Karate, Wonton, Chow Fun: The end of ‘chop suey’ fonts

Written by Anne Quito, CNN

This feature is part of CNN Style’s new series Hyphenated, which explores the complex issue of identity among minorities in the United States.

Here’s a thought experiment: Close your eyes and imagine the font you’d use to depict the word “Chinese.”

There’s a good chance you pictured letters made from the swingy, wedge-shaped strokes you’ve seen on restaurant signs, menus, take-away boxes and kung-fu movie posters. These “chop suey fonts,” as American historian Paul Shaw calls them, have been a typographical shortcut for “Asianness” for decades.
Shaw traces the fonts’ origins to the Cleveland Type Foundry which obtained a patent for a calligraphy-style printing type, later named Mandarin, in 1883. It is perhaps no surprise that this Eastern-inspired lettering emerged in the late 19th century, an era when Orientalism coursed feverishly through the West.
“Mandarin, originally known as Chinese, is the granddaddy of ‘chop suey’ types,” Shaw wrote in the design magazine, Print. “Neither the food nor the fonts bear any real relation to true Chinese cuisine or calligraphy. But this has not prevented the proliferation of chop suey lettering and its close identification with Chinese culture outside of China.”
House of Moy Lee Chin Restaurant, Miami Beach, Florida in 1980.

House of Moy Lee Chin Restaurant, Miami Beach, Florida in 1980. Credit: Library of Congress

Type designers in the West have since cooked up many of their own versions of chop suey. Variations on the font are commercially distributed as Wonton, Peking, Buddha, Ginko, Jing Jing, Kanban, Shanghai, China Doll, Fantan, Martial Arts, Rice Bowl, Sunamy, Karate, Chow Fun, Chu Ching San JNL, Ching Chang and Chang Chang.

It’s hard not to cringe at the Chinese stereotypes bundled up with each font package — especially when seen through the lens of today’s heightened vigilance toward discrimination and systemic racism. Critics believe that using chop suey typefaces is downright racist, particularly when deployed by non-Asian creators.

White politicians, meanwhile, have been using chop suey fonts to stoke xenophobia for over a century. In her book, “This is What Democracy Looked Like: A Visual History of the Printed Ballot,” Cooper Union professor Alicia Cheng draws attention to the “chopsticks font,” as she calls it, used by San Francisco politician Dr. C. C. O’Donnell on a 1876 ballot, as he vowed to deport all Chinese immigrants if he was elected into office.

Dr. C. C. O'Donnell's ballot shows a candidate pushing a ball that reads "Chinese Exclusion" with a stick labeled "perserverance".

Dr. C. C. O’Donnell’s ballot shows a candidate pushing a ball that reads “Chinese Exclusion” with a stick labeled “perserverance”. Credit: California Historical Society

More contemporary examples include Pete Hoekstra, the former US ambassador to the Netherlands, who — during his run for Senate in 2012 — was criticized for campaigning with an ad featuring a caricature of a Chinese woman and a website with chop suey lettering. And in 2018, The New Jersey Republican State Committee used a version of the all-too-familiar font in a mailer attacking Korean American Democrat Andy Kim. The incendiary headline read, “There’s something REAL FISHY about Andy Kim.”

Hoekstra’s press team and the New Jersey Republican State Committee did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.

Companies and advertisers have also looked to exploit stereotypes associated with the typefaces. During World War II, oil giant Texaco produced a series of posters featuring chop suey fonts next to a buck-toothed caricature in order to vilify the “Yellow Peril.”

When asked to comment on the historical posters, a spokesperson for Chevron Corporation, now Texaco’s parent company, told CNN: “Texaco’s World War II posters are regrettable and inconsistent with Chevron’s values.”

An anti-Japanese propaganda poster that circulated during the World War II.

An anti-Japanese propaganda poster that circulated during the World War II. Credit: From TEXACO

Similarly, online grocer Fresh Direct, clothing brand Abercrombie & Fitch and the game developers behind “Cyberpunk 2077,” CD Projekt, are among the many companies criticized for using culturally appropriative fonts in the last two decades.

