British Columbia

Richmond Chinese-language only sign controversy, a sign of cultural tension

The city of Richmond hosted a public forum on Chinese-language only signs tonight.

City councillor Chak Au says the issue points to lack of community cohesion

A public forum on the use of Chinese language-only signs in Richmond took place tonight. 

A petition with more than 1000 signatures was presented to council a couple of years ago, protesting the practice.

Richmond resident Sue Graham says it bothers her. She stays away from businesses with Chinese only signs, and wants to see English on them.

"These people, and they're wonderful, they've come to our country. I believe that it's for both of us. Otherwise, you feel like you're being taken over."

Graham has lived in Richmond for 20 years, and she believes having English on all signs would help build a more inclusive community.

Chinese-only signs are 3.5% of total business signs

Last fall, Richmond city council asked staff to look into the issue. They counted how many Chinese-only signs are in the city, which amounted to 31, and whether creating a bylaw to require English-only signs would be enforceable.

They found the bylaw could violate the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Municipalities have the right to regulate signs that pertain to rezoning and development permit applications, but that regulation cannot be used to control business licences, or sign permits.

A sign of cultural tensions

Longtime Richmond resident Albert Lo argues the controversy around Chinese-only signs might be a pretext for other contentious issues.

"There are those issues of visibility. You can see that the demographics have definitely changed. And from time to time, you hear people complain about 'We are no longer a Euro-centric kind of culture. We don't agree with transforming Richmond into a kind of Asian community.'"

Albert Lo is the chair of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, which works to eliminate racial discrimination in Richmond. (Elaine Chau)

According to Statistics Canada data from 2011, Richmond has about 50% of residents identifying as Chinese.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the city went through an immigration boom from Hong Kong. Now, many recent immigrants come from Mainland China.

Lo isn`t pointing to a widespread culture clash that's buried beneath this signs issue, but he says residents shouldn't be scared to talk about the discomfort they feel about changes in their community.

More dialogue needed

Richmond city councillor Chak Au says the Chinese-only signs controversy may be pointing to cultural tensions in his municipality, as it undergoes a period of change. (Elaine Chau/CBC)

Richmond city councillor Chak Au says those changes have to do with an increasing number of new Chinese immigrants in the city.

"There is certainly truth in saying that there is some cultural tension between new immigrants and local residents. I'm not saying it's a crash of cultures, but it's something we have to address in a changing community. Everybody has to be at the table, and talk about it, and find a solution that everyone is comfortable with."

The public forum on Chinese-language only signs takes places at the John M.S. Lecky UBC Boathouse, 7277 River Rd​., Richmond, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.

Comments will also be accepted until March 20 online  


Elaine Chau

Producer, Front Burner

Elaine Chau was born in Hong Kong, and grew up in Montreal and Vancouver. She is the 2008 recipient of the CBC Radio Peter Gzowski internship, multiple RTDNA winner, and Gold Radio Winner in the Health/Medicine category at the 2011 New York Festivals for her series "AIDS: Then and Now".