• Sun
  • Dec 28, 2014
  • Updated: 9:11am
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

As a child I, one afternoon, invented my own written language - it soon became obvious words are only useful when at least one other person understands what they mean. Later I realized a language could also be a secret code.
We all benefit from sharing commonly understood language with as many others as possible - and we're all entitled to privacy - even personal secrecy. Eavesdropping isn't a right it's rude.
In business it's important as many in your target market know what your words mean as possible. Intimate conversation has every right to be in language both parties are most familiar with. That's only common sense.
In a free society any of us should be free to communicate in whatever spoken or written language we wish - whether or not anyone else understands us or not. As long as weights & measures are universal - and potential dangers are made clear in some official language or languages (here I'd see Mandarin and Punjabi as more sensible than French) all other signage should be entirely at the discretion of the vendor. If I wish to use the language I invented as a boy it should be my right (even if it might limit my business success). The same goes for using any one language. Which is why my bank machine does transactions in English, Standardized Chinese, or Punjabi - because it makes sound business sense.
When I shop at my favourite 'Asian' market all I look at is the quantity/price & dietary info. That's all I need to know that my senses don't tell.
As soon as possible after retiring I moved to Vancouver - because of its cosmopolitanism, its amenities, its intimate loving relationship with nature. Fleeing the utterly suburban Okanagan I'd sworn off the isolating captivity of the car and committed to public transit where the vast majority of my fellow riders are Asian - and the majority of those east Asian - the majority of those (by obvious tonal cues) Chinese. I enjoy our quiet polite community - respect for each other's needs in a small shared space.
Musing on how exhausting it must be to struggle towards familiarity with a language while relying on it to earn one's living (I imagine myself working in French) - do I imagine myself chatting with a friend about personal relationships or grocery shopping in French too? Not a chance. Most of us recognize without having to think on it the natural sensibility of relying on our first language for all our intimate needs.
Only those who fear their growing dependence on people they've traditionally tolerated as useful - people who, as need grows, are evolving from 'visible minority' towards 'typical Vancouverite' in status - only they resent what they see as evidence of 'efforts to erode' 'our' culture. Something most Vancouverites I know regard as just plain stupid - worthy only of a grinning head-shake.
Off to my favourite 'Asian' market - to get fresh produce which in any language is superior!
If people in Vancouver want to remove Chinese signs because they think immigrants should integrate should consider the other side of the coin. Many people fed-up with North America immigrated to Hong Kong, others have settled in China. In Hong Kong and all major cities in China signs, place names etc. are posted in Chinese and either English or Romanized Chinese. If Vancouver opts to remove Chinese signs China will be considered to be more socially advanced, offering signage in a major international language and more friendly to those who don't understand the local language.
The Chinese signs look foreign to Canadians. The Canadian feeling alienated by foreign Chinese signs in Canada. However, the laws should be passed to mandate English translation with Chinese advertisement.
Bo Xilai
Ian, I heard the same story about a 4 year old boy in Vancouver tell his mother "I don't like Black people". What does that tell us? Young Vancouverites are racists? Donald Sterling has a love child in Vancouver?
I think there's a risk of extracting too many conclusions from anecdotal evidence - especially one from a 5 year old. I think kids that age are probably hard-wired to be scared of the unknown and they're just a little more verbal about it.
Hi ******:
'Primal fear', and the fact that the quoted comment was made by a small child, are quite clearly intended to suggest this is NOT a societal problem in Vancouver...in fact, they are intended to suggest that a psychological factor may be at play. Discussing perceptions of race should not be conflated with racism.
Wow, look how calm and objective everyone is. Chinese characters, it's no biggie right?
Just take the same scenario, but place it in Hong Kong. Traditional Chinese being substituted with simplified Chinese characters. Now let's see the reaction.
Chinese are generally annoying only when they are in groups whether they speak Cantonese (high-pitched conversation/argument who knows) or Mandarin (loud and unruly). Richmond is a Chinese city by population that is increasingly catering mostly to Chinese and that have taken gradually a large stake in business no only in Richmond (adds only in Chinese) but also in Vancouver. It took 40 years for the Chinese to become the majority and displace the local population. Canadian heritage (if there is one) is gradually disappearing from that part of Canada. For the conscious Canadian, expect Vancouver and vicinities to become Chinese (if it is not now) in 50 years time. Cheers.
Quebec has the same issue with English signage...
But English is supposed to be a official language there.




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