The student news site of Carlmont High School in Belmont, California.

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The student news site of Carlmont High School in Belmont, California.

Scot Scoop News

The student news site of Carlmont High School in Belmont, California.

Scot Scoop News

Cantonese classes preserve culture in San Francisco

City College of San Francisco becomes first community college to offer Cantonese certificates
Elaine Jiang
Outside view of Chinatown along the street in front of the Clarion Performing Arts in San Francisco, where the Save Cantonese at City College of San Francisco celebration took place.

After community-led efforts began in May 2021, City College of San Francisco (CCSF) finally became the first community college in the country to offer Cantonese certificates — a bid to save Cantonese classes from being further reduced during budget cuts. The program will start in the spring 2023 semester. 

CCSF has offered Cantonese classes since the 1960s when they were established by Professor Gordon Lew. However, according to the San Francisco Examiner, since the Cantonese program did not have a certificate program, it did not receive state funding. Therefore, the school mostly had to pay for the program themselves and were going to reduce the program while making budget cuts.

This inspired Julia Quon, a CCSF Cantonese student, and a few others to co-found Save Cantonese at CCSF in May 2021. The organization is made up of students, social workers, doctors, nurses, and others who are interested in preserving Cantonese. 

Quon saw the necessity of Cantonese due to its extensive use in the local community.

“A majority of the Chinese speakers in the city speak Cantonese. Cantonese history is also really rich in the city — in the restaurants, in the shops, everyone speaks it. If you want to communicate in Chinatown, it has to be in Cantonese,” Quon said. 

According to Quon, despite its value to the community, there was intense pushback to the idea of Cantonese certificates when they were initially proposed to the school administration. 

“There were people in the community who didn’t understand the necessity and importance of Cantonese, so we had to do a lot of teaching about the history of Cantonese in San Francisco. City College wrote pieces in the Mission Local using words that said ‘The Mandarin program will be saved. I don’t understand why they’re so upset.’ That was a really hurtful comment because yes, Mandarin and Cantonese are both Chinese languages, but people who speak Mandarin might not be able to understand Cantonese and vice versa,” Quon said. 

I was fighting for the grandparents who don’t speak English. I was fighting for the immigrant families who need social services in English. I was fighting for my fellow students. That was a very, very heavy feeling,

— Julia Quon

Throughout the long journey — over a year and a half of advocacy, holding meetings, bureaucratic and administrative processes, gaining signatures for petitions, writing the actual certificate itself, the list goes on — Quon has faced a rollercoaster of emotions. 

“This has been a very, very tumultuous journey. It was a lot of ups and a lot of downs. I think during the first part of this, I felt like I was really fighting, not just for my language, but also for my community. I was fighting for the grandparents who don’t speak English. I was fighting for the immigrant families who need social services in English. I was fighting for my fellow students. That was a very, very heavy feeling,” Quon said. 

However, the fight has not come without support. 

“Having people come to rallies and speak up at the Board of Trustee meetings made me realize that this process is not just about me. It’s about the entire Cantonese-speaking community. That feeling started as almost a sense of fear, but has become one of empowerment,” Quon said.

Quon is currently studying for her master’s degree at San Francisco State University, but she still takes Cantonese classes at CCSF. Her teacher is Professor Grace Yu. 

Yu is the only Cantonese teacher at CCSF and has worked there for 32 years. She teaches two Cantonese classes and one Mandarin class. Yu grew up in Hong Kong before her family moved to Taiwan where she learned Mandarin. From there, Yu came to the University of California, Berkeley to study comparative English and Chinese literature. 

According to Yu, she became the first Cantonese instructor at UC Berkeley in the 1970s while she was still a graduate student. 

After the previous Cantonese professors at CCSF either retired or passed away, Yu said she was left to teach the remaining two Cantonese classes, which combined have around 70 students.

“When the City College has a big budget deficit, they cut classes to save money. The college was going to cut Cantonese because they thought it was a less important subject and because it had no certificate. Now, if you attend three Cantonese courses you get a certificate in Cantonese that you can use to get jobs and transfer to other universities. Cantonese is more valuable now than before,” Yu said.

The college announced its decision to provide Cantonese certificates on Nov. 10. 

The value of Cantonese goes beyond getting hired or obtaining college credits, however. The language has long been a part of American history, especially in the Bay Area. 

According to Yu, the gold rush in San Francisco in the mid-1800s caused the people from Taishan, also known as Toisan, a county in Guangdong Province in China, to come to America for work. The people of Taishan were poor but lived close to the ocean, so it was easier for them to travel to America.

“America needed people to help dig gold and build the Pacific Railroad. The people of Taishan heard of the opportunity to earn American money, and even though they got the lowest wages, the money they sent back to China was enough to raise a family and give them a better life,” Yu said.

When Yu was a student, she also taught Cantonese at Mills College in Oakland and UC San Diego in the summer. She believes that it is essential for both the younger and older generations to learn Cantonese — which is linked to their native culture, roots, and ancestry.

“Cantonese is a rich culture. Cantonese food is famous all over the world. You have dim sum, for example. There’s an expression that goes, ‘If you want to eat, you must eat in Canton.’ It means Cantonese food is the best among all Chinese food. If there’s Cantonese food, there must be a language, right? How can you eat the food and not know the language?” Yu said.

Above all, Yu says that the younger generation should know their identity and their family’s connections to China and the unique Cantonese language. 

