Thursday, November 05, 2009

The Changing Sound of Chinatown


I read an interesting report in the New York Times that could equally apply to the UK Chinese community.

Most bbcs are descended from a generation that migrated from Hong Kong in the 1960s and 70s, and many Chinatowns around the world were founded by migrants from Cantonese-speaking regions of South China as well as Hong Kong. Cantonese can therefore be regarded as the main language of the world's dispersed Chinese population.

But all that could be about to change as Chinese migration is now predominantly made up of Mandarin speakers and they naturally gravitate towards existing Chinese community hubs rather than generating their own. So bit by bit, Chinatowns around the world are becoming Mandarin-ized. This effect is already well under way in London's Chinatown as I'm sure many readers will have noticed.

For those of us who are Cantonese Chinese, there is a real and strange prospect of going to Chinatown one day and not understanding what half the Chinese people there are saying! Weird, huh?

Immigration reform in 1965 opened the door to a huge influx of Cantonese speakers from Hong Kong, and Cantonese became the dominant tongue. But since the 1990s, the vast majority of new Chinese immigrants have come from mainland China, especially Fujian Province, and tend to speak Mandarin along with their regional dialects.

“I can’t even order food on East Broadway,” said Jan Lee, 44, a furniture designer who has lived all his life in Chinatown and speaks Cantonese. “They don’t speak English; I don’t speak Mandarin. I’m just as lost as everyone else.”


Story: New York Times

Related: Memories fading, places changing

5 comments:

Simon said...

Awh man! I'm having a hard enough time trying to finally properly learn Cantonese (as someone who's been round English friends all their life), and now you're telling me that probably by the time I have learned it it'll probably be useless? Sigh.....

Ed said...

Luckily I learnt mandarin at school!:)

scp said...

I'm from Australia and lived in NZ, definitely happening in these countries.
I went to yum cha and the waters didn't know what a "har gao" was. I now speak English at yum cha! The ones who do understand cantonese are usually from Malaysia or the owners kids...though this is also changing.

So my experience of Chinese restaurants and Chinese stores is as foreign as the next whiteys!

cecilie said...

Oh no, oh no, people, don't give up on your Cantonese!!!!!

FORCE those Mandarin (an imperialist language if ever there was one) speakers to understand Cantonese, as many of them do when they move to Shenzhen or Hong Kong.
For more info about my life goal: To make Cantonese a world language, check out my videos on

www.youtube.com/cantocourse

The first film you come to is in Norwegian, disregard that and move on to the other 25 films, listed under "more from Cantocourse".

Let's stand up against the tyranny of Mandarin!!! And I'm Norwegian!

Anonymous said...

"For those of us who are Cantonese Chinese, there is a real and strange prospect of going to Chinatown one day and not understanding what half the Chinese people there are saying! Weird, huh?"

It is only strange if one doesn't see the situation from a wider perspective. The vast majority of "Cantonese Chinese" people are in fact in Guangdong, and they understand and speak Mandarin. If it wasn't for colonial British rule in Hong Kong keeping it in a bubble for over one hundred years and isolating it from the rest of Chinese society and culture, HK would now be just another part of Guangdong province and HK people would speak both the local/regional language and the national language just like all the other Chinese people in China.

"Most bbcs are descended from a generation that migrated from Hong Kong in the 1960s and 70s, and many Chinatowns around the world were founded by migrants from Cantonese-speaking regions of South China as well as Hong Kong. Cantonese can therefore be regarded as the main language of the world's dispersed Chinese population."

All one can say is that Cantonese is the language of the Chinese outside China who trace their ancestry to Guangdong and Hong
Kong, not that it's "the main language of the world's dispersed Chinese population.". The majority of the overseas Chinese are in fact in south east Asia. In countries like Malaysia, Indonesia etc speakers of other types of Chinese outnumber Cantonese speakers.


"FORCE those Mandarin (an imperialist language if ever there was one) speakers to understand Cantonese, as many of them do when they move to Shenzhen or Hong Kong."

I'm sure everyone knows that Shenzhen is a new city made up of people from all parts of China. And let's not forget that so called "Mandarin speakers" are also people who speak a local/regional variety of Chinese (e.g. Cantonese) as well as Mandarin.

I don't have any problems with having a national language, but China has gone too far in suppressing local/regional varieties of Chinese.