There is a scene in the 1983 film A Christmas Story in which, after a Christmas turkey has been trampled by the Bumpas family’s hounds, the Parker family relents to Chop Suey Palace to redeem their Christmas dinner. The scene opens with the family watching and laughing, albeit jovially, as their servers sing Christmas carols in pronounced Chinese accents while another man attempts to correct their pronunciation.
After the singing, the server places a cooked whole duck before the family, the mother screeches as she looks at the food then continues to laugh into her hands. The husband assures the server everything is fine, but, holding the duck by the beak, says as he outlines a mouth with his pinky fingers, “It’s smiling at me.” The server nods in understanding and grabs a butcher knife, swiftly chopping off the duck’s head. The mother, this time joined by the two sons, Ralphie and Randy, again screeches just before another eruption of laughter. The family claps for the servers as they bring out bowls of rice and other accoutrements, the narration overhead musing “That Christmas would live in our memories as the Christmas we were introduced to Chinese turkey.”
The film plays in a 24-hour marathon on TBS each Christmas and families around the country, mine included, have no doubt laughed at this scene, even referencing it as a sort of nationwide inside joke, subconsciously adopting and perpetuating decades-old stereotypes of both Chinese food and people portrayed in films and other bits of pop culture.
The idea that Chinese food is strange, disgusting, even dangerous, is not a new one; bathroom jokes abound when discussing takeout options, questions of the origin of meat met with raised brows. In the small North Carolina town in which I grew up, there was a running rumor that a now-closed restaurant killed cats for their cuisine, and that the carcasses could be found in the dumpster behind the storefront.
Although some of these assumptions from the 1980s and ’90s seem to have dissipated and escaped the grasp of our collective consciousness, a January 2020 article in The Washington Post discusses the resurgence of Chinese food stereotyping as the novel coronavirus began its spread around the world, with racist rhetoric abounding.
In that article, Douglas Wong explores the narrative surrounding Chinese food. Rumors about the origin of the coronavirus were circulated unchecked in the early days of the pandemic, as the Daily Mail released an article showing footage of a Chinese woman eating a bat while drawing the parallel that scientists had recently linked the virus to bats. Wong points out that this viral video was filmed in 2016 — and not even filmed in China. These facts, though, were no match for the general public’s readiness to embrace this antiquated, ignorant view regarding Chinese dining cultures and their links to disease and uncleanliness.
Dr. Michelle King, a historian and professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, teaches a course on the cultural history of Chinese food, where students of varying backgrounds and ethnicities collectively uncover the cultural significance of Chinese food from its origins to its preparation in North Carolina restaurants. In her class, students profile a North Carolina Chinese restaurant and share the restaurant’s origin story while diving into the life of a Chinese restaurateur.
Her findings and interactions over the past year support the claims of the January 2020 article that saw the beginning of a backlash against Chinese food as part of a rise in anti-Asian hate, making way for King’s recent report, titled “Say no to bat fried rice: changing the narrative of coronavirus and Chinese food.”
“I’d heard my students discussing that people were becoming afraid of catching coronavirus from Chinese food,” Dr. King says. “One student told me someone they knew had ordered Chinese food but, as she became nervous after ordering, refused to answer the delivery driver’s calls or knocks.”
The first few months of the pandemic saw a steep decline in orders from Chinese restaurants, even as other takeout options saw a significant uptick. At the time of Dr. King’s report, 51% of Chinese takeout restaurants had closed, as opposed to 19% of other takeout restaurants.
“When I hear these stories, my heart sinks,” Dr. King writes. She shared her findings and more virtually through a partnership with Charlotte Museum of History’s Lunch & Learn on May 6 in an event titled Chinese Foodways: Fried Rice & Family.
Cultivating harmful stereotypes
The Asian Corner Mall sits off North Tryon Street and Sugar Creek Road in north Charlotte. Owned by the Nguyen family, Vietnam refugees who made their way to Charlotte in the 1970s after having fled the country by boat, the mall became a haven for international business, including the Nguyen’s own International Supermarket.
