Storefront sign language becomes controversial in Richmond

Bilingual signage near Richmond-Brighouse Skytrain station. Image by Tristan Johnston

Bilingual signs near the Richmond Brighouse Canada Line station. Photo by Tristan Johnston

Richmond is known for having a large population of Chinese immigrants and their descendants. According to Statscan data from 2011, 59.5 per cent of the population has a non-official (neither English or French) language as its mother tongue. According to the same data, 41.1 per cent of Richmond’s population speaks either Cantonese (16.5 per cent), Mandarin (11.1 per cent) or not otherwise specified (13.5 per cent).

Last year, Richmond resident Kerry Starchuk took a petition of 1,000 signatures to city council to suggest that something be done about the large amount of Chinese language signs in Richmond. Starchuk, like some other residents of Richmond, feels alienated and excluded in her city. However, at the time, the mostly white council didn’t take it seriously. (Almost all signs in Richmond features some English.)

Chak Au was one of the few who did take it seriously.

“Basically, I’m saying that, number one, this is an issue that we should address. It’s not going away. Also, this isn’t a language issue, this is an intercultural issue. Different groups in the community need to come together as one. To have a common language would be good for bringing up this relationship,” Au said.

Au immigrated to Canada in 1988 and speaks both English and Cantonese. He doesn’t believe that a bylaw of any sort should be passed to make a difference in the signage. “I have reservations about passing a bylaw,” he says. “If we can use this tactic of passing a bylaw, it would create more controversy. Chinese characters are basically pictures.”

Au explained that depending on legal interpretation, some companies might have to change their logos to comply with the law.

“It’s better to go by setting a standard, and then we go by education, persuasion and helping people understand that compliance is the best way to do it for the community. There’s no definite idea on what to do yet. We’re exploring different options, but this should have happened 18 months ago.”

Evelina Halsey-Brandt, although she didn’t running for re-election this year, believes that law should be passed to enforce a common language.

“I’m the one who brought forth the issue of the sign bylaw, and I would like a bylaw to come through,” she said. “I think it’s time to address how disenfranchising the unilingual languages are, just having Chinese on the signs. It’s a really divisive thing here.

“We didn’t dismiss it, we thought that it was too early to bring in any sort of bylaw,” Brandt said, referring to last year. “We thought that it was education, and approaching business owners, to try to get them to understand that English is our official language, and people in Richmond speak English. We have a lot of people from other parts of the world that immigrate here and it’s already difficult enough for them to understand what’s going on in English, let alone to have no English included. So we thought it would appropriate to approach business owners in the form of education, and it didn’t do any good. The only way we’re going to be able to deal with the issue on any permanent basis, would be to introduce a bylaw that has 50 per cent English, and 50 per cent of the language of your choice on it.”

Brandt disagrees with the idea that language laws wouldn’t change anything.

“I don’t speak a word of Chinese, or read a word of it, but I like to shop and buy Chinese products. I have absolutely no idea what they’re offering if there isn’t a sign that tells me. I, personally, like to try out alternative medicines, you know? I would go in there, ask them about it. ‘This stuff has been around for thousands of years, what do you recommend?’ I’m not even given an opportunity to do that when I don’t know what kind of business you have.

“Wanting to be included is a good thing. We have people who don’t understand what Chinese businesses are offering, and all we want to do is say ‘please include everybody.’ The primary language of a lot of new immigrants is going to be English.”

Chris Li, who runs Gah Lok Dim Sum, has both languages on his storefront sign. It also appears that all food items in his store are named in English and Chinese. He doesn’t think that anything would change if a bylaw were passed to enforce language.

“That’s because everybody here, they have the freedom to do what they like. But, they must obey the opinions of other people. Not so much argue. We love each other, we love Canada, to build Canada into a strong country. We build up our business, so that not only Chinese people can come, but also people from other [backgrounds]. People from all over come.

“Even if they pass a law, that’s okay, in my opinion. Because, we have many different countries languages. I can speak Cantonese, Mandarin, English.

“As soon as you have education, we live together, learn together, learn from each other, right? Education is very important. Not only bylaw, or something, but education. They must keep their culture, but also learn English, and other people’s culture. To bring their relationships closer.”

Wendy Royal, an ESL instructor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, explained why there may be some language issues among newer immigrants.

“The government used to provide immigrants with ESL classes, but we just lost a huge amount of funding. We teach international students, but we lost our funding for domestic students. We’re advocating to have this restored. So, immigrants coming now don’t have the opportunity to come to a place like Kwantlen,” she said.

She notes that coming to KPU to learn English would bring newer immigrants into academic culture, and being around people from different backgrounds. Going to private classes might encourage newer immigrants to group up.

“You don’t want to become heavy-handed about it. You want to see what the feeling is. To me, it’s not a big deal to see signs in Chinese, in fact, it adds to the flavour of the country. I think that the more we encourage immigrants to learn English, the better, but we need to have the support to offer these language classes,” she said. “Immigrants who come can probably get away with living in Richmond and not learning English, but they’re kind of isolating themselves and it’s not really what most of us, especially young people, want. If there are Chinese signs to make newer immigrants feel more comfortable, I don’t think that’s detrimental. It doesn’t give the impression that they’re unfriendly to Canadians, you can have both languages, like in Quebec.”

Tristan Johnston

Tristan Johnston is interested in language, geopolitics and getting the city to work properly.

1 Comment

  • Daniella Javier
    Reply December 9, 2014

    Daniella Javier

    I think that having both English and the other language would be helpful if you want to purchase something that’s from another country. That’s one thing I hope to see if I go to an Asian country some day, because I wouldn’t be able to know what I’m actually buying in a store. Although, I guess it depends on the store.

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