Chinese immigrants use slang names and maps to navigate the streets of NYC

August 14, 2017

Chinatown, image © Chaz Langley

Many New Yorkers navigate Chinatown by its famous street names; East Broadway, Mulberry, Canal and Orchard. However, for many Chinese immigrants living in the area who do not speak English, these names are not used. Instead, descriptive nicknames (translated from Chinese) exist like “Hatseller Street,” “Garbage Street,” and “Dead Person Street.” Even more interesting, to help Chinese New Yorkers navigate the city, maps with these streets labeled in their Chinese nicknames are made and distributed. A reporter from This American Life, Aaron Reiss, began collecting these maps and discovered the lesser-known nicknames for a lot of these city streets, many which have four or five different labels.

chinese nickname map, chinatown mapGoogle Map screenshot via

When Reiss moved to New York City after spending two years in China, he wanted to find a way to keep up with his Chinese. He moved into an apartment on Chinatown’s Rutgers Street that was full of older Chinese immigrants who spoke nearly no English. One night, as he was speaking with his neighbor about her day, Reiss had trouble understanding where she had been. That’s because she called Rutgers Street, “La Zha Gai” which means dirty or garbage street instead. Following that confusing conversation, Reiss came to learn that streets of Chinatown all have these types of Chinese names.

Some streets can have four or five different names, used by the different Chinese dialects that make up the population. While most Chinatown residents do not need to know all of these nicknames, Reiss found one woman whose job it was to know them all. Mona is a dispatcher at a car service there called Good Luck. She told Reiss why she must use the Chinese nickname instead of the official name: “Rutgers Street, they cannot pronounce it. So that’s why they gave Rutgers Street a nickname. La Zha Gai. La Zha is easy for them.”

At Good Luck’s office, a few dispatchers operate the phones and send cars to those who need them. The Chinese-owned and operated company mostly helps Chinese-speaking residents get picked up and driven to where they need to go. As Reiss reported, when Mona hears Dead Person Street, she knows to send a car to Mulberry Street (a street with funeral homes and flower shops). If a customer says they are on Hatseller Street, she will send a car to Division Street. While these nicknames help in a descriptive way, others aren’t as clear. For example, people call the Kosciuszko Bridge, “Yat Boon Jai Kiu,” which translates literally to “the Japanese Guy Bridge” even though Thaddeus Kosciuszko was Polish.

These maps that include Chinese nicknames, and dispatchers like Mona, help residents who can’t hail a cab or order an Uber in English. Plus, most drivers unfamiliar with these Chinese nicknames would probably run into trouble finding their rider’s destination at Dead Person Street.

[Via This American Life]


Location: Chinatown

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