The market’s shelves are lined with items typical of Asian grocers: teas, spices, a delightful market section with cookware and tea cups. The butcher section features meat selections not typical of Harris Teeter.
In a 2014 Charlotte Observer article, the writer reveals “5 Things You Should Know About the Asian Mall.” In my research, I’d hoped to be met with the insider scoop, “pro tips” if you will. Instead I was appalled by the subconscious stereotyping so normalized in this short write-up.s
“If you’ve never been to Asian Corner Mall on North Tryon Street, it may seem a little strange at first,” the writer begins, going on to say, “..but there is a lot of great stuff in store for the brave hearts out there looking for something different.”
This idea that those choosing to dine on Chinese cuisine must be “brave” and one must step into “strange” environments swiftly undermines a culture centered on food by diminishing it to the ew-factor that seems to get white folks riled up.
The writer warns of potholes in the parking lot, something many reviewers find cause to mention, and a reassurance that, though this is no SouthPark, patrons oughta be just fine so long as they remain vigilant about their surroundings “as you would anywhere.”
Were this SouthPark, I’m certain this writer and many other internet critics would have no need to mention potholes, and it may be reviews like this one that perpetuate a reluctance to “venture out” of these presumably safe and insular communities to partake in the “exotic” and thus support them to the extent which they could fill said potholes. These articles instill the idea that it’s adventurous simply to patronize a business owned by immigrants whose journey to the United States was far more perilous than the trip from 28211 to 28213.
The writer does seem to like Le’s Sandwiches & Cafe, though, heralding the establishment as one of the “few signs of life inside this mall,” simultaneously delivering a tantalizing review while discrediting the mall’s very existence.
Whether by word or deed, Asian-owned businesses remain under attack and scrutiny, recently to the point of physical, sometimes deadly, assault.
Hate crimes on the rise
Charlotte made national news in early April for a March 30 attack on Plaza Sundries, an Asian-owned store in the Charlotte Transportation Center. In security footage of the attack, a regular of the store, Xavier Rashee Woody-Silas, walked through doors he’d entered on numerous occasions, metal bar in hand. He can be seen grabbing a merchandise rack and forcefully slamming it to the floor before using the metal bar in attempts to smash glass-front drink coolers. The rampage lasts a few moments, all the while Woody-Silas and an apparent friend (who had allegedly been banned from the store previously) yelled racial slurs, indicating this was the premise for the attack.
Woody-Silas can be seen punching the plexiglass divider separating the store from the cash register as he attempts to confront the owners.
Joyce and Mun Sung, immigrants from South Korea, opened their convenience store in 1995. The couple’s son, Mark Sung, reported to WBTV that confrontations and other illegal activity happen in or around the store on a daily basis, that he and his family call the police multiple times per day.
On April 11, the owner of Asian Grocery on Farm Pond Lane in east Charlotte was shot in the chest in the early morning hours. CMPD believes the incident was an attempted robbery, though investigators are yet to conclude whether the man was targeted due to his ethnicity.
Anti-Asian hate crimes are on the rise across the country, leading the Senate to vote for an amended bill aimed at combating the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes on April 22. Just one day after this, Yao Pan Ma, a 61-year-old Asian-American collecting cans in Manhattan, was attacked, his assailant allegedly stomping on his head repeatedly. As of April 27, Ma remains in a coma.
In 2020, Asian-targeted hate crimes rose 150%, a number many, including Dr. King, blame on former President Donald Trump’s rhetoric and the climate created when he coined the schoolyard taunt “Kung Flu” as his juvenile coronavirus nomenclature. However, Asian hate and stereotyping in the United States predates the Trump administration.
By 1851, the U.S. saw an influx of Chinese immigrants settling in California during the Gold Rush. Many took dangerous jobs working with the Central Pacific Railroad in order to support their families during this time. By 1870, 20% of California’s workforce was of Asian descent. Just a few years later, the language of worker suppression began through claims that Asian Americans were taking away American jobs, despite making up just .002% of the nationwide workforce.
