Subscribe Donate

Tag: AAPI heritage

Home | Newsroom |

Language Rights and the Quest to Preserve My Own Cantonese Language and Heritage (Part 2)

*Click here for part one.

Last week for Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, I wrote part one of a blog post reflecting on the legacy and future of the Cantonese language and how government policies influence both its preservation and disappearance. It’s a fascinating history to me because much of the knowledge is now buried “in a world dominated by Mandarin.” Mandarin is often the sole Chinese language taught at our universities and public schools (perhaps with the exception of the San Francisco Unified School District) and is the language of most new Chinese immigrants.

According to Dr. Sik Lee Dennig who researches the Cantonese language in North America, the first mass immigration of people from China to the United States took place during the Gold Rush era starting in the late 1840s. Chinese immigrants came from Sunning (now more commonly known as Taishan), located in the Canton province. In 1854, there were about 3,400 Sunning Chinese in San Francisco and the next year, that number doubled to about 6,900. The population of Sunning Chinese reached 27,000 by the end of the 1870s. The early Sunning immigrants worked in mines and railroads, and those who lived in the city worked in shoe-making and dominated the laundry business.

It was during these decades when the Sunning Chinese population was growing that three landmark cases representing Chinese American litigants made their way to the Supreme Court. Although none of the cases describe the plaintiffs as Cantonese in origin or speaking Cantonese, the history of migration patterns at this time and the names of the individuals strongly indicate they were Cantonese.

Chy Lung, a woman arriving from Hong Kong to San Francisco, overturned a California law that prevented foreign passengers aboard ships from setting foot in California if state officials determined the person to be “lunatic, idiotic, deaf, blind, crippled, or infirm, or likely to become so, or is a convicted criminal, or a lewd or debauched woman.” Chy Lung v. Freeman, 92 U.S. 275 (1875). Chy Lung was the first Chinese litigant in a Supreme Court case.

Lee Yick and Wo Lee, laundry service owners in San Francisco who were denied permits for being Chinese, overturned a city ordinance that was race-neutral on its face but discriminatory in application as a violation of Equal Protection under the Fourteenth Amendment. Yick Wo v. Hopkins, 118 U.S. 356 (1886).

Wong Kim Ark, a son of Chinese immigrants from Taishan (Taishanese is a major variety of Cantonese), secured birthright citizenship under the Fourteenth Amendment. United States v. Wong Kim Ark, 169 U.S. 649 (1898).

According to Dr. Dennig, by the 1960s, about 40% of the Chinese in California were of Hoisan descent.  After China adopted the open-door policy in 1978, massive emigration from Hoisan resumed. In one study of the migration between the United States and South China, Taishanese outmigrants made up at least one-quarter of the number leaving Guangdong and almost 74% of them went to the United States. One estimate from the historian Mark Lai shows the number of Taishanese in the United States at around 430,000, or about 70% of the Chinese Americans in the United States in the 1980s.

During this time, in 1974, the Supreme Court decided Lau v. Nichols, 414 U.S. 563 (1974). Kinney Kinmon Lau, whose first language was Cantonese, along with 12 other Chinese American students brought bilingual instruction into our public schools and laid the groundwork of language access rights by establishing discrimination against limited-English proficient individuals as national origin discrimination in violation of Title VI.

To learn more about the Cantonese people in California’s history, Dr. Dennig recommends reading Gordon Chang’s Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad and the works of Genevieve Leung, a professor of Cantonese language at the University of San Francisco.

Wrapping up AAPI Heritage Month, I’m reminded that much of my advocacy for language rights and the rights of Californians to live free from poverty is personal. I’m never far removed from my own language struggles and the perseverance of the Cantonese people to live with dignity and power.

 

*This post contains contributions from Dr. Sik Lee Dennig, a former Cantonese instructor at Stanford University and founder of the Cantonese Alliance of North America, which is now offering courses for adult learners. Dr. Dennig was born and raised in Hong Kong and now resides in California.

