A gradual shift from Cantonese, a dialect spoken in southern China, to China's official language of Mandarin, 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 Rose 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, or "they try to, anyway."
Statistics document the shifting landscape: a 1986 consumer survey found almost 70 percent of Chinese households in the San Francisco area spoke Cantonese; 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 television 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.
The Immigration Act of 1965 lifted national origins quotas, ushering in a wave of immigrants from Hong Kong, where mostly Cantonese is spoken and Taiwan, where Mandarin is more common. Many people were students or professionals who started technology companies during the Internet boom and settled in suburbs like Fremont, Milpitas and Cupertino in northern California. Just east of downtown Los Angeles, the suburb of Monterey Park was dubbed "Little Taipei," after Taiwan's capital.
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 amount of Taiwanese, according to federal statistics. (Source: Deborah Kong, AP Minority Issues Writer, SFGate.com)