A spokesperson for FreshDirect told CNN that the company “unequivocally” denounces racism and discrimination and regrets using a controversial typeface on advertising and packaging for its “stir fry kits,” adding that no-one involved in the 2012 decision is still at the organization. A spokesperson for Abercrombie & Fitch, meanwhile, said in an email that T-shirts featuring caricatures and stereotypical fonts from 2002 “were inexcusable 19 years ago when they were released, and they do not reflect A&F Co.’s values today.” The spokesperson added that the company encourages a “culture of belonging” and is “committed to doing better in the future.”

CD Projekt, which used stereotypical Asian fonts in game graphics last year, did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.

In 2020, with the Covid-19 pandemic ushering a new tide of Sinophobia, Canadian apparel brand Lululemon fired its art director after he seemingly endorsed a “Bat Fried Rice” T-shirt design bearing the words “No Thank You,” by posting it to his Instagram. The design featured a chop suey font on a take-out box with bat wings, alluding to the purported origins of the coronavirus. While the shirt wasn’t his creation, the art director told various media outlets, “It is something I deeply regret, and my eyes have been opened to the profound ripple effect that this mistake has had.” Lululemon quickly distanced itself from its art director emphasizing that the brand had not produced the “inappropriate and inexcusable” shirt.

Racist undertones

For an older generation of Asian Americans, spotting the faux brushstroke lettering can trigger past traumas.

“I think of words in anti-Asian or anti-Japanese signs,” wrote Japanese American journalist Gil Asakawa, who began his career during a wave of anti-Japanese sentiment or “Nipponophobia” in the 1980s. “I see (the font) Wonton and I see the words ‘Jap,’ ‘nip,’ ‘chink,’ ‘gook,’ ‘slope.’ I can’t help it. In my experience, the font has been associated too often with racism aimed at me.”

The "Wonton" font.

The “Wonton” font.

But can a font, in itself, truly be racist?

In 19th-century Germany, using a calligraphic blackletter typeface called Fraktur was considered as an expression of nationalism. German books were printed in this gothic-style font, despite being hard to read. The Nazi party then embraced Fraktur — it was even used on the cover of Adolf Hitler’s manifesto, “Mein Kampf” — before suddenly banning the font in 1941 and categorizing it as Judenlettern (“Jewish letters”).
Yet, there are also examples of fonts harmlessly evoking national or regional pride. Take the distinctive Euskara lettering, used throughout the seven provinces of the Basque County, and deployed on everything from monuments to restaurant menus. The “large-footed, big-eyed, Roman-styled characters,” as a 19th-century chronicler of the region’s monuments once described them, emerged during the pinnacle of Basque nationalism in the late 1800s.

It’s worth noting that, in 1930s America, some Chinese immigrants themselves used chop suey fonts on their restaurant signs, menus, and advertisements, as a way to heighten the exotic appeal of their establishments.

And “Oriental simulation fonts” (or letterforms designed with aesthetic markers of a particular culture) didn’t just approximate Chinese calligraphy. Decorative fonts like El Dorado or Taco Salad were designed to represent Mexico. The same goes for the Pad Thai font, which borrows strokes from the Thai script. Similarly, there are a host of crude, hand-drawn fonts purporting to capture the aesthetic of the entire African continent.
"The Pad Thai" typeface borrows strokes from the Thai script.

“The Pad Thai” typeface borrows strokes from the Thai script.

Shaw said that the persistence of ethnic types, as offensive as they appear to some, lies in their graphic efficiency. They survive “for the simple reason that stereotypes, though crude, serve a commercial purpose,” he wrote. “They are shortcuts, visual mnemonic devices. There is no room for cultural nuance or academic accuracy in a shop’s fascia.”

