Taishan and Chinatown

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From Bob Ramsey:

Pell Street in New York’s Chinatown, 1899

Taishan, a tiny, rural district on the southern coast of China, has played an outsized role in American history. Taishan was only one of the 98 districts of Guangdong (which was only one of some 23 Chinese provinces), but it had the advantage of being accessible from the sea when American sailing vessels came to recruit cheap labor in the 19th century. 

And recruit Taishanese they did. Young men from Taishan famously provided the backbreaking labor required to build the transcontinental railroad; work silver mines and fisheries; staff hundreds of west-coast construction jobs. They provided services for American cities, too, stereotypically laundries and restaurants, but an imaginative variety of other things as well. When more labor was needed, they passed word back home, creating a pipeline of Taishan migrants into west coast ports. Families and “mail-order-brides” began arriving from Taishan, and the city ghettos where they settled became known as Chinatowns.

The result of this sustained immigration from Taishan (“Toisan” in Cantonese, “Hoisan” in the local language itself) was that an estimated 86 percent of Chinese-Americans traced their ancestry to that little out-of-the-way place. 

These residents of Chinatown would tell you they were “Cantonese.” But were they really? My Cantonese colleague at Columbia told me she found it frustrating. People in Chinatown understood her Cantonese fairly well, but she could not understand much of anything they were saying, she said laughing. The reason is that the language of Taishan–or “Hoisan”–is closely related to, but distinctively different, from Standard Cantonese. Taishanese was the language on the streets there, not (Standard) Cantonese, and definitely not Mandarin.

Starting around the 1980s, however, immigration patterns changed, and migrants, both legal and illegal, started arriving in America from other, more urban parts of China. Chinatown became a place where Mandarin was heard and understood, and taught in Chinatown schools. 

Even so, as any visitor from China immediately sees today, much of the original Southern flavor of Chinatown still remains. 

VHM notes:

In "Sun Yat-sen, Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Zedong" (2/1/22), we saw the power of Cantonese in the Sinitic / Sinographic sphere, but — globally speaking — there's more to "Cantonese" than meets the eye.  For one thing, there is Taishanese.

Taishanese, or in the Cantonese romanization Toisanese (simplified Chinese: 台山话; traditional Chinese: 台山話; Taishanese: [hɔi˨san˧wa˧˨˥]), is a language of Yue Chinese. The language is related to and is often referred to as Cantonese but has little mutual intelligibility with the latter. Taishanese is spoken in the southern part of Guangdong Province in China, particularly around the city-level county of Taishan located on the western fringe of the Pearl River Delta. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, a significant amount of Chinese emigration to North America originated from Siyi (Seiyap), the area where this variety is natively spoken; making Taishanese a dominant variety of the Chinese language spoken in Chinatowns in Canada and the United States. It was formerly the lingua franca of the overseas Chinese residing in the United States.

The earliest linguistic studies refer to the dialect of Llin-nen or Xinning (traditional Chinese: 新寧; simplified Chinese: 新宁). Xinning was renamed Taishan in 1914, and linguistic literature has since generally referred to the local dialect as the Taishan dialect, a term based on the pinyin romanization of Standard Mandarin Chinese pronunciation. Alternative names have also been used. The term Toishan is a convention used by the United States Postal Service, the Defense Language Institute and the 2000 United States Census. The terms ToishanToisan, and Toisaan are all based on Cantonese pronunciation and are also frequently found in linguistic and non-linguistic literature. Hoisan is a term based on the local pronunciation, although it is not generally used in published literature.

These terms have also been anglicized with the suffix -eseTaishaneseToishanese, and Toisanese. Of the previous three terms, Taishanese is most commonly used in academic literature, to about the same extent as the term Taishan dialect. The terms Hoisanese and Hoisan-wa do appear in print literature, although they are used more on the internet.

