On a recent chilly Wednesday evening, Yan Yu strolled past Parnell Street’s Luas stop, clasping his little boy’s hand.
Parnell Street is just Parnell Street, he says. It doesn’t have an alternative name.
But other streets around Dublin have been monikered by some immigrants, mostly from northern China, he says.
Like Grafton Street, he says, cracking up over its Mandarin name. “We call it Guǎfu Street.” That means Widow Street in Mandarin.
It sounds like Grafton, Yu says, and it’s funny, so it’s easier to remember. Some of these alternative street names are descriptive, others just homophones.
“We’re going to sit down, have tea, and talk about it,” says Yu, waiting out a pedestrian red light opposite a string of Chinese food places – Wok Station, Shi Wang Yun and Jojo’s Chinese.
Coming up with nicknames for streets can be a way to forge familiarity and closeness with a new city, making it easier to navigate.
Not everybody around here uses them. “Never heard of it. Sorry,” said a young boy the following Saturday, shaking his head as he stocked the refrigerated display at the Wok Station fast-food restaurant.
A few other Chinese waiters and shopkeepers along the road said the same thing.
But for Yu, who moved to Ireland 20 years ago, these nicknames are still alive, lending intimacy and nostalgia to a city he lived in for five of those years. “It makes us comfortable,” he says.
When Yu lived in Dublin from 2002 to 2007, he used to buy meat from a butcher’s on Meath Street. After, he would call up friends to see who was free to grab lunch on Moore Street. Or, as they called it, Máo Street, he says.
That wasn’t just a weekend routine. “It could have been any day,” says Yu, smiling broadly.
That’s why he and some others in the Chinese community call Meath Street, Meat Street.
It’s a reference to its butcher shops and an ode to the delight of buying from them, says Yu, as he points to the shops on his phone’s Google Maps sitting at a table in Shi Wang Yun restaurant.
“When we came to Ireland, we used to buy a lot of meat from them,” he says. Beside him, his kid played with a box full of White Rabbit candy that a family friend had brought from China.
Dawson Street is called Dāi wá sūn, which Yu says means “something stupid”. That doesn’t mean there’s anything stupid there, he says. The words just sound like Dawson.
Then there is Hill Street, said Yu later that evening, ambling past Shelby Barbershop, which he remembers as a pet store.
Hill Street is called by the name of its Chinese seafood shop, TianFuji, says Yu. He says hello to a man standing outside before walking in and picking up two bags of frozen fish balls.
He points to a white tray of wriggling shrimps.“They’re delicious,” he says.
For O’Connell Street, the Mandarin nickname is a fruit of Chinese locals’ imaginations and love of mythical folklore.
They refer to the street by an informal name for the Spire, Yu says, comparing the city’s tall silver monument and Jīn gū bang, a magical golden-hooped club carried by Sun Wukong or the Monkey King.
Sun Wukong is a mythical creature who makes an arduous journey out of China, accompanying a monk in search of original Buddhist scriptures in the 16th century classic Chinese novel The Journey to the West.
There’s a cartoon based on that, too, says Yu. He pulls up images of the animated monkey king on his phone.
In and Out of Use
Yu says he’s not sure why some Chinese locals aren’t familiar with the names, while others are.
Xiaoyu Wang, who has lived here for seven years, says she and her friends still use the nickname for Grafton Street. But not the other ones.
That’s because it’s funny, she says. Also, Molly Malone, with her wheelbarrow, stood there for years and now hanging out nearby, represents a lonely woman on the road, so the name made sense and stuck.
“People have this association with this lady,” she said on the phone, laughing.
Wang says she wonders why the nicknames aren’t as popular with newer immigrants from northern parts of China.
But she finds an explanation in how much easier and cheaper it is to communicate across the globe now, making people less homesick. That and the changing profile of newer migrants.
Many of the newer waves of Chinese immigrants, she says, include university students already good in English.
“And it’s easier for them to pronounce the street names, compared to first-generation immigrants who came here and did hard work and opened restaurants,” she says.
Older Chinese migrants felt homesick and found comfort in the bags of instant noodles they’d brought from home and Mandarin nicknames for Dublin streets, she says.
“Now there are more Chinese restaurants and there’s easier access to hometown,” she says.
“I say at the time people felt connected through the language, through giving these nicknames to the streets,” she says.
Huixuan Shao, who moved here 10 years ago, says using the nicknames make her feel at home still. “It’s like you live in a different country, but somehow you’re at home.”
Likewise for Yu, learning and repeating the nicknames was a way to settle in the city and search for humour in the difficulties of that.
“It’s a pun for us to relate to the Irish community,” he says. “Some of the roads, we’ve already forgotten their real names,” says Yu, smiling.
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