Chinese shopkeepers in Vancouver abandon English

May 19, 2015 08:19
Chinese signs abound in the Vancouver suburb of Richmond. Photo: National Post

Walk in the mall, and you see dim sum restaurants, mahjong parlors, Chinese medicine and massage shops and money changers.

You hear different dialects of Cantonese and Mandarin.

Mong Kok or Causeway Bay?

No, it is Richmond, south of Vancouver, the most Asian city in the Americas.

More than 60 percent of its 208,000 residents are of Chinese or South Asian ancestry, with Chinese accounting for 50 percent of the total.

Before 1997, it was, with Toronto, the most popular destination for Hong Kong people who wanted to emigrate before the handover.

Now many shop owners in Richmond put up signs advertising their products only in Chinese – provoking indignation from white residents who demand that they put the information also in English, which is one of Canada’s two official languages together with French.

“I stay away from businesses with Chinese-only signs,” said Sue Graham, a 20-year resident of Richmond and one of 1,000 people who signed a petition protesting the practice.

“These people have come to our country. They are wonderful. The two languages are for both of us. Otherwise, you feel like you are being taken over.”

The city held a meeting on the issue in March. More than 100 people turned up.

Some in the audience said they felt excluded and proposed the city adopt a bylaw that ordered the signs be at least 50 percent English.

This, they said, would help to build a more inclusive community.

For their part, the shop owners say their products are directed at the Chinese population and that there is no need for English signs.

So far, the Richmond city government has resisted calls for a mandatory bylaw, saying that it should not interfere in normal commercial activities.

With a Chinese majority, it is reluctant to act.

“We strive to be the most appealing, livable and well-managed community in Canada,” its website says.

Its investigations have found 31 Chinese-only signs in the city.

City hall wonders if such a bylaw would be enforceable and whether it could violate Canada Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Cities have the right to regulate signs relating to rezoning and development permit applications but not to control business licenses or sign permits.

The dispute is a sign of the profound changes in Richmond over the last 30 years.

In 1986, the Chinese share of the population was 20 percent.

The approach of the handover provoked a surge in emigration from Hong Kong.

Thousands chose Canada, because it opened the door to Hong Kong migrants, and Vancouver, because of its location at the confluence of the Fraser River and the Pacific Ocean, with a backdrop of mountains.

They chose Richmond because of its large Chinese population.

According to the city’s website, its residents have the longest life expectancy in Canada, 84.9 years compared to the national average of 81.2.

It has more than 90 parks, covering a total of 567 hectares, 81 hectares of recreational trails and a wide variety of recreational amenities.

The website says its economy has 135,000 jobs in services, retailing, tourism, technology, light manufacturing, airport services and aviation, agriculture, fishing and government.

But many migrants could not find jobs that suited their interests and experience; nor did they like to pay the high level of income tax, with a maximum band of 50 per cent.

So, after securing their passport, they returned to work in Hong Kong, often leaving their family behind.

They became known as the "astronaut" families.

Over the last 10 years immigration by Hongkongers has fallen, but their place has been taken by wealthy mainlanders moving for the same reasons – fear of political instability and for the safety of their assets.

And, just like the Hong Kong migrants, they chose Richmond because of its Chinese environment.

By 2001, the proportion of Chinese in the city’s population reached 39 percent and, by 2012, 45.4 percent.

Those who say they use Chinese as their mother language number 40.9 percent, compared with 36.5 percent for English.

The proportion of those with English ancestry has fallen from 14 percent in 1986 to less than 4 percent.

Demand by Chinese migrants has been a major driver of the property market.

The price index in Greater Vancouver for single-family detached homes hit a record C$1,010,000 (US$830,000) in January, jumping 8.4 percent from the same month last year.

The benchmark, which strips out the most expensive properties, reached a new high of C$641,600 in January for condos and townhouses, up 5.5 percent over the past year.

In Richmond, economic and political power has shifted to its Chinese residents.

So why should they submit to the demands of a minority?

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.