As a child, I used to think that the Manhattan Chinatown was one of the coolest neighborhoods to wander around. Whether it was the detailed writing system, the food, or the history, I was enthralled. But how would it compare with other Chinatowns around the world?
After starting to travel, I realized that New York City’s Chinatowns were missing something prominent that other ones proudly displayed– a gate called paifang (牌坊 páifāng).
Historians believe that paifang, aka pailou (牌楼 páilou) were influenced by the ancient Indian torana gate, in which four gates – representing four important life events of Buddha – were placed at the four cardinal directions, on paths leading to a stupa.
Breaking down the word paifang, the pai 牌 refers to any number of communities in a fang 坊, or precinct. Originally, they served as markers to designate individual fang, but eventually became more ornamental in purpose.
Paifang were historically inscribed with specific moral principles to obey, and/or praise the government for recent accomplishments. Thereafter, images such as plants and animals began to be used. In particular, those whose sounds were homophones with auspicious words, e.g. fruit bat, which sounds like “blessing.” (if you click that link, expect a contradictory explanation)
Modern paifang take a more…hospitable approach to phraseology. For example, a number of paifang have carved into them the idiom 天下为公 (天下 tiānxià “everywhere below heaven,” “the whole world/China;” 为 wèi “for;”公 gōng “the public,” collectively owned”) — this roughly translates as the world is for everyone.
With that background exposited, let’s dive into some Chinatown paifang photos from around the world…with a couple of surprises added to the mix.
What?! A paifang in China? Of course! This one leads the way to the Ge’an community (隔岸村), in the Bao’an district of Shenzhen. If you’re a tourist and you ended up here, you’ve got quite the wanderlust.
On the other hand, it’s no Guangzhou Circle.
The joke’s on all of us…this paifang is the entrance to a restaurant in near Taksim Square in Istanbul.
But, the questions remains — when is one of New York City’s Chinatowns going to receive its first paifang?