Lost in Translation: The Truth In Chinatown Signs

By Tony He

Photo: Tony He // Chinese: Glowing Aura Bakery House // English: 252 Café Bakery Inc.

Elizabeth Keller, 54, would have never looked into the Saem store for her TonyMoly Plastic Mascara from China if it weren’t for her daughter’s Mandarin-speaking friends. Similarly, if one were looking for a bald lawyer, they would never call to book an appointment with Cuccia & Campise Law Office or stroll into Sau Voi Corp for authentic Vietnamese food and a surprising collection of lottery tickets. In Chinatown, nothing is what it seems. The two-square-mile neighborhood is the most exclusive club in the city, and membership is rarely given to those who don’t master the languages. Members of the club know that something’s amiss with virtually every business storefront in the neighborhood. The translations are wrong. Phrases are often left hanging, and the original intent of the owners is lost in translation. It doesn’t stop there. The reasons behind the poorly translated titles are sometimes intentional for establishments that have survived decades of change and gentrification.

To start, it is important to understand that Mandarin is not the sole language used in this ‘club.’ In fact, Mandarin is actually commonly referred to as “Chinese” when taught in American schools, derived from the widespread use of Mandarin in China. In this Chinatown ‘club,’ Cantonese, and many other linguistic variations of “Chinese” are used interchangeably with Mandarin, Additionally, the quarter has areas known as ‘Little Korea’ or ‘Little Vietnam’, which originate from the populations of Asian groups that are not of Chinese origin.

Photo: Tony He // Chinese: Chinese Street Big Pharmacy // English: Centre Care Pharmacy LLC

For Centre Care Pharmacy LLC, a sprawling store with plush couches and fluorescent-lit shelves, the English name masks a brand that is much larger than the shop itself. A Duane Reade of sorts for Chinese-speaking customers. Due to the complexity of registering a business under one name in New York, the business owners chose to instead register different English legal names for every location. However, they keep the same Chinese name for each site, allowing for Chinese-speaking customers to recognize the larger brand, and rendering the English name practically useless when it came to identifying the same business.

Chen, a cashier and sales agent who refused to disclose her full name and age, explained to me in Mandarin how it worked. “If you walk down the Elizabeth Street Center, we are in the basements. It’s [the other locations are] all us, just under a different name. There, we are called Family Care Pharmacy, but we have the same Chinese name.”

Photo: Tony He // Chinese: Always Fortunate // English: MK2 Optical

The practice is commonplace in Chinatown. Due to licensing regulations, the corresponding English names do not receive the same easy-going treatment and cannot reflect the latest changes in storefront. Companies still regularly use this loophole for better advertising by changing the Chinese name. “They do it all the time, of course they are doing it! The people right across the street do it all the time,” exclaimed Kevin, a “thirty-something” sales assistant of at MK2 Optical.

For the Cuccia & Campise Law Office, certain cultural aspects are lost in translation. In the Chinese version of the name, the practice adopted the nickname of “The Bald Lawyer” because Chinese clients found it “easier” to remember the lawyer by this name. George, 33, another lawyer at the firm, who has a full head of hair, said that “we would never translate that part of his name because it would be offensive.”

Photo: Tony He // Chinese: Six Appearances // Vietnamese: Literal Translation

Not surprisingly, the variety of languages also reflects the latest state of immigration that constitutes Chinatown, a historic draw for new arrivals from across the globe. Sau Voi Corp., a small lottery shop with a section for Vietnamese food, has a Chinese title and a Vietnamese translation but no English version. Li, the 70-year-old shopkeeper, explains that, “we are Vietnamese-Chinese who came to America.”

Photo: Tony He // Chinese: Kindness Trust Big Pharmacy // English: ABC Pharmacy

Down the street at ABC Pharmacy, Wing, a female cashier of a certain age clarified one difference in business titles: “We have a Chinese name, and we also have an English name and we don’t try to translate.” This trend is similar to how Chinese children growing up are now assigned a given name and an English name for convenience in educational settings. My two names, for instance, could mean two different things and they don’t have to be the same.

Photo: Tony He // Chinese: High Quality Luxury Korean Beauty Store // English: the SAEM

The difference in language certainly poses a barrier for some customers. At the Sweets Bakery, Lelde, 25, a woman with flowing golden hair, said that although she was simply looking for a snack with her friend, she instead experienced confusion and annoyance. “It is hard to order coffee. I can see that when I’m trying to order, they get a little mad when I don’t understand when they talk. I get a little confused.” When it comes to customer service, she also noticed a “definite” difference in the way that they treated Chinese-speaking customers over others. She believed that those who spoke the lingo got better service.

Other customers react to the store signs more positively. At Saem Beauty, a Chinese store that imports Korean beauty products, Elizabeth Keller, 54 shops with her daughter. Despite not knowing a word of Chinese, she heard from her daughter’s ice skating team (which had international skaters from Asia) about their use of Asian beauty products. After trying some “from Japan,” the family decided that “from a beauty product perspective, everything Asian is cool.” Keller stood by the power of the Asian beauty products, albeit without knowing what exactly she was buying,.

“It’s innovative and disruptive … There’s clearly products being produced in Asia that are different from what we are doing here. The [American] products aren’t even interesting.”

Photo: Tony He // Chinese: New World Electric Company // English: 499 Broadway Electronic
Photo: Tony He // Chinese: Modern Beauty // English: Corina Beauty Center



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Tony He

Tony He


From Shanghai, China. Studying at Deerfield. Founder of the LemonShark Youth Studio