Storefront language becomes an issue in Richmond

Complex issue has no clear answer.

Tristan Johnston / The Runner

Tristan Johnston / The Runner

By Tristan Johnston
[staff writer]

As a municipality, Richmond has a high population of Chinese immigrants and their descendants. According to Statistics Canada, in 2011 59.5 per cent of the local population had a non-official (neither English or French) language as their mother tongue. According to the same set of 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).

It should be noted, while writing systems are similar, traditional script being used in Taiwan, Macau and Hong Kong, with simplified used in the Mainland, that Cantonese and Mandarin sound very different when spoken.

Consequently, Richmond is home to a plethora of businesses that feature signs written only in Chinese. Last year, Richmond resident Kerry Starchuk brought a petition of 1,000 signatures to city council to suggest that something be done, arguing that it was discrimination against people who couldn’t read Chinese. At the time, the mostly-white council didn’t take it seriously. In October of this year, the issue once again came to the council’s table, and has become a topic of heated debate throughout the Lower Mainland.

Chak Kwong Au, a Richmond city councillor since 2011, believes this is a topic worth discussing.

“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, [and] to have a common language would be good for bringing up this relationship.” 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.

“If we can use this tactic of passing a bylaw, it would create more controversy,” he says. “Chinese characters are basically pictures.” Au then explained that depending on legal interpretation, certain 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,” he adds. “We’re exploring different options, but this should have happened 18 months ago.”

However, Evelina Halsey-Brandt, a city councillor since 2001, believes that a law should be passed to enforce a common language. She isn’t running for re-election this year.

“I’m the one who brought forth the issue of the sign bylaw, and I would like a bylaw to come through,” she says. “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.”

Halsey-Brandt says that when the petition was brought to them last year, council didn’t dismiss it.

“We thought that it was too early to bring in any sort of bylaw,” she notes. “We thought that it was [about] 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 be appropriate to approach business owners in the form of education, and it didn’t do any good,” she says. “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 the language of your choice, on it.”

Halsey-Brandt disagrees that language laws wouldn’t change anything. She points out that she doesn’t speak or read Chinese, but she likes to shop and buy Chinese products. “I have absolutely no idea what they’re offering if there isn’t a sign that tells me,” she explains. “I, personally, like to try out alternative medicines . . . I would go in there [and] ask them about it . . . 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, and most of his products in his store are listed in both English and Chinese. He doesn’t think that anything would change if a bylaw is passed to enforce language.

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

“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 an education, we live together, learn together, learn from each other, right? Education is very important,” he says. “They must keep their culture, but also learn English, and other people’s cultures, to bring their relationships closer.”

The issue of language in Richmond may be symbolic of a larger problem, as suggested by Wendy Royal, an ESL instructor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. She explains 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 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,” she says. “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. 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.”

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