WEST COVINA — 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.