me to your house. Nick always talks about you. He said you make the world’s best dumplings!)

Grandma: 没什么的。你愿意我可以教你。(Mainland Mandarin, literal translation: It’s nothing. If you want I can teach you).

Rachel:那是在太好了。(Not Mainland Mandarin, literal translation: That would be great).

Lunch with Peik Lin’s family scene

Heavy usage of Singlish during lunch

Peik Lin’s mom: Don’t stand on ceremony later, this is simple food la.

Peik Lin’s dad: You’re not a model. Here, eat, eat, eat.

Twin sisters: Appa, can we go trampoline?

Peik Lin’s dad: You haven’t finish your nuggets yet sweetie… look at her, she is very skinny, do you want to look like that?

Twin sisters: No!




Peik Lin’s mom: So Racel, what do you do in Merica ah?




Peik Lin’s mom: What you never see before? Tell, tell, what they like?

(All spoken in Singlish).


The dialogues above clearly showed the multiple Sinitic languages that took place in different settings. Each setting demands specific language used to engage fully with the surrounding people. This is a great example of how the multiple usages of dialects are maintained in their culture. For instance, in the hawker scene, Nick used four languages to interact with his environment: English (with his friends), Singlish (with the vendors who speak creolized English), Malay (with Malay vendors), and Mandarin (with Chinese vendors). In the flower blooming scene, even though Nick’s grandma spoke Mainland Mandarin, Nick and Rachel did not. However, all of them understand each other at a good level. I want to direct your attention to the Singlish and not Mainland Mandarin languages. These languages have diverged far from their original languages, English and Mainland Mandarin. Singlish, according to Groppe (n.d.), is a creolized form of English with a grammar closer to Hokkien than to English. It has a reputation for being ‘ungrammatical’ and has vocabulary derived from Hokkien, Malay, Cantonese, and other Sinitic languages, Tamil, and English. Mainland Mandarin has a greater official status than other Chinese dialects, which was spoken by Nick’s grandma. That is why she is highly valued in society as well as being one of the wealthiest families. The reason I interpreted Nick and Rachel’s Mandarin as not Mainland Mandarin is because the tone, accent, and stress patterns reflect the Singlish way more than the Mainland Mandarin. However, this is largely due to my own experiences and other people might have different opinions on it too. 

Ice Kacang Puppy Love (2010)

Set in the late 1980s, Ice Kacang Puppy Love is a local romantic comedy Malaysian-Chinese film about Botak, whose father owns a coffee shop and is talented in painting, trying to convey his love to his long-time crush An Qi or Fighting Fish (打架鱼), who receives her name due to her fierce and combative nature of fighting off bullies. This story is based on the film director’s, Ah Niu, personal childhood experience (Calvin, 2010). The plot thickens when Fighting Fish was caught up in a fight with her mom, angry about the idea of her getting married again, given she left her first husband because of the abuse. This led her to find her biological father while asking Botak to tag along, only to find her father was currently the head of the illegal gambling business. The police came not long after to raid the area and luckily, Fighting Fish and Botak managed to escape. Later on in the film, she and her mother had to leave their place due to work opportunities, leaving Botak and his unrequited love behind, despite the countless times he tried to confess to her, through letters and paintings. Fast-forward to the future, each of them had their career paths and in the final scene, Botak and his girlfriend seemed to live near Fighting Fish, but they never crossed paths. 

The cast of this movie is Angelica Lee, who won numerous Best Actress awards like the Golden Horse Awards at the Hong Kong Film Festival, and An Niu, singer, songwriter, and director. Famous singers who are known across Asia, especially in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore like Fish Leong, Gary Chaw and Victor Wang also play roles in this movie. This plot of this story can be considered as typical, family conflicts, pursuing dreams, growing up. However, what made it stood out among other local movies is its rural Malaysian setting and the familiar mixed language and experiences that are appealing to audiences. After introducing Crazy Rich Asians, this film will be a slight change of view as Malaysian or Mandarin speakers might have a greater benefit in understanding the dialogues and how they interact with the surrounding. Needless to say, I will present several scenes that I think will showcase how Sinophone involves multilingualism and the use of multiple dialects across various settings. At the same time, I will also demonstrate how these interactions are maintained through everyday practices that are reflected in this film, a criterion that Shih pointed out to be qualified as Sinophone. 

