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Monday, May 21, 2012


The storm in an ethnic melting pot that was the foreign language sign debate remained a spark last week and like so many other media-feulled incindiaries has failed to ignite into the racial blaze the media may have hoped for. Usually these issues need a visible and vocal central point of crisis if the flames are to be stoked - and none have come about.  So instead of one clash point we merely have statistics and opinion polling which never cross the visceral threshold.

This is a hot issue - despite the lack of a cause celebre - and it is deserving of a discussion. The main reason it is not and why it is derided as a sensible topic by the commentariat - especially the left - is partly the blind faith in mass immigration and unintegrated multiculturalism that most middle class people have and also the fact that most of the people doing all the opinion writing in the media are from the well-to-do suburbs where they remain quaratined in Pakeha zones and are thus largely unaffected by the rise of ethnic precincts. The other reason discussion never seems to get very far is that the oxygen in the debate is absorbed rapidly by Winston Peters and other reactionary conservatives.  It becomes a normal response just to ignore the entire issue because once a divisive race-baiter like Peters is involved no one wants to be on whatever side of the argument he is on.

NZ Herald:

Massey University researchers Robin Peace and Ian Goodwin studied 500 "linguistic landscape" photographs taken in five Auckland locations - Northcote, Dominion Rd, Meadowlands, Auckland CBD and Papatoetoe - for their study, "The Cosmopolitics of Linguistic Landscapes".
Many of the signs were for migrant businesses and featured languages other than English.
Some New Zealanders responded with "annoyance" or "repugnance" when faced with a space that did not make immediate, translatable sense, she said.
That was backed by nzherald.co.nz poll findings showing 39 per cent of people thought all immigrants should use English on their business signs.
A further 40 per cent of respondents said English translations should be offered beside ethnic scripts on business signs and 21 per cent said the signs should be accepted as New Zealand was a diverse society.
The findings were based on a sample size of about 8100 people.

I listened to RNZ last week where Jim Mora and Brian Edwards had their chat with whoever the female middle class Pakeha lady was and they were mystified by the sign issue. Dr Edwards gave a typical precis of the scene for the Pakeha upper middle class: Foreign signs are a bit of colour, ethnic neighbourhoods are great to visit, great food etc., I'm comfortable with foreign language signage.

He's comfy because all that stuff is occuring in someone else's neighbourhood. He only visits these places where these quaint and eclectic ethnic people dwell as an act of tourism. If half the shops along Jervious Road in the leafy coastal inner city suburb of Herne Bay had turned Chinese in the last 10-15 years as they have done along Dominion Road - for example - then I wager his reaction would most definitely not be the same. So too with David Slack (to pick a random "liberal" - no offence) and everyone else living in Devonport - their comments should be put into context: they live in a white enclave where the immigrants are usually white too: South Africans and Europeans. These people still live in the areas most closely resembling the old NZ and are the least exposed to the consequences of large-scale non-white, non-English speaking immigration.  That is why this class of person is so dismissive of concerns over ethnic ghettoisation and why they think nothing is wrong - they simply have not experienced living there.

The people who have paid big bucks to live in their exclusive white enclaves regard their "villages" as heritage areas, protected places where they have rules that tell you what sort of veranda ballustrade one must have to maintain the look of the place. They like these rules because they preserve what they have and keep the place looking the way they prefer it.  And yet these same people think nothing of having entire shopping centres  - in someone else's suburb of course - turning radically, within a very short space of time, into unrecognisable ethnic ghettoes swamped with foreign language signage.  Why aren't they capable of retaining heritage in the same way that the wealthy suburbs are?

If half the places of business in Devonport had Chinese language out front and even a quarter of the population of dear old Devo was non-white and non-English speaking do you really expect the liberal intelligensia of that burg to be so nonplussed? I lived in Devonport when there were still working class people and the Naval families living there, and they've all been pushed out, so it is now more exclusivist and snotty than it ever was before.

When I lived in Mount Eden just off the top of Dominion Road in the early 1990s I can recall only one local Chinese shop, Steve's. Steve and his wife were Chinese and had a takeaways on the corner. And Steve and his missus could speak English quite well.  Last time I went down Dominion Road maybe half the shops had non-English signage and one even had massive Chinese national flags flying all over it. It is a completely different place to what it was. Some would say this is all varying shades of racism of course.
The problem does stem from the immigration policy.  It is an obvious fault that many people the government lets into the country to live just don't speak English and therefore cannot communicate with the rest of society. From that policy flows the demand for foreign language services; a demand that just simply should not exist.  This demand puts added pressure on government and other service providers and it also creates internal demand. 

And the problem? The greatest issue is that English speakers not only cannot use whatever services are provided (as the service person cannot communicate) but it is the knowledge that they are not welcome in those shops. They are not for the public as such but for the other. They might as well have "You are not welcome" on it as the only thing in English for what it amounts to. And the finite nature of one's local shops - so important to local identity it would be undeniable to say - is the rub: for every new non-English speaking shop that opens it usually means that an English speaking one has been replaced. Less and less service for the old type of people, more and more services for the new type of people.

And with critical mass achieved in many areas of Auckland the linguistic community becomes self-supporting and notions of integrating immigrant communities into the culture already here becomes more distant.



At 21/5/12 5:28 pm, Blogger Madeleine said...