For Yong Chen, a historian at the University of California, Irvine, it is not the font, per se, that’s the issue — but how it’s used. His 2014 book “Chop Suey, USA: The Story of Chinese Food in America,” even features the typeface on its cover. “The font issue never came up during discussions of the cover design,” Yong said in an email. Problems only arise, he said, when the font is deliberately used to “depict Chinese Americans and Chinese food as the Oriental other.”

Chris Wu, a scholar of Chinese typography and co-founder of the New York-based design studio Wkshps, echoed Young’s tempered view. “I am not offended by those typefaces, rather intrigued by them,” he explained in an email. “I am glad to see the discussions and criticism about the ethnic fonts today — it reflects a much well-informed visual culture and the sensibilities to respect minorities. However, I’d be careful about over simplifying the stories and the sentiment of embracing authenticity.”
San Francisco police officers pass an art installation called "Hopes for Chinatown."

San Francisco police officers pass an art installation called “Hopes for Chinatown.” Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Beyond chop suey

As diverse and modern as Asia is, its prevailing typographic representations remain stuck in a bygone era. So, can we ever escape chop suey font?

“In light of the tensions in the US around race and racial stereotypes in 2020, (these fonts are) not the kind of thing I would want to be developing today,” said Tom Rickner, creative director at Monotype, a 134-year old digital foundry with several chop suey fonts in its catalog.

Recalling the lone Chinese restaurant in the town he grew up in during the 1970s, Rickner explained that the foreigner-friendly chop suey fonts helped proprietors attract diners, much like the first wave of immigrant Chinese business owners in San Francisco in the 1930s. “Back then, a menu item like Peking duck was considered avant-garde and completely new and different
, but we’ve gone so far beyond that,” he said, adding that we now have alternatives to worn-out typographic tropes.

Tokio Restaurant or "The Tokio," was founded by Charles Kline, Harry Salvin, and Henry Fink in 1910 near Broadway in New York City.

Tokio Restaurant or “The Tokio,” was founded by Charles Kline, Harry Salvin, and Henry Fink in 1910 near Broadway in New York City. Credit: From New York Public Library

Rickner, who was once Apple’s lead typographer, points to the flourishing of non-English digital typefaces in recent years. For example, there’s Caspar Lam and YuJune Park’s elegant serif Ming Romantic, commissioned by Vogue China and Google’s open source Korean fonts, created by a team of Korean type designers, including E Roon Kang, who spoke on the challenges of creating digital fonts in the language.

Korean’s Hangul writing system has a “unique way of combining consonants and vowels for a single letter” that results in a greater volume of letterforms, and therefore larger file sizes for browsers, Kang explained in an email. He said the 2018 project had made fonts — which can be complicated and involve creating various subsets — easier to access by designers and developers, while adding that part of its design includes an interactive function that emphasizes the letters’ “malleable nature” to encourage more participation.

Google's open source project on Korean fonts invites users to play with stylized variations of fonts.

Google’s open source project on Korean fonts invites users to play with stylized variations of fonts. Credit: From Google Fonts + Korean

Chinese characters in the Ming Romantic font.

Chinese characters in the Ming Romantic font. Credit: From Synoptic Office

There’s also a growing catalog of high quality Arabic type. Design schools, like KABK (The Royal Academy of Art) in The Hague, Netherlands, and the University of Reading’s department of typography and graphic communication in the UK, are also training students to design fonts in the world’s languages — including Chinese, which is notoriously onerous to recreate digitally.

“We need to democratize the education of type design across different ethnic and economic, socioeconomic backgrounds,” Rickner said. “There’s work to be done there, but it’s happening.

“The right way forward is to have bilingual, trilingual, even multilingual typography,” he added, suggesting that Chinese restaurant menus could perhaps, be presented in both English and (either simplified or traditional) Chinese characters.

“As a type designer, I want to celebrate those languages and those cultures. What we love is building new typefaces that support multiple scripts and languages, and today we’re in such a better place than we were even just five years ago.”

This article has been update to include a response from Abercrombie & Fitch. It was also updated to reflect that Pete Hoekstra is the former US ambassador to the Netherlands.

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