Another term used is Sìyì (Sze Yup or Seiyap in Cantonese romanization; Chinese: 四邑lit. 'four towns'). Sìyì or Sze Yup refers to a previous administrative division in the Pearl River Delta consisting of the four counties of Taishan, Kaiping, Enping and Xinhui. In 1983, a fifth county (Heshan) was added to the Jiangmen prefecture; so whereas the term Sìyì has become an anachronism, the older term Sze Yup remains in current use in overseas Chinese communities where it is their ancestral home. The term Wuyi (Chinese: 五邑), literally "five counties", refers to the modern administrative region, but this term is not used to refer to Taishanese.


Every Hoisanese speaker I know is proud of their linguistic and ethnic heritage.  They recognize that Hoisanese is special, that it is different from standard Cantonese / yuè / jyut6 , and they strive to preserve it.

Selected readings


  1. Stephen Hart said,

    February 5, 2022 @ 1:15 pm

    Any relationship between Hoisan and Hoisin sauce?

  2. Philip Taylor said,

    February 5, 2022 @ 1:45 pm

    The OED would assert not (unless, of course, the "Hoi" of "Hoisan" means "sea" in Hoisan-wa), which I suppose it might, given Hoisan's proximity thereto).

    Etymology: < Chinese (Cantonese) hói sīn fresh seafood, seafood in general < hói sea + sīn fresh, fish, shellfish.

  3. John Rohsenow said,

    February 5, 2022 @ 7:12 pm

    Here in Chicago's 'Chinatown', Tai/Toi/Hoi-san speakers are now primarily in the older generation, as our Chinatown area welcomes more and more speakers from other areas of China, espec.spkrs from Chao- zhou, Fuzhou, as well as Hokkien spkrs from both Fujian and many overseas communities. Chicago's Chinatown is the only one in the US which is still growing but more educated speakers from the PRC and TW tend to cluster in certain suburbs; see my "Chinese Language Use in Chicagoland" in M. Farr, ed. ETHNOLINGUISTIC CHICAGO, Lawrence Ehrlbaum, 2001, also accessible under "Collections/Resources after 1900" on the website of the Chinese American Museum of Chicago [www.ccamuseum.org].
    There are also websites focused on Tai/Toi/Hoi-san spkers, e.g., on Facebook: Hoisan Phrases 學講台山話 , Taishan 台山 Hoisan, I Love Being Hoisan 台山, and Hoisan (Toisan) 台山 Home Style Cooking & Cultural Traditions.

  4. Robert Ramsey said,

    February 5, 2022 @ 9:00 pm

    I remember a couple of years ago, I saw a movie about the old West called "Broken Trail," and the plot involved Robert Duvall and Thomas Haden Church saving 5 young Chinese women from a whorehouse slaver. But all the young women spoke carefully articulated Putonghua! This for a drama set in the 19th-century American West. (It was Taishan, of course, that supplied our frontier with whores, and they most certainly did not speak Mandarin!) As a certified pedant, that set my teeth on edge!

  5. Robert Ramsey said,

    February 5, 2022 @ 9:23 pm

    Oh, but one more little note about Chinese-American immigration:
    I've read that the early Chinese immigrants into Hawaii, unlike those who went to West Coast ports, were not from Taishan, but rather from another Siyi district, Zhongshan.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    February 5, 2022 @ 9:39 pm

    When James Ramsey saw this piece with the photograph of Pell Street in 1899, and, being the New York nerd that he is, he had this to say about that scene:


    "Pell: also (with doyers) the location where Wesley Snipes and Larry Fishbourne have a crazy shootout in King of New York. ALSO the location of the hidden Triad bootleg tunnels where they kept booze and corpses in the 20s.

    No but seriously, that little pocket there was the center of that Chinese community’s Tong activities, and I need to maybe be fact checked here, but I believe it’s the most violent, murder-y block in the history of nyc, maybe America (?).


    From Bob Ramsey, who communicated the above two paragraphs to me:


    Wow. I did not know all that! But, in a phone call, James also said that that Pell Street location was part of the infamous crime-infested slum called "Five Points"! As I recall, Five Points was the location featured in that movie "Gangs of New York" by Martin Scorsese, wasn't it?


