Here are some photos I took a couple of years ago in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
As should be clear from the Mandarin and Cantonese pronunciations I’ve provided for the Chinese characters, the Sinitic names for streets in Chinatown certainly don’t come from Mandarin, which isn’t surprising given how the Chinese diaspora was not predominantly Mandarin speaking until recently. My guess would be Taishanese Cantonese.
Beckett: ???? (Mandarin: Báihuàzhu?n Ji?; Cantonese: baahk- wa/ jyun/ )
I like this unofficial sign even better.
Jackson: ??? (Mandarin: Zèchén Ji?; Cantonese: jak\ sahn\)
The first Chinese character, ?, is a surprising choice since it is quite rare and would not be known by most people. Some far more common characters that perhaps could have been used instead include ? (Cantonese: jak\), ? (Cantonese: jaak-), ? (Cantonese: jaahk-), and ? (Cantonese: jaahk-) — all of which are pronounced zé in Mandarin.
Clay: ??? (Mandarin: Q?l? Ji?; Cantonese: keih/ leih/)
Commercial: ???? (Mandarin: J?nm?ishèn Ji?; Cantonese: kam\ meih/ sahn-)
I would have expected a semantic translation for this street name. But Kam-meih-sahn appears to be another phonetic approximation.
Grant: ??? (Mandarin: D?ub?n Ji?; Cantonese: dou\ baan/ gaai\)
This is another interesting one. Note that Doubaan and Grant sound nothing like each other. And this isn’t a semantic translation of Grant either. So why is this street labelled ???? The answer is that the Sinitic name preserves an old name of the street: Dupont.
And for lagniappe, here’s a photo taken in the nearby Italian district, where Columbus Street is also identified in Italian as Corso Cristòforo Colombo.
- Chinatown Devises Its Own Street Names, by William J. Hoy, California Folklore Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 2 (Apr., 1943), pp. 71-75
- Early San Francisco History from Street Names, by Henry C. Carlisle, August 1954
- Chinatown streets
- Chinatown alleys
- Chinatown: San Francisco, Part 3, Panda Gator, September 4, 2007