The Many Chinese Words for “Lane”

Suoyi Hutong Beijing

Suoyi Hutong, Beijing

There’s several different names in English for small, secondary streets that run between blocks or behind major roads. Alley and lane are the words most often used in North America, but there’s significant variation in the UK, where regional words like vennel, chare, wynd, twitten and jigger are common.

It’s a similar story in China. Just about every city has a lu (路), which is the word mostly commonly used to describe important roads. And even though there is a basic word for lane — xiang (巷) — there are also many regional variations. In Beijing, it’s hutong (衚衕); in Shanghai, it’s longtang (弄堂) and in Chengdu, it’s xiangzi (巷子).

I don’t know anything about the exact origins of these different words for alley, but I imagine they have roots in local languages and geography. In Guangzhou, for example, a common name for alley is tung jeun in Cantonese (衕津), which literally means “alley dock” and refers to a lane near the Pearl River. Nobody uses this word in Hong Kong, where two other words are used to refer to alleys: fong (坊) and lei (里), which is a Cantonese transliteration of the English word “lane.”

Colonial influence can be seen in another generic street name that is unique to Hong Kong: “praya,” which comes from the Portuguese word for beach, praia, and refers to a street that runs along the waterfront.

Foreign influence can also be seen in Taipei, which was a Japanese colony between 1895 and 1945. Neighbourhood names are often followed by the suffix ding (町), which is pronounced cho in Japanese and is a kind of municipal administrative unit, similar to a township or borough.

For laneways, on the other hand, Taipei leans towards the generic: they’re numbered, not named, and referred to by the very indistinctive xiang.

Suoyi Hutong Beijing

Alley off Zhongxiao Dunhua Lane 205, Taipei

Suoyi Hutong Beijing

Lan Kwai Fong, Hong Kong

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Monday December 21 2009at 04:12 am , filed under Asia Pacific, Public Space and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

One Response to “The Many Chinese Words for “Lane””

  • C. Szabla says:

    I imagine the use of “xiang” in Taipei has to do with the fact that Chinese from many different regions flocked to the city after the Communist takeover of the mainland? I wonder if there will be a similar flattening of dialects as a result of all the migration that’s taken place on the mainland since the 70s, leaving the regional terms sounding anachronistic.

    Beijing even has its own term for “important street”: “dajie” rather than “lu”. I’ve seen the former translated as “avenue” or “street” as opposed to “road”. Maybe there’s just a different hierarchy there; the ring roads, which are massive highways, are referred to as “lu”.