Street Signs in Chinatown.

Aaron Reiss and Denise Lu have a wonderful NY Times story (archived) about street signs in New York’s Chinatown; it’s one of those things that wouldn’t have occurred to me to wonder about, but as soon as it’s brought to my attention I want to know all about it. A snippet:

Bilingual street signs have hung over the bustling streets of the city’s oldest Chinatown for more than 50 years. They are the product of a program from the 1960s aimed at making navigating the neighborhood easier for those Chinese New Yorkers who might not read English.

These signs represented a formal recognition of the growing influence of a neighborhood that for more than a century had largely been relegated to the margins of the city’s attention. But as the prominence of Manhattan’s Chinatown as the singular Chinese cultural center of the city has waned in the 21st century, this unique piece of infrastructure has begun to slowly disappear.

The details are fascinating, and you can read about the laborious process of reporting, involving walking more than 12 miles, creating hand-drawn maps for every corner that needed checking and recording each bilingual street sign by taking a picture and jotting down the location, here (archived). When my love for urban history intersects with my love for language, how can I resist?

And a quick shout-out to Scotty Scott for responding to every question in his NPR interview with a straight answer: no “What a great question,” no “So…” — just the facts. You get the Languagehat Responsive Response Award for March, Chef Scotty!


  1. The old Chinatown in Brisbane (Queensland) is located in Fortitude Valley (usually just called ‘the Valley’). At some stage (1990s?) there was a program to put up Chinese-language street signs, but given the small number of streets involved I’m not sure the motivation was so much to help lost Chinese residents around as to give the area ‘character’. Even platform signs giving the name of the local railway station, Brunswick Street Station, had Chinese written under the English. Since then the station has been renamed ‘Fortitude Valley Station’ and IIRR there is no more Chinese signage.

    While the Fortitude Valley Chinatown still has a number of Chinese restaurants, it’s more important historically than as a present-day Chinatown. The real Chinatown is now located out in the suburbs, at Sunnybank and Sunnybank Hills. And I’m pretty sure street signs are all in English.

  2. given the small number of streets involved I’m not sure the motivation was so much to help lost Chinese residents around as to give the area ‘character’.

    I imagine that’s true, but I approve anyway!

  3. The closest thing to Chinatown here was черкизовский рынок, Cherkizovo market. It was HUGE. A general purpose market where you could buy, say, cheap jeans. It irritated the city administration and was closed. But as I said it was huge, and attached to it was an area where Chinese workers and sellers lived. Some time after I noticed the local community, I learned from our Chinese scholars about shops where Chinese food (Chinese food for Chinese eaters) and chinese cooking utensils could be bought, both at the market (cheaper) and near it.

    A строительный рынок (still very large, I mean, the size of a medieval town — but not HUGE), that’s a market where you can buy ceramic tiles, parquetry walpaper, paint and stuff, that I know has a smaller “classical” market behind it. By classical market I mean: rows of tables and jeans. The sellers look like… Vietnamese. And too my surprise, the “street signs” (that is, signs above each row) are in Vientamese. I do not know what and why is written there, in Russian markets there are usually no signs other then, say “B-2” (row B number 2). I also do not know who and why is buying clothes there.

    I wanted to study such ecosystems when I start learning Chinese and Vietnamese (I planned both), but…

  4. I wonder if this second market was a market for market workers:) Another and very sweet memory from that market was Uzbek eatery for Uzbek workers. It was the cheapest eatery I’ve ever seen in Moscow after maybe the university cafeteria. The food was… simple (less simple than the university cafeteria, though). But it was very clean, very neat, and the seller/cook was very freindly and polite. In terms of effort invested in keeping the place attractive per rouble it set a record.

  5. I have quite a few shots of street signs in Honolulu (and a few from Portland OR) on my Flickr site.
    Here are a few of the captions, without the too-large images:
    WN Gezhu Jie (NW Couch St.), Portland, Oregon: The character GE (which sounds like “guh”) means ‘kudzu’ and ZHU means ‘pearl’.
    Bilitianni-jie (bei) (N. Beretania St.), Chinatown, Honolulu: The characters for bi-li-tian-ni may sound different in southern Chinese dialects.
    Chapulin-xiang (Chaplin Lane), Chinatown, Honolulu: The characters mean ‘investigate-normal-woods alley’.
    Jing-jie (bei) (N. King St.), Chinatown, Honolulu: The character for King means ‘capital’, as in Beijing/Peking ‘north capital’ or Nanjing/Nanking ‘south capital’.
    Qikeliqi-jie (Kekaulike St.), Chinatown, Honolulu: In southern Chinese dialects, the characters would sound more like Ki-ko-li-ki.
    Bei Nimizi Gaosu Gonglu (N. Nimitz Hwy.), Chinatown, Honolulu: ‘Highway’ is literally ‘high-speed public-road’.
    Monajia-jie (Maunakea St.), Chinatown, Honolulu: In southern Chinese dialects, the characters would sound more like Mo-na-ki-a.
    Hetili-jie bei (N. Hotel St.), Chinatown, Honolulu: In southern Chinese dialects, the characters would sound more like Ho-te-li.
    Shimisi-jie (Smith St.), Chinatown, Honolulu: The characters mean ‘history-mystery-this street’.
    Hebian-jie (River St.), Chinatown, Honolulu: The characters mean ‘river-side street’.
    Nuannu-jie (Nu’uanu Ave.), Chinatown, Honolulu: The Hawaiian name means ‘cool heights’, but the Chinese characters mean ‘striving-peaceful-slave’ because they sound like nu-an-nu.
    Lots of different strategies for rendering the English and Hawaiian names into Cantonese.

  6. Lots of different strategies for rendering

    Apart from Hebian-jie, Gaosu gonglu, and points of the compass, almost all phonetic renderings.

