MONTEREY PARK — Jerry Chin-Chun Ha, speaking in Chinese, explained to the City Council this week why he posted his business sign only in Chinese when he opened a beauty shop on Garvey Avenue.
"I opened my beauty shop with Chinese signs because I do not speak very good English," he said in remarks translated by Councilwoman Lily Lee Chen. "I was afraid I would not meet the expectations of the (English-speaking) customers."
But, Ha said, he endorses a proposed city ordinance requiring businesses with signs to carry some identification--a street address, name or description--in English or the Roman alphabet. In fact, Ha said, he added a sign in English a week ago and already is benefitting from additional customers. And, although he did not tell the council, Chen said Ha told her privately that the English sign has produced such good results that he may add a sign in Spanish, too.
Ha was among 15 business owners and residents who spoke at the council meeting in support of the proposed ordinance, which is aimed at a handful of businesses that have signs only in Chinese characters. Several speakers said that foreign-language signs, without any accompanying English translation, drive away customers and divide the community. Ken Fong, chairman of the city's Architectural Review Committee, said the ordinance is necessary to create "a healthy economic environment and harmony."
No one spoke against the proposal, which the council referred to the Planning Commission for study.
City Atty. Richard Morillo said the ordinance was drafted carefully to avoid infringing on free speech. Councilwoman Chen, who asked for the ordinance, said it is "sensitive to business owners who need to have foreign language signs."
Unlike an ordinance in Temple City that requires signs in the city's downtown district to use the Roman alphabet exclusively, the proposed Monterey Park ordinance places no limit on foreign languages. Signs can be in any language as long as there is some identification in the Roman alphabet.
Morillo said the city could run into constitutional problems if it tried to dictate the content of signs by requiring that they be in English. By simply insisting on the use of Roman characters, he said, the ordinance allows businesses to provide a phonetic translation of their trade names, instead of using English.
Morillo said the ordinance also offers the alternative of posting street numbers and names in Arabic numbers and Roman letters, because enabling policemen, firemen and the general public to identify the building in an emergency is one of its chief purposes. The lettering would have to be readable from 100 feet away, which Morillo said means the letters would be at least three inches high.
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.
Businesses would have six months after adoption to comply with the new law. Since it will take time for the ordinance to pass the Planning Commission and come back to the council for adoption, Morillo said businesses may have at least until next February to meet the requirements. Chen estimated that 16 businesses will have to alter or add signs to achieve compliance.
Speakers in support of the ordinance at this week's council meeting included the president-elect of the Chamber of Commerce, leaders of Asian organizations and business owners.