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33% freedom of speech, 67% short

33% of Freedom of Speech is 67% Short Arcadia Sign Law Is Illegal & Divisive

Glen Oyoung

Glenn Oyoung

City of Arcadia Municipal Code 9262.4.14. ALLOWABLE AREA FOR IDENTIFICATION. With regard to any business in the City, applicable to the signs listed here, no more than one-third (1/3) of the sign area of each such sign(s) may contain a non-English translation of the business identification; the remaining sign area identification shall be set forth in the Roman alphabet, English language and include Arabic numerals. The sign(s) must be clearly readable from a distance of one hundred feet (100):

  1. A. Free-standing signs

  2. B. Wall signs (mounted)

  3. C. Wall signs (painted)

  4. D. Mounted letter signs

  5. E. Projecting signs

  6. F. Marquee signs

  7. G. Window signs (Added by Ord. 1823 adopted 10-15-85; amended by Ord. 2100 adopted 4-6-99)

The first day of First Grade at Vandercook Elementary in Rockford, Illinois was supposed to be a happy day for me. The year was 1982 and it was very cold, as I recall. I remember being a little scared and excited to meet new friends. And then it happened… “Hahahahahaha look at that kid!!! Chink!,” yelled some rosy-cheeked bully whose name today thankfully escapes me. I didn’t even know what he was saying; I’d never been called that before. Suddenly several other kids lined up in a long row (that ironically felt like the Great Wall) shouting and hooting and hollering and yelling that perennial favorite of all Asian-Americans… “Ching-Chong-Bing-Bong!” That was the first time in my life I recall being called out as different, “the Other,” not fully American. It would not be the last.

Throughout the years countless other attacks like this occurred on my family and me. From Illinois to Texas to Florida to California, being verbally assaulted based on our skin color became a rite of passage that somehow never stopped hurting. Our first and only trip to Disney World was ruined when someone called my little brother a Chink. He spent the rest of the day crying at the bitter disappointment that even in the Happiest Place on Earth, a place he begged my parents to take him for years, there was still enough room for racism. On our final trip to Raging Waters, some kid had the nerve to call us both Chinks while simultaneously boogie-boarding (I have to hand it to him, that was a new one). It wasn’t always at amusement parks. It was walking home from school after finals. It was at a 7-Eleven in La Habra. It was at a video arcade in Dallas. Different scenery, same hateful crap.


The lettering for the business third from the top of this sign on Santa Anita Avenue near Foothill Blvd is not in compliance with Arcadia City Code as it is entirely in non-English (non-Roman/Latin) characters.

I just wanted to provide a little context before I turn back my attention to something that has bothered me since the day I learned of it: Arcadia Municipal Code 9262.4.14. Dating back to 1985, the code requires all signs in Arcadia to limit non-English characters to no more than one-third of the sign. Let’s be frank and point out the obvious target here – Chinese-speakers. This “English-only” movement was big in the 80’s in many cities in the San Gabriel Valley. I’m not sure what the proponents were thinking; if it was a way to make it unattractive for more blasted Chinese to move into their cities or if it was some kind of way to flip the proverbial bird at their new neighbors and remind them that America is #1. (BTW, I agree that America is #1 – sans the middle finger – but more on that later). I wasn’t in Arcadia when this code was passed in 1985, but I am here now. And I can tell you that this law does not belong on the books anymore.

This law is unconstitutional – plain and simple. The Constitution protects the freedom of speech in the First Amendment, in any language. No, you cannot yell fire in a crowded room but I do not equate the use of the mother tongue of my forefathers (Mandarin) or yours to inciting a riot. It is also quite arbitrary, violating the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment. Under this law, a sign fully in Spanish would be OK because that language uses (mostly) the Roman alphabet, but Korean is not OK. This is definitely not OK according to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and a bunch of other English-speaking Founding Fathers.

It is completely unfathomable to me that this city still has a law on the books that is so patently illegal and contrary to our Constitution, particularly given how diverse Arcadia is. Google “English-only movement” and you will see a plethora of case law and articles where it has been affirmed over and over again in courts all over America that mandating the use of English only by statute is not legal. Voters in Nashville (NASHVILLE!) turned down a law that would only allow the use of English in all governmental dealings. At one time or another throughout the years, some of our own city councilmen have publically admitted that this law would not stand up in court. And yet, there it sits on the books for decades and decades.

Beyond the legal aspect, I find this law completely useless from a practical standpoint. If the goal of the law is to somehow stem the tide of Mandarin-speaking people in Arcadia, we can all agree that this law is the most ineffective law in history. It clearly has not stopped the influx of Mandarin-speaking people to Arcadia. The Taiwanese-Americans, Chinese-Americans, and overseas Chinese (yes, there is a huge difference between the three groups, by the way) have chosen Arcadia to settle in since the 80’s and there is no sign of let-up. So if the idea was that by somehow making Din Tai Fung advertise in Roman letters you were going to impede their ability to sell delicious dumplings, and thereby change the desire of some folks to live here, well that cockamamie plan didn’t work, did it?