 

Language Rights and the Quest to Preserve My Own Cantonese Language and Heritage (Part I)

During this year’s Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, I am reflecting on my Cantonese heritage, the Cantonese language, and ways we can advocate for greater language access for less commonly spoken languages in California.* The Los Angeles Times recently featured Dr. Sik Lee Dennig, once the only Cantonese lecturer at Stanford University, and her quest to teach and preserve Cantonese “in a world dominated by Mandarin.”

Often in policy and data, Cantonese and Mandarin are conflated into one category —Chinese— for both written and spoken forms. But spoken, Mandarin and Cantonese are two distinctly different languages in tone and the pronunciation of words, though they share some (or arguably, many) written characters. (For lessons on speaking and writing Cantonese, visit HamBaangLaang.)

My first language was Cantonese. When I started elementary school, I was designated as Limited English Proficient (LEP). Over the years, I’ve lost most of my Cantonese fluency despite being surrounded by Cantonese culture in Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Valley. Some of the most popular parts of Chinese American culture are Cantonese in origin, such as dim sum (the Cantonese words literally translating to “so close to the heart”) and kung fu movies which were made in Cantonese in Hong Kong and influenced the development of hip hop in the 1970s.

Today, Cantonese is at risk of disappearing within two generations, largely due to China’s order to make Mandarin the official language of its government, school instruction, and news and publications. Hong Kong, the bastion of Cantonese where about 90 percent of people have Cantonese as a native language, is one of the main targets of this policy as the latest in the Chinese government’s litany of actions against Hong Kongers to suppress political speech and any dissent challenging the mainland government. Cantonese has become a language of rebellion used by many Hong Kongers—including pro-democracy protestors—to maintain their identity and freedom.

Government policy shapes the ways in which languages are preserved or eliminated. China’s recent action is one example. In the United States and California, we have attempted both. While English-only laws were struck down as unlawful, English remains the de facto language of our public and private institutions. We also have non-discrimination protections that require state- and federally-funded programs to provide meaningful access to people who speak limited English.

Still, these laws do not strictly mandate that government-funded programs provide the level of bilingual assistance needed by each person served. They instead require bilingual staff and translations only for non-English languages that meet a numerical threshold or concentration. Under the Dymally-Alatorre Bilingual Services Act, state agencies must provide bilingual services in languages that are spoken by a “substantial number” of people, defined as 5% or more of the people served by a local office or facility.

Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, federally funded programs are highly encouraged—not mandated—to translate materials into languages that are spoken by 5% of a population likely to be served, or 1,000 people, whichever is smaller. Moreover, to determine the mix of language services required—oral interpretation and written translation—Title VI guidance employs a four-factor totality of circumstances test to be applied on a case-by-case basis.

By relying on numerical thresholds and cost-benefit-need analyses, these laws exclude from our public programs languages that are spoken by hundreds of thousands of people. The consequences of such exclusion are even more pernicious and urgent. These laws create environments where it is difficult for people to meet basic needs by continuing to speak and write in their first, non-English languages. Second generations forgo learning and speaking their native language and that language disappears by the third generation. As advocates, we can be more aware and critical of how we interpret existing language access laws and their impact on driving lesser-spoken languages to endangerment or extinction within communities. These laws are meant to be inclusionary but end up being exclusionary.

For Cantonese in particular, California could be a sanctuary for the preservation and continuation of the language. We can continue to advocate for the distinction of Cantonese and Mandarin bilingual services in our public programs. We can also talk more about how Cantonese is deeply rooted in California history. In the early seminal civil rights cases, the litigants who were Chinese Americans spoke Cantonese and lived in California. (More on this next week.)

Many are now part of the movement to preserve Cantonese. Since leaving Stanford following the university’s decision to reduce the number of Cantonese course offerings, Dr. Dennig is now devoting her time to building the Cantonese Alliance of North America, a non-profit to connect Cantonese instructors, learners, and organizations to preserve and nourish Cantonese as a heritage language.

As for me, I start Cantonese class next month.

*As used here, Cantonese is an umbrella term encompassing the Chinese languages originating in the Pearl River Delta—the Guangdong (Canton) and Guangxi provinces—encompassing the language varieties of Hong Kong Cantonese, Guangzhou Cantonese, and Taishanese.

Read Part 2 of this post here.

This will close in 0 seconds