With an Asian population of less than 8%, West Covina remains untouched by the proliferation of business signs in Chinese and other foreign languages that has given several cities in the San Gabriel Valley an unmistakable flavor of East meets West.
In fact, officials of West Covina, a city of 91,000 people and 17.5 square miles, are hard pressed to name a single Chinese restaurant or grocery with its storefront identified in Chinese characters.
But while acknowledging that it may never rival Monterey Park or Alhambra as a bastion of immigrant culture, West Covina last week joined nearly a dozen other area cities considering ordinances requiring some English on all commercial signs
Citing a concern for public safety during emergencies such as fires or burglaries, the West Covina City Council pointed to potential dangers when residents, police and firefighters are unable to readily identify businesses with signs written in foreign characters.
In confronting the sign issue, West Covina and the other cities hope to avoid problems encountered in Monterey Park, where an "English-also" sign ordinance was proposed long after Chinese-language signs had transformed that city's storefronts and shopping centers.
The Monterey Park sign proposal, initiated in April and still awaiting a final public hearing, was greeted with dismay by some Chinese businessmen who said they feared an infringement of free-speech rights and a potential financial loss in tearing down old signs and erecting new ones.
Those fears have since been dispelled, but officials in West Covina and other area cities were left with the impression that Monterey Park's slow response to the problem had created unnecessary public concern.
"Let's get this ordinance on the books before signs in Korean or Arabic become a problem. . . . Prevention is a lot better than cure," West Covina Mayor Forest Tennant said.
On Monday, the West Covina City Council, foreseeing modest but sustained growth in the city's Asian population, instructed the city attorney to draft an "English also" sign ordinance for further study.
The ordinance, like those already proposed in Monterey Park and Arcadia, would not prohibit foreign-language signs but would require at least an accompanying street address or business identification in English.
A public hearing on Monterey Park's proposed ordinance is scheduled for July 22. Arcadia's proposal will be reviewed by its City Council July 16. Last month, El Monte passed a sign ordinance requiring foreign-language signs to have either the trade name or business address in English.
Several other area cities--including Walnut, Rosemead and Baldwin Park--are considering drafting ordinances with similar provisions.
"These ordinances are for the benefit of our fire and police departments," said Ken Chappell, a West Covina councilman. "They are not for the purpose of discriminating against certain peoples."
But some Asian community leaders, while agreeing that foreign-language business signs should include identifications in English, question whether the new laws are partly motivated by anti-Asian sentiments.
David Ma, chairman of the Asian-American Assn. for Arcadia, said he is fearful that longtime residents bemoaning a growing Asian presence in the San Gabriel Valley have seized the sign issue as a way to express their prejudice.
"If you want to do business in the United States, you should have a sign with an English translation. I'm 100% behind that," Ma said. "But I'm beginning to see another purpose in these ordinances. I'm afraid some people are using them to send out a message to Asians that you're not welcome here."
City Council members and community leaders reject such a notion. They say their cities are only anticipating an increase in the Asian populace.
"We don't have a problem with non-English signs yet," said Seymour Holtzman, executive director of the Baldwin Park Chamber of Commerce, which has requested that its City Council consider adopting a sign ordinance. "So now may be the time to nip it in the bud. It's much harder once a sign has been painted and is up to tell people that it should have an English translation."
Ma and other Asian leaders are also concerned about the potential for the ordinances to violate constitutional guarantees of free speech. In an attempt to avoid First Amendment challenges to the ordinances, city officials say they have been careful in drafting the laws.
Mike Miller, Arcadia's city attorney, said he is drafting a sign ordinance that steers clear of prohibiting foreign-language signs while requiring some accompanying identification in English. By not dictating the content of signs and justifying the ordinance on public safety grounds, Miller is confident of the law's constitutionality.
In a series of decisions in the 1970s, the U.S. Supreme Court articulated a distinction between commercial speech and pure speech, affording the latter greater protection under the First Amendment. The court defined pure speech as dealing with matters of "general public interest and importance" as opposed to commercial speech, which was chiefly for advertising and profit-making purposes.
Miller said the state thus has a lesser burden to satisfy when regulating commercial messages such as signs. "A total prohibition of foreign-language signs would create more of a free speech legal problem," Miller said. "That's why Arcadia and the rest of these cities are not doing or proposing that."
Temple City is the only city in the San Gabriel Valley that now bans some foreign-language signs, forbidding them altogether in the city's downtown district. There is no prohibition on foreign-language signs outside the five-block downtown area. City Manager Karl Koski said city officials are considering adopting a less restrictive, English-also ordinance applicable to the entire city.
"One area of our city has somewhat stringent controls and the rest has no controls whatsoever," Koski said. "The council is looking at the need for more consistency in the code."
The issue of foreign-language commercial signs has received its greatest public airing in Monterey Park, where Asians constitute nearly 50% of the population of 60,000. Councilwoman Lily Lee Chen proposed an English requirement on Chinese-language business signs. Much of the Asian community now supports the ordinance. At public hearings, some businessmen have noted that foreign-language signs drive away potential customers and divide the community.
City Atty. Richard Morillo said the ordinance offers the alternative of posting just street numbers and names in a manner understandable to English-speaking residents. The lettering would have to readable from 100 feet away, requiring three-inch high letters, Morillo said.
Because of state legislation enacted in 1983, Morillo said, the city cannot require businesses to change signs that have a useful life of 15 years or more. Thus, the proposed ordinance gives businesses the option of adding signs rather than changing those already in place.
Torrance last week adopted an ordinance based on the one proposed in Monterey Park and Morillo said Los Angeles city officials, citing similar concerns over public safety, requested copies of the proposed ordinance recently.