Dear Supporters of the Save Cantonese Community,
We are writing this reflection to share our team’s reaction to an amazing gesture of support for Cantonese language education. We hope it precipitates further action from all corners of our community, to ensure that Cantonese survives and thrives for years to come.
Q: What happened?
The company S.J. Distributors made a $1,000,000 commitment to endow Cantonese language classes at Stanford University, which we formally announced on January 26. You can read the full announcement here.
Q: Who is the donor?
S.J. Distributors is a global food company providing Asian groceries and meals that nourish local communities. The firm was founded by Cantonese speakers, who have also educated their own children to be fluent in the language.
With this action, they are taking a bold first step toward securing a future for Cantonese language education at a leading American university, Stanford. Their gift ensures that Cantonese classes will be available now and into the future at this institution.
As Scott Suen, CEO of S.J. Distributors, and native Cantonese speaker from Hong Kong, explains: “Language is how we transmit culture. Handed down from ancient times to the modern age, Cantonese still retains much of the pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar of Classical Chinese, affirming this language is of profound cultural importance. By ensuring that Cantonese language classes carry on into the future, we believe this opens a channel for those who love Cantonese language and culture to continue to access them.”
Q: How do we feel about the gift?
When S.J. Distributors reached out to us, we were simply floored by their offer. It is a dream come true for the entire team. We are thrilled the company’s owners share our vision for a future where Cantonese continues to be taught as a modern, living language—at Stanford and around the world.
We believe actions that value the language and culture of all communities—including ‘minority communities—are an integral part of making diversity and inclusion real. This point has especially resonated with those of us who are Asian Americans or Asians residing in America. There is, after all, a long history of physical, economic and cultural violence being wielded against Asian Americans in the United States. By neglect or design, institutions may not fully include Asians, and leaders at those institutions may also be unwilling to acknowledge the marginalization of Asians.
It is thus immensely encouraging when our own community takes action. Cantonese people have made incredible contributions to society and we are thrilled to see this legacy continued by the generosity of our donor.
We view this progress as part of a larger arc: Asian Americans and immigrants have taken action throughout US history, showing great solidarity, and making sure our hopes, interests, and aspirations are heard and ultimately realized.
Q: Why is this important?
Cantonese is a language that is widely spoken in many geographies: in Southern China (historically, Guangdong Province was called “Canton”), in Hong Kong and Macau, in Southeast Asia (including communities in Malaysia and Singapore), and in many other overseas Chinese communities around the world, such as those in the United States and Canada.
By choosing to learn and speak this language, we are better able to access and transmit our cultural heritage, connect with our family members, or engage a worldwide community of Cantonese speakers, numbering 85 million.
Furthermore, Cantonese is one of numerous languages in the Sinitic language family, alongside Hakka, Hokkien, Teochew, Wu, and others. The use of the Cantonese language, and its ability to co-exist with Mandarin, affirms the importance of pluralism. There are many ways to be Chinese or to be Chinese American, and this is one way in which we express, and celebrate, that diversity.
Q: Why is this especially important at Stanford?
The gift carries historical importance: early Cantonese immigrants were essential to the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, a major source of wealth for the Stanford family. Later in the 1800s, Cantonese workers were also a significant labor force for the construction of the Stanford University campus, the planting of its lush landscape, and the operation of the Stanfords family’s agricultural lands. Now, their descendants at Stanford and other interested students will have the opportunity to learn Cantonese at the university.
Q: Is the campaign now over?
The $1,000,000 endowed gift is an extraordinary and momentous event in the history of Cantonese education at Stanford. We are thrilled to celebrate the Year of the Tiger with this pledge from S.J. Distributors and feel deeply grateful for their extraordinary gift. It ensures that Cantonese will forever be a part of Stanford University’s educational legacy.
However we must emphasize: We are not done yet. Annual returns on the endowment gift will fund about two Cantonese classes at Stanford in perpetuity—or about 2/3 of a single lecturer position. We still have more fundraising to do before we reach our goal of a full-time, benefits-eligible lectureship and at least four classes that allow students to achieve high levels of proficiency (~$2-2.5 million). We are almost halfway towards that goal—let’s keep going!
We know there are passionate people around the world who care about the fate of Cantonese, and see the value of fully endowing the Cantonese language program at Stanford in perpetuity. We invite you to join us as we reach toward this goal! There are also people hoping to support Cantonese programs at other institutions—we likewise welcome these efforts and are happy to collaborate on those efforts.
Let’s all keep working together for a multilingual future where Cantonese continues to thrive.