Chinatown: What’s in a Name? 牛车水 – 名为何意？
I can’t help but be drawn to the language of Chinatown, particularly how names have evolved and the current tension between English versus Mandarin and dialect. It fascinates me how a phrase like 牛车水 (bullock cartwater), an older name for our local Chinatown, so unique and full of local flavour, could translate into Chinatown in many cities, a more generic concept of a Chinese enclave which comes from British colonial demarcations of place.
Picture (1): Chinatown Point
This seems to erase the unique names given by locals, which include Ngau Chair Sui (Cantonese), Gu Chia Chwee (Hokkien), and Kreta Ayer (Malay), to denote how water was brought to the area by bullock carts. Names and language form a great part of our identity, and oddly enough the name “Chinatown” seems to fit in better with the image of a tourist attraction it is today.
过去广东人，福建人，马来人用牛车水这名字，是因为那时侯的用水都是靠牛车运来的。我们的名字和我们用得语言是我们身份的一部分，奇怪的是 “唐人街“ 这个名称其实比较符合牛车水现代作为一个旅游景点的形象。
In scrutinising the use of language in Chinatown, and I started at Temple Street where our weekly workshops were held. Again I found the Chinese translation of Temple Street utterly baffling. This is a phonetic translation of the word Temple, “deng po”, a phrase that roughly translates to “embarking on a journey to your grandmother’s place”. I often find translations in this country to be imperfect, and this was the Chinatown equivalent of translating Dhoby Ghaut (washermen’s place) to “duo mei ge” (many beautiful songs).
我开始对注意到牛车水语言的用途，而出发点就是每个星期开办工作坊的地点登婆街。我马上就觉得 “登婆街” 这个街名十分古怪，不是 “庙”（Temple）的意思而是有 “登上婆家” 的意思。在新加坡，很多地名翻译听了都让人一头雾水，比如 Dhoby Ghaut 指的是一个洗衣服的地方，而不是 “多美歌”。
Picture（2）： Temple Street
The original Chinese name of the street is actually hei yuen hau kai which translates to “back street of the theatre ” in Cantonese, and refers to the Lai Chun Yuen Chinese Theatre that used to exist until it was destroyed by the war. The “temple” name actually came from the Municipal Commissioners who named it after the Sri Mariamman Temple. Again, it seemed to be an enforced identity rather than an organic name that came from the individuals who frequented the street.
登婆街原本的名称是 “戏院后街”，指的是当时战争前街道上的梨春园戏院。“庙街” 其实是当时英国官员给的名称，因为街上有一座马里安曼兴都庙。“登婆街” 其实是一个被强迫的身份，而不是当地人自来而然所给予的一个称呼。
I wonder how many of these street names used to be called something else. I think in many ways, names are important to us, especially for the Chinese, and I thought of this as I walked past many shops trying to sell calligraphy to tourists.
Picture (3): Chinese names for Westerners translated phonetically
The calligraphy cards puzzled me, as most of them seem to be in gibberish. It didn’t strike me until later that the calligraphy was of “Chinese translations” of English names aimed at the tourists. To me they make even less sense than “embarking on a journey to your grandmother’s place” (Temple Street) did.
I think our personal names are the ultimate examples of how much the Chinese treasure the meaning behind words, down to each character. The “xin” in my name means “happy”, and each name carries the blessings from the parent who had named the child. There were times where I wished I had an English name, but that would mean that I would not be carrying that heartwarming reminder of happiness wherever I went.
Calligraphy is a traditional art form, yet these cards remind me of mass-produced souvenirs. If calligraphy artists have to sell meaningless trinkets such as these to keep afloat, what of the survival of our cultural practices?
Naturally, this made me think about the invasion and succession of businesses that were not originally from Chinatown.
Picture (4): Thye Moh Chan and Toast Box
When I took a photograph at Chinatown Point, I wanted to capture the contrast of Thye Moh Chan’s relatively empty shop front with the crowded premises of Toast Box, whose diners have to sit outside. Thye Moh Chan, with its old Chinese signboard hanging above its traditional tau sar piahs, seemed to be unable to compete with the chain coffee shop with its English name.
Later, I found out not only did Thye Moh Chan not originate from Chinatown, but it had long been bought over by the BreadTalk Group, which owns Toast Box as well. Although the pastries still retain their Teochew recipes, the brand had become updated, providing convenient packaging for gifts and locating outlets in shopping malls.
The commercialisation of Chinatown and of traditional brands seem to counteract the very nature of tradition, of something that has been passed down from the past. But it may not be a bad thing. Although it is true that Chinatown may not be the same as it was, a stagnant heritage space will become a relic of the past.
New generations of Chinese will have formed connections to places like Temple Street, only because they visit every year for Chinese New Year goodies. Chinatown used to be the anchor ground for Chinese immigrants, and it continues to be for many from the People’s Republic of China looking for a slice of home. Through this project I have learned of many old memories of Chinatown. But standing here in modern day, it is up to us to create our own.