Long live Cantopop – In Chinatown, Cantonese squares off against Mandarin

Long live Cantopop

Originally appeared in The Economist.
Read more at http://www.economist.com/news/americas/21661035-chinatown-cantonese-squares-against-mandarin-long-live-cantopop

IT IS a novelty that few students are likely to notice. When the University of British Columbia (UBC) resumes classes in September it will for the first time offer a course for credit in Cantonese. That seems an unremarkable decision by a Chinese-language department that claims to be the largest in North America. In fact, it is a bookish act of resistance.

Cantonese was widely taught at Canadian and American universities 30 years ago, says Ross King, head of UBC’s Asian-studies programme. That is because most Chinese immigrants came from Hong Kong and southern China, where it is the main language. Cantonese still resounds in Chinatowns, such as those of Vancouver and San Francisco. But the economic rise of mainland China, whose official language is Mandarin Chinese (or putonghua), is pushing Cantonese off the streets and out of the academy. UBC wants to bring it back.

Newcomers to Vancouver’s Chinatown are richer and speak Mandarin. A sign advertising luxury apartments welcomes potential buyers (in Roman letters) with ni hao, the putonghua greeting, rather than the Cantonese nei hou. A decade ago, dignitaries at Chinese-new-year festivities gave speeches in Cantonese; today they speak Mandarin.

Cantonese is not about to die out. About 62m people speak it, as many as speak Italian. Cantonese opera dates back to the 13th century; Cantopop from Hong Kong has lingering appeal. But there is little doubt about which language is in the ascendant in the Chinese diaspora. “Mandarin is the future and Cantonese is being passed over,” says K. K. Wan, a dentist in Vancouver. His patients grumble, but “that’s just the reality.”

UBC is putting up a fight. The university has rejected four offers from the Confucius Institute, a cultural body financed by China’s government, to expand its teaching of Mandarin. “When a university can reject money, it’s a subtle form of pushback to an overbearing culture,” says Mr King. Instead, in 2013 UBC accepted C$2m ($1.5m) from a pair of philanthropists in Hong Kong to offer Cantonese.

Demand is so great that the university turned away Mandarin-speakers. Instead, the department will concentrate on teaching Cantonese to people who speak no Chinese. Most will move on to putonghua. In the meantime, they may develop an ear for Cantopop.

From the print edition: The Americas