A few years later Congress signed The Page Act of 1875, prohibiting the recruitment of workers from “China, Japan or any Oriental country.” By including language that Chinese women could not enter the country for “immoral or lewd purposes,” Chinese women were targeted and banned from entering the country for prostitution, being stereotyped as promiscuous. Despite a large number of white-peer sex workers, Chinese women were targeted and accused of spreading sexually transmitted disease.
The disease-ridden rhetoric began around this time, an attempt to prove to the American people that Chinese immigrants not only threatened their jobs and morality but their health. All of these stereotypes not only remain but are on the rise, a phenomenon Dr. King’s work exposes.
Her research includes an 1858 caricature and poem from the British magazine Punch that depicts a character they’ve called “John Chinaman” taunting Chinese appearance and diet.
In her report, Dr. King writes, “The fact that the verse was published at the height of the Second Opium War (1856–60), which Britain and France waged against China in order to force trading concessions, strongly echoes the current climate of economic and geopolitical rivalry between China and the United States. When tensions run high, the fascination over ‘exotic’ Chinese ways of eating quickly descends into fear and disgust — two sides of the same Orientalizing coin.”
The Great Equalizer
Growing up, Dr. King’s family focused on food in a way she says many Chinese families do. She recalls cooking and dining with her mother and aunts as a “fundamental way of expressing love for one another and of enjoying life together.”
The idea of food as a cultural cornerstone is what leads many immigrants to open restaurants, along with what Dr. King says is a “whole host of reasons,” King states.
“Sometimes it’s simply they don’t have other skills and they know how to do this,” she says. “For those with limited English abilities restaurant work is open. They may not love the job but it is a job. For others they want to share the cuisine with others. They may have a personal connection allowing the creation of community and support of generations of families coming in.”
The process of Dr. King’s research was as much for her as it was for her students, specifically after the 2016 election.
“There is not a county in [North Carolina] without a Chinese restaurant and I wanted people to understand when people speak negatively about immigrants, they probably also love going to local Chinese restaurants,” King says. “Immigrants are among us in the community and a part of it already. I wanted to make a statement about who belongs in North Carolina and who’s already here and I wanted my students to help document.”
Together she and her students explored the range of dishes offered at the restaurants they profiled.
I myself am a lover of crab rangoons, a confession I sheepishly made to Dr. King as she explained the complexity of cuisine and the abundance of flavors that differ from country to country. Dr. King reassured me part of Chinese cuisine’s global draw is its adaptability.
What I’d assumed was a bastardization of cultural cuisine is what Dr. King calls an economic necessity.
Surprisingly, she warns her students against seeking out “authentic” cuisine. Once they talk to restaurant owners, they realize they are doing what most any other restaurant is doing: making food people will eat. She has noted in her research and career that the types of Chinese cuisine in America has changed — Chop Suey in the early part of the 20th century to more sophisticated dishes now showcasing how different influxes of migration have affected the food being prepared and authenticity is seldom top-of-mind.
And, surprisingly, Dr. King asserts that most restaurant owners don’t find this offensive despite how our country has a way of colonizing other cultures to fit our demands and ideals. On the contrary, she applauds those willing to give those mom-and-pop shops a try, seeing it as a necessity in light of our current climate.
“Trump has been voted out and we deal with the ongoing box of hatred his words opened up for a lot of people,” Dr. King says. She believes that engaging in Chinese eating, whether authentic or Americanized, is a way to increase our understanding and thus diminish bit by bit the hatred that has come to light in recent years.
Though there seems to be a constant desire from some to separate and “otherize,” food is, as they say, “the Great Equalizer.” Whether we’re grabbing mooncakes at Hong Kong Bakery, dumplings from Optimist Hall or *gasp* “braving” the parking lot at the Asian Mall for ingredients for our own cooking, when we dine in our community intentionally and celebratorily, we take a small step towards equality and equanimity, seeing to it that in more ways than one we are all fed.