SAN MARINO — When Caesar Wu picked a Chinese name for his fledgling real estate company, he settled on two Chinese characters that mean "great prosperity."
That was exactly what he expected when he opened a branch of his business last November on Huntington Drive.
But what he got was great trouble and misery.
Wu's efforts to mount two 1-foot-high blue plastic Chinese characters on his building have sparked complaints from some longtime residents.
Stolen 5 Times
Although use of the characters above the company's English sign is legal under a city ordinance requiring English on 80% of a sign, dozens of people called City Hall to complain.
And in the past two months, the characters have been stolen five times. They have been replaced each time at a cost of $140 and then stolen again within a week.
"I really don't know what to think," said Wu, a Monterey Park resident who came to this country 22 years ago from Taiwan. "But we're not going to give in. We have to let people know that we stand by our rights. You can't let people push you around."
Mayor Paul Crowley has tried to calm the situation by writing a letter, published in the San Marino Tribune, explaining that Wu's sign is perfectly legal.
Crowley said the thefts have probably been committed by mischievous teen-agers and the whole situation is a "tempest in a teapot."
But others in San Marino are not so sure. Police Cmdr. Paul Butler said some parts of the community hold a festering resentment against Chinese newcomers, who now make up 35% of the city's population. "It may be an isolated incident, but there are a lot of bigots out there," Butler said.
The San Marino Tribune in an editorial has condemned the thefts as "blatant bigotry."
Wu, who started his company last March in Alhambra, has plotted a moderate course, saying he is worried but still not sure that the thefts are motivated by racism.
But if the situation continues and the city fails to catch the vandals, he said, he may call on the Chinese community to help, although he is not sure how.
Wu's sign is not the first to use foreign words in San Marino. Just down the street, the Shanghai Palace restaurant has had a sign adorned with blazing red and yellow characters for 14 years. The East-West Federal Bank also has a sign that uses Chinese characters in its company logo. Both companies say they have never had any problems with their signs.
Before Wu put his sign up, he tried to make it as unassuming as possible and agreed to every suggestion made by the city.
He originally planned to put up 10 Chinese characters on the building above the company's English name, Golden Acres Realty Inc.
But because of the city's prodding, he reduced the number to four characters and finally to just two. "It can't get any smaller than that," Wu said, adding that he needs a Chinese sign because many of his clients are from Taiwan and Hong Kong and do not read English well. Wu said the business in San Marino has not been open long enough for him to determine how well it will do.
With the city's blessing, Wu put the two characters on the building and immediately began receiving complaints. "They weren't threats, just objections," he said.
The callers' main concern was that Wu's two characters were a sign that Huntington Drive was turning into a replica of Alhambra's bustling Valley Boulevard, one of the main Chinese commercial streets in the San Gabriel Valley.
"Everybody immediately began equating those two characters with Valley Boulevard," Crowley said. "That's just ridiculous."
Wu added: "Even the Chinese don't want Huntington to look like Valley. I don't want it to look like that."
Within a few days, Wu's sign was stolen. The characters were mounted about 20 feet above the sidewalk and had to be pried off by someone standing on the roof.
The police increased their patrols around the company, located at the busy intersection of Huntington Drive and Del Mar Avenue, but it didn't stop the sign from being stolen four more times.
The last theft occurred just before the end of the year, and Wu plans to put up a replacement.
But he said that no matter how many more signs are stolen, he will continue to put up new signs as long as necessary.
"If I took the sign down, I would have more Chinese people attacking me, saying, 'Are you giving in?"' he said. "That would really hurt my business."