Racist Branding and Sushi Pizza

When I sat down for lunch in one of Melbourne’s most popular fusion restaurants and saw Engrish in its branding, it felt like a kick in the gut. The most egregious, on the business card: “Sum-Ting-Wong? Let Mr. M know and we fix.”

I live in the land of the tastefully plated smashed avocado. As one of the most hipster cities in the world, Melbourne is politically also the most progressive city in Australia. During the vote for same-sex marriage, inner-city Melbourne electorates came out in force for equality at 83.7% in favour, compared to a 61.6% national average. There’s a good chance that our next mayor is a Green politician. Melbourne has been crowned the “world’s most liveable city” for seven years.

Australia isn’t a post-racial utopia, to say the least. You don’t even need to look beyond the last few months. Coverage of crime in Melbourne has been increasingly racialised, creating a ginned up scare about so-called “African crime gangs” rampaging Mad-Max-style through the city, even though the Victorian police has said that gang violence is not growing. Historically marginalised, Indigenous Australians die younger and at higher rates than non-Indigenous Australians–the life expectancy gap is 10 years. And don’t get me started on Senator Pauline Hanson.

And yet. This restaurant is in Windsor, a very hipster district even for treehugger inner-Melbourne, close to affluent residential zones. Despite its colonial-era name, the food that Windsor is famous for is diverse. There were a few other Asian people in the same restaurant. A Malaysian friend recommended it to me. And as I’ve mentioned, the restaurant itself is wildly popular. The last time I’d tried to get in after watching a film in the heritage cinema down the road, I was told the wait for a table was 2 hours.

Maybe I should’ve known before even sitting down. The restaurant in question, after all, is Mr Miyagi. A fusion restaurant owned by non-Asian Australians, it’s named after one of the most iconic Asian characters in 80s American cinema. The rolling effect of the legacy of the Mr Miyagi character has been variously documented, including within the actor Pat Morita’s own obituary in the New York Times:

“But still, it bother me Miyagi-san so wise, but find it hard use articles, pronouns when talk.”

Generations of Asian schoolkids outside Asia have grown up tormented by that “wax on, wax off” catchphrase. As someone whose grandmothers could not speak English, I hate it when others make fun of the broken accents of people who try. In 2018, in the most progressive city in Australia, why is racist branding not just acceptable but profitable? It isn’t even limited to the card. It’s on the menu too.

Maybe it’s something about Windsor. If you’ve been looking at the news, you might have seen the backlash against Sash. Sash Restaurant is a “sushi pizza” fusion joint in Windsor, again owned by non-Asians. It also has a racialised menu, and while its newly opened joint in Sydney closed, it’s still open for business in Melbourne:

Sash blamed closure on “overpaid” workers, among other things. This elicited the usual Twitter derision.

There’s also this place in Abbotsford:

Hilarious.

Racist Branding and the Wrong Sort of Cultural Tenancy

Thanks to glowing reviews on Eater, I recently got hooked on David Chang’s Ugly Delicious on Netflix. I binge-watched it. I even got my senior citizen parents to watch it. Though I don’t fully agree with some of the points raised in the show, I love it.

During the “Fried Rice” episode in the show, David mentions that Chinese people are the most food-obsessed people on the planet. It’s true. I’m Singaporean and ethnically Chinese. Despite being from a tiny country, I’m used to encountering Singaporeans in random restaurants around the world. I think Asian people, in general, are food-obsessed. Look at the recent #rendanggate stoush that consumed four different countries and several politicians. In some Asian countries, some recipes and chefs are considered national treasures. Once we were colonised for our strategic locations and/or our resources. Perhaps it’s inevitable that our flavours are now the most appropriated on the planet.