As of the 2010 Census 54.4% of the city’s residents speak a foreign language at home, and 41.8% of residents speak an Asian language at home. I can tell you in 1985 that was not the case. Also if the language thing is so important, why are city ballots (arguably the most important printed material in Arcadia) always printed in English, Mandarin, Vietnamese, and Tagalog? What gives? Should we change the font sizes around so that English is 66.67% of the ballot too? How much time do our code enforcement staff have to spend enforcing this ridiculous law?

Thirdly, there is no legitimate business or public-safety reason to force English on anyone from a sign perspective. It doesn’t impact public safety because, if there’s a fire, the Arcadia Fire Department will stop it whether it’s a place selling doughnuts or a place selling accounting services. If there’s a crime in progress, I’m not convinced APD needs to know whether they are walking into a place that makes boba tea or a place that does dry cleaning – and, if they do, there are records for that. I’m also pretty sure they are smart enough to figure that out on scene.

So, the law is unconstitutional, opening the city up to liability at a time when every dollar is needed in the General Fund. It didn’t serve whatever deeper intended purpose it had. So what benefit does it have, if any, on our fair city? It seems like the only reason we have this law is to make sure that those with very sensitive eyes are not offended by Chinese writing when they drive around Baldwin Avenue, home to many of the city’s renowned Chinese restaurants and retail establishments. That’s all well and good but on a practical level I would argue that those with the aforementioned sensitive eyes probably already avoid Baldwin at all costs. (I do too, but it’s not because I’m offended by different cultures, I just hate traffic.) I don’t believe the fact that the signs are two-thirds English has translated to proponents of this law frequenting or setting foot in any of these types of businesses.

Some will put forth that the sign laws are good for actually bringing people together, that it forces people to assimilate. I disagree. When you look back at the history of immigration here in America, everyone from the Irish to the Italians to the Polish came here and eventually learned English. No one needed to pass a law to make them do it. They were discriminated against as “the Other” with each wave, and over the years they became as American as apple pie.

My family belongs to a wave of immigrants who came here in the 70’s with no money and in pursuit of higher education and a more level playing field than what their homeland could afford. They learned English as quickly as possible and adopted as many American customs as their neighbors in the Midwest could teach. My dad learned English by watching “Gilligan’s Island,” which (especially with Ginger and Mary Ann) was way more entertaining than any Rosetta Stone DVD. My mom learned how to make spaghetti from our neighbors who also became their best friends. I am all for assimilation – because the melting pot has a greater sense of community than a Balkanized salad bowl. But in principle, you cannot force assimilation and still be a democracy. Whether the recent non-English speakers make that decision to assimilate or not, or at what pace is appropriate, should be their decision. This is, after all, the Land of the Free.

So, since I’m for assimilation, why make a big deal of this sign law? Isn’t it just a technicality? On a much deeper level, laws like these remind people like me that we are still not — and may not ever be, in our lifetimes — American enough for some of our fellow Americans. This is something that’s gone on for more than 100 years. There is a long history of racism directed at Asian-Americans, from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 – a law which specifically halted the immigration of Chinese from 1882 to 1943, to the internment of more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans – roughly 20,000 of whom were temporarily housed or “processed” right here in Arcadia at the Santa Anita Park after being stripped of all their civil liberties.

Many people I’ve shared this opinion with caution me to be quiet and let the change occur organically. For the folks in older generations who immigrated here, they love America so much for the opportunities it has afforded them, their children, and their grandchildren that they are willing to look the other way on trite things like this law. They know and share with their families how much better our great country is, how freedom is so amazing, and how lucky we are to be here. If the people here want to limit signs to two-thirds English, so be it – that is a small price to pay for such blessings. Being called a Chink is better than the alternative waiting for us where they came from.

For my generation, we sadly expect to be called names by random rednecks – but we also expect to be treated as equals under the law. Laws like this remind us that some people still judge us by the color of our skin, and not the content of our character. Laws like this institutionalize racism and drive a wedge between cultures that – especially in a city like Arcadia – should be building bridges. Laws like this bring me right back to Vandercook Elementary and I can hear the “Ching-Chong-Bing-Bong”; I can hear the “Chinks” and “Gooks” and everything between.

This law is actually worse than all of that because by the very fact it is codified into law, it confirms within the city limits of Arcadia I am only a Chink and that, should I ever want to put up a sign, it damn well better not have more than one-third of my Chink language on it. And it does it in such nice, sanitary language that seems so reasonable. I do not want my kids to grow up in a city where they are mandated what language they have to speak, read, or write. That is just a form of Communism and despotism – something both of my grandfathers fought, first against the Japanese Axis forces and then against the Communist Chinese army.

