For many Chinese Americans, childhood memories include attending Chinese school on Saturday morning, Friday night, or five-times a week. As a child, Susan Lam dutifully attended Chinese school from 4-6 p.m. daily as her father sliced and wrapped meat for customers in his butcher shop, Taft Meat Company, on Stockton Street. During one class, while intending to say she was going to the deli to buy chow mein take-out food, she said, “Chow mein haang gaai,” which literally means chow mein is taking a walk. Fortunately, her teacher did not get upset but instead, Susan says, “she just cracked up.”
Chinese immigrants starting families in America believed passing on the language and keeping traditions was imperative for the next generation. Dedicated Chinese schools were established in Chinatown as early as 1887 with the Chung Wah Chinese School (now Central Chinese High School) on Stockton Street. By 1921, Old St. Mary’s Cathedral on Grant Avenue offered Chinese classes for children in addition to the English language courses to help adults adapt to America. Soon after that, Nam Kue School was opened in 1925, just a block away.
By the 1930s, Chinatown was home to ten of these institutions, all teaching Cantonese, the main dialect from the Guangdong province. If parents could not afford the tuition, family associations would gladly step in to pay. Rote-teaching mirrored the methods in China and Hong Kong. Students copied words from the blackboard and orally repeated the teacher. Today, Chinese school has a different look and feel. In the age of social media and the Internet, teachers are instructing using Chinese folksongs on Youtube. Students are incorporating new vocabulary in skits and exchanging dialog with instructors. “Before, there was no interaction between teacher and student, but now classes are more interactive,” explains Simon Tsui, president of the San Francisco Chinese Language Schools Association, and principal of the St. Mary’s Chinese School. Additional Chinese language institutions operate in the Bay Area and other San Francisco neighborhoods with high concentrations of Chinese. Chinatown is home to four major Chinese schools with approximately 3,500 pupils. Within the last decade they have all switched from Cantonese to Mandarin, the official language of China.
“China has become such a strong country economically and financially. A lot of young people want to be able to speak Mandarin so they can eventually do business with China,” says Principal Tsui. The student body in the Chinatown schools is mainly comprised of American-born Chinese with foreign-born parents. A few Caucasian children and other students of varying ethnicities are attending classes in order to master a second language.
Mandarin learning centers in Chinatown include Central Chinese High School, Nam Kue, St. Mary’s Chinese School, and the Cumberland Chinese School with instruction for kindergarten through 12th-grade. Classes are conducted similarly to those of traditional American schools with projects, tests, and finals. Cultural components such as history, calligraphy brush art, poetry, music, and folktales are integrated into the curriculum.
Principal Tsui’s two daughters, now adults, attended Saturday morning Chinese school from kindergarten through high school. They stopped complaining after the first five years, and they later appreciated the years of language lessons which also yielded deep friendships they maintain to this day. “They tell me they regret not studying hard enough and wished we pushed them more,” he says.
Hopefully, there’s enough activity to keep kids engaged so they will be attentive, appreciative, and (as parents desire) obedient. But then again, as the adage goes, kids will be kids. Rev. Norman Fong attended classes in the 1960s at his mother’s church every day after school and, more than once, got into trouble for “mouthing off.” He recalls how one day he and his friend were talking “a little too much,” and they were ordered into the principal’s office. His friend was disciplined, but surprisingly, Norman was not. “I was next, but the principal smiled and said, ‘I know your mom who always comes to church’… Thanks Mom!”