- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 28, 2003

SAN FRANCISCO - When she first arrived in San Francisco and walked through Chinatown’s streets speaking Mandarin, people muttered under their breath. They called Rose Pak a Chinese person who didn’t speak Chinese.

As she walks through the same neighborhood three decades later, the scene is decidedly different.

Miss Pak points to a store bedecked with brightly colored kites, and another serving won ton and chow mein — both Mandarin-speaking, she says. A Mandarin pop singer belts out a love song over a sidewalk speaker, and a man greets her with “Ni hao,” Mandarin for “Hello.”

A gradual shift from Cantonese, a dialect spoken in southern China, to Mandarin, more common in northern China and the official language of the Chinese government, has been taking place in America’s Chinese communities. These days, Mandarin’s growing influence can be heard even in San Francisco’s Chinatown, long a bastion of Cantonese speakers.

“Now, nobody pays attention because it’s so common,” said Miss Pak, a longtime Chinatown activist and consultant for the Chinese Chamber of Commerce who speaks both languages. Though Cantonese remains Chinatown’s primary tongue, many shopkeepers speak at least a few words of Mandarin.

Statistics document the shift: A 1986 consumer survey found almost 70 percent of Chinese households in the San Francisco area spoke Cantonese and 19 percent spoke Mandarin. A survey last year showed the divide narrowing to 53 percent Cantonese and 47 percent Mandarin, according to a study for KTSF, a TV station that devotes most of its programming to Asian-language shows.

The trend is similar in Los Angeles and New York, the nation’s two other major Chinese markets, said Saul Gitlin of Kang & Lee Advertising in New York.

“Ten or 15 years ago, Mandarin would have been very, very small,” Mr. Gitlin said.

The linguistic changes tell the story of the Chinese in America. In the mid-19th century, tens of thousands of Cantonese fled economic and political turmoil in southern China’s Pearl River Delta area, following the lure of the Gold Rush. Over the next few decades, several Chinatowns sprang up across the nation, said Chinese-American historian Him Mark Lai.

“What is driving the ‘Mandarinization’ of the Chinese-American community is the very strong influx of immigrants from the People’s Republic of China,” Mr. Gitlin said.

In more recent years, the number of mainland, Mandarin-speaking Chinese immigrants has surged. In 2002, 61,000 people arrived from mainland China — about 10 times the number of those from Hong Kong, and six times the number of Taiwanese, federal statistics show.

Now, members of Chinatown’s venerable Cantonese family associations have taken to warbling Mandarin pop songs at banquets, accompanied by karaoke machines, and showing off their Mandarin in speeches before Chinese government officials, Miss Pak said.

Despite those differences, New York City engineer Leo Lee said Mandarin is emerging as a common language, providing a connection among diverse Chinese communities.

“There are more and more people that would consider Mandarin to be the least common denominator,” he said.

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