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HomeWorldManhattan’s Chinese Street Signs Are Disappearing

Manhattan’s Chinese Street Signs Are Disappearing


As with many neighborhoods in New York City, Chinatown has a history that is legible in layers. Here in Lower Manhattan, Republic of China flags still flutter above the offices of family associations that were founded before the Communist Revolution. Job posting boards covered in slips of paper cater to recent immigrants. Instagrammable dessert shops serve young locals and tourists alike. “For Rent / 出租” signs are everywhere, alluding to the shrinking number of Chinese businesses and residents.

And above a dwindling number of intersections hang signs declaring the names of the street in English and in Chinese.

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.

At least seven bilingual street signs have been removed since the 1980s.

There are about 100 bilingual street signs across two dozen streets in Chinatown today, of the at least 155 bilingual signs ordered in 1985. While there are no official records of the removed signs, a New York Times analysis has found photographic evidence of at least seven signs that have been removed or replaced by English-only signs since 1985.



Location of existing bilingual signs

Streets that currently have bilingual signs are labeled

Location of existing bilingual signs

Streets that currently have bilingual signs are labeled

Location of existing bilingual signs

Streets that currently have bilingual signs are labeled

Location of existing bilingual signs

Streets that currently have bilingual signs are labeled

Streets that currently have bilingual signs are labeled

Location of existing bilingual signs

Streets that currently have bilingual signs are labeled

Location of existing bilingual signs

New York Times analysis of historical imagery from Google Street View, Chinatown: Lens on The Lower East Side by Lower East Side Preservation Initiative, Museum of Chinese in America, Heart of Chinatown: A Panoramic Tour by Iron Sights Studio.

Most records of the program seem to have either been destroyed in a flood at a Department of Transportation facility, lost in the subsequent move or (as suggested by a few stumped officials interviewed for this article) never recorded in the first place.

We set out to survey what was left to piece together the program’s history.

Of the bilingual signs that have been removed, at least four were taken down in recent years.

According to the Department of Transportation, bilingual signs that have recently been damaged or removed during construction were often replaced by English-only signs.




Canal Street at Allen Street

Catherine Street at Chatham Square

Canal Street at Allen Street

Catherine Street at Chatham Square

Canal Street at Allen Street

Catherine Street at Chatham Square

Canal Street at Allen Street

Catherine Street at Chatham Square

Google Street View and James Estrin/The New York Times

Bilingual services are a fact of life in a city where more than three million residents from almost 200 countries speak more than 700 languages and dialects.

New York provides language help for city functions like voting, subway wayfinding and court proceedings, and single, non-English street name signs have been installed in some of the city’s ethnic communities, including West 32nd Street in Koreatown, co-named Korea Way “한국 타운”, and a portion of Avenue C co-named “Loisaida” (Lower East Side), in homage to the Puerto Rican community.

Forsyth Street next to the Manhattan Bridge, where street vendors hold a daily open-air market.

Forsyth Street next to the Manhattan Bridge, where street vendors hold a daily open-air market.An Rong Xu for The New York Times

But the signs on Chinatown’s streets are different: They are a vast, neighborhood-wide exercise in translation carried out hand-in-hand with the city government — a completely bilingual street grid.

The history of these signs tells the story of the growth, decline and evolution of one of Manhattan’s largest immigrant communities.


In 1883, Wong Chin Foo (王淸福) — an early writer and advocate on Chinese American issues — arrived in Manhattan and started New York City’s first Chinese-language newspaper, The Chinese American. For the paper’s headquarters, he chose an office space on Chatham Street (now Park Row) a few blocks south of what was shaping up to be the city’s first Chinatown.

Mr. Wong wrote that his aim was “to make this paper supply the long-felt want of our countrymen, of whom not one in a thousand can read a word of English.”

The city’s earliest Chinese residents had started settling in the area around Mott and Pell Streets a few decades before, around the time Mr. Wong arrived in the United States to attend college. As Mr. Wong pursued his American education, Chinese immigration to the country was increasing as thousands of Chinese were recruited to work on the construction of the transcontinental railroad. Chinese immigrants often faced horrendous treatment, legal discrimination and unfair labor practices, which Mr. Wong wrote about and lectured on around the country.

Chinese names for Manhattan streets are as old as Chinatown itself.

The first edition of the Chinese American in the 1800s included the office’s address in both Chinese and English on its masthead, translating Chatham Street (now known as Park Row) to 咀啉街, a phonetic transliteration of the street.


Museum of Chinese in America

After the final spike was driven on the transcontinental railroad in 1869, Chinese laborers found themselves without reliable work and facing rising racial animus and violence in the Western states. An increasing number started migrating to Eastern cities. By the time Mr. Wong arrived in 1883, Manhattan’s Chinatown had become a destination for Chinese immigrants.