“Cantonese has a lot of slang that is not in any other language. The colloquial expressions are very lively and vivid, so it’s worthwhile to learn and preserve Cantonese,” Yu said.

According to Allied, a global interpreting and translating company, Cantonese dates back to around the 9th century A.D. After the fall of the Tang dynasty, many Han Chinese immigrated south to Guangzhou, formerly known as Canton, which is where modern Cantonese developed and got its name. 

However, social change in the 20th century gave rise to Mandarin dominance. 

“During the Chinese revolution in 1911, led by Sun Yat-Sen, the Qing government was overthrown, and the Republic of China was established. They had to choose an official language because there were so many dialects of Chinese and people couldn’t communicate with each other. Mandarin became the official language,” Yu said. “The Cantonese people who love their language can learn Mandarin, but they don’t want to get rid of Cantonese.”

Mandarin vs. Cantonese by Elaine Jiang

Yu attended a Save Cantonese at CCSF celebratory party on Dec. 4, where passionate members of the San Francisco community came together for music, a potluck, and a time to speak out about personal experiences associated with Cantonese and their culture.

CCSF Board of Trustees members Vick Chung and Susan Solomon shared their journeys as supporters of the Cantonese community in San Francisco. They will begin their term in January 2023.

“My trajectory into running for the board was grounded in opportunities like taking Cantonese at City College. It’s incredibly important because I could not only reconnect as an adult but do so by choice. My parents always told me that it was so important to learn my language and my roots. I think my ability to connect with the Cantonese community was grounded in my ability to speak Cantonese,” Chung said.

Chung’s colleague, Solomon, echoed this same sentiment. Although not Chinese, Solomon described the profound impact that Cantonese has on San Francisco and her own life.

“One of the first public events I attended as a candidate for the Board of Trustees was the Aug. 15 screening of the powerful documentary, ‘Living Dictionary: Cantonese.’ The documentary, as well as the tremendous effort that has gone into creating the first college-level Cantonese certification program in the United States, has taught me why it is necessary to support the Cantonese certification program. It’s proof that we can get work done by speaking up and being active in our communities,” Solomon said.

Local San Francisco firefighter, Stan Lee, began his speech after Solomon. Lee has been a part of the fire department for 27 years and is also the treasurer of the Asian Firefighters Association (AFA), which was the first organization to support the Save Cantonese at CCSF movement, according to Quon.

“Growing up in San Francisco, almost everyone spoke Cantonese or Toisan. Over the years, I noticed more Chinese people moving to San Francisco and now the demographic is between 33-40% Chinese. They mainly speak Cantonese. As a firefighter, it is important to get information, so if we can talk to the person in Cantonese, we might be able to save a life,” Lee said.

Additionally, Quon’s Cantonese classmate, Brent Lok spoke about his cultural ties to the Cantonese language. Lok is a fifth-generation Asian-American on his mother’s side and third-generation on his father’s side. He was born and raised in San Francisco.

After his father passed away in 1997, Lok would call his mother every night. The calls were bilingual conversations — his mother was good at English, but preferred Cantonese. 

“Last year, my mother was declining in health, and I really wanted to lift her spirits because she had been in isolation for the previous two years. I decided to take a year of Cantonese, and she got really excited and wanted to help me with my homework all the time. She passed away when we were doing our finals, but she helped me right up to the end. It was really worthwhile for me because it gave my mother a lot of joy to see me learn how to speak Cantonese,” Lok said.

The significance of Cantonese is not only felt by the San Francisco residents, but also by the community at Carlmont. Mindy Chiang is Carlmont’s only Chinese language teacher and also serves as the teacher advisor for the Chinese Culture Club on campus. 

Chiang is a first-generation immigrant from Taiwan. Her grandparents and father went to Taiwan at the end of the Chinese civil war in the mid-20th century. She has been teaching at Carlmont for 16 years and decided to teach Mandarin because of her love of the language and culture. 

Though Chiang does not speak Cantonese personally, she learned enough to have a conversation because of her students.

“I spoke very little Cantonese. I learned it when I was teaching in San Francisco. I had a lot of students who spoke Cantonese, so I learned a little to better communicate with their families. Cantonese is a language of its own,” Chiang said.

As a new generation of the Chinese diaspora grows up removed from the residence of their cultural roots, language becomes a key connection to culture and an essential tool for communication with immigrant relatives, but ever more important and harder to maintain.

Yet culture can become a strength for those who embrace it, even in the face of oppression.

“ABCs, ‘American Born Chinese’ people, including my son, are not really Chinese, and not really Americans. Americans still consider Asians as separate — there’s discrimination. But if you know your own culture, you become stronger, you have something, so people will respect you more. If you know your own culture, you can get connected with others, and become stronger as a unit,” Yu said.

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About the Contributors
Kara Kim
Kara Kim, Highlander Editor
Kara Kim is a junior at Carlmont High School and excited to be a Highlander editor this year. She enjoys talking to new people and is very interested in sustainability. In her free time, you'll find her doodling or looking to try a new restaurant. Check out her profile here!
Elaine Jiang
Elaine Jiang, Highlander Editor
Elaine Jiang (class of 2025) is a junior at Carlmont High School and an editor for the Highlander magazine. Besides journalism, she is the co-president of the Junior State of America club at Carlmont and likes to read, hang out with friends, and watch Netflix in her free time. You can view her portfolio here!

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Cantonese classes preserve culture in San Francisco