• Sat
  • Dec 20, 2014
  • Updated: 12:58pm
The Hongcouver
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 April, 2014, 8:55am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 April, 2014, 8:59am

‘Mama, I don’t like Chinese people’: Primal fear and the Vancouver signage debate


Ian Young is the SCMP's former International Editor. A journalist for more than 20 years, he worked for Australian newspapers and the London Evening Standard before arriving in Hong Kong in 1997. There he won or shared awards for excellence in investigative reporting and human rights reporting, and the HK News Awards Scoop of the Year. He moved to Canada with his wife in 2010 and is now the SCMP's Vancouver correspondent.

What is it about Chinese-language signage that annoys some Vancouverites so much?

The Hongcouver blog last week looked at the campaign to have such signage removed from Vancouver’s international airport. At the same time, a mini-row flared up over a Chinese-only bus shelter ad for toothpaste; a couple of weeks before that, it was an ad for an anti-gambling programme

Those opposed to such advertising claim that it sends the wrong message about the need for immigrants to try to integrate into broader Canadian society. But I wonder whether there are more fundamental concerns at play here – primal ones, even.

Vancouver blogger Melissa Carr this week told a story about how she encountered a Chinese group at a local community swimming pool, prompting her five-year-old son to tell her, sotto voce: “Mama, I don’t like Chinese people.”

Understandably appalled, Carr pressed him for his reasons. It turned out although he had plenty of Chinese friends, it was hearing people speaking in Chinese together that made him feel uncomfortable. “Maybe they’re talking about me,” he feared.

I’m unaware whether the discomfort felt upon being subjected to foreign-language signage has received scientific study. However, the phenomenon of annoyance upon being subjected to a discourse that cannot be fully understood is well known.

One of the most famous recent studies of the subject was conducted in 2010 by Cornell University psychologists led by Lauren Emberson, who considered why loud cell phone users were so irritating. They found that overhearing half a conversation (dubbed a “halfalogue”) was far more psychologically stressful than hearing a whole one, since the mind of the eavesdropper was forced to try to fill in the gaps, based on limited information. 

“Less-predictable speech results in more distraction for a listener engaged in other tasks,” they concluded.

In 2012, behavioral economist Dan Bennett conducted an ad hoc experiment based on Emberson’s cell phone study that took things a step further. Bennett, of Ogilvy Labs in Britain, tried to confirm Emberson’s results by comparing the level of irritation among English speakers upon hearing “halfalogues” in English and Chinese. “People definitely couldn’t follow the content of a Chinese conversation,” went Bennett’s argument; if listeners were just as annoyed by the Chinese halfalogue, then that would undermine the argument that the irritation resulted from filling in gaps in a half-understood conversation.

“It turns out people aren’t bothered about overhearing Chinese conversations,” Bennett wrote. “It also rings true that people are much more annoyed by English mobile [conversations] than English face to face. This suggests that the theory is correct and people do [try to] follow the conversation.”

Yet I doubt that Bennett’s results are fully applicable to Chinese signage (as opposed to conversation) for the reason that we extrapolate meaning from signage in many ways. Chinese conversations were totally inexplicable to eavesdroppers, so they shouldn’t have been (and weren’t) bothered by them, Bennett  argued. But Chinese signage offers plenty of other cues about possible meaning – location, illustrations, and known context. Such non-written cues could constitute the halfalogue.

Is it conceivable that irritation occurs for a non-Chinese speaker upon encountering a Chinese sign because the viewer’s brain goes into overtime, trying to figure out meaning from contextual cues?

Frustration was clearly evident in a submission to Richmond’s city council last year by some aggrieved residents. Their presentation on the perils of Chinese signage in the Vancouver satellite city was captioned: “What am I buying?”, “Looks good but what is it?” and “Read all about it, what does it say?”

Carr’s young son was quite clear in expressing his dislike of overheard Chinese conversation (in contradiction of Bennett’s conclusions), and he was just as put off by Chinese signs at their local community centre. But his mother told me she isn’t too worried.

“He’s pointing to an Asian sign and he’s saying ‘see? I don’t even know that that means’.” Carr said with a laugh. “It’s kind of ridiculous though. He can’t even read English either.”


