Vivian Lee: Passing on the Teochew language with technology and dedication

Teochew Gasig  (潮州教室) is an Instagram and Facebook platform that teaches and explains daily Teochew words and phrases in English, Indonesian and Mandarin. Since its inception in 2021, it has built a strong following among young Teochews from many countries.

The founder of Teochew Gasig is Vivian Lee, who lives on Batam Island. What made this member of Generation Z want to promote our ageless and charming Teochew language to other youngsters on social media? Recently The Teochew Store has had the privilege to chat with Vivian to find out about her journey in running Teochew GaSig.

Image 1 : A Teochew GaSig post on Instagram


The Teochew Store (TTS): Based on what we know, the Teochew people first settled in parts of Indonesia in the 18th century. Do most of the Chinese in Batam understand or speak Teochew?

Vivian Lee (VL): Many Chinese live on Batam Island. You can find us almost everywhere. As far as I know, about half of the local Chinese are Teochews, and the other half are Hokkiens. Most of the Teochews here resettled from other nearby areas in the Riau Archipelago, especially Tanjung Pinang (Bintan Island), Tanjung Balai (Karimun Island) and Tanjung Batu (Kundur Island). My maternal grandfather migrated from Teochew, China to Indonesia in the mid-20th century. He previously lived on Kundur island before he moved to Batam in 1988. He frequently conversed with my mother in Teochew at home, and this was how I got to learn to understand and speak Teochew.  

In Batam, many Chinese of my age can speak either Teochew or Hokkien. Besides conversing in our mother tongues at home, many local businesses advertise for employees who are fluent in these two vernaculars so that they are able to communicate with clients and colleagues. These give us both the environment and motivation to learn Teochew.


TTS: What special characteristic does the Teochew spoken in Batam have? How different is it from the Teochew spoken in other places and Singapore? While growing up, did you usually use Teochew to communicate with your family and your friends?

VL: The Teochew spoken in Batam has expressions borrowed from the Malay and Indonesian languages. It is virtually identical to the Teochew used in Singapore. Yet it is different from the Teochew heard in other areas in Indonesia, such as Pontianak.

Our schools teach Indonesian, English and Mandarin. In daily life, I mainly communicate with my friends in Indonesian and Mandarin. Although Teochew and Hokkien are mostly spoken in my family, I used to prefer to express myself in Mandarin. At that time, I did not understand the Teochew language well. Under the influence of movies and television dramas, I perceived Mandarin to be the lingua franca of the young, and Teochew as the language of the old, a language that is out of fashion.

It was only later that I joined a group called Gaginang on the social media platform Discord and discovered that, outside of Southeast Asia, there are also many Teochew communities based in the US and Europe. I began to spend my weekends chatting with Teochews from other countries. Because of the lockdowns during the Covid-19 pandemic, everyone became even more active online. As my knowledge of the Teochew identity and culture deepened, my interest in the Teochew language also grew. Nowadays I take the initiative to use Teochew to speak with my parents. Once when my aunt came to visit, I opened our conversation in Teochew and she was pleasantly surprised by my fluency. This gave me much pride and satisfaction.  

Image 2: Teochew GaSig founder Vivian Lee


TTS: What made you start Teochew GaSig? Your posts introduce Teochew phrases using traditional Chinese written characters, Teochew Peng’im, English, Indonesian and Mandarin. This requires a lot of effort. How long does it take for you to plan, produce and publish every post? Do you have a team behind you or support from any organisations? 

VL: In 2021, I realised that there was strong online interest among the young to learn Teochew and an idea popped out: “Why not use my spare time and social media to share the Teochew phrases and expressions I know, so that everyone has more materials to learn from?” This was how Teochew GaSig was born.

Presently, I maintain Teochew GaSig alone. In my initial posts, I only provided the Chinese written characters, phonetic notation, and pronunciation of each Teochew term. I subsequently added explanations in English, Indonesian and Mandarin, as well as example sentences, so that the learners have better ideas of what the terms mean and how to use them.

English and Mandarin are second languages to me. Even so, I try my best to translate in these two languages and approach friends who are more fluent in them for help. To ensure the accuracy of the annotations and pronunciations of each post, I turn to elders who speak Teochew well and also check the Teochew dictionaries. As the content increases, so does the time I need to spend to create every post. From planning to publishing, it now takes me about three to five days each time.  

 Image 3: Another Teochew GaSig post being created


TTS: Teochew GaSig has been around for two years now. Are you satisfied with the responses you have received so far?  What are the personal rewards you have gained during this time?

VL: I was worried at first that no one would read my posts. I was still in the university at the time and because my study load was quite heavy, I had to “squeeze” time to work on Teochew GaSig. This caused me to think of abandoning the project. However, friends online encouraged and supported me, and this gave me the courage to press on. For instance, someone feedbacked to me that through Teochew GaSig he developed an appreciation for Teochew culture and traditions, and this galvanised me. Now that I have graduated, I can devote more time to this project, to improve the contents and quality of my posts. My followers and readers have been steadily increasing and the progress has surpassed my original expectations.

Earlier in January this year, Nam Hwa Opera in Singapore invited me to be the Teochew language instructor for their musical “Who Says It First” (戲誰先說). Its story was set in a typical modern family in Singapore where the Chinese vernacular culture is being lost among the young. I travelled to Singapore and assisted them in translating the Teochew portions of the scripts and song lyrics, and instructed the actors on their lines in Teochew. Through this cooperation, I developed a clearer understanding of not only the Teochew language, but also the importance of passing it on within the family. Last year, I also registered myself on the “Dialect Classrooms” website to be a Teochew language teacher. Through Teochew GaSig, I opened a door to interact with fellow Teochews and communities from different countries. Developing new perspectives during these interactions, and growing through exploring, are my greatest rewards.


TTS: Have you visited Teochew in China, or do you plan to do so?

VL: I have not yet been to Teochew, China. My family has also lost contact with our relatives in Dengsua (唐山). But having learned so much more about the Teochew language and culture over the past few years, I am now filled with interest and curiosity about the place. My grandfather and grandmother came from Hong Ang village (宏安鄉) and Gim Sua village (金砂鄉) in Teo-Ann county. If I have the opportunity, I wish to visit these two places one day, to see for myself what they are like now.


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