  7. Su-Chong Lim said,

    February 6, 2022 @ 12:47 am

    Likewise, the Canadian Paciific Railroad was built largely with imported Chinese Labour, also largely dominated by contracted workers from the Toisanese speaking area. After the railway line across Canada was completed in 1885, a large number of the labourers stayed in Canada, and formed the bulk of the Chinese population of Victoria and Vancouver in British Columbia, and also Edmonton and to a lesser extent, Calgary in Alberta.

    An interesting tidbit, is that in Toisanese (or should I say Hoisanese?) 點 while pronounced dim in Cantonese (as in Dim Sum restaurant delicacies, yes, as I said, a tidbit), is pronounced something like yim or ‘im in Hoisanese. So, since more than a century ago, the Hoisanese-speaking community has rendered “Edmonton” as 點問頓, which sounds like “yim-mun-an” in Hoisanese, but would sound more like “dim-man-dan” in Cantonese. (And in Mandarin it would sound even less like “Edmonton”!)

  8. Steve Jones said,

    February 6, 2022 @ 2:40 am

    You may also like Hannibal Taubes's post on A Daoist temple in California

  9. John Rohsenow said,

    February 6, 2022 @ 4:57 am

    PS: I just found on UTube:
    Beginner Taishanese/台山話/-daily routine-Immersion Conversation
    Advanced Beginner Taishanese/台山話-dialects-immersion conversation

  10. Scott P. said,

    February 6, 2022 @ 11:58 am

    The OED would assert not (unless, of course, the "Hoi" of "Hoisan" means "sea" in Hoisan-wa), which I suppose it might, given Hoisan's proximity thereto).

    Wiki gives the etymology of "Taishan" as "Tai Shan" i.e. Mount Tai.

  11. Philip Taylor said,

    February 6, 2022 @ 1:05 pm

    Is that as far as it goes, glossing only the second element ? Huang Shan, for example, translates as "the yellow Mountain", so are we forced to assume that the 臺 element is effectively untranslatable ?

  12. cameron said,

    February 6, 2022 @ 1:11 pm

    I live just a few blocks from that Pell St location. Pell St is very close to where the Five Points was. The Five Points was a particular intersection, and its epicenter is where Federal Courthouse on Worth St is now (US District Court – Southern District of NY). The boundaries of the Five Points neighborhood (insofar as there was one) aren't clear. I suspect Pell St might have been considered part of the turf of the Chatham Square gangs, or the Bowery gangs, rather than the Five Points gangs.

  13. David Marjanović said,

    February 6, 2022 @ 7:15 pm

    Is that as far as it goes, glossing only the second element ?

    I would not be surprised if the name wasn't Sinitic in origin at all, but for example… Tai.

  14. Chris Button said,

    February 7, 2022 @ 6:32 am

    In terms of sounding different from Cantonese, the h- instead of t- for 台 already gives a flavor of it.

  15. Jonathan Smith said,

    February 7, 2022 @ 7:03 am

    "Mount Tai"/"Tai Shan" = Tai4 shan1 泰山 in Shandong… no such mount in Toishan, Guangdong AFAIK; the interwebs report a bunch of hills among which is (was?) a san1tai2shan 三台山 'three terraces hill'… re non-Sinitic etymology often yes but perhaps not in the case of this very new toponym 台山.

  16. Cervantes said,

    February 7, 2022 @ 10:17 am

    Just so I have this straight, if I were to go to Manhattan Chinatown today and enter a restaurant or shop and speak Putonghua (no, I can't it's hypothetical) would they likely understand me? How would they react?

  17. Andreas Johansson said,

    February 7, 2022 @ 10:30 am

    So the dialect in question turns T to H and loses D altogether? I imagine this alone would do a number on mutual intelligibility with Standard Cantonese.

  18. Philip Taylor said,

    February 7, 2022 @ 10:43 am

    Cervantes, I don't know the answer to your question, but I can describe two related situations in the UK :

    1) My wife endeavoured to order in Cantonese at one of the few (at that time) Chinese restaurants in London's Chinatown where the staff all spoke Putonghua — they were unable to understand her, and I had to order for all three of us in English.

