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The signs they are a changin’

Lorraine Graves   Jul-11-2017

A local Chinese-speaking class of English learners was unanimous in saying they want bilingual signs because they bring in more business and their kids can read them. City of Richmond to support addition of English to Chinese-only signs with education.

Photo by Chung Chow

Richmond’s new signage bylaw is now in effect.

After years of consultations, heated discussions in the media and vigorous debate, Richmond City Council passed the new rules July 10.



Opting for the human approach to solving the Chinese-only language issue, instead of enacting a municipal bylaw that likely would contravene federal law, city spokesperson Ted Townsend said, “Since the launch of the outreach program, 100 per cent of new approved signs have voluntarily complied with the preference to include English.”

The new bylaw mandates the hiring of a permanent, full-time sign inspector who speaks both English and Mandarin. Townsend says it will “continue the city’s successful outreach program designed to educate businesses and ensure compliance with signage regulations.” The new bylaws will now include fixed and portable signage such as real estate signs, not just those at a business.

The city requires a permit for the large signs outside a business so this gives the sign inspector time to discuss the existing bylaw, the new bylaw and Canadian attitudes towards signage.

At a language signs forum, city hall representatives said that many Chinese-only signs were erected without the required city permit. That means a sign-inspector can discuss and educate about the need for English on signage during the permitting process, whether the application is retroactive or in anticipation of a new sign.

Says Townsend: “The sign inspector will also raise awareness of city’s current preference that all signs include English.”

A local ESL class chose this topic for a group discussion last winter. Even though all in that class were Mandarin-speaking, each brought an independent essay expressing strong feelings that English should be the main language on all signage, not just on stores. One of the participants mentioned that her children could not find the restaurant to pick up their parents’ take-out order because the sign had no English on it.

The reason most often cited in the ESL class’s essays was that Chinese-only is bad for business.They suggested that unilingual Mandarin-speaking shop owners could have a sheet with commonly used phrases translated between Chinese and English for prospective customers, just as is common on menus in restaurants offering Chinese delicacies.

At a previous city-wide forum held over a year ago, to educate and listen to the citizens of Richmond about the issue of English on signage, it emerged that windows cluttered with many hand-made signs in Chinese, evoked some of the strongest feelings amongst English-speaking Richmondites. These hand-made, or small computer print-out signs on small pieces of paper, obliterating the window, provoked a vehement response.

The new bylaw hopes to address that issue of cluttered windows through education and bylaw enforcement. Even the former signage bylaw did not allow as much clutter as has been often seen.

According to the city, the new bylaw includes a number of major changes, including:

-decluttering rules, which will limit the percentage of storefront windows that can be covered by signage;

-updating the existing sign bylaw dating back to 1990 to modernize language and definitions,and meet current business needs, technology advancements and trends;

-clarifying rules for temporary signs, such as signs for new businesses, signs for community events or signs on construction sites;

- specifying the number, location and duration of display of each type of sign permitted;

- introducing new permit fees to recover processing costs and match current norms across the region;

-increasing penalties for sign bylaw infractions and introducing an adjudication process to deal with disputes.

In a press release July 11, the City of Richmond said, “The new bylaw regulations are not retroactive; they apply to all new signs and all temporary or portable signs (i.e. real estate and open house signs) going forward. This should address the majority of complaints that have been received by staff over the last year.”

City spokesperson Townsend said “Since the launch of the outreach program in 2015, 100 per cent of businesses have voluntarily complied with the preference to include English on all new signs.”

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