10 Singaporean Terms Our Japanese Stylists Have Learnt For Us

Published on Jun 08, 2020

While there are four main languages used in Singapore, the most spoken language of all is actually not any single one of them, but the happy fusion of them all called Singlish. And while people debate whether it actually is a language, the fact remains that it's the best way to talk to a Singaporean to help them feel comfortable and understood.

Our favourite hairstylists from Japan know that too, which is why - being from the hardworking culture that they are - they've made the effort to pick up some of our lingo and give their local clients the best possible customer experience. Some who have been in Singapore for many years have consciously absorbed it from their neighbours and colleagues, while even more have let their customers teach it to them, since they've becomne friends. After all, once everybody starts (accurately) throwing 'lahs' and 'lohs' around, we start to realise that whether Singaporean or Japanese, we're all pretty much on the same wavelength, and that it's not hard to connect at all. 

So while they might not (yet) be masters of Mandarin, Malay or Tamil, here are some demographic-transcending Singlish words or phrases that our favourite Japanese stylists have become very comfortable using.

1. OK lah!

OK lah is the first Singlish phrase I learnt from my customers 😆~ Chiho from Fluxus House @ Outram Park

'Okay' is a word understood in almost every culture. Of course, when in Singapore, it is often followed by 'ah', 'lor', 'hor', etc, but most often by 'lah'. Since 'lah' is used to express simplicity, or finality (eg 'just like that lah' or 'no more la'), 'Ok lah!' carries the meaning of  'Simply, no problems' or 'At the end of the day, everything is okay.' It's positive, decisive, and - while they might not actually use 'lah' in other contexts - happily adopted by our Japanese and Korean hairstylists themselves.

2. Shiok

My customers like to tell me that the hair wash here at Michaela is very shiok!The first time I heard Shiok, I thought they were saying that the massage is very Short...It's only later on that they told me that Shiok means Good.~ Kenta from Michaela Japanese Hair Salon @ Clarke Quay

The Oxford dictionary says it means 'enjoyable' and 'pleasing', but honestly, these don't come close to the all-encompassing pleasure that you are probably experiencing when you exclaim, 'Wah, shiok!'  Obviously our Japanese friends have picked up on this as well, and merrily use this term when reveling in the delights of Singapore.

3. Paiseh

This stems from the Hokkien word 'phai-se', meaning to feel embarrassed. Nowadays, Singaporeans use it to not just express embarassment, but as an apology for all kinds of things, ranging from being late to major screwups.

When customers come late or when they want to change their mind on colouring / treatment, customers will tend to tell us that they are very Paiseh.Now I'll tell them, No need paiseh! Just remember to come back can already. ~ Daisuke from HaLu Hair Design @ River Valley 

4. Makan

This Malay word for 'eat' has been co-opted by all of Singapore, and stylists often hear this term from the hawker centres, restaurants and cafes near their salon. Now, these hawker centres, restaurants and cafes hear the term back from the stylists too.

Sometimes, my customers will ask me, "You makan already?"To know that my customers care about me really warms my heart!- Keisuke from COVO Hair Salon @ Katong
I love it when people ask me if I 'makan already' because 'makan makan' sounds so cute! I also learned that people use 'makan' to refer to both 'eat' or 'food'.- Ryu from Flamingo Hair Studio @ Tiong Bahru / Tanjong Pagar

5. Dabao

Since Singapore is a food paradise, and it would make no sense to live here and not learn all the ways to enjoy our island's ecstasy-inducing eats. So it's natural that stylists would have mastered this colloquial Mandarin term for 'takeaway'.

Some of my customers are so nice that they will ask me if I want them to help dabao some food before starting the appointment!- Shuji from S.A.D's Hair Design @ River Valley

6. Sian

This is a word that describes boredom or annoyance, and could have Hokkien origins, or be derived from the Malay word 'kesian' which translates loosely to 'poor thing'. It's often used when you have nothing to do, when you get tasked to do something you don't want to do and when something doesn't work out the way you want it to. And since hairstylists also serve as listening ears for both the good and not-so-good times in their customers' lives, they understand this term very well by now. Rest assured that your complaints about lousy days are not falling on deaf ears!

I hear this word a lot when customers vent about their frustrations at work or with their partners 🤭- Shuji from S.A.D's Hair Design @ River Valley

7. Atas

In Malay, 'atas' means 'above'. But when it entered the Singlish vocabulary, it became 'high class'. It's used to describe expensive tastes, rich people or, in general, high SES. Customers might use this to describe a look they're going for, or salons with a posher vibe.

Ah, we've heard many customers say that Branche is very atas. I wasn't sure what that meant, so was really happy to hear that they liked coming here!~ Kai from Branche Japanese Hair Salon
Luxury Treatment at Branche Hair Salon

Branche Japanese Hair Salon

8. Alamak

This Malay exclamation is used to express shock or dismay. Its uses are wide-ranging, usable from when you drop something, to when it sinks in that sh*t has really hit the fan. Again, a term stylists would hear a lot when clients are sharing their personal tales during the hair service.

I didn't understand this at first, but after hearing many customers use it when telling me stories, I quickly understood the meaning and started using it myself!- Chiho from Fluxus House @ Outram Park

9. No nee

Every accent and culture has certain vowels and/or consonants that they drop during casual conversations, such as the American Midwestern 'Y'all' instead of 'You all', or Japan's 'Famima' instead of 'Family Mart'. For some of us Singlish speakers, the equivalent is saying  'no poblem' instead of 'no poblem' and - as some Japanese stylists notice - 'no nee' instead of 'no need'! These stylists have now happily co-opted the possibly mispronunciation. After all, why tire your tongue out with an extra consonant when there is no nee?

At first I thought it was strange and made me giggle a little. But now I'm also using the phrase, and I notice that it makes customers feel familiar and happy!- Chiho from Fluxus House @ Outram Park

10. Jalan 

While this is a Malay word that means 'walk', most of Singapore now uses it to also refer to a leisurely, pleasurable excursion. And since a trip to the salon should be part of a lovely relaxing day, customers often tell stylists that their pre or post-haircut activities include 'jalan jalan'. If you're one of these, feel free to ask your stylist for recommendations on where near the salon to go for your 'jalan'!

Some of my customers say that they like to jalan jalan before coming to do their hair, so now I even ask some of them where they are going to jalan next!- Keisuke from COVO Hair Salon @ Katong

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