As a child, I used to think that the Manhattan Chinatown was one of the coolest neighborhoods to wander around, be puzzled by the Chinese characters written all over the place, and to visit a vastly different culture without needing to hop on a plane. Later on, I learned that you could get ersatz versions of Western desserts for low prices, but the standout for me was always the (Portuguese-inspired) egg tart.
In any event, after starting to travel, I realized that New York City’s Chinatowns were missing something prominent that other 华埠 (huábù) / 唐人街 (tángrén jiē) proudly displayed– a 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 refers to any number of communities in a fang, 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, icons such as plants and animals whose sounds were homophones with auspicious words – e.g. fruit bat, which also sounds like “blessing.” Though, modern ones 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.
The joke’s on all of us…this paifang is the entrance to a restaurant in Istanbul. Or, maybe Chinatown will simply “annex” this district.
But, the questions remains– when is one of New York City’s Chinatowns going to receive its first paifang?