Restaurants serving Chinese or Taiwanese food in the U.S. often use the same few English words in their names. Think "golden" and "dragon."
Chinese, Taiwanese Restaurants Drop 'Golden' And 'Dragon' To Take On Mandarin Names
In some cities, though, more restaurant owners are embracing Mandarin to name their businesses, and spelling out the standard Chinese dialect in the Roman alphabet on their storefronts. The trend reveals a growing familiarity with Mandarin in the U.S. and changing immigration patterns with more people from mainland China's northern provinces living in this country.
A fast-casual chain specializing in northern Chinese-style savory pancakes and noodles in New York City and New Haven, Conn., goes by Junzi – or "a gentleman" in the Confucian tradition.
Laoban Dumplings in Washington, D.C., is named in honor of the laoban, or "boss," of a dumpling shop that the owner once frequented in the southern Chinese province of Hunan.
For his underground New York eatery serving bowls of Taiwanese beef noodle soup and rice topped with minced five-spice pork, Edward Huang chose a familiar phrase he has heard while visiting relatives in Taiwan.
"My family's parting words are always zai lai – 'come back soon,' literally," he explains. "But it's a 'see you soon, come back soon' sort of idea."
"It has to have some soul behind it"
Branding his first restaurant with a Mandarin name was not what Huang had in mind at first.
"People come and they say, 'Oh, is this zay lay?' Some of our employees in the beginning had trouble pronouncing it, and I wanted to avoid that headache," he says of Zai Lai, which is pronounced with a "ds" sound to start and rhymes with "eye lie."
But Huang needed a moniker that could stand out to commuters rushing through a bustling food court located inside a subway station under Manhattan's Columbus Circle.
Huang considered English names — "Sauce" for his fondness of saucy foods or "Hearth" to evoke a warm and cozy feeling. Both options, he found out, were already spoken for in New York. In the end, the story about his family that he could tell with zai lai won him over.
"If I'm going to open my own mom-and-pop shop, my own store, it has to have some soul behind it. It has to have a reason for being," says Huang, who developed a menu with recipes inspired by his grandmother and mother's cooking.
"Not as exotic as people would think"
The growing use of romanized Mandarin restaurants names is a sign of how much more common the standard Chinese dialect is in U.S. culture today, according to Hongyuan Dong, author of A History of the Chinese Language.
"It's probably not as exotic as people would think in the past," says Dong, who teaches Chinese at the George Washington University in D.C.
Since 2002, student enrollment in Chinese language classes — most often taught in Mandarin — at U.S. colleges and universities has jumped more than 55 percent from around 34,000 to about 53,000 in 2016, according to the latest figures compiled by the Modern Language Association.
Dong says he's noticed more students who did not grow up speaking Mandarin entering college having studied the dialect for years.
As a result, Dong says, there's more familiarity with pinyin — a system of romanizing Chinese characters using the Latin alphabet.
It was developed under the Chinese Communist Party and first adopted in China in 1958. These days, pinyin is the international standard for transliterating Mandarin using the Roman alphabet.
"Ready to engage mainland China"
Seeing it used on more restaurant signs in the U.S. "means that we're ready to engage mainland China," says Heather Lee, a historian at New York University Shanghai.
"We're speaking in the language of mainland China," she adds.
Lee has researched the history of Chinese restaurants in the U.S., including when names in Cantonese — a southern Chinese dialect common among earlier generations of Chinese immigrants — were often spelled out using English letters. In Manhattan's Chinatown, for instance, you can find Cantonese words transliterated on the storefronts of at least two culinary institutions — Wo Hop (Harmony) and Nom Wah (South China) Tea Parlor.
Over the years, many other restaurants have adopted "panda," "Great Wall" and other common China-related keywords in their English names.
The transition towards romanized Mandarin names, Lee explains, marks a shift in who's running the restaurants and the kinds of customers they're trying to attract.
"They're linking up with a wealthier professional population from mainland China. A lot of them seem to have connections to Taiwan as well," she says.
Moving away from a "euphemism of a name"
For Jason Wang, it was a connection to his hometown of Xi'an in northwest China that he wanted to preserve by using it as part of the name of his family's restaurant chain in New York — Xi'an Famous Foods.
The first part of the name – Xi — is one of the hardest sounds to pronounce for many non-Mandarin speakers. It's pronounced like "she."
Wang says that "Xi" factor has helped grow the business, which is known for its generous use of cumin, chili and Sichuan peppercorns in its hand-pulled noodles and lamb burgers.
"Let's just keep things authentic," he explains. "Let's keep the X. Let's keep the spice in the food. Let's not make it too easy for people. People like discovering stuff. They don't really like everything handed to them on a platter."
It's also a matter of taking pride in his Chinese heritage, Wang adds.
"Why are we ashamed of the stuff that we call our food or what we call our restaurants?" he says. "I think that is also why we've become more confident in presenting the actual names versus trying to hide it behind some sort of euphemism of a name."