I recently read a story about the first Subway opening up in one of North America’s Chinatowns. Despite the overlooked fact that a Subway had crept in to an otherwise corporate-free ethnic enclave, the interesting thing was that nobody knew how to translate it. It couldn’t be the actual word for Subway, because no Mandarin speaker would have any idea why a sandwich shop was named after a mode of public transportation. There is no such translatable idea of a “sub sandwich” in Mandarin.
So what did they do?
They went with something much more beautiful: they chose three characters that, when put together, mean “better than hundred tastes.”
I couldn’t stop thinking about that yesterday when I went to visit Chinatown in Boston.
These towns of China, these glorious microcosms of Chinese food and shopping, have always been a source of curiosity for me. For one, there are a lot of Chinatowns across North America (except, sadly, for Tucson, which could really benefit from an influx of decent Asian fare, and not the trendy, DIY, “roll your own sushi” place by the university or the unfortunately-named FuKu Sushi on University Ave). Secondly, I always find myself inexplicably drawn to Chinatowns for some reason or another, aching to try the juicy pork dumplings or the fried noodles, eager to find a place that serves food like it’s supposed to be, even though deep down I know even that’s a meaningless statement in itself. Food like it’s supposed to be….food is malleable as it migrates, just like people.
To be honest, I think it’s the general sense of awe and curiosity of stepping into a place that’s meant to mimic another place while still holding on to bits of the first place that strikes me so evocatively about Chinatowns. These places, too, are often the result of difficult migrations themselves, poverty, an aching for community, blue-collar labor, and sometimes, even red light districts. They are contact zones in and of themselves, simultaneously serving as relics of the past and examples of modern globalization.
Boston’s Chinatown is no different. As I walked through it in the pouring rain yesterday, hoping to find a hot cup of tea and a warm bowl of soup, I started thinking about these mini “towns” and what the represent, both geographically and culturally. Historically, Chinatowns popped up in tandem with waves of Chinese migration, to both ease the transition into life in a new country and to preserve a sense of community that might have otherwise gotten lost. Though many Chinatowns no longer specifically function as enclaves for Chinese immigrants and have been infiltrated by tourists and city locals, there’s still something fascinating about these replica spaces.
For instance, here’s a photo of a woman eating her lunch in the Dumpling Cafe, a little soup and dumpling shop right around the corner from the hostel where I’m staying for the weekend.
Presumably from China based on her rapid Mandarin and her ability to navigate the menu like a pro, she’s not doing anything that unusual–after all, she’s just eating and catching up with an old friend or business associate on the phone, right?–but there’s something very, well, Chinatown about it. A woman eating a spicy bowl of soup that may or may not remind her of home, a smartphone, a conversation in Mandarin, equal amounts of white and Asian customers skirting by in the background–these are all images I see when I close my eyes and I think about the busy, chaotic, weird life we live in modernity.
I also noticed the plate setting in front of me, lemon tea, a plate unusued, plastic utensils stacked on top of each other, a menu written in two languages. Another example.
From the window, there’s a McDonald’s, infamous in its two yellow half-moons, its logo placed next to Chinese characters that curiously seem to be the translation of the word. From my research, I now know that the orthography for McDonald’s in Chinese is essentially meaningless, a transliteration of the English word’s pronunciation, but when I saw this yesterday, I couldn’t help but think how strange it was to see such an American icon–yellow against its bright-red background–next to a set of Chinese symbols that are otherwise meaningless.
Or this, a wrapped door calling out to shoppers of 3-D Pictures (what are those?!), Luggages, a cold Coca-Cola, DVD movies, and a drowned out “Push” sign. Elements on the spectrum, some words translated, some not.
My sojourn through Boston’s Chinatown wasn’t long, and I was too cold to really spend any good amount of time there (yes, I’m pathetic when it comes to below-freezing temperatures, even when bundled up), but when I turned the corner and went back to the hostel to warm up, I had so much more to think about than just soup.
Chinatown is centered on Beach Street in downtown Boston. It borders Boston Common and is easily accessible by the MBTA’s Orange Line.
Yours in travel,
All images copyrighted by Kristin Winet, 2015.