Cantonese Is Losing Its Voice

Times Staff Writer

Carson Hom’s family has run a thriving fortune cookie and almond cookie company in Los Angeles County for 35 years.

And for much of that time, it was a business that required two languages: Cantonese, to communicate with employees and the Chinese restaurants that bought the cookies, and English, to deal with health inspectors, suppliers and accountants.

But when Hom, 30, decided to start his own food import company, he learned that this bilingualism wasn’t enough anymore.


He checked out the competition at a recent Chinese products fair in the San Gabriel Valley and found that he couldn’t get much further than “hello” in conversing with vendors.

“I can’t communicate,” said Hom, whose parents are from Hong Kong. “Everyone around used to speak Cantonese. Now everyone is speaking Mandarin.”

Cantonese, a sharp, cackling dialect full of slang and exaggerated expressions, was never the dominant language of China. But it came to dominate the Chinatowns of North America because the first immigrants came from the Cantonese-speaking southern province of Guangdong, where China first opened its ports to foreigners centuries ago.

It is also the chief language of Hong Kong, the vital trading and financial center that became China’s link to the West.

But over the last three decades, waves of Mandarin-speaking mainland Chinese and Taiwanese immigrants have diluted the influence of both the Cantonese language and the pioneering Cantonese families who ran Chinatowns for years.

The surging Chinese economy today has challenged Cantonese further. Because Mandarin is China’s official language, entrepreneurs like Hom have been forced to adapt, often learning the hard way that business can’t be done with Cantonese alone.


Many Cantonese speakers are racing to learn Mandarin any way they can -- by watching Chinese soap operas, attending schools, paying for expensive immersion courses and even making more Mandarin-speaking friends. This is no cinch. Although Cantonese and Mandarin share the same written language, they are spoken as differently as English and French.

At the same time, few people are learning Cantonese. San Jose State University and New York University offer classes, but they are almost alone among colleges with established Cantonese communities. The language is not taught at USC, UCLA, Pasadena City College, San Francisco State or Queens College in New York, to name a few.

With the changes, some are lamenting -- in ways they can do only in Cantonese -- the end of an era. Mandarin is now the vernacular of choice, and they say it doesn’t come close to the colorful and brash banter of Cantonese.

“You might be saying, ‘I love you’ to your girlfriend in Cantonese, but it will still sound like you’re fighting,” said Howard Lee, a talk show host on Cantonese language KMRB-AM (1430). “It’s just our tone. We always sound like we’re in a shouting match. Mandarin is so mellow. Cantonese is strong and edgy.”


Cantonese is said to be closer than Mandarin to ancient Chinese. It is also more complicated. Mandarin has four tones, so a character can be intonated four ways with four meanings. Cantonese has nine tones.

Beginning in the 1950s, the Chinese government tried to make Mandarin the national language in an effort to bridge the myriad dialects across the country. Since then, the government has been working to simplify the language, renamed Putonghua, and give it a proletarian spin. To die-hard Cantonese, no fans of the Communist government, this is one more reason to look down on Mandarin.


Many say it is far more difficult to learn Cantonese than Mandarin because the former does not always adhere to rules and formulas. Image-rich slang litters the lexicon and can leave anyone ignorant of the vernacular out of touch.

“You have to really listen to people if you want to learn Cantonese,” said Gary Tai, who teaches the language at New York University and is also a principal at a Chinese school in Staten Island. “You have to watch movies and listen to songs. You can’t learn the slang from books.”

Popular phrases include the slang for getting a parking ticket, which in Cantonese is “I ate beef jerky,” probably because Chinese beef jerky is thin and rectangular, like a parking ticket. And teo bao (literally “too full”) describes someone who is uber-trendy, so hip he or she is going to explode.

Many sayings are coined by movie stars on screen. Telling someone to chill out, comedian Stephen Chow says: “Drink a cup of tea and eat a bun.”

Then there are the curse words, and what an abundance there is.

A four-syllable obscenity well known in the Cantonese community punctuates the end of many a sentence.

“I think we all agree that curse words in Cantonese just sound better,” said Lee, the radio host. “It’s so much more of a direct hit on the nail. In Mandarin, they sound so polite.”

His colleague, news broadcaster Vivian Lee, chimed in to clarify that the curse words were not vindictive.


“It’s not that Cantonese people are less educated. They’re very well educated. The language is just cute and funny. It doesn’t hurt anyone,” said Lee, who does the news show on the station five days a week. “The Italians need body language. We don’t need that at all. We have adjectives.”

To stress a point or to twist a sentence into a question, Cantonese speakers need only add a dramatic ahhhhhhh or laaaaaaa at the end.

Something simple like, “Let’s go” becomes “C’mon, lets get a move on!” when it’s capped with laaaaa.

By comparison, with Mandarin from China, what you see is what you get. The written form has been simplified by the Chinese government so that characters require fewer strokes. It is considered calmer and more melodic.

Take the popular Cantonese expression chi-seen, which means your wires have short-circuited. It is used, often affectionately, to call someone or something crazy. The Mandarin equivalent comes off to Cantonese people sounding like “You have a brain malfunction that has rendered your behavior unusual.”