Pell Street circa 1900. Manhattan’s Chinatown became increasingly attractive as anti-Chinese violence in the West – including the 1885 Rock Springs Massacre in Wyoming and 1887 Hells Canyon Massacre in Oregon – increased.

Pell Street circa 1900. Manhattan’s Chinatown became increasingly attractive as anti-Chinese violence in the West – including the 1885 Rock Springs Massacre in Wyoming and 1887 Hells Canyon Massacre in Oregon – increased.via Library of Congress

It was also around this time that informal Chinese street names began to appear in Chinatown — written on shop windows and in personal correspondence.


On June 11, 1966, two police officers, Joseph LaVeglia and Chris Columbo, were on Chatham Square in matching plaid shirts and buzzcuts. They had been sent by the city to install new signs above the Chinatown’s police call boxes (a quick way to reach a local police precinct in an era before cellphones). The signs explained what the boxes were for and how to use them — in Chinese.

“The voice at the other end of the Chinese-marked phone neither speaks nor comprehends a whit of Chinese,” The Times wrote in 1966, “‘What’sa matter — can’t you speak English?’ is roughly what would come in reply.”

“The voice at the other end of the Chinese-marked phone neither speaks nor comprehends a whit of Chinese,” The Times wrote in 1966, “‘What’sa matter — can’t you speak English?’ is roughly what would come in reply.”New York Times article published on June 12, 1966.

The new Chinese-language instructions were an attempt by the city to accommodate the growing number of people who did not speak English fluently, driven by a massive influx of immigrants from all over China and the Chinese diaspora following the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965, which completely overhauled Chinese immigration to the United States.

B.F. Yee (余炳輝) and Y.T. Huang (黃浩然) from the Chinese Chamber of Commerce posed with Theodore Karagheuzoff, then Commissioner of Traffic, and the city’s first bilingual street name signs on Jan. 15, 1969.

B.F. Yee (余炳輝) and Y.T. Huang (黃浩然) from the Chinese Chamber of Commerce posed with Theodore Karagheuzoff, then Commissioner of Traffic, and the city’s first bilingual street name signs on Jan. 15, 1969.Carl T. Gossett/The New York Times

Around the same time, another effort to assist new arrivals with navigating the neighborhood was taking shape: The Chinese Chamber of Commerce, one of the few local organizations that acted as a conduit between Chinatown and the city bureaucracy, was petitioning the New York City Transit Authority to create and install bilingual street signs in Chinatown “to make life simpler for the thousands of new Chinese immigrants,” wrote The New York Times in 1969, “who arrive with little knowledge of the English language or Latin alphabet.”

The growing profile of Chinatown fanned simmering conflicts with neighboring communities.

The Chinese-language World Journal reported in 1985 that the bilingual street signs sparked racially motivated vandalism and violence years ago, that “Italian youth even beat up officers from the Department of Transportation,” and that “the youth also vandalized the street signs, crossing out the Chinese characters with black paint.”


Jerry S.Y. Cheng and William E. Sauro/The New York Times

The idea of “official” Chinese street names, however, opened up a novel issue: What Chinese names to use? While Chinese dialects share the same written language (either in simplified or traditional forms), the pronunciation of each character can vary widely, dialect to dialect.

In the late 1960s, a majority of immigrants in Chinatown came from China’s southern regions of Toisan and Canton (now known as Guangzhou). While the final names were reportedly based on community submissions and chosen to be phonetically understandable to immigrants speaking different dialects, Toisanese and Cantonese are most clearly reflected in the names chosen.

There are two main approaches to these translations.

Literal: Direct translation to meaningful words in Chinese that do not sound like their English counterparts.

Phonetic: Transliteration using Chinese characters to mimic similar sounds to their English counterparts that may not be meaningful otherwise in Chinese.

Over the years, different names using different characters have been given for the same streets based on what sounded right to the translator. Here is an example of how translation for East Broadway has changed.

Name used in a map from 1958

伊士
Phonetic transliteration of “East”
布律威
Phonetic transliteration of “Broadway”

Modern D.O.T. street sign


Literal translation of “East”
百老滙
Phonetic transliteration of “Broadway”

One Chinese street name can have many pronunciations.

Several sounds in the English language don’t exist in many Chinese dialects, making the recreation of English words with Chinese characters a sometimes difficult task. Additionally, a name that, in Cantonese, might sound almost identical to the street’s English name can sound completely different in another dialect — and nothing like the English name.

chathamsquare

English Cantonese Mandarin Toisanese Fujian dialect

且林市果

且林市果

forsyth

English Cantonese Mandarin Toisanese Fujian dialect

科西街

科西街

parkrow

English Cantonese Mandarin Toisanese Fujian dialect

柏路

柏路

mott

English Cantonese Mandarin Toisanese Fujian dialect

勿街

勿街

Museum of Chinese in America and Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Chinatown was becoming more diverse. With immigrants from other regions, dialects like Mandarin and Fujianese quickly spread through the neighborhood.

