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Vancouver Chinatown seniors try to save Cantonese

By Stefania Seccia

Simin Sun, left, a coordinator at the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood House, speaks with Yolanda Li, a volunteer.
(Stefania Seccia, 24 hours)

Simin Sun, left, a coordinator at the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood House, speaks with Yolanda Li, a volunteer. (Stefania Seccia, 24 hours)

Lay Ho is an easy Cantonese greeting that means hello — but despite its simplicity, it’s connected to a dying language in Vancouver’s Chinatown.

That’s why seven Chinese seniors, with the support of the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood House, are launching a program to get people talking about Cantonese again.

The idea is to run five tours this summer centred around Cantonese.

It arose from the nearly 80 Chinese elders who show up every Thursday at the neighbourhood house, over the course of a month, to cook meals in the community kitchen for residents.

“They’re very loud and lovely,” said Carol White, executive director of the neighbourhood house. “What we found was there was a real interest among Cantonese-speaking seniors to share their language and their experience, and their culture.”

Yolanda Li will help host one of the five tours — launching this weekend — with a focus on food because “everybody love food.”

“I love everybody here,” she said. “I can speak Cantonese. I can speak Mandarin.

“Cantonese is a good language for us, and in Vancouver not a lot of people can speak Cantonese — that’s why we like to keep it.”

Simin Sun, coordinator of the program, said Li’s tour will transform the house to look like a Cantonese restaurant — people will learn to make dumplings and order food in Cantonese.

“We need to protect this language and culture. If not, it’s disappearing because of the modern and traditional conflicts happening here in Chinatown.”

And Zoe Lam, a University of B.C. linguistics researcher, agrees that the changes happening in Vancouver’s Chinatown are playing a role in erasing Cantonese.

“It’s the nature of the businesses in the neighbourhood changing now,” she said. “We see more coffee shops, skateboard shops — these aren’t really Chinese businesses. It’s no longer Cantonese exclusive when this happens, and fewer and fewer people are motivated to use this language in this neighbourhood.”

Lam noted two reasons why Cantonese is also on its way out everywhere else are because of China’s government policy to push Mandarin, and the attitude of the speakers themselves.

The five different tours will take place on July 11, 18 and 24, Aug. 1, and 8 with themes including history, food and art, among others.

Visit dtesnhouse.ca, or email simins@dtesnhouse.ca.

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