Learning Cantonese in Vancouver's Chinatown

In September 2016 I happened upon this article about a survival “Saturday School” Cantonese class starting up in Vancouver. Considering I have been with my wife for almost 12 years, I figured it was about time I learn more than just my please and thank you’s. I had to be quick. There were only 4 spaces left when I booked my spot and by the end of the day they were completely full and had a waiting list of over 70 students!

The class ran from Oct 1 and Dec 3 and was setup by the Youth Collaborative For Chinatown. Besides learning some basic conversational Cantonese, we spent half our time learning about the history of Chinatown in Vancouver as well as putting a lot of the issues facing the Chinese community into context. We were also taken on several field trips to important and significant locations in and around Chinatown.

Resurrecting the Mon Keang language school

One of the first things I learned was about the existence of clan societies. These would be associations of people coming together either by last name (Lee, Wong, Ing), region hailed from (Toi San, Hoiping) and other benevolent/fraternal associations (Chinese freemasons).

There are many reasons these groups exist, but one of the most important is utility. When chinese men came to North America for work in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s there was an incredible amount of racism that limited the ability to settle and conduct day to day activities. Banks would not do business with you. Landlords would not rent to you. These clan societies filled this need. They develop the networks to transfer money back to China, as well as to other family members in San Francisco and Toronto. Together with their founding members, the societies were able to buy property to offer services to their members, notably housing.

Another important function that was set up by the societies was language schools. It was easy for children to pick up conversational Cantonese in the household from family. But it was much more difficult to learn to read and write. It was incredibly important for the early immigrants that their children be completely literate in Chinese because of the continual fear that the Canadian immigration policies could suddenly change and everyone would be deported back to China. The Mon Keang School (established 1925) was setup by the Wong Benevolent Society to teach reading and writing, initially to its member’s children.

The pupils would usually come to school every day after regular school or after supper. It was quite grueling since the focus was learning via rote memorisation. Over time language schools transitioned to a weekend class model. I remember when I was younger, many of my chinese friends absolutely hated chinese school on the weekends. Many gave it up and now cannot read or write chinese. As time went on, the Mon Keang school’s class sizes dwindled. It closed its doors in 2011. This has a lot to do with the changing demographics, with more Mandarin speakers immigrating to Canada.

A sad end, but onto new beginnings! The language school organized by the Youth Collaborative For Chinatown was established the Mon Keang school’s original location. We sat on the same chairs and used the same desks. It was a little tight for my 6”2 frame, but it made it all the more special. The return of the school is an important step to increasing the foot traffic in Chinatown.

The Teachers and Organizers

There were many people involved with getting the language school going and helping out each week, but there are a few I would like to highlight.

The sisters Doris and June Chow, co-founding members of the YCC, were incredibly friendly, energetic (given our early saturday morning starts) and well versed about the history of Chinatown. Their grandmother lived for years in the neighbourhood, so it is easy to understand their passion for the project. I’ll always remember: DON’T BLOCK THE SIDEWALK.

Jeffrey Wong holds a senior position in the Wong Benevolent Society. He made us feel very welcome in their building and was able to show us the clan meeting room and their archives.

Zoe Lam was our teacher. She had a really great positive attitude. She never thought our questions were silly. And she was able to draw a pretty good mouth, tongue and epiglottis!

The Class and Field Trips

Here I will summarize what we learned each week and highlight some of the places we went for our field trips.

Week 1 - Oct 1 2016 - Cantonese Greetings

We learned the basics of the Yale romanization system. As well as how to say our please and thank you’s.

My favourite phrase lei5 sIk6 dzo2 fan6 mei6 a3. It literally means have you eaten rice yet? But it is said as a general greeting.

We had a small talk about the history of chinatown. Some of the issues that are important for the community. Our field trip was to see the Wong clan meeting chambers and to see some of their archives.

Week 2 - Oct 15 2016 - CHOY (Vegetables)

We learned how to name the standard and not so standard vegetables. The handout we received was from the Hua Foundation describes all the vegetables that are in season. My favourite at the moment is tsoi4 sam1.

For our field trip we visited the Tin Lee Market at 260 Georgia St. E one of a handful of greengrocers still in existence in Chinatown. They are clean, spacious and have a great selection and have very reasonable prices. I picked up some hœng1 dziu1 (bananas). I might have butt in front of a po po, but I said mh hou yi si and she smiled and let me go ahead of her.

Many of the grocers, which cater especially to the elders of the community, have closed down due to rising rents and decreasing patronage. Together, we can increase the body count in Chinatown and ensure indispensable business like this survive.

Week 3 - Oct 22 2016 - Talking to the elderly

We learned how to talk to elders and how to ask them how they are doing. We had some elderly people come and visit us and we practiced talking with them

Week 4 - Oct 29 2016 - Dim Sum!

We learned all the things to order at yam chah! My favourite is dza leung (friend chinese donut).

We then went and ate out as a group to the Floata Seafood Restaurant.

Week 5 - Nov 5 2016 - Friends and Family!

We learned how to call all the people on the family tree. I now know to refer to my wife as loh poh.

For our field trip we walked around Chinatown and the Downtown East Side looking at all the clan society buildings. We then visited the Ing Society and got to see the attic of their building. This is where many of the men arriving in Canada would stay in the early 1900’s.

Week 6 - Nov 19 2016 - Drinking Tea!

We learned about all the different types of chah (tea) that you can order at dim sum. The main ones are pou lei (black tea), guk fa (chrysanthemum), heung pin (jasmine).

The field trip this week was incredibly special. We visited the The Chinese Tea Shop at 101 E Pender St. Where we were served some amazing sauh mei (white tea) by Daniel the proprietor. He taught us how to properly brew the tea as well. For the type we were drinking it was only steeped for 15-20 seconds. He also taught us how to identify good green tea leaves. You want small complete leaves, which indicates picked by hand and not by machine.

Week 7 - Nov 23 2016 - Places in Chinatown

We learned some numbers and how to call all the landmarks in Chinatown. Places like Dr Sun Yat-sen Garden, the Chinese Cultural Centre, Millennium Gate etc. Some of the street names in Cantonese go by the phonetic sound in english. Pin da (pender), hei sih dihng (hastings), go leuhn bei nga (columbia). Quite interesting.

We visited Shanghai alley this week. This is a very historical street which used to house many businesses. There is a historical display with many plaques to read. You can see what Shanghai alley looked like back in the 50s in this video

Week 8 - Dec 3 2016 - Final Exam

In this final class we were broken up into groups of 4, each assigned a food group, starch, bbq meat, dessert, vegetable and were sent off into the community. Our exam was to order what we had been assigned and meetup back at the Hua foundation’s building for a group meal.

My group was assigned bbq meat. I learned about some of the racist legislation that was enacted in the late 70s and early 80s that targeted the bbq meat shops in Chinatown that were considered unhygenic.

Final Words