In a restaurant in Singapore’s Little India district I chatted recently with a man doling out bowls of fish-head curry. He called me a “mat saleh,” Malay for ‘white foreigner.’ He dubbed a woman who walked past us an “S.P.G.” a ‘Sarong Party Girl.’ Upper-crust Singaporians who put on posh accents were “chiak kantang.” “Chiak” is Hokkien for ‘eating,’ “kantang” a mangling of the Malay for ‘potatoes.’ ‘Eating potatoes’: affecting Western mannerisms. Singapore has four official tongues Mandarin, English, Malay, and Tamil. At street level, though, none of these takes precedence. Neither does the Hokkien dialect, spoken by many older Chinese. The city-state’s functioning language is actually Singlish, a much-loved, much-frowned-upon hodge-podge of dialects and slang. When the man asked if I could pay for the meal with a smaller bill, he expressed it this way: “Got, lah?” I recognized that bit of language cobbling. In Hong Kong, where I was then living, Cantonese speakers sprinkle their English with similar punctuation. ‘Lah’ often denotes a question, like ‘eh’ for Canadians. ‘Wah’ infers astonishment. Once, when I was walking through that city’s nightclub district with a Chinese friend, we nearly knocked into a Canto-pop star, a young man of smouldering Elvis looks. “Wah, now can die!” my friend said, only half-jokingly.