Last month, Singapore Idol was the talk of the town. In the week leading up to the final episode, I couldn’t get into a lift or a bus without overhearing “who do you think will win?” or “I prefer Taufik” or “Sly is a typical ah beng ah.” I’m not just saying this to protect my uber-cool image, but I didn’t really watch the show. OK, I saw one episode. Taufik was the better singer, IMHO, and deserved to win 🙂
Anyway, I started digging into the whole “ah beng” thing after hearing the term a couple of times and after Tracy told me she read it in a Straits Times reference to Sly. I had gotten the sense that it is not a flattering label, which is corroborated by the Coxford Singlish Dictionary:
“An unsophisticated Chinese boy, usually Hokkien. Stereotypically, he speaks gutter hokkien and likes neon-coloured clothes, spiky, moussed hair and accessories such as handphones or pagers, all of which are conspicuously displayed. He also likes to squat, even when a seat is available.”
“a no-nonsense simpleton stereotype that usually wears anything with bright-neon-colors like hand-phone, hair, car, etc. Available only in Singapore.”
When I encountered the term in the Straits Times, however, the context suggested Sly would not take offence. So I did what any dumb ang-mo would do: I asked a Singapore taxi driver.
He explained to me that ah-beng is simply a sort of style category that some people would apply pejoratively, others with pride. “Goth” or “dead head” are probably good linguistic and cultural equivalents. I asked him how I would spot an ah-beng in a crowd, and he said the hair would be the first thing to catch my eye. It would be a bit spikey on top, longish, and since many Chinese men can’t grow sideburns, he would have “borrowed” sideburns made by positioning some of his hair in front of his ears.
Interpolation: I’m caucasian, and I can’t manage sideburns either. Never tried the “borrowed” strategy though.
The second thing the taxi driver said I might see was a pair of flashy oversized sunglasses. Beyond that, he said the style of dress could be anything I might consider “slick”.
I also asked him about a female counterpart to the ah-beng, and he told me about “ah-lian”. When I asked what one of those looks like, he hesitated. “Harder to describe.”
“You know one when you see one?” I suggested.
“Corright. And usually she with an ah-beng lah.”