Chop Suey, Ching Chong, and Asia in Pop Culture

If you’ve ever ordered Chinese food in the US, chances are high that at least once, you’ve received it in a white box decorated with ‘chop suey’ font in red. It’s so ubiquitous that you might not even notice — and you might not spot it in other settings, as well. It’s simply associated with Chinese cuisine and culture, and, because lots of restaurants buy what’s cheap and available, cuisine from other Asian cultures sometimes comes in similar boxes.

Writing about chop suey font in 2012, Margaret Cho expressed her frustrations as an Asian-American comedian — who identifies as a woman of Korean descent although genetically it turns out she is closely related to those of Chinese descent — with the use of racist fonts, caricatures, and similar tactics in the promotional materials used to spread word about her shows.

I am doing a show soon at Cornell University, which is exciting, and the advertising for it originally used the chop suey font to spell out my name. I guess I am numb to it, but I don’t feel anything when I see it anymore. I am so used to having things this way, the way it’s always been, accepting and swallowing racism down without argument or splatter.

How can a font be racist? In the same way that a caricature of a bucktoothed man in a coolie hat with a long queue can be racist. In the same way that a painting of a demure geisha on the wall of a restaurant can be racist. In the same way that ching chong — the stilted, imaginary Chinese that English speakers use as filler to make fun of Asian-Americans — is racist. Because the font says something about our cultural understanding of people of Asian descent, creating a sort of ‘Asian-style’ font that is supposed to be read as possibly derived from Chinese characters. Brush strokes, sword-like lines, this is ‘China’ to many Westerners, and this, apparently, is appropriate to use on anything even vaguely connected with Asia (Asia is a country, you know, and it is filled with Chinese people — at least, so we are to extrapolate from pop culture).

I cringe every time I see chop suey font because of what it symbolises, a country’s dubious race and culture relations with those of an entire continent. Chop suey itself is a dish believed to be of US origins, created in California where Chinese cooks during the gold rush era tried to make food that would be appealing to Western appetites. While the gold rush was powered by Chinese cooks, launderers, and more, and it was Chinese labourers who built the Westward arm of the railroad empire that sprawled across the US in the 1800s, their contributions to history are forgotten and made into a joke; the dish they invented as effectively a form of submission to the Westerners who allowed them on US soil only because they needed workers has become a symbol of Chinese culture and cuisine for many westerners.

Chop suey font is everywhere. It’s not just on Chinese takeout containers. It’s on fliers and advertising materials, banners, headlines. It’s agreed by many to be a universally ugly and kind of tacky font, on par with Comic Sans and Papyrus, but it carries an extra load, because it’s not just ugly in the sense that other fonts are ugly. It’s not ugly because it’s hard to read and doesn’t mesh with modern tastes. It’s not ugly because it doesn’t have clean, crisp, readable lines, or because it’s really designed for large headlines only and sometimes gets used as entire body text. It’s ugly because of its racialised origins.

If you look at chop suey font, the inspirations of the font are clear — it’s a garbled, Western interpretation of Chinese characters, just like ching chong is a revolting corruption of Chinese. It’s what thousands of years of culture and society look like to Westerners. While various predecessors of Chinese culture were producing characters that are understood to be the foundations of modern Chinese characters thousands of years ago, the West mocks and belittles them. Many Westerners don’t understand written Chinese (or other Asian languages) not just in the sense of not being able to read it, but in the sense of how it works (it’s alien and scary and exotic and inferior because it’s not organised like English and other alphabetic languages!) and its rich history.

While many Westerners value calligraphy and letter art produced with the alphabet, they have no interest in or respect for calligraphy created in Chinese, the amount of work and dedication involved to produce works of fine art with a brush. To them, Chinese and languages derived from it are simply chop suey, ching chong, to be mocked and used in a stereotyped imagining of Chinese culture and society.

What’s the big deal about chop suey font? About racial caricatures? About making up a few lines of nonsensical Chinese based on a series of high and low tones, sharp syllables? They’re racist. That’s the big deal. And while these things may at times be microaggressions — Chinese people like to order takeout just like everyone else and the constant flood of chop suey font on their food is annoying but for many not necessarily on par with being called a ‘chink whore’ from a passing car because you’re wearing a short skirt or a tight dress — that doesn’t make them any less important. They serve as reminders to Chinese-Americans that they don’t ‘belong,’ that their culture and that of their ancestors is a laughable mockery, that Asianness is something wrong to be corrected.

Image: Fresh Egg Fried Rich is a yummy breakfast, Kristin Brenemen, Flickr