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The White Elephant in Chinatown

Research considers the community response to COVID-19 within the context of sociolinguistics- the visual display of signs in urban settings.

This is a photo of a shop closed for business in Chinatown

When Dr Jackie Jia Lou, Lecturer in Sociolinguistics, visited London’s Chinatown in May, two months after the national lockdown, she was struck by the fact that there were very few references to COVID-19. Instead, she saw ‘closed’ and ‘take-away’ signs and other signage advertising face masks and hand sanitizers. 

Research she’s collaborating on, with Professor Zhu Hua at the University of Birmingham, examines community responses to COVID-19 in the linguistic landscape. Defined as the visual display of texts and signs in the physical environment, linguistic landscape is a relatively new subject in sociolinguistics, which bridges sociolinguistics and urban studies.  

Following the publication of her book The Linguistic Landscape of Chinatown: A Sociolinguistic Ethnography in 2016, Dr Lou has been working on a new mobile ethnography of London’s Chinatown funded by Birkbeck’s Research Innovation Grant since 2018.  The current project focuses on COVID-19 signage.  For Chinatown, these signs carried the additional burden of racist references to the “Chinese virus” and suffered not only the direct effects of the coronavirus outbreak but also the stigma of such labelling.  

Dr Lou has been researching the linguistic landscapes of Chinatowns throughout the world since 2007, originally focussing on Chinatown in Washington, DC. She’s analysed how language and discourse contribute to the racial prejudice, ethnic stereotypes, and urban gentrification in the traditionally ethnic neighbourhood. Just as the 2003 SARS epidemic negatively impacted New York’s Chinatown, London’s Chinatown was affected by the coronavirus pandemic shortly after the outbreak in China and some time before the UK recorded cases. 

This helps explain why London’s Chinatown community was reluctant to explicitly mention COVID-19 in the context of the closure of businesses. Signs announced the closures with no clear reason. The researchers refer to it as the ‘white elephant’ in Chinatown. The de-emphasis of COVID-19 was also apparent throughout social media, with restaurants’ official Twitter, Facebook and WeChat accounts all omitting any explicit mention of COVID-19. 

Then in July, Dr Lou and her collaborator noticed a shift in the linguistic landscape with the Black Lives Matter movement and the Government’s Eat Out to Help Out Scheme finding an unlikely link. They noticed that the shop windows of some Chinatown businesses were displaying signs for the scheme and also support for Black Lives Matter. As restaurants and shops sought to reinvigorate business, an interracial solidarity appeared to be taking shape, with the community cognisant of the issues of racial injustice and prejudice with their own experience heightened throughout the pandemic. 

As businesses started to reopen during the summer months, the signage which had popped up throughout the lockdown was now replaced with signs in English and Chinese following the Government regulations to advise on social distancing. 

“We’re keen to share our research with community organisations to help Chinatown survive the crisis. Chinatown still has a part to play in the diasporic community and I really hope that continues. Ultimately, we expect the research to identify ways of building trust with communities as well as consumers, combating fear and racism, and building intercultural solidarity.”

This is a photo of a social distancing sign in Chinatown

Dr Lou expresses her hopes for Chinatown: “We’re keen to share our research with community organisations to help Chinatown survive the crisis. Chinatown still has a part to play in the diasporic community and I really hope that continues. Ultimately, we expect the research to identify ways of building trust with communities as well as consumers, combating fear and racism, and building intercultural solidarity.

“We have presented the research to an international symposium on ‘Responses of Local Communities to COVID-19: Exploring Issues of Trust in the Context of Risk and Fear’, organised by the University of Paris and Nanyang Technological University, Singapore and intend to write a journal article based on the presentation for wider dissemination to the general public.”

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