One day I was cycling around Melbourne and I saw a delivery motor bike in front of me. On its rear it said “you ling, we bling,” and I braked so fast you’d have thought I was in a cartoon. The unfortunate thing is, Miss Chu’s is not alone amongst Melbourne’s eateries in its racist imagery. So come with me now on a tour of racism, appropriation and ‘fun’ across Melbourne’s restaurants.
We start with Happy Palace (ETA please note, Happy Palace closed late October 2014, with a racist FB notice), whose fictional creation story is an ancient proverb including a mystical Chinese woman, a lost relic, and a Prawn Cracker shortage, and if that’s not a combination of racist stereotypes of China, let’s not forget the use of the cringingly stereotypical “Chinese” rickshaw font, its “dried deer penis” for sale which is “$700 (out of sock)” [sic], its heavy scorpion motif, and use of photos of Chinese children that mock its subjects, further dehumanising us.
‘Disgusting food’ style lists will often include Asian delicacies (or even just street food) as gross, with little more to measure them than a mocking, othering attitude and a fear of the unknown. This attitude can be traced back to the Australian goldfields and anti-Chinese sentiment, when Chinese workers looked different, dressed different and ate wildly different food from the traditional British palate but, most important of all, worked harder than the British miners. An example of this attitude is the tax on rice – a Chinese staple food – in the early 1900s.
And it’s not relegated to the past at an individual level, either. Never forget the time a work colleague was complaining about Chinese people being “fake” because they “pretend” to love the panda, but really they eat horses; because the first way in which Chinese people have been dehumanised has always been through our food. I remember a local Chinese restaurant when I was growing up in Perth’s hills, accused of serving dog meat and forced to close, and no-one ever questioning the truth of the rumour.
We move on from dehumanisation to making fun of our languages and our accents, and the apparently immortal stereotype that Asians can’t say the letter ‘r’. It lives on in Miss Chu’s ‘You Ling, We Bling’ motto. This demonstrates once again that you can say, “But my best friend is Chinese!” or, in this case, “My restaurant is owned by an Asian person!” and still be perpetuating the insidious racism to which middle-class, inner-city Australia is so attached, and contributing to the idea that Asian-Australians are all somehow a little bit ridiculous.
The continuing myth that Asian people speak “Engrish” is used to indicate that our English is less than perfect, that we are prime candidates to be figures of ridicule, and that we can be continually framed as “other.” “Engrish” language in otherwise grammatically correct media is frequently used to mock people of Asian descent, and in order to artificially create a sense of superiority towards those Asian people; whilst still eating the Asian food that allows one to claim the trait of multiculturalism. As if to highlight this, the Miss Chu webpage also includes “Me Likey” and “Me Deliver,” because Asians can’t speak English in a grammatically acceptable way. (We can speak more languages than one, though.)
A commenter on Hayley’s 2013 review of Miss Chu mentioned having facebooked Miss Chu about it, only to be told “she is using the awful slurs she grew up with and still feels lies just beneath the surface of many interactions with White Australia and turn it into comedic commentary;” following which, her comment and the reply were deleted.
Miss Chu herself, Nahji Chu, talks in a recent TEDx talk about what she tries to achieve with the Miss Chu branding. It is her photo, taken from her actual refugee visa in 1975, and her branding is about showing people that refugees can achieve anything. She talks about her first five years in Australia, walking home from school thinking, “don’t get beaten up today.” She talks about using Miss Chu to take ownership of “the most common of racist taunts against Asians,” and using it as a vehicle through which to discuss politics and a way to play with the identity politics around being an Asian alien in Western culture.
Her success at meeting these goals is difficult to measure. Whilst humour is one of the ways in which we reclaim the slurs and hurts we have received, this only works if everyone is in on the joke, and if it’s punching up, not down. If a joke with the aim of reclamation hurts those it’s trying to protect, is it really funny? (I’m Chinese-Australian, and I’m not laughing)
Microaggressions are a daily part of the life of an Asian-Australian, and it’s not just about the slurs and the stereotypes – sometimes it’s about the words that have a colonial or pejorative definition that we are forever trying to cast off.
Although the term ‘oriental’ has a slightly different usage in some regions of the world (primarily the UK), in Australia, ‘oriental’ is a red alert to some old-school white Australia racism. The term ‘oriental’ is an old one, used to describe anywhere between Syria and the Balkans by the Romans, any non-European area of Eurasian civilization, and by the early 20th Century, southeastern Europe. It changed according to the exploratory and colonialistic adventures of British and European countries, and today has no agreed upon definition. Although it has at times been considered a harmless descriptive word, its colonial history, racially-charged categorisations and the lack of definition around it have led to its consideration by some as an antique, derogatory term.
In modern Australian English ‘oriental’ is often, although not always, used as a descriptive for other, different and non-white, and in particular as a lumping-together word to create a monolithic point of difference. In a country with Australia’s history, especially the White Australia Policy, this has contributed to its positioning as a pejorative term, and is to be considered with caution.
Rice Queen, therefore, touted as an “oriental diner & bar”, is of immediate concern just from its name. (A rice queen is a gay male who prefers Asian men. It is not a nice term unless it’s being reclaimed, and even then it shouldn’t be used by people outside the community.) It is further compounded by its carelessly inaccurate pan-Asian romanisation (‘shar siu’, listed on their menu, is a reference to barbeque pork. And though it can be romanised as char siu and xa xiu and chashao and char siew, shar siu is nobody’s pinyin and shows a careless thoughtfulness). The Rice Queen website talks about its kitsch design and “wide selection of dishes focusing on varying cuisines from across Asia”, but there’s never any real mention of where each dish is from, and this contributes to that pan-Asian feel.
