SinGweesh on Wednesday: Shiok already?
by Gwee Li Sui
Some time back, I was asked to guest-star in a TV reality game show from India. (Yea, dun play-play!) It felt kinda like The Amazing Race, and I was based at a pit stop as a celebrity Singlish professor. My task was to introduce contestants to a list of Singlish words and then get them to give a performance by incorporating some of them.
But, you know, a few hours only, how can, right? Naturally, there were a lot of boo-boos lor. “Singaporean women are so beautiful!” one contestant announced blurly. “They are all so shiok!” The audience went silent; jaws dropped. It so happened that another expression on my list was “cannot make it”. This was a classic case of that.
People, please dun anyhow-anyhow! I dunno what the media or STB or some agency has been telling innocent visitors to Singapore, but “shiok” is a fun word that’s also loaded. Sure, we use it to describe dining, shopping, and sporting experiences and basically anything we enjoy, but the word doesn’t mean satisfying only. It doesn’t just mean delicious or soothing or happy or what have you. “Shiok” carries a relation to carnal appetite and, as such, has a hovering sexual connotation.
This was why, when Austin Powers 2 came to Singapore back in 1999, its longer title was changed from The Spy Who Shagged Me to The Spy Who Shioked Me. That was a stroke of marketing genius! With one word, the film placated the censors and yet kept the original sense of the word “shagged”. And note too that we dun use “shiok” as a verb: no Singlish speaker says “I want to shiok you!” This verb form was therefore sibei creative as it further signalled a foreign use for what was indeed an angmo filim (not film).
Back to my reality game show story. The reason why the contestant’s use is salah is exactly the same reason why the use by Austin Power 2 is tok kong. “Shiok” ought not to be used on people or, for that matter, living things – unless, eeeee, you do mean that you’ve been given that kind of ultimate pleasure.
Dun get me wrong: by all means, say “The laksa is shiok!” or “Zumba makes me feel shiok!” or “Mad Max: Fury Road is one shiok movie!” In these, the sexual meaning is latent but can help to enrich the sense of ecstasy that is the point. At the same time, we should be careful with supporting generalisations that talk cock about Singaporeans like how we aren’t interested in sex. Kong simi? Our basic sense of pleasure – in eating, playing, whatever – is tied up with it linguistically!
Indeed, with lines like “The massage over there is so shiok”, we see how slippery this word can be. All that clarifies innocence here is the speaker’s facial expression. Say it with an expression of exaggerated ease or sublimity, and it just means “The massage is excellent”. But say it with a naughty chee ko pek look, and you may well get that salon raided by the vice squad.
– Gwee Li Sui is a poet, a graphic novelist, and a lite-ra-rary critic who also likes to talk cock sing song. This is a weekly series.
Feature Photo screencapped from SG shiok Youtube