Canal Street, Manhattan Chinatown: A Look into its Signs and its Themes

Figure 1, “Top-down Google Maps View of the Starting Point.” (Google).

If you look around many social media platforms, you may have heard Manhattan Chinatown being showcased by influencers as one of the few places to still find “cheap eats” in New York City. With eye-catching phrases such as “[Insert Food Item] for ONLY [X amount of dollars]” or “Eating in NYC for only [insert budget here],” in these second-long videos Manhattan Chinatown is almost always mentioned. However, no one stops to think about the linguistic landscape (probably because they haven’t been forced to for their college English class…). I decided to focus on Canal Street since it was the most convenient place to start via the 6 Train (as shown above in Figure 1).

You are first greeted with lines of merchants that sell the exact same products as you keep walking. Whether it be the wallets with the same few patterns printed on, the “…many notoriously counterfeit, with fake trademarked brand names on electronics…” or the crowds of people that weave in and out of the constant traffic (Wikipedia). After you take a few seconds to dodge their attempts to sell you their products, you continue walking along Canal Street and see signs written in English, Chinese (both Traditional and Simplified), and Vietnamese with the occasional Italian since Little Italy is so close to Chinatown (see Figure 2 & 3). Afterward, there are three prominent themes found in the pictures I took.

Figure 2, “Outside of Italian Goods Store Written in Italian and English.” (Liu).
Figure 3, “Italian Restaurant Sign Written only in English.” (Liu).

Theme 1: Jewelry Stores

Figure 4, “Traditional Looking Trilingual Sign for Jewelry Store.” (Liu).
Figure 5, “Sign of Lukfook Jewellery Written in English and Traditional Chinese.” (Liu).

The first theme is the prominent number of jewelry stores scattered across Canal Street. The signs all contain English text to cater to the large number of English-speaking people passing through the Chinatown area. Most signs look to have been in the area for a long time, judging by the darkened areas, font style, and the canopy/hanging design choices. The only exception to this theme would be Lukfook Jewellery, which sports a bright white, sleek, and modernized design. Each sign is designed to cater to other people who are not English speakers. For example, the two signs at the bottom use a Latin language (presumably Spanish) to make themselves stand out from the immense competition. In addition, a lot of the signs are also using the Vietnamese language which shows that there are still people who speak the language, that continue to frequent these kinds of stores.

Figure 6, “Sign of Charisma Jewelry Written Only in English.” (Liu).
Figure 7, “Mai & Lily Jewelry Containing Chinese, English, and Vietnamese.” (Liu).
Figure 8, “Advertisement Looking to Purchase Gold and Diamonds, Multilingual with no Chinese.” (Liu.)
Figure 9, “Sign that Advertises Similar Services as Figure 8, Except There is no Vietnamese.” (Liu).

Theme 2: Usage of Vietnamese

A lot of the Vietnamese can be found is on restaurants that cater to the Chinese population that still resides in Chinatown. I have visited Sun Sai Gai whenever I stop in the area on weekends. The English translation of the sign is a Cantonese romanization of the Chinese characters (新世界茶餐廳). However, if you romanize the last three Chinese characters, Cha Chaan Teng, it makes it clear that this is one of the restaurants catering to a Chinese audience.

Figure 10, “Sign for Sun Sai Gai Restaurant, Mostly Written in Vietnamese.” (Liu).

Although 茶餐廳 being translated as “restaurant” is a correct translation, the literal translation of Cha Chaan Teng is “tea restaurant” which refers to a Hong Kong-style cafe/diner. These cafes typically serve Western food with a Chinese twist on the dishes, with the interior mimicking an older furnishing style and is similar to an American diner in terms of ordering a simple meal, eating, and then leaving quickly. Since the restaurant also serves Vietnamese food, it can be assumed that the owners are trying to make their restaurant stand out from other Cha Chaan Tengs found in the area. If you continue down Baxter Street, there are other Vietnamese restaurants but they have the same owners. Those restaurants specialize in certain Vietnamese cuisines for locals who may not have time to sit down and eat in the restaurants (

However, Vietnamese is also found most commonly in medical-related services. As shown below, Vietnamese is the only language on the blue sign to the left. While the language is used alongside English and Chinese, but is used in the romanization of the English name for the pharmacy. It applies that a lot of the customers use the Vietnamese language around the area where these places are located. The white font color used makes the text stand out from the already brighter sign background colors that have been chosen. In addition, there is a picture of what appears to be a man shaking hands with another man (not pictured) which could suggest the business being trustworthy to locals.

Figure 11, “Vietnamese Only Sign Posted Above a ‘For Rent’ Jewelry Store.” (Liu).
Figure 12, “Minh Pharmacy, Whose Bright Red Sign Sticks out Amongst the Muted Building Colors.” (Liu.)

Theme 3: Development

Figure 13, “Front Side of a Trashcan Found on Walker Street.” (Liu).
Figure 14, “Back Side of the Trashcan on Walker Street.” (Liu).

While the trashcans do not count as businesses, the company Chinatown Business Improvement District uses them to promote cleaner streets while pointing out landmarks for tourists to visit. The bins highlight places with historical importance to Chinatown or are good photo spots. The sign is bilingual which implies some kind of support or catering towards the locals and tourists. Even though the trash can stands out as a red box against the grey background of the streets, that may have been intentional to draw people’s attention through the contrasting colors.

Below is an image of an advertisement from the same company that commissioned the bins, however, it is a more direct form of support for the preexisting communities in Chinatown. The red design suspended in the air is a Chinese symbol that typically means friendship or reunion. it seems like there was an intentional choice to put these two objects together, so even if there are locals or tourists who cannot read the writing in the advertisement, they will understand the message is about community.

Figure 15, “A Modernized, Brightly Colored Flag Which Intends to Spread the Message of Community and Bringing People Together.” (Liu).

To conclude…

The three main themes found in Canal Street are the large presence of jewelry stores, Vietnamese language usage, and the development of the area. Development sticks out in a historical area like Manhattan Chinatown, particularly in the Canal Street area. It shows that there are still people who want to attract people to the area and come visit the local businesses. The modern designs contrasting heavily against the more run-down, traditional-style buildings help draw people’s eyes to the messages posted on the modernized signs. There are a few more themes that I didn’t get the chance to touch base on… Perhaps you could go and find the other themes?