The Monterey Park City Council has asked the city attorney to draft an ordinance requiring businesses that have signs in Chinese characters to add an English translation.
Mayor David Almada said stores that post signs in Chinese but not English are excluding most non-Asians “whether that’s their intention or not.” He added that such exclusion “is not healthy.”
An estimated 40% of Monterey Park’s 59,000 residents are Asian and the percentage has been growing.
The ordinance will be submitted to the City Council at its meeting May 13.
Councilwoman Lily Lee Chen, who suggested the English language requirement, said she is concerned mainly about safety. Policemen and firemen have trouble finding addresses when business signs are not in English, she said.
Acting Fire Chief Allen McComb and Police Chief Jon Elder said that the lack of English on signs has not created a problem yet but that they can envision potential difficulties.
McComb said it is much easier for a passing motorist who spots smoke coming from a building to report the fire by giving the business name, instead of trying to spot the street number. Elder said officers responding to a robbery in progress or other emergency calls need to know what kind of business is involved, not just the street address.
Gregory Tse, a real estate broker who is president of the Monterey Park Chamber of Commerce, said he agrees that all businesses should include an English identification, but he is against making it mandatory.
“I think it’s a good idea,” he said, “but I don’t think it’s constitutional.” Specifying language is a limit on free speech, he said.
But City Atty. Richard Morillo said regulating messages on signs is not the same as limiting political speech or restricting artistic expression.
“This falls into what is classified as commercial speech,” he said, and cities have the power to impose regulations.
Gardena adopted an ordinance in 1983 to require businesses to post their names in English with letters large enough to be read from the street. And Temple City prohibits the use of anything except English on signs in its five-block downtown commercial area. City Atty. Charles Martin of Temple City said councilmen were concerned that a mixture of English and Chinese characters would create a “garish” appearance.
Morillo said the intent of the council is to require that the signs simply indicate in English what kind of business is being conducted. Businesses could still convey as much information as they wanted in Chinese or any other language.
Chen said she is aware of only 14 businesses that operate in Monterey Park without any English identification. She said that she asked businesses to voluntarily add English to their signs but that some owners were impossible to contact and others declined. One bookseller dealing only in Chinese books said he saw no point to attracting people who cannot read Chinese by adding English to his sign.