Kerry Starchuk has lived in Richmond, British Columbia, her entire life, but lately she feels like a stranger in parts of her hometown.
"Three years ago I started to see the signs," said Starchuk, 55. "I went to Dairy Queen and outside there was a parking sign that had absolutely no English on it. I had no idea what it was trying to tell me."
She concluded that English-language street signage was becoming increasingly marginalised in Richmond. Many businesses in the city's most populous districts now favour Chinese signage, sometimes at the total exclusion of English.
Starchuk and fellow Richmond residents failed this week in a bid to get the city council to back a policy requiring business owners to post a certain amount of signage in English or French, Canada's official languages.
She presented a 1,000-signature petition on Monday, but councillors in the Vancouver satellite city of 190,000 voted against even investigating the issue.
"I would have liked for them to agree that this was an issue to be discussed. But they just closed it down," she said on Tuesday. "But it's got people talking and that is probably more important than the petition."
Richmond is the most Chinese city in North America. According to the 2006 census, the federal election district that includes two-thirds of the city's population is already 50.2 per cent ethnic Chinese. The city's transformation from a sleepy community notable for its blueberry farms and salmon port into a thriving Chinese enclave began in the 1980s with a wave of immigration from Hong Kong that continues today.
But Starchuk said the signage issue became noticeable only in the past three years or so. Now, there are entire stretches of Richmond's No 3 Road, the core business district, where she feels excluded."I find it overwhelming, and I question why? We've previously had people arriving in Richmond from all over the world, and what's happening now doesn't make sense," she said.
Starchuck's concerns roughly coincided with a boom in mainland Chinese migration. In the past decade, mainlanders overtook bilingual Hongkongers as Richmond's main immigrants and census data suggests they now outstrip Hong Kong arrivals three to one. Between 2006 and 2011, Richmond's population of people claiming Mandarin as their mother tongue grew by 7,725, while for Cantonese it grew by 2,680.
Starchuk, a fourth-generation Richmond resident whose great-grandfather's name graces the local William Bridge Elementary school, said she was unaware of that demographic shift, but she knew changes were afoot in her beloved city. "I just knew that something had happened. Our real estate market went crazy. And I was wondering 'what's going on here?'," she said.
She said her concerns were not about race - "that's not how I've been raised" - and she did not keep track of how many of the petitioners were white. But the first person to sign the petition was ethnic Chinese.
Chak Au was the only Richmond councillor who voted in favour of investigating the issue of Chinese signage on Monday.
Au a family therapist and former assistant professor at Chinese University of Hong Kong, agreed with Starchuk that political correctness made some reluctant to discuss the matter.
"I came to Canada in 1989. I've seen a lot of changes, and in Richmond this issue is not going away," Au said. "It's controversial, it's sensitive, and if it's not handled well, I think it could be a problem."
Au said some business owners "are bringing their way of doing business from their place of origin", but neglecting English signage and non-Chinese customers "is not a good business model".
"They don't realise that they have to reach out. I don't think that they don't care, they are just unaware," Au said.
Starchuk hopes to keep the issue in the spotlight. "This is my only home and I am protective of it," she said. "I love Richmond, but I don't feel that what's happening now is inclusive. Where did everybody else go? It seems like it happened overnight."