Mott Street in 1968. As throughout the United States, the late 1960s was a period of political invigoration for young people in Chinatown, who founded several activist and community service organizations that would come to shape Chinatown’s civil society for the next 50 years.

Mott Street in 1968. As throughout the United States, the late 1960s was a period of political invigoration for young people in Chinatown, who founded several activist and community service organizations that would come to shape Chinatown’s civil society for the next 50 years.Don Hogan Charles/The New York Times

While the signs failed to represent the diversity of dialects, their arrival represented a new era of prominence for Manhattan’s Chinatown, as the community had grown into a thriving home and commercial center for Chinese New Yorkers.


One hundred years after Mr. Wong set up his newspaper’s headquarters on Chatham Street, a young urban planner named Jerry S.Y. Cheng (鄭向元) found himself down the street, trying to figure out how to make sense of the snarled traffic around Chatham Square.

From when Mr. Wong arrived in Chinatown up to the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act, Chinatown’s population grew steadily to around 15,000 residents. When Mr. Cheng immigrated from Taiwan in 1969, the population had already started to balloon, and by 1985, it had grown to 70,000 residents. The area’s economy, powered by the garment and restaurants industries, was booming. There were more business, more shops, more people and more traffic.

Doyers Street in 1977.

Doyers Street in 1977.Paul Hosefros/The New York Times

As a result, Mr. Cheng found himself in demand. “They would come to me with problems because I am Chinese,” Mr. Cheng said. “I know the leaders, I can translate — I became like a bridge.”

It was in this context that Mr. Cheng met Li Boli (李立波), the president of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, a supervisory body for some 60 organizations that has long been an unofficial (though oft-disputed) governmental body in Chinatown.

Handwritten calligraphy was used for the signs.

The Chinese characters on the signs were handwritten by Tan Bingzhong (譚炳忠), a prominent local calligrapher. Chinese media at the time wrote that “his vigorous and forceful handwriting brought an artistic atmosphere to the practicality-oriented road signs.” While Edward I. Koch, then mayor, wasn’t at the official 1985 sign unveiling, he did write a personal letter of thanks to Mr. Tan.



New York City Department of Transportation and Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

Tiny differences make every character unique.

Because every Chinese name was drawn by Mr. Tan, his handiwork can be seen in the details. 街, the character for “street,” appears on almost every sign, but there are small variations in the character on every one.

Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

In 1984, Mr. Li called Mr. Cheng to talk about street signs. By then, the geographic footprint of Chinatown had grown — by some estimates, doubling in size — and had started to encompass areas previously considered Little Italy, the Bowery and the Lower East Side. After President Richard Nixon’s famous 1972 visit to China and the thawing of U.S.-Chinese relations, more and more Mandarin- and Fujianese-speaking immigrants were arriving every year.

With Mr. Cheng’s help, the Benevolent Association petitioned the Transportation Department to expand the bilingual street name program to reflect the area’s growth.

“There wasn’t a lot of pushback from D.O.T.,” said David Gurin, who was deputy commissioner at the time. “The community asked for the signs, and so they were kind of a courtesy.”

The only controversy was over where exactly the boundaries of the Chinese street signs (a proxy for the boundaries of Chinatown) should be drawn. The Transportation Department apparently commissioned a two-month study of the extent of Chinatown, but the results of that study are most likely lost.

The records of the program are lost, destroyed or incomplete.

This map (without accompanying key, legend or documentation) and other fragmented records seem to show that streets as far north as Broome Street and as far west as Lafayette Street were considered for bilingual signs. None of the people involved in this project who are still living have been able to say definitively.




Highlighted streets where the department seems to have considered installing bilingual signs.

Outlined area where bilingual signs were installed.

Highlighted streets where the department seems to have considered installing bilingual signs.

Outlined area where bilingual signs were installed.

New York City Department of Transportation

When I asked Mr. Cheng if he remembered what kinds of records might be kept, he laughed out loud. “No, no, I don’t think so,” he said. “I don’t think there will be much. Almost everyone involved in this has passed away.”

What we do know is that once the streets were agreed upon, the next hurdle was, again, choosing the Chinese names. This time, the group making the decisions was a committee within the Benevolent Association — business owners, property owners and longtime residents who predominantly spoke Toisanese and Cantonese.