  7. John Emerson says

    The old Portland Chinatown has been developed mostly as a tourist attraction and is no longer a main center of Chinese life. It was immediately adjacent to skid row where derelicts and winos congregated, and by and large Chinese left when they could afford to. There has also been a new Chinese immigration during the last several decades, which tends to be middle class with tech jobs, and their Chinatown in in Beaverton, a suburb. .

    Besides old Chinatown near the city center and suburban Beaverton , there are various ethnic clusters (Chinese , Vietnamese, Russian, Korean, and maybe Filipino in SE and NE outside 82nd, far from downtown. That’s where the best Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese restaurants are now. A lot of the black population is out there now too.

    For decades a city landmark and conversation piece was a restaurant and bar called Hung Far Low, a popular Reed College (and Lewis and Clark) hang out. The food wasn’t especially good, but if you wanted a dive bar atmosphere it was the place to go. The place closed down some time ago, but for tourist and nostalgic reasons its sign remains.

  8. Hung Far Low is a terrible name for a restaurant 🙂 Red Flower Restaurant according to Wikipedia. That’s 紅花樓, which is fine in Chinese.

  9. As I recall, Hung Far Low was the place you had to go to pay for parking in the Chinatown lot if the attendant had gone home for the night. I assume that, being a dive bar, it was probably open later than anywhere else around that block.

    The other sign that I remember around Chinatown was an ugly illuminated sign (or sequence of signs, actually) for the porn shop that was right next to the Chinatown lion gate. It got broken and had to be replaced fairly frequently (presumably as a result of vandalism by civic-minded young Chinese-Americans).

  10. San Francisco Chinatown signs, not surprisingly, also reflect some kind of Yue pronunciation, documented with many examples here. The author says it’s “probably Taishanese Cantonese”, specifically. Taishanese is the predominant language in SF Chinatown, but is usually referred to as Cantonese. My understanding is that the two are not easily mutually intelligible.

  11. Hung Far Low is obviously a transcription chosen in jest. The usual Hong Kong-style romanization of 紅花樓 would be Hung Fa Lau.

    @Y: While the predominant language in San Francisco Chinatown was originally Taishanese, there is good reason to think that the signs are based on Standard Cantonese readings of the characters as Standard Cantonese is traditionally the prestige variety for all speakers of Yue Chinese including Taishanese.

    Of course, the Chinese writing system isn’t phonetic and the readings for many characters are similar in Taishanese and Standard Cantonese, but when they do differ considerably we can compare which reading is closer to the original. To choose an example from the link, consider that “Commercial” was rendered as 襟美慎. In Standard Cantonese this is Kam-meih-sahn, but in Taishanese it’s closer to Kim-mi-sin. I would say that the transcription was based more or less on Standard Cantonese.

  12. Would you say that Cantonese and Taishanese are to one another, roughly, like Spanish and Portuguese?

  13. The city of Boston recently installed a few street signs in Chinese on some of the streets in Boston’s Chinatown. The story here.

    I made a list of the local names of the streets for myself, and I’ve added it below for anyone else who is curious. Being only a dilettante in Chinese linguistics, I’m not sure of all the readings, but I hope to check them with residents of the neighborhood soon and perhaps collect the Taishanese readings.

    華盛頓街 Washington Street (Cantonese Jyutping: waa4 sing6 deon6; Mandarin Pinyin: huáshèngdùn; the widely used transliteration of the name of the US president and the city)
    必珠街 Beach Street (bit1 zyu1; bìzhū)
    夏利臣街 Harrison Avenue (haa6 lei6 san4; xiàlìchén)
    泰勒街 Tyler Street (taai3 lak6; tàilè)
    好事福街 Oxford Street (hou2 si6 fuk1; hǎoshìfú; a literary allusion?)
    乞臣街 Hudson Street (hat1 san4; qǐchén)
    尼倫街 Kneeland Street (nei4 leun4; nílún)

    Some of these name sound to me as if they work both in Cantonese(~Taishanese) and in Mandarin. Clearly, however, the name for Hudson Street originated in Cantonese, not Mandarin, and the name for Harrison Avenue works better in Cantonese, too.

  14. Although today’s Standard Cantonese reading of 襟美慎 is indeed Kām-méih-sahn based on the Yale transcription, the initial of 慎 was actually sh [ɕ] earlier (compare the Mandarin reading shèn) before sh and s merged in the 20th century. Using the romanization used in The Student’s Cantonese-English Dictionary (3rd ed., 1947), the traditional reading was Kʼam-meĭ-shân, which is a bit closer to “Commercial”.

    @Y: Would you say that Cantonese and Taishanese are to one another, roughly, like Spanish and Portuguese?

    I don’t speak Cantonese except for a few phrases and have had very little exposure to Taishanese, but from what I can tell there is considerable dialectal variation in Taishanese. As I mentioned in an earlier discussion here, one version of Taishanese I heard was quite similar to Standard Cantonese, but another version seemed closer to the linguistic descriptions I had seen. It is possible that the Yue Chinese spoken by some in traditionally Taishanese-speaking areas is shifting closer to Standard Cantonese, but they’re still calling it Taishanese, though this is just speculation on my part.

    That second video I linked to provides some insight on the relationship between Cantonese and Taishanese. It’s hard for me to compare the relative distance between the two with that of Spanish and Portuguese (are we talking pronunciation or other aspects?) but perhaps a better comparison socio-linguistically might be the relationship between French and Walloon (not Belgian French but the original langue d’oïl that was spoken in Wallonia)—Walloon has considerable dialectal variation, French is the prestige language for Walloon speakers, therefore Walloon speakers understand French but not vice versa, etc.

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