New York Chinatown’s Chinese language street signs are gradually disappearing

  • Manhattan’s Chinatown is rapidly changing as its population of Chinese immigrant residents decreases and non-Chinese residents increase..
  • Bilingual street signs are gradually being replaced by English-only letterings, a reflection of the changing culture in the area.
  • From the 1960s to the 1980s, Chinese and English signs were put up for Chinatown’s population, made up largely of Chinese immigrants who could not read or speak English.
  • Prior to that, many Chinese immigrants migrated east across the country after experiencing extreme violence in the west – the largest lynching in U.S. history targeted Chinese immigrants in 1871 and resulted in the burning of Los Angeles’ Chinatown.
  • The recent disappearance of Chinese signs demonstrates changes in the area, taking with them an important piece of history.

Manhattan’s Chinatown is seeing its population of Chinese immigrant residents decrease and non-Chinese residents increase, and the recent disappearance of Chinese signs are a reflection of this truth.

In the 1960s, New York City’s Department of Transportation installed street signs with both English and Chinese lettering. By 1985 at least 155 more signs were ordered to be put up, a reflection of the Chinese population’s rapid growth during that period. Presently, there are approximately 100 bilingual street signs in effect, meaning over 50 have been removed or altered to be just in English.  

While it is unclear what exactly happened to the signs that have vanished, journalists from The New York Times were able to piece together when some of the signs had been replaced by using Google Street View images and Chinatown photographers. 

The New York Times reports that “at least seven bilingual street signs have been removed since the 1980s,” with several of the removals taking place between 2013 and 2021, including the ones for Bowery and Canal Street. The two streets originally had two sets of signs, each in a different dialect, evidence of the “diverse dialects” spoken in Manhattan’s Chinatown.

The U.S. experienced mass influxes of migration from China throughout the 19th century, especially due the California Gold Rush of the 1850s. Chinese immigrants were met with extreme xenophobia, and even anger by the white Americans already living there, who blamed them for dim job prospects. 

The largest single lynching in U.S. history, refered to as the “Chinese massacre of 1871” targeted Chinese immigrants living in Los Angeles and resulted in approximately 20 deaths, which accounted for about 10% of the city’s Chinese immigrant population at the time. Around 500 white and Latino men and boys participated in the violence. The deaths alone do not account for the irreparable damage that was also done, with the city’s Chinatown burnt to the ground and approximately $1.5 million (in today’s dollars) worth of goods stolen. 

Due to extreme violence and discrimination, many Chinese immigrants had migrated east by the 1870s to seek a better life. New York City became the new hub for Chinese immigrants, with the establishment of a new Chinatown there.

By 1985, Chinatown nearly doubled in size with a population of 70,000 residents, and New York City’s Department of Transportation installed bilingual street signs in an effort to make travel more viable for immigrants who could not speak or read English. 

Changes in the signs from Chinese and English to just English reflect the changes in the community. While Asians are the fastest growing population in New York City, Chinatown has undergone the largest loss of Asian residents. 

Several factors may have contributed to this phenomenon, including the 40-story megajail approved to be built in the heart of Chinatown, hate crimes against the Asian community and the closure of renowned establishments such as the city’s largest dim sum restaurant Jin Fong, due to the pandemic.     

The disappearance of bilingual signs in New York City’s Chinatown represents the rapidly shifting culture within the area, but with their disappearance goes a bit of important history as well. 

Featured Image via Amanda Dalbjörn

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