It’s not that pan-Asian or cross-Asian cuisine is the problem. It’s that the Great Asian Monolith stereotype plagues us even now. To mush everything together until it’s an undetermined pan-Asian is lazy, fails to honour its roots, and continues to render all Asian-Australians as the same (and other). It is a reminder of many unpleasant parts of Australia’s recent history in regard to Asian people and cultures. In the 1990s, it was about “Asians” stealing jobs. Post-Federation it was the White Australia Policy lumping all as other, particularly in reaction to the Gold Rush.
A recent visit to the Brunswick Mess Hall was particularly distressing in a ‘this is my lived experience and I’m really upset’ kind of way. The impacts of colonialism and WWII on South East Asia have left a lasting impact on my family, our history, and on me, and to see it flippantly written aside as ‘Saigon Colonies Cocktail’ next to the ‘Samurai’s Mist’ and the ‘Ping-Pong Special’ is disrespectful and upsetting.
Being a part of the colonies has changed the direction of our entire lives, and is something we as a family, and within our culture, are still overcoming; to have that “hilariously” pushed beside the Samurai (the Japanese impact in South East Asia during this time is still reflected in a distrust of Japanese things and a tension between Japanese and non-Japanese even these decades later) and the racial and sexual stereotype of ping pong and the Asian lady (which you can read about here), is definitely not a sign of cultural appreciation; rather, it is a sign of cultural insensitivity and ignorance. (In addition, the menu features a pinata with the ‘Turbo Michelada’, which I’m sure is delicious but is hardly Asian.)
Related to the issue of the sexuality of Asian women and the ping pong problem, we arrive at the Oriental Teahouse, whose website includes an image of a demure Chinese lady in a qipao, with the words ‘Little Bit Naughty, Little Bit Nice’. The scrolling ads display various images that rely on dangerous stereotypes, mostly involving all the ladies, Chinese, and one older gent, also Chinese, in traditional dress embodying ancient traditions (as noted on the page), and ‘Smart, Smooth, and Supremely Sophisticated’ belongs to a Chinese man in a western-style suit.
The implication here is that sophistication can only belong to the one single western-positioned image. (That’s even leaving aside the Perfect Party Host is a flamenco outfit. At least a western-style suit has precedence in China, where the flamenco outfit does not.) And let us not forget the use of the term, right there in its name, Oriental.
The final stop on our tour is Lady Boy Dining, opened late in 2014. It’s a ‘casual’ and ‘playful’ atmosphere, with a cocktail called the ‘Man-go Lady Boy’ and allegedly a sign over the bar that says ‘There’s a ladyboy in all of us.’ (I say allegedly – there is no way I will enter this bar, so I can’t confirm it for you.)
Don’t even try to argue that they’re being ironic – I read a review on The Weekly Review that described the bar as ‘Cute name, but the theme is slightly overdone inside.’ Apparently the ‘Trans-gin-der’ and the ‘Downstairs Mixup’ are great, but that it’s served in a mason jar is the thing that gets an ‘ugh.’ Not the transphobia and the racism.
A review at The Urban List says the owners wanted to celebrate Traditional Thai culture. (there are ‘Asian knick knacks’ and ‘a chalkboard ping-pong dining table’) The term is ‘Kathoey’, and both terms are frequently used as slurs. Kathoey face discrimination in all sorts of areas, and have become a mocked stereotype of Thai masculinity and femininity. Thailand has become a sex tourism destination for many Australians, and Kathoey have long been targeted by Australian sex tourism and abuse. But here in Richmond, it’s ‘cheeky’ and ‘fun.’ (Only goodfood – goodfood! – acknowledges it’s a problem at all, with a review opening ‘Whether or not you give a damn about the political correctness of the name you’ve got to admit that it’s problematic to Google at work.’ But it’s okay, because it ‘actually does a good job of summing up what this new Thai eatery is all about.’)
The false promise of multiculturalism in Australia has left us lacking in any real ability to appreciate culture, and instead leads us to a gross problem of cultural appropriation and stereotyping. There can be no respect when our violent history is a cocktail; when the things that make us distinct cultures and histories are pushed together as one Oriental package; when Asian women are sexualised and devalued as contributors to Australian society; when eating westernised versions of our food under the guise of fusion or appreciation is seen as something we ought to be grateful for, ignoring the things that still hurt.
“But it’s cultural appreciation!” is a common refrain. “Are you saying I can’t share your things?” There can be cultural appreciation and sharing and honouring, but that requires respect and understanding. A decentering of Anglo-cultures and an acknowledgement and contextualization of non-Anglo cultures requires a bigger step than what these examples offer, because these examples, whilst claiming to be about their Asian sources and themes, actually re-centre the Anglo-sphere whilst othering the cultures they wish to appreciate.
The restaurants in this article have taken little points and twisted them beyond their actual meanings; have placed fleeting enjoyment above their actual contexts. To do so is to assume that there is no-one around who lives within these contexts, to whom these cultures belong. A joke is not more important than the need to dismantle the gauntlet of rice jokes and love me long time catcalls, and “smelling like curry” face pulls that every Asian child on their way to primary school in Australia has to suffer through.
With thanks to Lian and Eleanor from Peril, Ms Hayley, and Liz, for advice along the way to help shape this into less of a rant and more of a piece.