Tuesday, March 17, 2009

On the Shit List: Restaurant El Chino Gets Their Hate On

Let me preface this entry with the fact that as a member of the apathetic generation, I rarely ever get riled up enough to try to enact change. Growing up in small-minded Long Island, I've developed a thick skin in terms of sensitivity to racial slurs and have the ability to laugh at them and at myself. In New Orleans, where people generally are friendly and accept one another (at least to your face, and I'm fine with that), it's easy to attribute racism to ignorance, since honestly, people seem more accepting of Asians here than in the Northeast, ironically.

In short, I'm pretty far from being a member of the PC Police; I'm a "live and let live" type of person, accepting the fact that there is evil in this world and not a whole lot that can be done about it. So it was to my own utter surprise when I found myself so grossly offended as to think about doing something about it, something even so small as calling in a complaint.

I was going through local entertainment mag Where Y'at Magazine the other night when I was struck by a sight in an ad so appalling that I laughed out loud -- it was picture of a red, round-faced little man with a triangular pointed hat. No biggie, right? Well, that's innocent enough until you look under the hat and you see little beady eyes so slanted that the degree of the angle was pretty close to 90. The only thing that makes it even worse is the stringy, mouse-whisker mustache that droops down into the 1940s chopsticks font. The name of the restaurant? El Chino -- roughly translated, "The Chinaman," a term coined in the age of the Gold Rush to denote the hordes of Chinese that traveled overseas to build the railroad system out west, a term usually spat out with disgust and plenty of saliva.

So, okay. Maybe this "authentic" Chinese restaurant was owned by a really, really self-hating Asian (or, Oriental if he hated himself that much, although I think that's getting too PC since it's an 0ld-school term with no negative connotation. I mean, I like rugs. Don't you? That's the only way I ever hear the word). However, I found out that the guy is not even Asian. In fact, I was informed that he was a Mexican immigrant who hit success with Daisy Duke's in the French Quarter and Mexican joint El Gato Negro, also in the Quarter. I could be okay with that; perhaps this dude was merely ignorant that it's no longer "hip" nor is it "with it" to go along to negative stereotypes that a minority has been working for generations to phase out. I thought I'd give the owner a call as a concerned citizen and let him know that this could potentially alienate quite a few diners.

Well, I didn't catch the owner-dude's name, but his defense consisted of these points after I very politely made my own points (please note, the parenthesis are between you and me and weren't spoken):
  • He has a Vietnamese girlfriend. (I don't think this should have counted as a defense. Does dating someone then give you license to disrespect their ethnicity?)
  • He is half-Chinese, so if his sign were making fun of the Chinese, he would be making fun of himself. (I believed this ... until someone who knows him told me that this is patently untrue.)
  • He polled Asians in the community, like his father ... (Shouldn't this be your first clue that something may not be politically correct, if you need to poll people about your branding?)
  • ... and they all were not offended. (I just don't see how this could be true ...)
  • He is just trying to get food on the table for his family. (Okay, that's fair. But again, not a defense, and not really that relevant. A non-racist sign would not detract from feeding his family, nor would it cut his clientele.)
  • I was being sensitive because 'why wasn't I calling places named Great Wall.' (Umm ... because it's a landmark, not a picture of slanty eyes and other stereotypical nastiness.)
  • He isn't here to make anyone happy ... (The food service industry may not be the right place for him, then, don'tcha think?)
  • ... and that is why he's kept the name of his other restaurant El Gato Negro, "The Black Cat," even though "negro" is in it. (This is totally different. "Negro" is legitimately the word for "black" in Spanish, which the name of the place obviously signifies.)
  • He insisted that he was actually fighting against anti-Asian sentiment by prominently displaying this branding since it was showing that he was not sensitive and was proud of his heritage. (This was really confusing to me. I actually still don't know what to say to that.)
I wrapped the conversation up, thanking him for taking the time to listen to my concerns. He made a vague promise to "look into it" (look into what?) and seemed primarily focused on knowing who I was, who I wrote for, and all that ... all of which I thought was irrelevant since I was calling representing myself and not any publication. But I guess as a restaurant owner with some shady shit under his belt, I could see him being concerned.

Shady shit? Why yes! I would say lying to me about his racial heritage to cover his ass was shady. This guy's reputation in the service industry isn't the greatest either, and I can't talk about other allegations that I've heard. I've heard the word "douchebag" bandied about and "scumbag" used, as well as other words that end in "bag." (Since when did being a bag of anything turn into such an insult? How curious.)

Anyway, my main point is that this shows moral ineptitude, and it is this kind of behavior and lack of community response that makes the hump of racism so difficult to overcome. I'm one of the last people that will ever support affirmative action since I believe in individuals, not generalizations, but I do think that in order to move forward, we need to not be so in tune with our differences. We are all part of the human race and struggle through the same things, no matter of language, creed, color, or religion. And for this owner to continue to display this patently offensive branding--worse because he is not a member of that racial group--is despicable. It'd essentially be the same if I, as an Asian woman, called a Mexican restaurant something derogatory in English with a picture of Speedy Gonzales or day laborers in a pickup; as if I were to open an establishment and have my logo be a picture of someone in blackface.

Granted, as Boy said, people do use comical imagery when it comes to ethnic food (see? I can see both sides of the coin), judging from the overuse of sombreros in Mexican restaurants and jolly men with mustaches in pizza places, but it's one thing to be jaunty and fun and a whole other thing to be cruel and unconscionably incorrect with regards to a whole other ethnicity ... of which you are not a part.

So do me a favor, intelligent readers of The Vicarious Food Whore -- if you don't mind, of course -- and let this guy know what you think. Stop by El Chino and let the staff know that you find his signage discriminating and hateful, funny only in its irony, and that you will not patronize his establishments (which all have low-quality, low-rent *dripping with sarcasm* "authentic" food anyway -- sorry, dude, you can't claim authenticity to three different types of cuisine -- that's just an insult all the way around to everyone) until he learns that it's just not cool to uphold a negative stereotype.

Bah -- a sour taste is in my mouth, and I haven't even eaten anything yet. What a shame.

P.S. Asian eyes don't even necessarily slant. It's actually more of an anomaly when they do. They just look more angular because everyone's doing the cat-eye tips on their eyeliner (guilty!) and our eyes aren't as deep-set as Caucasian eyes, making it more of a bone structure thing. Seriously. Take off the glasses of decades of conditioning and take a closer look.


  1. That guy is giving anyone named bag a bad rap. I'm not into it.

  2. Haha, I'm glad you're not into it.

    After a delayed reaction, I got the joke. Guess my wit isn't all that quick ... but in my defense, I just had a huge plate of noodles and am ready for bed.

  3. Good for you, Su-Jit. I'm glad to hear you stood up to this loser. If I lived in New Orleans, I would happily stop there and back you up on this.
    You're an inspiration to us all:)

  4. Thanks, Chef Grace! That's really, really sweet, and I'm honored that you respect what I had to say. I was honestly a little unsure as to whether I should put this up since a dose of political correctness is a toxic can of worms, so I'm glad to have your support. Here's to you!

  5. You and your blog are FANTASTIC. Much love from a Native New Orleanian out in the West Coast!

    It's like Disgrasian meets Tom Fitzmorris!!

    Love, Markus

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