Ever since I can remember, walking the streets of San Francisco’s Chinatown, I could hear the sounds of Taishanese, my family’s native dialect, floating everywhere, amidst the dim sum restaurants and the souvenir shops.

Taishanese, a Chinese dialect derived from and similar to Cantonese, came from Southern China in the Guangdong province. It had dominated the streets of Chinatown, as most of the Chinese who had immigrated to the U.S. since the end of the 19th century originated from Taishan.

In the 1960s, the sounds of Chinatown shifted to Cantonese, when immigration reforms lifted restrictions on immigration. Cantonese speakers then dominated the neighborhoods of Chinatown, emigrating from Hong Kong and mainland China.

However, I have noticed that the sounds of Chinatown have changed. From Taishanese and Cantonese to Mandarin, the shift is noticeable.

Chinese-American communities are partly to blame for the shift, as the communities have realigned. The Mandarin-speaking community is becoming more dominant as more Chinese from other parts of mainland China and Taiwan have immigrated to the U.S. predominantly since the 1990s.

Recent immigrants are gaining economic and political clout, said Peter Kwong, a professor of Asian-American studies at Hunter College.

Mandarin, the official and national language of China, is becoming more dominant in the streets of Chinatowns everywhere, nationally and internationally.

Parents are now pushing their children to learn Mandarin, even if their native language is Cantonese. As China is becoming a rising leader in the world, it is seen as more advantageous to learn Mandarin than Cantonese.

The shift is also evident in the schools, where Mandarin classes are beginning to be offered more than Cantonese classes. Parents would rather have their children learn Mandarin, even if it means they cannot communicate with their own relatives in their native language.

The shift in the language is a challenge to older people who only speak Cantonese, unless they learn Mandarin or English to coincide with the cultural shift.

Cantonese and Mandarin share the same written language and the same written characters, but when spoken, the pronunciations are different.

The possibility that Mandarin may eclipse Cantonese as the dominant language in Chinatowns across the nation and the world is high. As Cantonese had eclipsed Taishanese in the past, Mandarin may do the same. The sounds of Chinatown are ever changing.

By Karen Lee


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