A new accent in Chinatown

Mandarin begins displacing Cantonese as dialect of choice

Eric Zhou is learning Mandarin in an afterschool program at Kwong Kow Chinese School in Chinatown. Eric Zhou is learning Mandarin in an afterschool program at Kwong Kow Chinese School in Chinatown. (Globe Staff Photo / Michele McDonald)
By Maria Sacchetti
Globe Staff / February 26, 2009
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The little boy answered the teacher's question in perfect Cantonese, which until recently would have earned him praise at the Kwong Kow Chinese School in Boston's Chinatown.

But the teacher shook her head.

"No," said Catherine Lui, peering at the boy over her eyeglasses as he stared up at her from the front row. "You have to use Mandarin."

Say hello - or better yet, ni hao - to Chinatown's rapidly expanding language, Mandarin. The official language of mainland China is sweeping into Cantonese-speaking enclaves across the United States, the result of increased immigration from across China and an urgent push by parents to teach children the language of one of the world's most powerful nations.

China's growing global clout, already inspiring suburban parents of varying backgrounds to enroll their children in Mandarin classes, is now looming large over tiny Chinatown, where 9,000 people are squeezed into a bustling neighborhood of shops, red-brick tenements, and narrow, winding streets. Mandarin is being heard everywhere, on subway platforms, under the blow dryers at hair salons, and at the 93-year-old Kwong Kow School.

Even longtime activists are trying to learn snippets of Mandarin so they can help newcomers.

"The Chinese are learning Chinese; that's the difference," said Gilbert Ho, president of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association of New England, who speaks Cantonese but is learning Mandarin to serve more clients. "It's time to catch up."

The gradual shift toward Mandarin is creating quiet concerns in Chinatown, where the Cantonese dialect still rules. The written languages are the same, but the pronunciations are dramatically different. Some worry about weakening children's ability to communicate with grandparents back home.

Others say it is reviving old tensions over class differences. For decades, working-class Cantonese speakers who followed a chain of relatives from Southern China to Boston to work in factories, laundromats, and restaurants tended to have less education and were poorer than other Chinese immigrants who settled more recently in the suburbs, where Mandarin was more widely spoken.

"There's a little bit of resentment toward Mandarin becoming more important - 'Oh, the Mandarin speakers have the money, the Mandarin speakers have the education, now the Mandarin speakers are taking over our school, too,' " said Peter Kiang, director of the Asian American Studies Program at UMass-Boston, citing concerns he has heard in the community.

Still, Kiang said, he supports teaching Mandarin, and most in Chinatown are embracing the shift.

"Everyone just realizes that Mandarin is the language of the 21st century," he said.

Chinatown's increasing openness toward Mandarin is the latest in a series of cultural shifts for the neighborhood viewed as the cultural hub for Chinese immigrants statewide. It was founded in the 1870s, mainly by immigrants who spoke the Toisanese dialect, which predominates around Taishan, a city in the coastal Guangdog Province. Cantonese speakers began dominating the neighborhood after immigration reforms in the 1960s lifted restrictions on immigration.

Mandarin's influence in Chinatown has intensified in the past five years, transforming language schools, businesses, and nonprofits.

Mandarin speakers now make up a third of the kindergartners and first-graders at the Josiah Quincy Elementary School, up from hardly any five years ago. At the Asian American Civic Association, across from the Buddha statue on Tyler Street, 23 percent of the clients who enrolled in English classes and other services last year spoke Mandarin, up from 17 percent five years earlier.

At the Kwong Kow Chinese School, 53 percent of students are learning Mandarin since classes began four years ago.

"Parents wanted their kids to learn Mandarin," said chairwoman Helen Chin Schlichte, who learned Toisanese at the school in the 1940s, a class the school no longer offers. "Take a look at what they're teaching in the public school system. It's Mandarin, not Cantonese."

In class one recent day, the mostly Cantonese-speaking students said Mandarin can be tough. The written characters are the same, but the pronunciation is different. "Hello" in Cantonese sounds like lei ho, but in Mandarin it is ni hao.

The students faltered at first when the teacher, Lui, asked them to recite vocabulary words such as smart, game, and cistern, on the board.

By the third try, the students' voices grew stronger.

"Good!" Lui said in English, giving a thumbs-up sign.

Terry Yang, a 12-year-old who came to the United States in 2003, said Mandarin was a little hard.

"I can't sound it out really correctly," he said.

But his mother insisted that he learn it, for his future.

"When I grow up, I want to open a company, and it will connect to China," Yang said.

Businessmen and women say Mandarin is also important to the future of Chinatown to attract Chinese-Americans from the suburbs, where Mandarin is popular.

Partly because of gentrification, the proportion of Asians in Chinatown has plunged from 71 percent of the population in 1990 to 57 percent in 2000, according to a report by the Institute for Asian American Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. Yet statewide, the number of Chinese-Americans is booming, mainly in Waltham, Quincy, Malden, and Newton.

About 111,000 Chinese-Americans reside in Massachusetts, more than double the number in 1990.

On Oxford Street in Chinatown, Yvonne Zhang, an owner of the Fay Young Hair Salon, said she is careful to switch from Cantonese to Mandarin if new clients appear uncertain. Now, perhaps half her clients, many of whom are from the suburbs, speak Mandarin.

Edward Chen, who speaks Mandarin, said Chinatown is more welcoming now to Mandarin speakers. Years ago, said Chen, who co-owns the Gourmet Dumpling House on Beach Street, he would get snubbed at the supermarket in Chinatown because he did not speak Cantonese.

"I felt like an outsider years ago," he said. "Now, they accept you. China has become so powerful. Now, they see these people from China. They come here to spend money."

As he spoke, the phone rang. A Mandarin-speaking executive from a prominent local bank called to ask for his business.

"See?" he said, putting down the phone. "Things change."

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