How you've framed it is exactly how I feel about it. I live in Sandringham, quite close to Dom rd and while Sandringham village is very ethnic (predominantly Indian/ middle eastern) the difference is that the store owners are friendly and welcoming. The store fronts are mostly bilingual and it's a really nice little community. You go onto Dom rd and while I love the food and would love to feel more comfortable using the services provided, the fact is that it's far more exclusive to Asian customers (I've been refused service at one restaurant as 'I wouldn't like their food' and gestured to leave before.) To be honest the store fronts really mean nothing in the wider scheme of things, but it's the attitude that this is their space that I think draws the negative attitudes. Consequently. while I appreciate the food, and would like to appreciate the culture I feel like I am being banned from access to it, and classed as an outsider in my own Neighbourhood.

At 21/5/12 7:16 pm, Blogger Peter said...

Hi Tim,
I too listened to that RNZ show. The middle class woman in question was Michelle Boag. I was stunned by Dr Edwards outright declaration that questioning such signs was racism. The panel went on to interview Ying Kong (an intelligent young lady).
Part if the transcript from that interview is as follows. Jim Mora: "If you question all these signs in precincts, does that make you a racist?" Ying Kong: "It's human nature to question the signs...because its wanting to feel welcome in your own country...and to understand where you are and what you're doing...I'm actually of the view that the signs should have english translations because it does segregate communities..."
She spoke the truth yet the panel seemed to ignore what she said. If we do not discuss this where will it end? Separate schools, political parties etc - a trip to Malaysia will show evidence of where this type of segregation will lead.
We must not forget that another group of people came to this land some 150 tears ago and set up an economy in a culture and language that was foreign to the indigenous pepole. The results, as we know too well, have been disasterous for the indigenous people. I fear that it is they too who could bear the greatest cost of this change that is occurring, if we as a nation fail to critically examine where these changes will take us.

Link to RNZ interview: www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/afternoons/audio/2518769/the-panel-with-michelle-boag-and-brian-edwards-part-2.asx

At 21/5/12 11:17 pm, Blogger Captain Garbonza said...

Wow, you've obviously had different experiences to me. I live near dominion road and have never had any issues with the asian stores. All the ones I've been too have english on their signs as well and have had pretty regular service.

At 22/5/12 12:07 am, Blogger Jeremy List said...

The immigration department might not be fussy enough with long-term immigrants, but then they're really strict about who they give tourist visas to. My girlfriend had a real nightmare with them over a 2 week visit last year, despite the fact she speaks better English than anyone in New Zealand's immigration department and had no intention of staying once the two weeks were up. It's just possible they found it suspicious that she didn't plan to see any other Chinese people.

At 22/5/12 12:27 am, Blogger Ovicula said...

The signs don't worry me at all, although I must admit I live in Brisbane. Last time I was in Sydney there was a whole area around the hotel with signs in Chinese and Vietnamese and I got by fine. The only thing I found offputting was the hustling of clients as you walk past at lunchtime.

At 22/5/12 8:27 am, Blogger DebsisDead said...

Firstly let me say that some of the stuff selwyn has written sounds exactly like the tripe that the WW2 generation used to spout when they came to visit us in out low cost student accomodation in Ponsonby & Grey Lynn. Our neighbours were Pacific Island migrants & they dominated retail business in the areas for a couple of decades. The only difference then was that the complaint was about all the 'brown faces' and the languages being Samoan, Tongan Fijian etc.

I'm laid back about the changes made along the Dominion Rd ridgeline, because I know that communities do work out a means of co-existence.
The other reason nobody is getting too heated about the foreign signs debate is that it is a distraction away from the real social problems being caused by immigration. Most of the Chinese & Indian immigrants construct an economy outside of the existing one. An economy that eventually merges with the existing exonomy to the benefit of both.
The problems from immigration in NZ are being caused by the brit & south african arrivals who by injecting themselvesinto the middle of NZ's economy & social strata are blocking upward movement from below.

The fact that brits can emigrate to NZ bringing no or much lower student loan payments and a substantial deposit on a home gained from selling a dog box back 'ome that was probably purchased outta brit first home owner subsidies, not only blocks upward mobility for kiwi born citizens, it puts downward pressure on wages and upwards pressure on house prices.
Yet because so much of NZ media has been penetrated by these residents (many don't even bother to become citizens) we never deal with the real migration issues that aren't racist, they are economic. Certainly not NZ first who had a englander migrant in Parliament speaking out against 'asian migration' throughout the noughties.

At 22/5/12 4:38 pm, Blogger caleb said...

I'm with Debs.

Tim, assuming that only people who live in white middle class ghettos will disagree with you is rubbish. I loved living in diverse Newtown (the poor end) and back in Christchurch I enjoy a lot of restaurants and shops where white people are a distinct minority.

But even if I didn't enjoy frequenting them I can't see that they do any harm to anyone else. Pakeha English speakers are still the vast majority and they'll retain the vast majority of shops unless they all gentrify out of a 'shop owning' class, in which case they'll have to deal with immigrants running their shops as well as doing their cleaning and taxi driving.

At 23/5/12 3:03 am, Blogger Anti-Flag said...

Tim: thate cha wale de Che thei da watan mesher eh aw sat khabare Bayt menga wawru? Thei fekir ke chei spenpustan de watan baachan de aw ba stasu arsy awru? Ghul wale kukhre?


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