Jerry S.Y. Cheng, a former city planner. Mr. Cheng’s personal records and collection of newspaper clippings helped piece together the history of this unique city program.

Jerry S.Y. Cheng, a former city planner. Mr. Cheng’s personal records and collection of newspaper clippings helped piece together the history of this unique city program.An Rong Xu for The New York Times

They were choosing names for a very different Chinatown, yet the chosen names again relied on Toisanese and Cantonese dialects, ignoring large segments of Chinatown’s newest immigrants.

They also ignored the colloquial street names that were common in parts of the neighborhood. Different waves of Chinese immigrants had given names to streets that spoke more to the culture on the street than the English name. For example, to many in Chinatown, Mulberry was known as Corpse Street because it was lined with funeral homes, florists and effigy shops. Many of these names are still used in Chinatown today.

A clip from 北美日報, a now-defunct Chinese-language newspaper, shows a ceremony at the headquarters of the Benevolent Association to celebrate the completion of the 1985 bilingual sign expansion. Li Boli poses with David Gurin, front center, flanked by Peter Pennica and Elizabeth Theofan, Transportation Department officials. In the back row, Mr. Cheng is at the far right and Mr. Tan is second from the left.

A clip from 北美日報, a now-defunct Chinese-language newspaper, shows a ceremony at the headquarters of the Benevolent Association to celebrate the completion of the 1985 bilingual sign expansion. Li Boli poses with David Gurin, front center, flanked by Peter Pennica and Elizabeth Theofan, Transportation Department officials. In the back row, Mr. Cheng is at the far right and Mr. Tan is second from the left.Jerry S.Y. Cheng


Chinatown is still a vibrant cultural center for Chinese and Chinese Americans and a landing pad for new Chinese immigrants, but the neighborhood is shrinking. Asians are the fastest growing population in New York City, according to the 2020 census. However, Chinatown has experienced the largest exodus of Asian residents of any neighborhood in the city, even as increasing numbers settle in Brooklyn and Queens.

The changes are a result of cumulative effects that go back to at least Sept. 11, 2001; the aftermath of the attacks dealt an immense blow to the Chinatown economy, especially the restaurant and garment industries. Meanwhile, real estate speculation and foreign investment have fueled rising rents, and most recently, the pandemic has led to a rise in racist rhetoric and violence, and a decrease in business at the area’s shops.

A shop on East Broadway, one of the few remaining tenants of the historic East Broadway Mall. Known as 怡東樓 to local Fujianese, the city-owned mall is an important commercial space that once housed around 80 small businesses. The Covid-19 pandemic has put over 75 percent of the mall’s tenants out of business, and its future is uncertain.

A shop on East Broadway, one of the few remaining tenants of the historic East Broadway Mall. Known as 怡東樓 to local Fujianese, the city-owned mall is an important commercial space that once housed around 80 small businesses. The Covid-19 pandemic has put over 75 percent of the mall’s tenants out of business, and its future is uncertain.An Rong Xu for The New York Times

In recent years, local efforts have been channeled toward community organizing and demonstrations, like those against the closure of Jing Fong (the historic dim sum restaurant, and the last union restaurant in Chinatown), the construction of a new jail in the heart of the neighborhood, the latest city rezoning efforts and gentrification and displacement. Protests against anti-Asian violence have filled parks and public plazas. In the face of these visceral struggles, issues like bilingual street signs seem to command little attention.

Which is maybe why many have not realized that the bilingual street signs are also disappearing.

Only 101 bilingual signs remain in Chinatown. At the program’s peak, at least 155 had been ordered to be printed. Of the 40 streets that Mr. Tan was asked to do calligraphy for, nearly half no longer have a single remaining bilingual sign. According to Alana Morales, deputy press secretary at the Transportation Department, “The Chinese-bilingual signs are not part of the U.S. DOT’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways.” This means that if bilingual street signs are knocked down or damaged, she said, “they are replaced with signs in English.”

A damaged bilingual sign for Catherine Street, which may be a candidate for replacement with an English-only sign.Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

Many of the people involved in the 1980s push are dead, and there is little pressure to maintain the program. The signs are viewed by the city as a one-time program that will slowly fade away, rather than as some permanent part of the city’s infrastructure.

In present-day Chinatown, organizations like the Chinese Chamber of Commerce and the Benevolent Association still have influence — they are common stops, for example, for local politicians looking for an endorsement in Chinatown. But as the neighborhood has become more diverse, their time as the main liaison between the city and the neighborhood has passed.

Meanwhile, a host of new advocacy organizations have risen up with new priorities and serving different segments of Chinatown’s population, focusing on issues like affordable housing, displacement, community services and Covid relief.

None of the local residents, community organizers, business owners or scholars interviewed for this article were previously aware that the signs were disappearing.



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