What’s in a name? Reading Berkeley’s bilingual signs

Lu's Kitchen

At Lius Kitchen on Solano Avenue in Berkeley, the English and Chinese names mean different things. Photo: David Malinowski

By David Malinowski and the students of UC Berkeley’s freshman/sophomore seminar East Asian Languages 39A

Perhaps nothing visible in the streets of Berkeley seems more straightforward than the signs that name its businesses. The “heat” of the new Heat Hot Sauce Shop and “sliver” of Sliver Pizzeria highlight key traits of the products being sold. Andronico’s, Philz, Moe’s and Oscar’s name their founders. FedEx, McDonald’s, and Bank of America are instantly recognizable for the scale of their brand. Even the bowling alley origins of Berkeley Bowl can be confirmed with a little asking around.

Yet what becomes of the seeming straightforwardness and simplicity of a name when it is written in two languages? Do the names written onto Berkeley’s many bilingual shop signs say the same thing in both languages? How might speakers of these languages read the identities of these businesses differently? And what lessons can be learned about the naturalness of familiar business names in English by studying names in other languages?

Taiwan restaurant

University Avenue’s Taiwan Restaurant offers an interesting case study in multilingual sign reading. Photo: David Malinowski

These are some of the questions being asked by students in an undergraduate seminar I teach at Berkeley through the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures: “Reading the Multilingual City: Chinese, Korean, and Japanese in Bay Area Linguistic Landscapes.”

In recent field trips to downtown Berkeley and upper Solano Avenue, the students have taken notes and photographed what they could read, and what they couldn’t, in signs containing these and other languages (*Note: This class, and this article, focus mainly on the three East Asian languages mentioned above; however, US Census data from 2000 show at least 29 languages spoken in the city of Berkeley).

Then, in order to begin to explore the relevant histories and backgrounds, the students carried out short interviews with shop owners, employees and passersby. They will use this material, along with findings from later field trips, for semester-end projects on the visibility of multilingualism in our communities. For this Berkeleyside article, the students have contributed some of their initial observations that they have recorded every week in personal blogs for the class.

Of course, just as there are straightforward-sounding business names in one language, Berkeley does appear to have its fair share of bilingual signs in which business names translate more or less directly across languages.

Several students took note of University Avenue’s Taiwan Restaurant (台湾飯店) as an example of the translation of meanings between Chinese and English (“台湾” means “Taiwan” and “飯店” is equivalent to “restaurant”), while the “Sun” in Sun Hong Kong Restaurant (新香港酒家) on Durant Avenue and Ichiban (一番) of Ichiban Japanese Cuisine and Sushi Bar on Shattuck Avenue downtown are examples of the transliteration of sounds from Chinese and Japanese, respectively. “新”, meaning “new”, is pronounced “sun” in Cantonese (the restaurant name only coincidentally looks like the English word “sun”). Meanwhile, “一番”, meaning “Number One” or “the best”, is pronounced “ichiban” in Japanese.

Already in the example of Sun Hong Kong we can see the potential for people of different linguistic backgrounds to read different (and sometimes mistaken) meanings from the names on bilingual signs.

King Stin

A sign for King Tsin Restaurant on Solano Avenue. Photo: David Malinowski

This was the case for many of us as we ventured north from campus on the 18 line to meet with Albert Lou, owner of upper Solano Avenue’s iconic King Tsin Restaurant and Bar. The restaurant, described in its own menu as “the first Mandarin restaurant to open on Solano Avenue,” bears the Chinese name of Beijing’s original Hou Te Fu (厚德福) restaurant, where Mr. Lou’s father, Fat Hing Lou, had apprenticed before leaving China in the political turmoil of the 1940s. Both the restaurant’s history — kindly narrated to us by Mr. Lou over tea — and its two names clearly left an impression on the students in our class: Annie remarked that “Learning so much about the restaurant’s past created a more personal connection, as we heard about how [Mr. Lou]’s father first started the business and his siblings worked every day”; Vivian, meanwhile, reflected on the discovery that “the English name, King Tsin, comes from an unexpected source. I thought that the “King” referred to the monarchy meaning it has, but actually it came from Beijing’s pronunciation: Pe-king. Tsin is a derived sound from the place Ten Tsin, which is a landmark in China.”

Through our visit and conversation with the restaurant’s owner, we learned that King Tsin is neither a translation nor a transliteration of “厚德福”. Instead, it is a business with two names, addressing (at least) two different audiences.

And, as the students continued their investigations on Solano Avenue and other Berkeley streets, they found more and more examples of this phenomenon. Grace, for instance, upon observing the bilingual sign at Liu’s Kitchen, wrote in her blog that “The sign reads as “Liu’s Kitchen” in English. The first Chinese character reads as “liu” and the last two characters mean kitchen, but I couldn’t fit the second character into context. It reads as “tian” and means sky in Chinese. This may have something to do with what we had discussed the week before–when translating one language into another, there are parts that can’t be translated and it is difficult to do an exact translation. I was still curious as to what role the “tian” character plays.”

