Last year, Frank Zhong bought Emerald City, the Chinese restaurant on the strip of Washtenaw between Ypsi and Ann Arbor. Originally from Zigong, Sichuan (aka Szechuan), Zhong owns restaurants in Detroit, Midland, and Lansing. The Trizest Restaurant Group, as the collection is called, claims to serve highly authentic Sichuan food. Zhong, who used to live in Midland, has now moved to the area and is the restaurant’s head chef; he also occasionally teaches classes in Sichuan cookery at the Turner Senior Resource Center.
Zhong and his staff speak very little English, which makes for a tough interview but augurs well for the “authentic Sichuan” claim. Some of the items on the “authentic Chinese dishes” section of the menu seem hair-raisingly unfamiliar, like “pig’s blood curd with hot bean sauce.”
These changes might have gone unnoticed–the big square restaurant, whose entrance in the back is a gentle, pretty contrast to the roaring Washtenaw strip in front, remains unchanged–except that earlier this year the sign out front suddenly proclaimed the restaurant’s name to be Ypbor Yan. The name change seems a little tentative: a large neon sign on the restaurant itself stills reads Emerald City, and so do the menus.
“Ypbor Yan” doesn’t sound or look like any of the familiar pinyin Chinese syllables we Westerners are accustomed to. But this may be the only Chinese restaurant in town that actually tries to meld its Chinese name with its English name.
Ypbor Yan is a partial anagram of Ypsi-Ann Arbor. Zhong says this is intentional–but also that the yp, bor, and yan are real Chinese characters. He, the cashier, and the waitress pointed to the Chinese characters on the cover of the menu and argued energetically about their English translations: “keeping people happy,” “life,” and “party” were some of the suggestions. Eric Kung, former owner of Emerald City, happened to stop by and joined in the game, translating the syllables as “palace,” “treasure,” and “banquet.” It felt like it was time to call for help.
Frances Wang, sometime writer for the Observer, explains that the Chinese characters in question are actually yi, bao, and yan. Massage them slightly and you get the anagrammatic yp bor yan. It makes even more sense, she says, when you take into account that “in Chinese, Ypsilanti is pronounced yi-si-lan-ti, and Ann Arbor is pronounced ann-ah-bao.”
In Wang’s translation, the characters together mean something like “leisure treasure banquet.” She adds that Chinese restaurants often have Chinese names that are unrelated to their English names–for instance, Asian Legend’s Chinese name is actually “Old Familiar Place.” Ypbor Yan is unique for having–as much as possible–made the Chinese and English name one.
Wang, who was delighted with the clever linguistic game being played once she was alerted to it, admits that it initially went over her head. She had heard the new name and thought it sounded like a Mexican restaurant.
Ypbor Yan, 4905 Washtenaw Ave., 434-7978. Mon.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Sun. noon-9 p.m. www.usbgfood.com