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Cantonese kowtows to Mandarin as the people’s language

L.A. Times-Washington Post News Service

LOS ANGELES – Carson Hom’s family has run a fortune cookie and almond cookie company in Los Angeles County for 35 years.For much of that time, the business 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 a food import company, he learned that this bilingualism wasn’t enough.”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 dominated 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 Cantonese and the pioneering Cantonese families who ran Chinatowns for years.The surging Chinese economy further has challenged Cantonese. Because Mandarin is China’s official language, entrepreneurs like Hom have been forced to adapt, learning the hard way that business can’t be done in Cantonese alone.Many Cantonese speakers are racing to learn Mandarin – by watching Chinese soap operas, attending schools, paying for immersion courses and making more Mandarin-speaking friends. 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. Some are lamenting the end of an era. Mandarin is now the vernacular of choice, and it doesn’t come close to the colorful 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 the Cantonese language KMRB-AM (1430), which serves major U.S. cities. “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 made Mandarin the national language to bridge the dialects across the country. Since then, the government has been working to simplify the language, renamed “Putonghua.” To die-hard Cantonese, this is one more reason to look down on Mandarin.Many say it is more difficult to learn Cantonese than Mandarin because the former does not always adhere to rules. Image-rich slang 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. “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,” because Chinese beef jerky is thin and rectangular, like a parking ticket. “Teo bao” (“too full”) describes someone who is uber-trendy, so hip he or she is going to explode.There are curse words, in abundance. 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, said, “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. 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 add a dramatic “ahhhhhhh” or “laaaaaaa” at the end. Something like, “Let’s go” becomes “C’mon, lets get a move on!” when it’s capped with “laaaaa.”By comparison, in Mandarin, 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, affectionately, to call someone crazy. The Mandarin equivalent to Cantonese people sounds like “you have a brain malfunction that has rendered your behavior unusual.”Some Cantonese speakers are feeling besieged.Cheryl Li, a Pasadena City College student whose parents are from Hong Kong, is studying to become an occupational therapist and volunteers at Garfield Medical Center in Monterey Park, where most 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, “No! I was born here. But I understand enough.”There are places where Cantonese is protected and cherished.At a Chinese restaurant in Monterey Park, members of the Hong Kong Schools Alumni Federation gathered for a monthly meeting of the group, a sanctuary for people who take comfort eating and joking with fellow Cantonese speakers.”I just can’t express myself as freely in Mandarin,” said Victor Law, a pharmacist 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.”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 president Amy Yeung announced that members could walk the red carpet at an Asian film festival, the room erupted in unison in the way a Cantonese person expresses astonishment: “Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!”Many Cantonese speakers are finding that they have to learn Mandarin or be left behind. 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, Lim realized that 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 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. Lim recently spoke at a graduation ceremony in California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, for government officials from central China.Lim thought it went well. But the leader of the Chinese delegation had a more reserved review: “It’s much better than most Cantonese-speaking people.”


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