Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Migrants' signs have breathed new life into depressed areas

The influx of migrants, trying to make a go of it in a new land has helped reverse this decay, breathing new life into these depressed areas. Photo / Herald on Sunday
The influx of migrants, trying to make a go of it in a new land has helped reverse this decay, breathing new life into these depressed areas. Photo / Herald on Sunday

Heading up Albert St towards the Sky Tower, a Chinese tourist caught sight of a restaurant festooned in Chinese language signs, grinned excitedly at his companion and whipped out his camera for a quick snap. For travellers anywhere, there's nothing like stumbling across a bit of home away from home.

It must be even more so for a migrant, especially one with little English, or someone temporarily homesick, by an Auckland job market depressingly unresponsive to his overseas qualifications.

As the debate about the proliferation of non-English shop signs in parts of Auckland rumbles on, the most constructive and practical suggestion has come from Whau Local Board chairman Derek Battersby. His board is planning a free translation service to help migrant shopkeepers add English translations to their signs.

Many are not from a business background, he says.

"They've got to understand that their business plans are quite weak, and they need to grow that."

He sees the English signs encouraging new customers, which would not only help the shopkeepers, but also fulfil Mr Battersby's aim of boosting the night-time economy in the local New Lynn shopping area.

As for Northcote resident Jane Reeves, she really should get out more. She was reported pining for "those wonderful delicious-looking dishes I see through the restaurant windows, but would not have a clue what to order if I stepped in". All she has to do is pretend she's on an exotic holiday, step inside, and start pointing.

I've travelled the world letting my eyes and my index finger do the ordering. It's been a damn sight easier than trying to navigate the menu of an up-market French or Italian eatery. Especially when the waiters choose to look down their noses the moment they realise you don't know your cervelle from your rognon.

Mayor Len Brown is right when he says the use of foreign language signs "contributes to the region's unique character". It is also a welcome sign of rebirth in areas in decline.

"Mr Annoyed" and "Mrs Uncomfortable" of Dominion Rd or Otahuhu might complain they feel like "strangers in their own land" through the arrival of foreign shopkeepers in their neighbourhood, but imagine these local shopping strips without the newcomers. A few turban-wearing traders and some Chinese lanterns hanging from the verandas is surely preferable to a wasteland of boarded-up, graffiti-defaced vacant shopfronts. Thanks to the malls and supermarkets, the old suburban shopping strips have long been in the doldrums.

The influx of migrants, trying to make a go of it in a new land by opening long hours for little money, has helped reverse this decay, breathing new life into these depressed - and depressing - areas.

Similar calls for the anglicising of Chinese signs are being heard in New York and Vancouver, both homes to much larger and more clearly defined Chinatowns than Auckland's.

In Canada and the United States, monolingual signs have constitutional protection. Here, human rights legislation has a similar effect, upholding the shopkeepers' right to display signs in whatever language they choose. As long, that is, as it's not offensive in the eyes of the Office of Film and Literature Classification, which is probably why seeking assistance from a translator, such as Mr Battersby is proposing, might not be such a bad thing.

The internet is awash with pictures of the humorous double entendres resulting from Chinese shopkeepers' attempts to translate their signs into English. The signs come not just from throughout the worldwide Chinese diaspora, but from the motherland itself. Before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the authorities corrected 400,000 English language signs and menus in an attempt to rid the city of Chinglish.

In Shanghai, a similar clean-up for the 2010 World Expo still goes on, one report referring to a team of 600 volunteer English speakers, dedicated to scouring the city for "inappropriate public signs".

Authorities point the finger at a very popular translation software programme for many of the problems.

To some in Shanghai, it's not all gain. After all, is the world a better place for replacing the sign "The little grass is sleeping, please don't disturb it," with the bossy "keep off the grass"?

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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