    2) A Polish friend who teaches Putonghua in Poland endeavoured to order in Putonghua in another Chinese restaurant in London's Chinatown where the staff spoke Putonghua — they claimed that they could not understand her, and tried to persuade her to speak in English. She refused, perservered, and finally they gave in and spoke to her in Putonghua (and understood her replies).

  19. Victor Mair said,

    February 7, 2022 @ 11:44 am

    Staff in Chinese restaurants abroad nowadays often speak some other Sinitic language than Cantonese and don't feel comfortable speaking Mandarin, since many of them are from places like Wenzhou, Fuzhou, etc.

  20. Jerry Packard said,

    February 7, 2022 @ 2:23 pm

    Cervantes said,

    "Just so I have this straight, if I were to go to Manhattan Chinatown today and enter a restaurant or shop and speak Putonghua (no, I can't it's hypothetical) would they likely understand me? How would they react?"

    They would most likely understand you. It is so common for their customer base to speak Putonghua that they would either understand it themselves or have someone present who understood it.

  21. Viseguy said,

    February 7, 2022 @ 9:56 pm

    Not a linguist, and off-topic, but … I'm a sucker for turn-of-the-20th-century NYC photos, because that's when my mom was born (on East 97th Street in Manhattan, in 1911). Immersing myself in the photo, and focusing, irresistibly, on the men's hats, I was surprised at the relatively few derbies/bowlers, and equally by the predominance of homburg-style, curl-brimmed hats. Bowlers being the class-annihilating everyman's topper, homburgs being the hat of the better-to-do classes — or so I thought. Anyway, thank you for the pic!

  22. tsts said,

    February 7, 2022 @ 10:05 pm

    @Cervantes: Yes, they would probably understand you. But if you spoke Cantonese to them, they would most likely also understand you, and businesses in Manhattan's Chinatown are still run mainly by Cantonese and Toisanese speakers. (But don't try this in Flushing.) And if you spoke Toisanese or Fuzhounese, they might or might not.

    @Andreas Johansson: Yes, sort of. Usually, "t" becomes "h" in Toisanese, "d" often falls away but not always, "s" often but not always becomes a "ll" (as "ll" in Welsh!!), "a" sometimes becomes "i" (as in "yahn" becoming "yihn"), and a few other things, including changes in what words are used. For example, "lohk yuh" (to rain) becomes "lohk sui" ("sui" being water). Knowing Cantonese and a few of the above "rewrite rules" gets you about halfway there in terms of understanding, though often with a few seconds latency.

    Related to this, there seem to be a lot of similarities between Toisanese and certain varieties of Pinghua (e.g., Binyanghua), and I have been wondering why it is grouped under Yue rather than Ping. (But then being married to a Toisanese does not make me a linguist, so what do I know?)

    @John Rohsenow: Concerning Chicago's Chinatown being the only one still growing, that depends on which Chinatown in NYC you are talking about. We are now up to 6 at least, with the ones outside Manhattan (3 in Brooklyn, 2 in Queens) are probably still growing.

    As for Toisanese immigration, that is very much still going on via family sponsorship. It is now a smaller percentage of the Chinese in NYC, but still a decent chunk of the new arrivals. (Not sure, maybe 15% still?). The alumni association of the top high school in Taishan (taishan yi zhong) claims over 1000 alumni just in the NYC area. They used to have an annual gala with 500+ people in the large Jing Fong (gam fung) dimsum hall, but Covid interrupted that and now the place is closed.

    One problem with preserving Toisanese for the next generation is that there is not a lot of support available in terms of media and language schools. Historically, this has often resulted in the next generation drifting towards Cantonese, which has many more resources, but more recently towards Mandarin. (While Cantonese is much closer, it is still a different language and there seems to be no strong emotional bond to it as opposed to Mandarin among most Toisanese.)

