News / Vancouver

Vancouver advocates aim to save Cantonese as language loses ground to Mandarin

More than 389,000 people in Canada speak Cantonese according to a 2012 Statistics Canada report but some in Vancouver worry the language is fading

Canadian-born Claudia Kelly Li and her seven-year old niece, Alanis Wong, both speak Cantonese but Li says elders should not shame the younger generation into learning Cantonese because it doesn’t work.

Jennifer Gauthier / Metro Order this photo

Canadian-born Claudia Kelly Li and her seven-year old niece, Alanis Wong, both speak Cantonese but Li says elders should not shame the younger generation into learning Cantonese because it doesn’t work.

Cantonese has been the most prevalent language spoken by the Chinese-immigrant community in Vancouver for decades but now advocates say the language is under threat.

More than 389,000 people in Canada speak Cantonese according to a 2012 Statistics Canada report but changes in immigration trends and pressure from the Chinese government to establish Mandarin, the national language, as the dominant tongue in Hong Kong is having a dire effect on the southern-Chinese language.

But there is hope among some academics and long-time Vancouver residents that the city can remain an outpost for the Cantonese language and culture.

“Language tends to be frozen by migration. If you leave some place, you tend to speak the language as it was spoken at the moment you left,” said Henry Yu, a UBC professor whose research focuses on Chinese-Canadian studies.

“That’s why there’s hope that in a place like this, if we have a Cantonese program, it can last a long time.”

UBC became the only university in Canada to offer a Cantonese program in 2015, thanks to a $2 million donation from the Watt brothers, who are long-time Vancouver residents and UBC donors.

At first in Vancouver, when they opened a Chinese school, they were taught in Cantonese, but now almost all have changed to Mandarin,” said Chi Shum Watt, who immigrated to Canada from Hong Kong in the '70s.

“I want to keep [Cantonese] alive, if possible.”

Watt, a retired accountant who lived in Vancouver’s westside for most of his life and now lives in the endowment lands, saw the change in migration and language firsthand.

More than 400,000 immigrants from mainland China, who mostly speak Mandarin, entered Canada between 1997 (the year of the handover of Hong Kong to China) and 2009, compared to only 50,000 immigrants from Hong Kong, according to Citizenship and Immigration Canada. This marks a significant change in migration patterns because in the 13 years before the handover, Hong-Kong immigrants outnumbered mainland China immigrants three to one.

This dramatic migration switch, coupled with the growing influence of China’s economy, where business is conducted in Mandarin, makes the preservation of Cantonese a lofty goal.

The heyday of Cantonese and Hong Kong’s influence in the world is over, said Yu.

“Hong Kong was the bastion in the 80s and 90s for Cantonese.”

The Chinese government has been successful in making Mandarin the dominant language in Hong Kong, he said.

“Within China it’s actually over the tipping point. Mandarin is the dominant language. It’s the language of power, it’s the language of education – it’s the language of civilization now.”

But Vancouver represents a unique opportunity for Cantonese immigrants and their children, who now live far away from the realities of Chinese politics. It’s possible Vancouver can become a last “outpost” for Cantonese, said Yu.

“Because of the large number of people who came in the 70s and 90s, who came from Hong Kong, are shaped by that moment in Hong Kong’s history where a sense of being of Hong Kong identity – of Cantonese at the heart of it – was so strong.”

At the direction of the Chinese government, schools in Hong Kong are starting to teach in Mandarin, which means that even new immigrants from Hong Kong often choose to speak Mandarin when they arrive in Vancouver. One of the only remaining sources of new Cantonese speakers is the offspring of Hong Kong immigrants and their children.

But some of those offspring are turned off by the pressures put onto them by their elders.

Claudia Kelly Li (shown here sitting with niece Alanis Wong) says language is an important way through which youth can connect with their heritage.

Jennifer Gauthier

Claudia Kelly Li (shown here sitting with niece Alanis Wong) says language is an important way through which youth can connect with their heritage.

“We can’t shame our young people about not being able to speak a certain language,” said 30-year old Claudia Li, who co-founded the Hua Foundation, an organization that aims to help Chinese-Canadian youth connect with their heritage.

“Yes it’s important to preserve Cantonese language and it’s important to understand how we can best do that with the interest that people have today.”

Li was born in Canada to parents who immigrated to Vancouver from Hong Kong in the 80s. Helping youth connect with their heritage with language, food, and traditions is her life’s work, she said.

But persuading Canadian youth to learn Cantonese when Mandarin is undoubtedly the more useful of the two languages is a battle few parents win, said Yu.

Li, who credits her Cantonese proficiency to her relatives who only speak Cantonese, agrees.

“If you grow up as a 2nd generation or 3rd generation Chinese-Canadian … a lot of my friends have chosen to learn Mandarin,” she said.

But there is hope because some youth continue to learn Cantonese, including both people whose parents or grandparents speak it and Mandarin-speakers who want to add Cantonese to their repertoire.

Students in UBC’s Cantonese program come from a wide variety of backgrounds, instructor Raymond Pai told Metro in June.

Watt, who made the program possible with his and his brother’s donation, acknowledged that UBC can only play a small role in the efforts to preserve Cantonese.

“It can never replace Hong Kong. If Hong Kong people start to speak Mandarin, then I think Cantonese will be gone in 20 years or so,” he said.

But if Cantonese can be preserved, it will happen in Vancouver, said Yu.

“I’m hopeful that [the program] gives us momentum and as people realize and think about what we’re talking about right now, that other people will step forward and say yes – this is worthwhile.” 

More on Metronews.ca