Skip to content

Why such fuss over 12 signs?

Chinese-only signs a problem of perception

At the end of my last column, I promised that I would tell you something that ought to end the Chinese-signage controversy for once and for all - but wouldn't.

Here it is. There are virtually no Chinese-only signs in Richmond. That bears repeating because a lot of disbelieving people have already started to write angry letters to the editor.

There are virtually no Chinese-only signs in Richmond.

Hey, but what about that article in the Vancouver Sun last month that began, "Despite Richmond officials acknowledging that many residents are upset by the large Chinese-only signs being erected in the city, Kerry Starchuk has been consistently stonewalled in her campaign, which consists of letters to the editor and buttonholing politicians."?

There are two possible answers to that.

Either there aren't "many residents" upset, only Starchuk, or some people in Richmond are suffering from a variety of mass delusion.

"That's a pretty bold statement," you say. "How can you say there aren't any Chinese-only signs in Richmond when so many people have obviously seen them?"

An investigative columnist is only as good as his sources.

Two gentlemen of my acquaintance - staunch and trustworthy men, pillars of the community - decided that the only sure way to get a handle on the signage situation was to do an inventory; to count them, in other words.

On Feb. 11, they slowly drove and walked Richmond's core, noting every bilingual and Chinese-only sign in downtown Richmond.

They patrolled the length of No. 3 Road from Sea Island Way to Granville Street. They surveyed Buswell Street, Cooney Road, Park, Cook, Saba, Ackroyd.

They toured Cambie from No. 3 Road to Garden City. They scrutinized Westminster Highway, Capstan, Sexsmith and more.

They went into the malls, including the Richmond Public Market, Parker Place, Aberdeen Center and Yaohan Centre. They put the strip malls under their empirical microscope.

And the results of this unique effort to find out what the fuss was about?

Out of 869 businesses, they found a total of 12 (one of which appeared to have recently gone bankrupt) with Chinese-only signs. That comes to 1.4 per cent of the shops in Richmond's business core.

Is that what "many residents are upset" about? Is that why Ms. Starchuk (whom I've never met but is no doubt a lovely person in her own right) has been "writing letters to the editor and buttonholing politicians?" according to the Sun story.

Eleven businesses with Chinese-only signs?

The gentlemen asked the shopkeepers with no English on their signs why that was the case. One was a bookstore that sold books only in Chinese.

What would his sign say, one wonders - Chinese Books. Not for You.

So why do I believe that this first-ever objective assessment won't end the controversy?

Because the "problem" of Chinese-only signage exists purely in the mind of the beholder. It is a problem of perception, not in fact.

I'm just spitballin' here, you understand, but my favourite explanation is Terror Management Theory (TMT). Ernest Becker, a cultural anthropologist at SFU in the early '70s figured that knowing we're going to die, but not knowing what comes after (the Terror) subconsciously influences everything we do.

We're afraid to disappear without a trace so we're driven to carve out a little slice of immortality.

One of the ways we do that is to be a part of something bigger than ourselves that will go on long after we're gone, like our religions and our cultures. Threats to our culture get magnified in our minds.

When whole swaths of the city seem to have become foreign territory, Chinese on a sign, becomes a Chinese-only sign. It's just an idea, but it has its charms.

I think we owe it to ourselves to have an open and honest discussion about how and why the virtually non-existent problem of Chinese-only signage has become such a controversial topic in Richmond.

How is it that "many residents are upset by the large Chinese-only signs being erected in the city" when the fact is that not only are they not large, there's barely a dozen of them. What do you think is really going on here?

Dr. Joe Greenholtz is a regulated Canadian immigration consultant (RCIC) and a director of the Premier Canadian Immigration Co-op. He also sits on the Richmond Intercultural Advisory Committee. He can be reached at