From ‘Petition to remove Chinese helicopter from Oxford English Dictionary’, 28 May 2016, article by Leong Weng Kam, ST
Freelance writer and translator Goh Beng Choo has launched an online petition to have the term “Chinese helicopter” removed from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). She and the 185 other like-minded Singaporeans who had signed the petition as of 10pm yesterday say that the term – used in the 1970s and 1980s to describe a Chinese-educated person who spoke and pronounced English poorly – is degrading and insulting.
…The dictionary itself defined “Chinese helicopter” as being a derogatory term for a Singaporean whose schooling was conducted in Mandarin Chinese and who has limited knowledge of English….The term appears to have been derived from a mispronunciation of “Chinese-educated”.
Madam Goh and those who signed the petition are not the only ones upset. Former civil servant and National Institute of Education lecturer Tan Teng Lang e-mailed OED’s world English editor Danica Salazar asking for the term’s removal.
In her e-mail on Friday, seen by The Straits Times, Ms Tan, who now lives in Canada, said the term “had long degenerated into a label that equated Chinese-educated Singaporeans with inferior quality and low status in society. It was blatantly intended to belittle, humiliate and demean someone on the basis of his less fluent command of English“.
She added: ” ‘Chinese helicopter’ is unequivocally a painful reminder of their long and difficult struggle to find their rightful place and dignity in the Singapore society. Fortunately, by the 1980s, this highly derisive term had mostly lapsed into disuse with the closure of Chinese schools. Not many younger generation Singaporeans have heard of ‘Chinese helicopter’, much less understand its meaning. My friends and I are therefore shocked and saddened that an almost forgotten Singlish term now resurfaces in the OED, rubbing salt into an old wound that never healed.”
Another Singlish term added to the OED also supposedly reeks of insensitivity and discrimination but so far nobody has filed a petition about it: Ang Moh (Caucasian) . Until the OED decided to make some Singlish words official, including the inexplicable ‘WAH’, ‘Chinese helicopter’ was an obscure, rarely-uttered term familiar only to Singlish scholars. Now that some people want it banned for good, they’ve unwittingly cemented it in our lingua franca.
The New Paper explains that ‘helicopter’ originated from the local book Army Daze, in which a Chinese-educated recruit mispronounced ‘educated’ as ‘helucated’, though I never heard it uttered once during my NS days. I knew what ‘bayi’ (derogatory term for Singhs) and ‘abnn’ (derogatory to Indians) were though, and those seemed more racist and insensitive than describing someone untrained in the English tongue as a flying military machine. Without further elaboration I would have thought that ‘Chinese helicopter’ referred to a specific position in the Kama Sutra only for advanced practitioners. Or, literally, a description of the quality of an actual helicopter. Just like how people use ‘Malaysian’ to imply reckless drivers, or ‘German’ (gas) to describe farts.
The uglier flipside of a ‘Chinese helicopter’ is calling someone a Chinese ‘chauvinist’, often used to label annoying Opposition candidates who play the race card during elections, short of comparing them to ‘Chinese’ Nazis. These days, Chinese Singaporeans with an obsessive flair for Mandarin are admired and valued in society, regardless of their grasp of the English language. It is our mother tongue after all. So, if your English sucks but you’re badass at calligraphy or can memorise Romance of the Three Kingdoms by heart, you really shouldn’t be too upset about being called a ‘Chinese helicopter’. Just like how I embrace being called ‘jiak kantang’ (Chinese but English-speaking). I doubt the predominantly English-speaking among us would call out the OED for ‘rubbing salt on an old wound’ if they decide to list ‘jiak kantang’ (literally potato-eating) or the inflammatory ‘banana’ (yellow outside but white inside).
In fact, there already exists a Singlish term that has similar meaning as Chinese helicopter but far catchier: Cheena.