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B.C. Cantonese speakers work to keep the language alive

Speakers of China’s ‘2nd language’ a part of a growing international advocacy movement
Mia Chen plays at the littles water walker area where she runs in an inflatable ball that float in a pool at the Richmond Night Market in Richmond, B.C., on Friday, April 28, 2023. Richmond is the most ethnically Chinese city in the world outside Asia. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paige Taylor White

You wouldn’t know that Cantonese is under threat, judging from the food court of the Parker Place shopping mall in Richmond, B.C., the most ethnically Chinese city in the world outside Asia.

All around, tables of diners young and old meet to “chui sui” — literally, to “blow water,” or gossip — in the language that originated in southern China and Hong Kong.

Charles Chan, who immigrated to British Columbia from Hong Kong 40 years ago, said he raised his children to speak Cantonese at home.

“You better let your children learn Cantonese to help them be more competitive in the job market,” said Chan as he waited for his wife to buy dumplings. He said he was confident about the language’s future.

But some Metro Vancouver Cantonese speakers say its fate is uncertain in its homeland, and overseas communities play a vital role in its preservation.

The concerns come after the shutdown of an online group promoting Cantonese in late August, after authorities in Hong Kong said content on the website violated the city’s national security laws.

Mandarin — China’s official spoken language — is increasingly taught and promoted in Hong Kong, even though education officials there have denied plans to switch Chinese instruction away from Cantonese. But Cantonese advocacy has been associated with a localist movement that is facing suppression in Hong Kong.

Zoe Lam, a lecturer at the University of British Columbia’s Cantonese language and culture program, said the situation in Hong Kong means language learning has been inevitably politicized — something that is much less of an issue in overseas communities.

It means Cantonese speakers and learners can view overseas Chinese communities as a “very safe space,” which can promote the language’s survival and growth.

“I think these will be major hubs of overseas Cantonese communities,” she said of cities including Vancouver and Toronto. “That’s why our language program also wants to play the role of the education hub of Cantonese in North America.”

UBC offers Canada’s only comprehensive, for-credit Cantonese-language university program, and enrolment has climbed steadily from 67 when the courses launched in 2015 to 559 last school year.

Community members said they have seen a new wave of Cantonese speakers in places such as Metro Vancouver in recent years, triggered in part by an exodus of Hong Kong residents amid a crackdown on political dissent.

Data from the 2021 census released last year showed a 6.1 per cent increase of Hong Kong-born people in Vancouver’s census metropolitan area in the past five years, where it had previously been falling for decades.

The census also showed about 183,000 people in Vancouver’s census area claimed Cantonese as their mother tongue in 2021, up by about 38 per cent from 133,000 in 2011.

Non-profit group HK House runs the annual Vancouver Hong Kong Fair. Board member Agnes Hui said she and a significant number of friends moved from Hong Kong to Canada last year, joining a new pathway to permanent residency.

“From my circle, I have quite of lot of friends coming to other cities, including Vancouver, Toronto and even Ottawa and Calgary,” Hui said. “So it is true that there’s a growing number of Hong Kongers coming over, specifically through the lifeboat scheme that the Canadian government has started.”

Hong Kong immigrant Jack Chen was having dim sum with his wife at the Lansdowne Mall food court in Richmond, where 54 per cent of the population has Chinese heritage.

He said he has heard Cantonese being used more frequently over the past two years. Chen said it makes him “feel at home.”

Chen said the surge has helped his case for teaching his two children Cantonese and “Canto” culture is a part of the family’s identity. He also plays classic Cantopop songs at home.

“The young generation nowadays might not be able to totally get the meanings and stories behind these songs, but I am so glad that my children can still speak the language at home and they could still use it at school sometimes,” Chen said.

Despite the large number of newcomers from Hong Kong, it’s parents such as Chen who hold the key to the future health of the Cantonese language beyond China, said teacher Fay Wong.

Wong is the director of Familogue, a new non-profit launched by parents who recently emigrated from Hong Kong and want to ensure their children retain Cantonese language and culture.

The group has been holding Cantonese story time for children in Metro Vancouver parks every two months over the past year. It is also hosting seminars for children of immigrants, who might be unable to use the language outside household settings.

Such in-person interactions are crucial for the language’s survival, Wong said.

“It’s very important for (learners) to know it is meaningful to use the language, especially with their parents,” Wong said. “That’s what we want to encourage, because it’s family bonding. Language and culture, they cannot be separated.”

Other groups have created community events where Cantonese speakers can interact and promote the language and culture to non-speakers.

HK House’s Vancouver Hong Kong Fair drew about 5,000 participants in May.

Board member Wendy Fung said overseas organizations felt responsibility to the health of Cantonese as more Hong Kong residents emigrate.

“For my personal feelings, of course it’s a little bit worrying,” Fung said about the future of Cantonese in Hong Kong. “But I always thought to myself: What can I do to keep this alive?

“I can’t really comment on if Cantonese is going to fade away in Hong Kong,” she said. “This is too far away for me to talk about right now. But what I can (do) right now here in Vancouver is try to keep the language alive.”

UBC lecturer Lam said the Cantonese-speaking community already recognized there was a problem, and was acting on it.

“The future of a language depends on how many people speak it,” she said. “So as long as there are people who speak it, then it’s still all right. If we do nothing, then of course we would be pessimistic. But we are the people who determine the future, and we can definitely still do something about it.”