The Changing Face of Chinatown

Posted By | Posted On Jul 24, 2013

All over the World, Chinatowns are known as “Tong Yan Gaai” in the Cantonese language. The name translates into English as “Street of the Tang People.” The original settlers were Cantonese immigrants, many of them from a single county in Guangdong (Canton) Province called Toisan. Immigrants from Toisan County came first to “Gam Saan” (Gold Mountain), the city we know as San Francisco. They arrived in the mid 19th Century in order to strike it rich in the Gold Mines. Most became workers in the mining camps, and railroad camps during the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. When the camps disbanded, those not hired as Housemen by wealthy California families dispersed throughout the nation, establishing footholds in major U.S. cities.

Chinese from most areas of China refer to themselves as “People of Han”, a reference to the Han Dynasty, which began around 206 BC. The Cantonese, however, are referred to as “People of Tang” a dynasty which came into being about 600 years later. Because Chinatowns were peopled by Cantonese immigrants, they eventually became known in Chinese as “Street of the Tang People.”

When I first ventured into Boston’s Chinatown, about 33 years ago, and just back from several years of intense Mandarin study in Taiwan, the Republic of China, I was eager to use the language skills acquired abroad. Unfortunately, my attempts at speaking to the locals failed miserably. Mandarin, spoken throughout much of China, and the official Language of the People’s Rebublic, is related to Cantonese in the same way that Portuguese is related to Italian. Members of the same language family, they have some similarities, but are mutually unintelligible. Chinatown residents historically have spoken Cantonese, so my attempts at communicating with them in Mandarin fell flat.

All of this is changing. A gradual shift from Cantonese to Mandarin has been taking place in Chinese communities throughout the United States. These days, Mandarin’s increasing influence is observable even in Boston’s “Tong Yan Gaai”, long a bastion of Cantonese speaking immigrants. This trend is also being seen in New York, San Francisco, and other Chinatowns throughout the country.

Beginning with the Immigration Act of 1965, which lifted national origin quotas, a second wave of Chinese immigration began ushering in students and technology professionals from Taiwan, where Mandarin is spoken. In the last ten years the number of Mandarin speakers from Mainland China, particularly Fujian Province has surged, and this has had an effect on re-shaping the culture of the community.

These days, most shopkeepers in Chinatown speak at least a few words of Mandarin. Announcements in many of the supermarkets now come over the loudspeaker in Mandarin. In several Chinatown restaurants, waitstaff speak only Mandarin. Some do not understand Cantonese at all.

Mandarin and Cantonese speakers tend to form their own social groups and stick together. These groups are defined by language, as well as by class. But Mandarin is increasingly becoming the bridge that connects the two groups.

While continuing to speak Cantonese at home, many Chinatown parents are now sending their children to Mandarin class, realizing that this will give their children an advantage as China becomes an increasingly important force on the world stage.

These newer immigrants have had an effect on cuisine as well. Today in Boston Chinatown, along with traditional Cantonese and Cantonese-American style restaurants, one can find Beijing style snacks, hot and numbing Sichuan dishes, the sweet and savory foods of Shanghai, and Taiwanese street food as well. This diversity makes Chinatown more interesting and definitely more delicious!



written by Jim Becker/ Chinatown Guide


Categories : 2013, Chinatown Blog
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