May Flower

In the Chinese name for the May Flower, the first character means ‘great,’ while the second means ‘wave’. Photo: David Malinowski

Ironically, as Lucy notes, the particular cultural and historical resonances of words may make it necessary to create different names in two languages in order to arrive at a similar meaning. “Also on University, we have the “May Flower” 鸿涛, where the first character “hong” means great while “tao” normally refers to a big wave. Therefore, the Mayflower which reached America with the help of big waves is incorporated into the Chinese name of this restaurants. This is one way to prove that when it comes to signs there is a preference of how to get the same point across with a different language.”

As the students observed these Berkeley business names translated, transliterated, and transformed between Chinese, English, and other languages, however, they began to notice that some words prominently displayed on storefronts and shop signs are not names at all.

Lulu, for instance, was struck by her discovery that the calligraphic characters “寿司” at the top of the Solano Avenue restaurant Miyuki read “sushi” and not “Miyuki” (the name of the restaurant does appear in the Japanese hiragana script to the left of the restaurant’s front door). A native speaker of Spanish, Lulu wrote, “I wonder, what does the sign say about the people that go there? If I saw a sign that just said burrito in Spanish, like ‘El Burrito’ or something, it wouldn’t seem like an authentic place; but, it probably would to someone who wasn’t literate in Spanish.”

Throughout the semester, critical readings such as Scouting New York’s Why Everyone Films at the Same Damn New York Chinese Restaurant, in tandem with comparison visits to neighboring cities, have given rise to observations such as Lulu’s. They have pushed our class to ask questions about how, where, and why different languages in multilingual settings might be written or read for their symbolic values — that is, for how they can be seen to represent countries, cultures, or people, in the manner of a national flag — and how people in places like Berkeley might form opinions about what counts as real in restaurants and other so-called “ethnic” businesses.

In her blog, Chelsea has wondered aloud when and why some business owners opt to employ an “’asian font’ of mimicking brush strokes” in their signs’ English lettering. After a recent visit to San Francisco’s Chinatown, Frank and Julian observed that city authorities might use Chinese and English together on street signs as much to attract tourists as to communicate efficiently. Jessica, reflecting on several weeks of observations on foot, online, and on her daily ride on the 1R bus, wrote: “As a result of the business aspect in restaurants, restaurants need to cater to the needs of the customers, causing them to change their setting and menu. In such cases restaurants may try to over-present a culture, like with a Chinese restaurant having a lot of red lanterns and dragon pictures, or changing the menu to fit the tastes of the customers.”

Paradoxically, perhaps, the short and simple texts that are bilingual business signs don’t just have one meaning, and they don’t just mean in one way. And perhaps even more perplexingly, the meanings ascribed to the individual words that appear on these signs may come as much from broader market forces and cultural perceptions as they do from the intentions of individual business owners or sign makers.

Tracing the histories and associations of the words and names visible on the streets of Berkeley is a complex task — and one that cannot be accomplished simply by looking. In the coming weeks, through the end of the UC Berkeley semester in May, we hope to take our next steps in this process through more neighborhood visits, readings, and conversations.

Berkeleyside publishes many articles every day. To see all our stories in chronological order, and read ones you may have missed, check out our All the News grid.

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  • Guest

    Thanks for publishing this! It’s great to follow along the discovery process, and very interesting.

  • http://www.facebook.com/anna.mindess Anna Mindess

    Fascinating study of language, culture and restaurants (my three favorite things)! From now on, I’m going to wonder about every sign I see. Please keep us updated on your analysis and conclusions.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001846205485 ThisWay Out Coops

    Fascinating article! Looking forward to further education through this study.

  • http://www.kimskitchensink.com Kim’s Kitchen Sink

    What an interesting post, and a cool field trip!

  • batardo

    great article

    while you are divining hidden meaning, you can also check here ..

    http://www.ci.berkeley.ca.us/environmentalhealth/inspections.asp

  • DavidM

    There’s an alley in San Francisco’s Chinatown, behind Portsmouth Square, named “Walter Lum Place,” but which used to be called Waverley Place. When they renamed it, they changed the English street sign but not the Chinese one, which read then as now “The Alley Behind the Park”.

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  • Dave M

    (author of article) Thank you all for the encouraging comments. We’re about to head to San Francisco’s Japantown for our next project, and will be posting on our class blog (link above in article). Please do keep in touch with any ideas, questions or feedback. And thanks, @73a622a4e56d4a48f7614c54535885a2:disqus for the very interesting note on Portsmouth Square. I’ll go take a look the next chance I get!

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