Here’s a thought experiment: Close your eyes and imagine the font you’d use to depict the word “Chinese.”
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”. 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. Credit: From TEXACO
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.
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.
But can a font, in itself, truly be racist?
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.
“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.”
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. Credit: From New York Public Library
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. Credit: From Google Fonts + Korean
Chinese characters in the Ming Romantic font. Credit: From Synoptic Office
“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.