Introduction scene

Geli! 刺刺的!Botak!

Customer’s voices: Botak! Geli! 刺刺的!Botak! (translation: Baldhead (Malay)! Disgusting (Malay)! Very sharp (Mandarin)! Bald head!) / Botak, Botak, kopi 一杯(read as yup pui (Cantanose))来 (translation: Bald head, bring one cup of coffee here)

Narrator: 长大后,马麟帆还是喜欢作弄打架鱼。(Malaysian Mandarin, translation: After we grew up, MaLin Fan still likes to tease Fighting Fish). 

Fighting Fish: 鸡蛋!Kana Sai! (translation: damn it (Malaysian Mandarin)! Like poop (Hokkien)!)

Narrator: 肥妹还是一样肥,可是马丽冰不一样了咯。(Malaysian Mandarin, translation: fat sister is still fat, but MaLi Bing is not the same anymore loh.)

Botak’s sister: Ko (in Cantonese), 我看到你们两个的眼睛有电,shock来shock去。(translation: brother (Cantonese), I saw electric shocks in your eyes and hers, shock here, shock there (Malaysian Mandarin))

Botak:shock你的头啊!shock! (Malaysian Mandarin, translation: shock your head ah! Nonsense!) 

Three language scene

Prince Charming speaks Mandarin, Cantonese, and understands Hakka

Prince Charming: 万一她kiss我,就惨了咯. (Malaysian Mandarin, translation: if she kisses me, I am doomed loh.) 

Radio: 你每天喔,只想女人女人喔,你不是要出做你音乐的咩? (Malaysian Mandarin, translation: You everyday ou, think about girls ou, weren’t you going to pursue your music meh?)

Prince Charming:  欸,阿爸, (in Cantonese) is your wife as bothersome as him? (Cantonese, translation: Ei, father …)

Father: (in Hakka) I haven’t seen my wife in 50 years. When I strike my lottery, I’ll go back to see her, I’ll bring my wife over from China next week. 

Radio: 他每天讲讲讲讲讲, 到底在讲什么?(Malaysian Mandarin, translation: he talks every day, what is he talking about?”)Prince Charming:他说,他已经等了好几十年了,下个礼拜他要去见他的老婆。(Malaysian Mandarin, translation: he says, he had already waited for so many years, next week he is going to meet his wife).

Hit by motor scene

Botak’s sister confronts Roti Man using Malay structured and English, Chinese words

Roti Man: Oi, you gila ah? (Malay, translation: Oi, are you crazy?) 

Botak’s sister: Apa gila?! You buta kah? Wa begitu besar, lu pun tak nampak. Semua lelaki orang jahat. Jahat la! (Malay-Mandarin, translation: what crazy? Are you blind kah? I’m so big, you also can’t see. All men are bad people! Bad la!) 


There are a few terms I want to clarify: Ice Kacang refers to shaved ice with red beans; Botak translates to bald head and is the main character of the film; shock来shock去 means electrify and the whole phrase refers to two people falling in love; 鸡蛋 means egg but here it says damn it. Besides that, in these dialogues, words like la, kah, meh, ah, loh (italicized), are usually added at the end of the sentences to add another layer of emotional emphasis. These kinds of localized Mandarin languages have borrowed heavily from the vocabularies and connotations of the Malay, English, and Tamil languages as a result of “multicultural encounters and fraternization” (Kuan, 2018). In a sense, the mixture of multiple dialects can be seen as a form of the creolization of language and vocabulary. The multiple examples above have shown that multilingualism exists as part of Malaysian’s everyday practices, therefore qualify to be part of the Sinophone world.