Carson Hom’s family has run a thriving fortune cookie and almond cookie company in Los Angeles County for 35 years.
And for much of that time, it was a business that required two languages: Cantonese, to communicate with employees and the Chinese restaurants that bought the cookies, and English, to deal with health inspectors, suppliers and accountants.
But when Hom, 30, decided to start his own food import company, he learned that this bilingualism wasn’t enough anymore.
He checked out the competition at a recent Chinese products fair in the San Gabriel Valley and found that he couldn’t get much further than “hello” in conversing with vendors.
“I can’t communicate,” said Hom, whose parents are from Hong Kong. “Everyone around used to speak Cantonese. Now everyone is speaking Mandarin.”
Cantonese, a sharp, cackling dialect full of slang and exaggerated expressions, was never the dominant language of China. But it came to dominate the Chinatowns of North America because the first immigrants came from the Cantonese-speaking southern province of Guangdong, where China first opened its ports to foreigners centuries ago.
It is also the chief language of Hong Kong, the vital trading and financial center that became China’s link to the West.
But over the last three decades, waves of Mandarin-speaking mainland Chinese and Taiwanese immigrants have diluted the influence of both the Cantonese language and the pioneering Cantonese families who ran Chinatowns for years. (more…)