The Hongcouver

Does Chinese signage at Vancouver airport send the wrong message?

Some Richmond residents fear 'politically motivated ethnic groups are pushing their cultural agenda upon Canada'

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 April, 2014, 9:04am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 February, 2016, 11:52am

Canada’s two official languages are English and French, although that might surprise visitors to Richmond, the Vancouver satellite that is the world’s most-Chinese city outside Asia.

That latter fact has resulted in a proliferation of Chinese signage that is particularly noticeable around Richmond’s main shopping strip of Number 3 Road, where ethnic Chinese make up 80 per cent of the population. It’s a phenomenon that has previously drawn the ire of longtime Richmond residents, who have seen the city transformed from a sleepy farming community into an ethnic Chinese metropolis.

Campaigners who want to promote the official languages say the situation now extends beyond Number 3 Road, and that visitors to Canada need to be reminded of the official languages as soon as they step off their flight in Vancouver. In their sights are the large Chinese-language advertisements for real estate developers and others that greet new arrivals at Vancouver International Airport in Richmond.

“[The airport advertisements] are important because exiting the airport is for thousands their first introduction to Canada,” said Brad Saltzberg, British Columbia regional director for activist group Putting Canada First. “Rather than some emblems of our country – our flag, or pictures of Whistler, or mounties - we are greeted by the Chinese language. These are large ads. Some are in Chinese only, with no English…it just doesn’t reflect Canadian culture and history. It’s a promotion for Chinese developers.”

He added: “It’s a poor and misleading introduction for what Canada is all about.”

Saltzberg’s group has been lobbying municipal authorities, various government officials and the managers of the signage sites to have the advertisements replaced.

“The official languages act, section seven, speaks directly of the government’s responsibility for promoting our official languages throughout Canada,” he said. “What’s going on [at the airport] there with that signage is counter to that.”

Saltzberg said his group wanted BC to introduce a language law modelled on Quebec’s Bill 101, which gives government mandate to the goal of making French the "normal and everyday language of work, instruction, communication, commerce and business" in the province. Saltzberg said all signage in BC, publicly funded and commercial alike, should have a majority component in English.

The debate over Chinese signage flares up periodically in Richmond. Last month, the government-funded immigrant support group SUCCESS was criticised for putting up Chinese-only advertisements in Richmond for a gambling addiction programme. The programme itself was for Chinese speakers, but SUCCESS nevertheless agreed to change the bus shelter ads so that they included an English-language component.

Queenie Choo, the Hong Kong-born CEO of SUCCESS, said the original Chinese-only design was “perhaps an oversight”. “The intent was to help a very specific population, and there was a very specific mandate, however…we didn’t want to exclude anyone so we did a retake on it [and redesigned the poster],” Choo said.

“With public-funded signage, we need to make sure no one feels left out…even if we are not really targeting the general population”. She said it was vital to respect the official languages, at the same time as serving the target audience.

For 40 years, SUCCESS has helped new immigrants find their feet in BC, offering a range of mother-tongue services.

Saltzberg agreed that “you can’t just expect people to drop their mother tongue the moment they step into the country”, but he nevertheless takes exception to the activities of groups including SUCCESS, claiming that they contribute to a situation in which “integration is either not the goal or it’s not occurring”.

“Politically motivated ethnic groups are pushing their cultural agenda upon Canada,” he said.

Is Saltzberg referring to the Chinese community? “Yes. It’s the most overt, it’s the most well-organised and well-funded. They’re not bad people. There’s nothing wrong with the people. But the degree of ethnocentrism threatens the foundation of Canadian culture and history.”

Putting Canada First is a small group – Saltzberg said there were about a dozen “core” members – but he said it had a growing number of followers, and that uni-lingual foreign language signage was the issue that most upset them.

“We don’t want all of Vancouver to turn into Richmond,” he said. “That would be a cultural transformation unprecedented in the history of Canada.”

The Hongcouver blog is devoted to the hybrid culture of its namesake cities: Hong Kong and Vancouver. All story ideas and comments are welcome. Connect with me by email or on Twitter, @ianjamesyoung70.