The calm tones of Mandarin are heard more and more around Southern California’s Chinese community.

Even quintessential Hong Kong-style restaurants, including wonton noodle shops, now have waitresses who speak Mandarin, albeit badly, so they can take orders. Elected officials in Los Angeles County, even native Cantonese, are holding news conferences in Mandarin.


Some Cantonese speakers feel besieged.

Cheryl Li, a 19-year-old Pasadena City College student whose parents are from Hong Kong, is studying to become an occupational therapist and volunteers at the Garfield Medical Center in Monterey Park, where most of the patients are Chinese.

Recently, she was asking patients, in Mandarin, what they wanted to eat. When one man thought her accent was off, he said, “Stupid second-generation Chinese American doesn’t speak Mandarin.”

Li responded angrily, “No! I was born here. But I understand enough.”

“We’re in the minority,” she added, reflecting on the incident. “I’m scared Cantonese is going to be a lost language.”

Still, Li is studying Mandarin.


There are places where Cantonese is protected and cherished.

At a cavernous Chinese seafood restaurant in Monterey Park, members of the Hong Kong Schools Alumni Federation gathered in a back room to munch on stir-fried scallops, pork offal soup and spare ribs.

It was a regular monthly meeting of the group and a sanctuary for Hong Kong Chinese people who take comfort eating and joking with fellow Cantonese speakers.

“I just can’t express myself as freely in Mandarin,” said Victor Law, an accountant who left Hong Kong to attend college in the U.S. 34 years ago. “That’s why we have this association. I feel like we’re the last of a dying breed.”


For Law, it’s not just the language but many Cantonese traditions that are on the decline. He says it’s now hard to find a mah-jongg game that uses Hong Kong rules instead of Taiwanese rules, a distinction concerning how many tiles are used.

“I’m not ready to be a dinosaur,” said Amy Yeung, president of the alumni group.

To the trained ear, it was instantly apparent that this was a gathering of Cantonese speakers. The room was deafeningly loud with everyone talking. Even serious discussions were punctuated with wise cracks.

When Yeung announced that members could get seats and walk the red carpet at an Asian film festival, the room erupted in unison in the most common way a Cantonese person expresses astonishment.


Near the end of the night, Yeung had important news. A mother in Hong Kong called to say she was moved to tears by a scholarship the federation had given to her daughter to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“She told me to tell you all, ‘Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I didn’t know there were such good people in the world,’ ” Yeung said.


The room fell silent for a moment. Sensing the awkwardness and, God forbid, self-congratulatory tone of the story, Law blurted, “Does she know how to cook?”

Everyone laughed and another successful meeting came to an end.


The alumni association can afford to lament. Many of them speak Mandarin already. But many Cantonese speakers are finding out now that they have to learn Mandarin or risk being left behind in business or even within their families.

To learn Mandarin, Joyce Fong sits in her favorite black leather massage chair in front of her living room TV and goes through Chinese soap operas on DVD. Some are about ancient Chinese dynasties. Others focus on the story of a single mother. And a few are South Korean programs dubbed into Mandarin.

The 67-year-old retiree says she has to pick up the language if she hopes to be able to communicate with her 9- and 5-year-old grandsons in China.

The boys had been living with their parents in the Bay Area, but the family decided to move to China a year ago so that Fong’s son, Gregory, could take a job at a university and also raise his children immersed in Chinese culture.

Although the grandchildren will also speak English, they will primarily use Mandarin at school, Fong said.


“I want to encourage them. I tell them, ‘Grandma is trying to learn Mandarin too,’ ” said Fong, who immigrated to the U.S. from Hong Kong 53 years ago and is socially involved in L.A. Chinatown through her family association.

Walnut City Councilman Joaquin Lim grew up in Hong Kong and immigrated to the U.S. in the 1960s. For decades in California, he found he could get by with English and Cantonese.

But that changed when he decided to get into politics a decade ago.

Running for the school board in his suburban community, Lim quickly realized that most of his Chinese constituents in the eastern San Gabriel Valley were newcomers who didn’t speak Cantonese.

So Lim had his Mandarin friends speak to him in their mother tongue. He watched movies in Mandarin and listened to Mandarin songs. By the time he ran for City Council in 1995, he felt comfortable enough with the language to campaign door-to-door and talk to Mandarin residents.

But there’s always room for improvement -- as Mandarin speakers are quick to remind him when he gives speeches. A few months ago, he was speaking to the Chinese language media at a news conference announcing a task force to improve health standards in Chinese restaurants.

As he spoke in Mandarin, fellow task force member Anthony Wong interrupted him in mid-sentence to correct his grammar.


The ethnic Chinese reporters chuckled, acknowledging that his Mandarin was a work in progress.

Lim recently spoke at a graduation ceremony in Cal Poly Pomona for government officials from central China who took a four-week course in American administrative practices.

Lim thought it went well. But the leader of the Chinese delegation had a slightly more reserved review: “It’s much better than most Cantonese-speaking people.”