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This article is now closed to comments

I must take exception with Chang Diffoung's assertion that "Most Chinese and Indians are xenophiles, you all know it is very true." After living in Hong Kong for 20 years as a white person, I found a tremendous amount of hostility and anger directed at me almost every time I left my flat. I have been called a 'chi sin ****', told that 'this is Hong Kong' and I should go back to my own f***ing country' more times than I can count. In my experience, most Chinese are racists who only become aware of racism when it is directed at them, and usually nowhere near their homes, such as when Chinese students go to Australia and are subjected to racism directed against them. That is usually the only time racism seems to become an issue for most Chinese. So CD could not be more wrong, in my opinion. If Chinese love foreigners so much, why did it take so long--and against such vocal opposition--to pass anti-discrimiation laws in Hong Kong?
i'd wager that the real reason behind all this anti-Chinese signage business boils down to the simple fact that a lot of people born and bred in Vancouver, despite their welcoming rhetoric towards immigrants, feel uncomfortable with things that they don't completely understand. this applies to foreign languages, foreign words and influxes of foreign people in general. it's all well and good to say that Canada is a mosaic and filled with millions of different races all living together in harmony, but the mentalities behind the country's lawmakers and many of its citizens probably is a lot more subconsciously racist than anyone would ever admit to.
calling Cantonese and Mandarin both unruly and high-pitched is a little insulting. imagine how Americans and Canadians sound when they're travelling abroad in groups and babbling on in English with valley girl drawls and Toronto accents? it's also annoying, whether you can understand English or not.
When in Rome...
If you decide you want to go live in a country then you should accept that you need to integrate and take on that country's culture and language. It is plain common sense, it is also inevitable that the people living in a country will become unfriendly to a group who seem to refuse to integrate and seem to try and 'take over' the neighbourhood.
I was born and grew up in England and only learned to speak English, when I was a kid one of my older relatives who had lived in the country for many years couldn't speak a word of it - in effect we never communicated. Her lack of desire to absorb the local way of life and integrate also meant we had very little in common besides being relatives. I often wondered why she bothered emigrating from Hong Kong to the UK.
I myself went through a phase a few years ago where I wanted to emigrate to Hong Kong, despite the fact that quite a few Hong Kongers can speak some level of English I made an effort to learn to communicate in Cantonese. If I decide to emigrate to another country in the future, say Spain, I would make an effort to learn to communicate in Spanish or Catalan beforehand; to be honest I would be downright embarrassed to turn up ready to live in a country and not be able to communicate in their official language(s).
...do as the Romans do.
I hear comments from local kids in China all the time when they see couple of foreigners. People not used to difference and diversity respond with fear. This applies to little people as well, and if generally magnified by parents and other environmental factors, even at age 5. Same is true in Hangzhou as may be true in Vancouver. Sameness is comforting, but not conducive to having an open mind.
Baloney column. The poisonous bait to read the thing is the headline: ‘Mama, I don’t like Chinese people’. The quote is out of the mouth of a 5 yo and even the writer admits that it is much ado about nothing. Then there is baffle-gab about scientific studies and cell phones.
The fact is, Vancouver is one of the most tolerant and diversified cities on the planet. One could never say it is free of racism and cultural mis-understanding, but it is one of the best. Just look at the diversity of restaurants and the huge number of mixed-nationlity couples and children.
The writer and the headline writer are hanging their hats on the wrong post. It's called writing just to fill space. Find a real topic and put some thought into it, pal, maybe a place with real problems of institutional racism. By the way, I'm a white guy who has been around the world.
Hi ******, the fact that the quote was made by a five year old was the whole point, in considering whether there is an issue of fundamental psychology at play, versus a political or intellectual consideration. At no point is it suggested that Vancouver is particularly racist.
No, having spoken to Ms Carr, he's probably not.
Hi Baysidedweller: this blog is not about the comment by Ms Carr's child, and nor is it in reaction to it. It's about the signage debate. The rather trivial comment by Ms Carr's son is only used to illustrate the possible psychology at play. Also, this blog already contains a link to Ms Carr's blog ... no research required.
Growing up in Canada, I've alway knew that everyone is internally bigoted no matter how progressive the community and individuals perceive themselves to be. Signage should be driven as a purely business decision. It makes total sense to have 100% Chinese advertising for some Chinese products. I'm totally fine with 100% language of any language. Mind you, we always say Canada is a mosaic, not a melting pot like the USA. This episode is obviously not in this spirit.




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