It is not too bold of an assumption to say we have all eaten at a Chinese restaurant named Golden Dragon or Hunan Garden at some point in our lives. The English names of Chinese restaurants are notoriously unimaginative and often totally reductive. They typically contain one of the following: bland sentiment (Nice Time Cafe), callous boasts (#1, Supreme, Top, Super, etc.), or some amalgam of the following elements: precious metal + prestigious animal + widely popular Chinese food item + powerful leadership role (Jade Empress, Noodle King, Phoenix Palace).
But what can trends in Chinese restaurant naming tell us about Chinese America?
The pre-existing research on this topic is slim and possibly nonexistent (this assertion is based on a few half-hearted Google searches performed shortly before publication). I found few Chowhound threads, a Yahoo Answers page and this amazing (and only slightly racist) Chinese restaurant name generator.
This study seeks to identify some basic trends in Chinese restaurant naming, then use the findings to fuel a discussion of what drives these trends.
Our data comes from my occasional lunch partner David Chan, a Los Angeles accountant and attorney who has eaten at more than 6,300 different Chinese restaurants over the past three decades. Entries begin in the 1980s and are current as of June 20. The bulk of the data comes from Southern California, but Chan has also eaten extensively across the United States and the world. There are 6,317 restaurants included in this “analysis.”
Relevant terms for analysis were established by scrolling repeatedly through this list in Excel and writing down any commonly occurring terms that I could identify before my eyes began to water. The spreadsheet was also uploaded into Google Refine, a data-cleaning and analysis tool that can cluster like terms and count commonly occurring words. Using the filters, I counted whatever search terms occurred to me over the course of two Saturday afternoons and one Sunday night.
The most commonly occurring terms are gathered for “analysis” below (discussion follows infographic).
As expected, our results show that Chinese restaurant names are uncommonly repetitive. Some surprising results: the most commonly occurring restaurant name was “China Express.” Dragons are more popular than pandas. The use of the word Oriental seems to have declined as society places higher value on political correctness.
What produces this naming monotony? My first thought is that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and also the most brazen form of competition. Chinese restaurant owners are notoriously cutthroat. A $5.95 lunch special is usually followed by a $5.75 lunch special across the street, and in the same vein, a 101 Noodle Express is one-upped by a 102 Noodles Town, and a Hunan Garden is easily topped by #1 Hunan Garden. Perhaps the repetition in names is just an outgrowth of that competition. Brand-name recognition is often worth the copyright lawsuit, as evinced by the number of restaurants calling themselves Panda Express who are not officially licensed franchises of the national chain.
My next theory is that there is a demographic of Chinese-restaurant owners who really don’t care what their English restaurant names are — those who are comfortably situated in a majority-Chinese community.
Many cities in the San Gabriel Valley require a certain amount of English on the storefront sign. These laws are oftentimes relics from the 1980s and 1990s, when politicians besieged by waves of Asian immigration tried to use municipal code to hold back the tidal wave of demographic change. Perhaps the half-considered English names are a kiss-off to these laws. If you’re catering to a largely Chinese clientele, your English name goes unused. It’s just another box to check off on the business-permit application. Names with prestigious acronyms like NBC, ABC, CBS, in addition to piggybacking on brand-name recognition, have the added benefit of being short — which means fewer letters to purchase.
But perhaps the repetition in naming says more about us than it does about Chinese restaurateurs. Chinese restaurants have to use English words that the average American can associate with Chinese food or culture. That makes for a depressingly small pool of applicable themes and words, likely fueled by pop-culture tropes, stereotypes and maybe a TNT replay of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon if we’re lucky. Perhaps the monotony in Chinese restaurant naming just reflects how impoverished the knowledge of Chinese culture is here.
My mother’s favorite restaurant, for example, is Nice Time Cafe in Monterey Park, a Taiwanese eatery that has a decent gua bao and and $3.95 che ga mi noodle that she loves for obvious reasons. She introduced me to the place, and I’d never been inside because the name was so bland and boring. I’d literally roll my eyes as I walked by. But the Chinese name of Nice Time Cafe, my mom tells me, is hao nian dong, a Taiwanese phrase (literal translation of 好年冬: Good Year Winter) that idiomatically means gratitude for a good year and a good harvest.
Maybe instead of rolling my eyes at “Happy China Cafe” or snorting at “Golden Chopsticks Palace,” I should just learn to read more Chinese. Meaning can be lost in translation, but that doesn’t it wasn’t there in the first place.