Is the Wonton font a racial stereotype?

The logo for the Asia Food Fest in Austin, TX uses the Wonton font, which I think is a stereotype.Can a font express a racial stereotype?

I know I’m climbing on my soap box and risking being called over-sensitive and too p.c. But when I noticed a promo on Facebook this morning for the Asia Food Fest in Austin, Texas, and saw the logo for the event, my stomach clenched just a little bit. The words were spelled out in the “Wonton” font, the curvy, pointy — shall I say, “slanty” — lettering that I associate with a lifetime of Asian racial caricatures.

I hate it when non-Asians use it as a way of appearing “Asian,” and I’m disappointed when Asians use it thinking that non-Asians will identify with it. Austin’s Asia Food Fest, which I’m sure is a wonderful event, is organized by the Texas Asian Chamber of Commerce, Texas Culinary Academy, and SATAY Restaurant (one of my favorite restaurants anywhere, and one I visited every year for a decade when I attended the South By Southwest music festival), so it’s not a phony, faux-Asian affair. Here’s how the Fest was started, from its About page:

Dr. Foo Swasdee, owner of SATAY Restaurant, founded the ASIA Food Fest in 2006 to educate people about Asian ingredients, food, and cooking. As Austin Asian population grows (doubling every 10 years), the more choices Austin Asian Food Lovers have to choose from!

But the logo still bummed me out, so I tried to reason my reaction out internally.

When I see the font, I hear the words spoken in my head in the sing-songy “ching chong” sound that I grew up hearing in racist chants, like when white kids taunted me in school, and told me to “go home” or “go back to China” (they never said go back to Japan, which would actually have been correct, since I was born in Tokyo).

World War II-era racist sign about Japanese, using the Wonton font. I think of words in anti-Asian or anti-Japanese signs. I see 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.

Which is not to say it’s always racist. Wonton’s used all over the place, and a lot of times I zone it out. Chinese takeout boxes often have something written in the font. Many Asian restaurants (with old signs and menus) still use it. But then some old-timer Asian groceries still say ‘Oriental” too. We allow for that, but as we move forward we expect those uses to fade.

Times change, right?

Fonts are created by graphic designers to capture in an instant the essence of a feeling, an association. New York Times reporter Jennifer 8. Lee, on her excellent “Fortune Cookie Chronicles” blog (an expansion of her book of the same name) has a thoughtful post titled “Print Magazine: The History of a ‘Racist Font’,” linking to an interesting article in Print Magazine by Paul Shaw, that shows fonts tied to ethnic stereotypes including Jewish (evoking Hebrew alphabets) as well as the roots of “chop suey” fonts.

The Far East Chop Suey sign in Los AngelesLee makes the point, citing Shaw, that these fonts were originally designed by Asians to attract customers to their businesses.

So that’s an important point, it was not as though Americans were imposing the font on the Chinese. It was the entrepreneurs who were choosing it, as it was an efficient (and cheap) way to say “Chinese” without pagodas and dragons.

Because the dish was a popular staple of Chinese American restaurants in the 1900s, Chop Suey signs were popular examples of the font, writes Shaw in his article:

By the ’30s, chop suey letters were being used to promote Chinese restaurants across the country. Chop suey, the dish, invented 40 years earlier, had become a culinary craze. Restaurants responded by including the dish in their name and emphasizing it in their signs and advertising. This can be seen in surviving neon signs—Guey Lon Chop Suey Restaurant in Chicago, Pekin Café Chop Suey in San Diego, and the Joy Young restaurant in Birmingham, Alabama—as well as in postcards and matchbooks from the ’30s through the ’60s.

The sign for the Far East Chop Suey Cafe (now run as a modern restaurant, not the diner that was popular for many decades) in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo is a designated historic landmark, and was restored a few years ago to its original glory, with neon Wonton font beaming out into the night.

