Grace Yu can’t help but smile while reminiscing about how popular Cantonese classes were in the 1990s at City College of San Francisco.
“Every class was full,” she recounted in an interview with The Standard. “Students who couldn’t get enrolled would just sit on the ground and listen.”
At the height of demand for the curriculum, the community college had a handful of professors teaching a combined 10 or more Cantonese classes per semester.
Every time a Cantonese lecturer retired or otherwise left in the years since, however, City College replaced them with a Mandarin teacher.
These days, Yu is the last one standing.
She’s not just the lone Cantonese lecturer at the school, but also the only one teaching the last couple of classes in which students learn to communicate in Cantonese.
As Mandarin—China’s official language—gains global dominance, the San Francisco community college is struggling to save what’s left of its Cantonese offerings.
Six months ago, the City College board voted to save Cantonese education amid a Bay Area-wide movement to preserve it. But with no department willing to take ownership of the coursework with such limited resources, the school has made little progress to that end.
That puts immense pressure on Yu, whose love for Cantonese has inspired her to stay the course despite dwindling resources and a lack of institutional support.
Born in Canton and raised in Hong Kong, Yu comes from a traditional Cantonese family: speaking the language, cooking the cuisine and preserving the culture in day-to-day life.
“Cantonese is a lively and vivid language,” she says of the prose that’s defined her life for seven decades and counting.
After graduating from National Taiwan University, Yu moved to the U.S. in the late 1960s and received her master’s degree in comparative literature from the University of California, Berkeley, and a bilingual education doctorate from New York University.
With such prestigious credentials, Yu could work at any number of elite colleges and universities. But she chooses to teach her native language at her adopted hometown’s community college because she wants to stay true to her roots.
During the ‘60s and ‘70s, social movements pushed local schools to establish ethnic studies, and as part of the curriculum centered on Asian American culture and history, Cantonese education emerged as a priority.
Yu became involved with Cantonese education as a student at UC Berkeley, and when she returned to San Francisco from New York, her passion for the language evolved from the personal to the professional.
Yu taught Cantonese from 1978 to 1983 at San Francisco State University and taught English to immigrants at City College. In 1990, she began teaching Cantonese full-time at City College, where she continues to instruct what’s left of the language courses to this day.
After more than four decades of City College offering Cantonese classes, the school may have let its support lapse, but Yu says public enthusiasm for the coursework has stayed strong. That’s why, though she prefers to stay out of the spotlight, she’s speaking publicly about the importance of the classes that have become part of her own legacy.
The benefits of learning Cantonese in San Francisco, Yu notes, are tremendous.
Many U.S.-born Chinese who live with immigrant parents or grandparents with limited English proficiency enroll in Cantonese courses to build more connections with family.
“Many of them want to learn about their own culture,” she says.
Other students Yu teaches are non-Chinese with Cantonese-speaking spouses—and Yu says she’s had many such pupils learn to speak the language “quite well.”
Aside from cultural and personal reasons, Yu says there are also plenty of professional incentives for learning Cantonese. Nurses can earn higher salaries if they speak both English and Cantonese, for example.
Local schools scout for bilingual teachers versed in Cantonese, which the San Francisco Unified School District says is the primary language used at home by 75% of its Chinese speakers.
Meanwhile, there’s a constant demand for Cantonese-proficient social workers, lawyers and government employees—all of whom could use the language to better serve clients.
Even immigrants from parts of China that don’t speak Cantonese have come through Yu’s classroom doors in hopes of learning more about the dominant culture in San Francisco’s Asian American community.
Resources may be scarce, Yu laments, but demand has held steady.
Melissa Chow—a San Francisco-born Chinese American and a former student of Yu at City College—said that taking the Cantonese classes has helped her communicate better with her grandparents, who exclusively speak Cantonese.
“It was so helpful,” said Chow, who said she could only use “Chinglish” to talk to her grandparents before she advanced her proficiency. “Now I can talk to them about how my job is going, the news of the pandemic, and even the vaccine’s side effects.”
Chow, who has worked in the medical field in San Francisco and is now a student pursuing a medical degree in Florida, said the Cantonese-speaking immigrant patients trust her more when she speaks their mother tongue. And she can’t wait to return to San Francisco to use her bilingual skills in practice.
Despite her disappointment in the state of Cantonese education at City College, Yu says she’s very confident in the future of Cantonese writ large.
“The language will not go extinct,” she says.
Tens of millions of people in mainland China, Hong Kong and overseas speak Cantonese, she notes, and she’s heartened by efforts by younger generations to preserve the language.
Meanwhile, Yu says, Chinese cuisine has woven Cantonese words into the ever-expanding canon of American colloquialisms: words like “dim sum,” “cheung fun” and “siu mei” are all but mainstream.
“As long as there are Cantonese restaurants,” Yu says, “there will be people speaking Cantonese.”
Han Li can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org