  23. Chris Button said,

    February 7, 2022 @ 11:19 pm

    @ tsts

    s" often but not always becomes a "ll" (as "ll" in Welsh!!), "a" sometimes becomes "i" (as in "yahn"

    So ɬ → s ? That’s so interesting because it’s the reverse of the usual ɬ → s.

  24. John Rohsenow said,

    February 8, 2022 @ 3:31 am

    Once one starts looking, there are all sorts of Learn Taishanese videos on UTube:
    Basic Beginner Taishanese/台山話/-lunch-Immersion Conversation
    Learn Taishanese Phrases – Greetings and General Words via Videos by GoLearningBus(4A)
    Beginner Taishanese/台山話/-Present-Immersion Conversation
    The Importance of Using Taishanese
    What is Taishanese?
    Cantonese vs Taishanese (ft. Inspirlang)

  25. tsts said,

    February 8, 2022 @ 1:00 pm

    @Chris Button: I don't know what came first. I was talking about going from Cantonese to Toisanese as someone who first learned Cantonese. I am not claiming that is how things developed. But it is odd that there are several places in South China where people use these ɬ sounds.

    @John Rohsenow: Yes, there are many videos where people tell you how to say hello and count to ten in Toisanese. But where do you go from there? Offerings are very limited beyond that.

  26. David Marjanović said,

    February 8, 2022 @ 1:51 pm

    Spinoff thread on Taishanese, with a link (in a comment) to a paper on its phonetics and phonology, and how it all developed from (more or less) Middle Sinitic. (It's on JSTOR; you can read it on the site if you have a free account, but not download it.)

    [s] > [ɬ] is confirmed, and argued to be part of a push chain triggered by the loss of the Middle Sinitic retroflexes; [tʰ] > [h] and [d̥] > zero are also confirmed (I would guess these two went through [θ ð]). The tone system is fascinating.

  27. Philip Taylor said,

    February 8, 2022 @ 3:45 pm

    David M's "spinoff thread" hs a malformed URL; it is really here.

  28. Chris Button said,

    February 8, 2022 @ 8:41 pm

    So if we’re getting s → ɬ rather than the predictable ɬ → s , then I suppose there is probably some analogical change going on that’s tied to some earlier ɬ ~ s variation in the lexicon and is provoked by the chain shift.

  29. beowulf888 said,

    February 8, 2022 @ 11:21 pm

    @Cervantes: twenty years ago, yes you would likely hear Guangdonghua (Cantonese) spoken in a Chinese restaurant in NYC or SF Chinatowns. Putonghua was rarely spoken by older people—but the original owners of these restaurants have sold out, retired, and passed away. In NYC Chinatown, you're more likely to Fuzhouhua speakers who can also speak Putonghua. In the San Francisco Bay Area it seems to me that northerners who are native Putonghua speakers have begun to dominate the restaurant trade. However, that's purely my subjective impressions.

    My god parents were the children of Cantonese speakers whose parents came to the US early in the 20th Century. Although their parents and grandparents hailed from Xinhua County (next to Taishan County) they spoke standard Cantonese with what I later discovered were an odd accent. I learned my (limited) conversational Cantonese from them, and when I moved to Hong Kong, I got laughed at for my rural accent and some of the phrases and words I used. While in the US, I had no problem speaking to Cantonese restaurant owners. But in recent years it's been harder to find anyone who speaks Cantonese.

  30. KIRINPUTRA said,

    February 13, 2022 @ 8:58 am

    When I arrived in Mérida (Venezuela) some years back, I didn't get why the 天天 Restaurant romanized its name as "Gin Gin". Then it hit me — 天 has an [h] initial in Hoisanoid, and Spanish "gi-" = [hi], in most of the Americas, anyway.

    Venezuela back then was covered by a network of merchants & employees from 恩平, near Hoisan. Some of the middle-aged women were monolingual in the Hoisan-like dialect of 恩平. The men & younger women were fluent in Cantonese and children seemed to be expected to learn it by osmosis. I wonder if any of them are still there.

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