Finger pointing in Richmond Chinese signage debate not constructive
Considering this, the existence of Chinese signs in Richmond should not be a shocker. People who live their lives in two or more countries want the comforts of “home” wherever they go. And globalization has led to a huge surge in English signage in Beijing and Shanghai to serve the city's growing population of non-Chinese visitors, businesspeople and residents.
Many sides to Canadian identity
Those who are irritated by Chinese-only signs are fond of saying multiculturalism is a two way street. And it is. It would probably be helpful if the Chinese community made more of an effort to make their places of business more comfortable for people who do not speak Chinese.
I've seen the word “divide” used to describe the situation in Richmond regarding the Chinese signage debate, but a “divide” suggests that there are only two, one dimensional sides to the discussion -- Chinese, and non-Chinese.
This is completely inaccurate. There are many other ethnic minority communities in Richmond, as well as mixed race Canadians, and as I mentioned earlier, second and third generation Chinese-Canadians may feel uncomfortable with Chinese-only signage. I have had the unpleasant experience of a hostess at a restaurant hanging up on me because she didn’t speak English and I couldn't communicate in Mandarin.
Given the number of different interest groups in this situation and the complexity of “multiculturalism”, a set of top-down language regulations regarding signage would probably do little to help. Anyone who has lived in Quebec, as I have, would probably confirm that language laws about signage don’t ease tensions; in fact they inflame and perpetuate hostile attitudes.
Recently, an Italian restaurant in Montreal was reprimanded by the Office Québécois de la langue française when it was revealed that the restaurant’s menu featured too many non-French words such as “pasta” and “antipasto”. Note that this dispute wasn't about English and French: this was about Italian.
You could say that feelings of fear and exclusion are written into Quebec law. This sends a message to the francophone population that their fears of the disappearance of Québécois culture are legitimate.
Will it make any difference?
While more English signage might be helpful for some in Richmond, it's not guaranteed to put everyone’s concerns to rest. Chinese stores geared toward the Chinese immigrant population will continue to exist and grow as the number of Chinese immigrants increase.
Frankly, I don't believe government regulations regarding the ratio of English to Chinese on advertisements would do much to make the non-Chinese speaking population in Richmond feel more at ease. Even if a store that specialized in dried seahorses and insect tea put up English signage on its storefront, it's doubtful that it would attract many non-Asian customers.
But more mainstream businesses such as noodle houses or cell phone accessory stands have already figured out that there are economic benefits to having English on their signs in addition to Chinese. This has happened organically, and not because it was imposed by law.
As the saying goes, money is the best motivator. I don't agree with this statement unequivocally, but in this case, I think that market forces shape a comfortable path that will lead to suitable compromises. New immigrants may not be familiar with English -- but their children will be. Anybody listening casually to conversations on the Canada Line SkyTrain would observe that many of today's Chinese Canadians switch casually back and forth between two languges, even if they were born abroad.
Besides, I wouldn't want my tax dollars to go toward hiring a team of sign-measuring enforcers whose job is to regulate the size ratio of Chinese to English text throughout the city.
In short, the particular mix of identities that is Richmond, BC, cannot be controlled or understood through signage regulations. Nor should people seek to control this mix of identities or prevent an organic multicultural community from emerging. Admittedly, the path to social cohesion is not always rosy and there are cases where governments need to set a precedence for tolerance.
I hope that one day, the non-Chinese population in Richmond can feel as comfortable in their city as the Chinese population does now. Perhaps then we can claim to have figured out this whole “globalization” and “multiculturalism” thing.