Shaw also writes:

Ethnic type—not just chop suey but all of the varieties—survives for the simple reason that stereotypes, though crude, serve a commercial purpose. They are shortcuts, visual mnemonic devices. There is no room for cultural nuance or academic accuracy in a shop’s fascia. Restaurant owners want passersby (often in cars rather than on foot) to know immediately that they serve Chinese (or Greek, or Jewish) food, and a lettering style that achieves this is welcome.

So the font grew out of a marketing need, and is still used that way (the Austin food fest). But it had been co-opted by racists during the Yellow Peril era of the late 1800s and early 1900s, when Asian immigrants in general (but particularly Chinese) were demonized, and during World War II, when Japanese were demonized.

I grew up with the heritage of the racism, and can’t shake those associations whenever I see the font even in innocent uses.

When Erin and I were on the operating committee of the Colorado Dragon Boat Festival from 2001-2007, we tried to be sensitive to these issues. We avoided Wonton in all the festival’s signage, collateral material, public relations and marketing. We found other fonts that evoked Asia without the baggage (Papyrus, for one, and various calligraphic fonts that look like brush writing).

I think it’s time to retire the Wonton font forever.

It’s not cool to use “Oriental” to describe Asian people (rugs are still okay) in 2009. A couple of years ago, Rosie O’Donnell was castigated for making “ching chong” sounds on TV. Words that were commonly used a century ago have been banned by anyone who isn’t racist. Things change.

A lot of things that weren’t necessarily racist or ethnically stereotypical are no longer acceptable today, because they evoke the racism of the past. Wonton is a product of the past, and there should be no place for it in the future.

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6 Responses to Is the Wonton font a racial stereotype?

  1. Mark Gilson says:

    I hate that font too, but for different reasons. I think it’s lazy and ugly. But I agree it does conjure up imagery of a very specific Asian stereotype. You could also argue that using any kind of graffitti styled font in an attempt to appeal to an “urban” (black or latino) audience does the same thing. Then there’s the use of a “soul brother” type announcer in commercials that are targeted for a black viewership. I think the truth is that a lot of people working in advertising are caucasians that aren’t sensitive to these kinds of issues. I’m personally bothered by the CG Fu Manchu character currently appearing in Nissin noodle TV ads. That reminds me of those “ancient Chinese secret” laundry detergent ads from the 70’s. “The path to noodle enlightenment?” Gimme a break.

  2. Gil Asakawa says:

    Great point about ad agency laziness, Mark. And yeah, grafitti style used to “represent” black culture is the other side of the same coin…. I’ve heard about the Nissin commercial, but haven’t seen it yet.

    I actually posted the Calgon “Ancient Chinese secret” TV commercial a few months ago:
    https://www.nikkeiview.com/blog/2009/05/31/an-enduring-asian-stereotype-in-a-1970s-tv-commercial/

    Thanks for the comment, Mark!

  3. Kristin Morris says:

    Thanks for a great article, and links to other resources, Gil. I’m currently working on marketing materials for an exhibit about nightclubs in San Francisco’s Chinatown and was struggling to understand the real implications of font choice. You’ve made it much clearer. You can see more about the exhibit at http://www.sfhistory.org/index.php?pageid=20.

  4. Gil Asakawa says:

    Cool exhibit, Kristin! Thanks for the comment, and for checking into the font in the first place…

  5. phil says:

    Gil: in British English, it’s still common for people to use the term “Oriental” to describe Northeast Asian peoples (such as Chinese, Japanese and Koreans) as well as some Southeast Asians (such as Vietnamese) who are mostly of Mongolian race. When Brits say “Asian”, they are usually referring to East Indian peoples, such as Indians, Pakistanis, Bengalis and Sri Lankans.

    However, it’s true that in U.S. English, the term “Oriental” isn’t widely used anymore, except to refer to certain items such as “Oriental rugs.”

  6. Gil Asakawa says:

    Hi Phil, that’s true, I hear Brits say “Oriental” and it makes more sense historically (though I bet no one anywhere says “Occidental” for westerners!)…

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