I am fortunate to be a part of many civic and volunteer organizations in Arcadia full of people who love Arcadia, people who are so warm-hearted it makes me grateful to live here. There are conservatives and there are liberals and amongst this group of civic leaders and volunteers, there is no doubt that there are many people who want to build bridges. I’ve met so many amazing Arcadians who love this city and share with me that they do long for the old days, not because there weren’t any Chinese around or the Japanese were locked up in Santa Anita Park, but because they miss the days when neighbors talked and looked after one another.

I agree with them. A city is better when it’s a community, not just a collection of geographical boundaries. There is a responsibility for every resident of Arcadia whether they are new or were born here, whether their first language is English or whether it’s Mandarin or Cantonese or Spanish or Swahili, to try to be a good neighbor and an active member of our broader community.


Multi-cultural Carcadia @Route 66 meets monthly in Denny’s parking lot.

That’s the real issue here, how to keep Arcadia a community of homes regardless of how big the homes or the skin color of those who inhabit them. The solution is not in banning languages in signs; the solution is encouraging the various parts of our community to actually come together. At events like Carcadia @Route 66, which I am proud to have helped get off the ground, the whole point is to celebrate what we have in common. At our monthly meet we have car guys and gals of all ages, races, and political leanings. It is so great to see guys who look like they have nothing in common on the surface get to know each other and check out each other’s cars. Over time they realize they have more in common than they realized, even though one might be a white guy who was born here and loves hot rods and the other might be a Chinese kid with a new Porsche. They both woke up at 6 a.m to hang out at Denny’s and celebrate Arcadia, and by extension the melting pot that is America.

Arcadia Chinese Association members proudly marching in the 2011 Arcadia Best Patriotic Festival parade.

Arcadia Chinese Association members proudly marching in the 2011 Arcadia Best Patriotic Festival parade.

Community events like Carcadia and Arcadia’s Best”s Patriotic Festival parade and Christmas Market all give us Arcadians a way to mix and mingle and get to know one another. Encouraging volunteerism among the newly transplanted is another great way to bring our worlds together – whether it is through the Rotary Club, the Chamber of Commerce, or through the many volunteer opportunities offered at the City like the Arcadia Police Department VIPS program. I lived on a small street where no one really talked to one another until we started a Neighborhood Watch last year, with the help of APD. After a few meetings (with margaritas) our little United Nations is comprised of friendly neighbors who know each other by name, wave, and watch each other’s backs. The sign law didn’t do that. We did.


Then-ACA President Edward Wong waves the American flag in the 2011 Independence Day parade.

Another great example is the Arcadia Chinese Association (ACA). For more than 30 years the ACA has worked to bridge the cultural gap in Arcadia by hosting cross-cultural events and fundraising for many of the city’s charitable and civic organizations like the Arcadia Education Foundation, Red Cross, Arboretum, and Arcadia Public Library. The members of the ACA not only give back to Arcadia but they get back the benefits of being part of our broader Arcadia community and integrating with our city.

With regards to the specific issue of signs, there are alternative ways to work with business owners to color their perspective without illegally encroaching on their free speech rights. An advisory committee comprised of Chamber of Commerce and City staff could develop recommendations on sign composition for business owners to consider. At the end of the day, business owners will do whatever is best for them (at least that’s what my economics professors drilled into my head) and if that means using 100 percent English, they will do that. If it’s some mix that works for them, they should be able to do that. At the end of the day it’s their capital they are risking; who are we to tell them how to advertise. If there is a valid public safety issue to address, that can be brought up – and should be enforced across all business as it relates to signs, to ensure Arcadia stays on the right side of the Constitution.

There’s no doubt that Arcadia has changed rapidly throughout the last thirty years, and that the current wave of wealthy mainland Chinese brings with it questions on how we can strengthen the fabric of our community and unite when there are seem to be so many differences. But rather than look at how different we all are, I choose to focus on the things we all care about – a safe place to raise our kids, good schools, places to hang out with our neighbors, where’s the best place to get a beer and watch the game. We don’t need a 30-year-old sign law to divide us. We need more people saying “Hi!” on their morning walks. Even if it’s in broken English.

We have a new City Council this year, comprised of two attorneys, two Chinese-American entrepreneurs, and a retired law enforcement professional. I would think that this council has enough legal experience, cultural background, and experience in Arcadia to know that this law is illegal, unnecessary, and divisive. It needs to be repealed to send a strong signal that that the path forward is one on which we should march together, regardless of our backgrounds.

— Glenn Oyoung Glenn Oyoung was born in the Midwest and came to the Golden State at the age of eight. He self-deprecatingly says that his Mandarin is laughably bad by comparison to those for whom it is a first language, but he’d be happy to take you to any restaurant you want to try on Baldwin.

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