Dinengdeng & Pinakbet

Da Queen’s Pidgin

Gilbert S.C. Keith-Agaran

I recently saw some ads for the Hawai‘i Comedy Legends Tour—one stop for O.G.s Andy Bumatai, Frank DeLima and Augie Tulba will be the Maui Arts and Cultural Center on July 26th at the Castle Theater.

It’s a tough thing but Filipino accents are back.

Sure, some people think an exaggerated impersonation of your Apo from Ilocos makes a person sound ignorant who should be treated with respect. Accents, others argue, confuse customers and salespeople who have to ask you to repeat yourself (try tell that to the Starbucks barrista who scrawls my name as “Bill”, “Gill”, “Gayle”, “Joe” or “Jill”). Accents simply brand you as an outsider. A newcomer. An immigrant.

Comedian Augie T (center) with Let’s Talk Pinoy! columnist Dulce Karen Butay and entertainer Martin Nievera in 2010.
Photo courtesy Dulce Karen Butay

The same detractors insist if you can’t say “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” in proper English, you can forget about singing it on American Idol.

But frankly, a lot of some people’s disenchantment with Filipino accents has to do with the inability to do it right.

I admit it. An FBI and I lack the skilz.

I occasionally listen to Andy Bumatai’s The Daily Pidgin podcast and Augie T.’s Honolulu City Council meetings on ‘Ōlelo. Now those two do pretty good Filipino accents. You’d think they were really Filipino. You can’t help admiring the way they mimic older immigrant men who stretch out their English words with generous sprinklings of “boy,” emphasize the wrong syllable or replace all “F” sounds with “P”s.

Just four Filipino attorneys: Gil Coloma-Agaran (from left), then-Lt. Gov. Benjamin Cayetano, Alfredo G. Evangelista, Wilfredo Tungol at the wedding of another Filipino lawyer Ferdinand “Danny” Aranza circa 1991.
Photo courtesy Alfredo Evangelista

When you’re a local-born Filipino, it frankly sucks if you can’t do a decent Filipino accent.

First, it limits the range of jokes you can tell. When you can use a Filipino accent, any joke becomes a laugh riot. The audience simply loves hearing the sing-song cadence of the yardman. Even that noted ethnic slurer Frank DeLima can seem funny when he parodies a Christmas Carol reciting fine Filipino Fusion Cuisine names (Macadangdang) and near racistly tinged dishes (e.g., black dog, billy goat).

For example, you know the one—little Eban was asked by the teacher to use the word “hostess” in a sentence. Eban said, “De telep’one she rring-rring. I say, ‘Hello, hostess?’ ”

State Senate President Ronald Kouchi, Father John Tomoso+, a local Filipino lawyer who went to college on the mainland, Good Shepherd Episcopal Church Warden K. Peter Lee at the 2015 Barrio Fiesta.
Photo: Alfredo Evangelista

Second, a good Filipino accent shows pride in your heritage. Only true Filipinos know how more dignified GAH-ber-nay-dor Cayetano and MA-your Bissen sound than plain Ben or Judge.

Third, when you go to Church, you want to hear the liturgy in the old tongue. Once you’ve heard a Catholic Mass or the Eucharist in a Filipino accent, you can never go back. If you can’t handle a Filipino accent, you can lose your place in service or mis-time your responses.

It’s an acute problem for folks who go away for school and limits our prospects for gainful employment and opportunities when returning home from seeing America.

A local Filipino Lawyer who went to school on the mainland at the 2015 Barrio Fiesta behind a part of the Good Shepherd Episcopal Church Bahay Kubo display.
Photo: Gil Keith-Agaran

When I moved back to Maui after law school, some people simply assumed I must have been raised on the mainland. And that prejudice occurs, I fear, because I can’t do a Filipino or local accent.

And believe you me, I had a fine command of Maui pidgin as a kid. Let me point out it wasn’t your upcountry Portagee pidgin but authentic Plantation Camp relocated to the increments talk. After all, I was a Pā‘ia boy. Wandering Skill Village and Orpheum camps before moving to Luna Lane in Lower Pā‘ia behind Charlie’s Juice Stand, sneaking into Augie’s pool hall, reading comic books at Nagata store, begging for bait from Bersamin’s Fish Market. I grew up with pidgin as my mother tongue.

My family gave me all the support I needed. After all, upon retiring from the Hilton Hawaiian, my grandfather decided to give up English—and a fluent pidgin to boot. He did English only when he couldn’t avoid it. Doctor’s appointments. Talking to our neighbors while grooming their fighting chickens.

Mayor Richard Bissen, Jr. at the 55th Annual Barrio Fiesta on Saturday night.
Photo: Alfredo Evangelista

My sister and I would have complete conversations with him speaking Ilokano and us responding in the Queen’s pidgin.

Even in high school you had to talk local if you wanted to fit in. You couldn’t eat lunch behind the Maui High library if you should have been playing chess on the tables between C Building … unless you could talk local. Then you could move between both worlds.

But I made the mistake of going away to the mainland for college. That put me out of practice for seven years before I came home and I’ve paid for it (my classmates from Hawai‘i were an ‘Iolani grad, a Punahou swimmer and a military brat out of Radford). At least in law school, a future Hawai‘i Supreme Court Justice classmate was an unrepentant surfer with the best local accent.

Spending time away from Hawai‘i changes how you talk. My best friend joined the Air Force and developed a twang from basic training and postings in the South. Another ended in the Midwest and only lapses into the cadence of local talk when he’s home. A third ended in Los Angeles and he, like me, sounds more like a recently arrived haole when he attempts to speak pidgin. Better not even try.

Rodrigo Domingo, one of the J-1 teachers, hosted the 55th Annual Barrio Fiesta on Friday night.
Photo: Alfredo Evangelista

The lucky guys are those who went to schools with plenty of local kids (like UNLV in the accurately nicknamed Ninth Island). They can move effortless between pidgin and proper English.

But I had assumed the tide may be turning in favor of guys like me. After almost a hundred years of Filipinos in Hawai‘i, it was getting safe to drop the accent.

Maui is more and more an English Standard island. Along with getting the SUV, shopping at big box stores, wearing mainland style clothes and eating fast food, we put away local things like plate lunches (too expensive) and saimin (get ramen and udon now). With more and more teachers being hired from mainland colleges, our kids have no choice but to conform. If you want to be understood, you gotta drop the accent. If we want to be taken seriously, we need to talk like mainlanders.

After all, this is America. We got a mainland native living in Washington Place again. If you want to make it on American Idol, you can’t have a Filipino accent.

But there is a deep state conspiracy against us. Over the last couple of years, the Department of Education has been recruiting teachers from the Philippines—and that undoubtedly will lay the foundation to influence the next generation and perpetuate the insidious prejudice against English Standard speaking.

Gilbert S.C. Keith-Agaran grew up in Pā‘ia. He practices law full time in Wailuku after leaving elected office in November 2023. He speaks a pidgin Ilokano and no Taglish.