Take Masterchef again, for example. #Rendanggate aside, I do like watching the Masterchef format. In Australia, it’s feel-good popcorn TV fun. Yet as Asian food, in general, becomes more trendy, with each new season of Masterchef Australia I think I’ll play a drinking game. Every time a non-Asian person says they know ‘Asian flavours’, are going to use ‘Asian vegetables’, or love ‘Asian [insert noun here]’, drink up. Will the show be pulled off the air before I damage my liver? Stay tuned. At least I’d be able to unironically enjoy the show if I’m not sober. Maybe it’s the masochist in me, but I still religiously tune in every week, watching non-Asian judges smile and praise the Asianness of the contestant’s Asianly flavoured Asianish dishes while I grow ulcers. A previous non-Asian Masterchef Australia contestant, Matt Sinclair, even opened a fusion restaurant in Queensland that supposedly highlights their “spirit and passion for Asian cuisine and culture”, called Sum Yung Guys. I kid you not. At least last year’s winner was a Singaporean-born Indian man, Sashi Cheliah.

Don’t get me wrong. I like fusion food. Thanks to our countries’ often colonial past, some Asian food is fusion. Once, I sat down to lunch with my parents in Yet Con Restaurant on Purvis Street in Singapore. We ordered its famous, fragrant Hainanese Chicken Rice, as well as a side of Cantonese Pork Chop. Crowded knee-to-knee in the tiny shop, my dad laughed as the dish arrived on a plastic plate: pieces of pork breaded and stir-fried with vegetables. “Last time when the British came, they told local cooks, ‘I want to eat pork chop!’ But we Chinese didn’t know what they mean by pork chop. So we took a piece of pork and chopped it up into small pieces and fried it with everything. Hai,” he said, smiling, “we used to cook for [Westerners]. Now they cook for us.” Fusion was wedged into our cultures by the colonisers. Personally, I’m fine eating fusion food cooked by whoever. If it’s delicious, I’d probably be back.

Most of the time.

If fusion is so widespread within Asian culture itself, when isn’t it okay for others to “steal like an artist”, to quote Austin Kleon? In the fried chicken episode of Ugly Delicious, a white American fried chicken restaurant owner is asked about appropriation. He mentions having to be a respectful tenant of the (more marginalised) culture that you’re borrowing from. Is it respectful to have Engrish branding along with a menu loaded with kimchi and edamame, in a restaurant full of non-Asian staff? I don’t think so. There’s even an explicitly “borrowed” item in pride of place on Mr Miyagi’s menu. It’s a David Chang dish: his ramen gnocchi.

Stealing an Asian chef’s dish and featuring it on a menu that laughs at Asian accents? Hilarious.

Your English is Really Good

Fifteen years ago, while playing online MUDs (yes, I’m old), non-Asians would often say, “Oh, you’re from Singapore? Which part of China is that?” Nowadays, you’ve probably been to our beautiful and efficient airport, even if you didn’t step outside to get slapped in the face by the humidity. Singapore has an advanced, universal healthcare system, is highly affluent and developed, multilingual, is surrounded by large and less affluent neighbours, and sadly, has a zero refugee intake. I know what you’re thinking: in a way, we’re like an Asian version of Wakanda. (Not true, by the way.) Despite this, I still get “Your English is Really Good!” from well-meaning people who mean it as a compliment. “Well of course,” I want to say, instead of the fake smile I plaster on, “I grew up in a country with a world-class education system that has an English-based curriculum. I’ve published a novel and over 10 short stories with well-regarded magazines.”

Look, slang aside, Engrish is real, you might say. Some of you Asians don’t speak good English.

Hey man, we don’t laugh at your attempts to speak Japanese via Duolingo and put it into our branding. We endure your often terrible plot device attempts to speak Mandarin and other Chinese dialects in Hollywood films. Trying to learn another language is a good thing. Everyone’s going to be shaky at the start. To laugh at someone who speaks poor English when English isn’t even their first language is mean. Besides, look closer at who you’re laughing at and why. Do you laugh at European tourists struggling with English? Or do you think, in contrast, that French, Italian accents are ‘sexy’? Many Asians treat genuine attempts to learn and speak our languages with patience and delight. It’s a pity the sentiment isn’t always returned. It’s depressing when derision-bloated stereotypes are run for laughs and profit.

Confession: I’m not good at math. Dishonour on my ancestors.

Just Don’t Think About It As “Asian”

Once, when my father visited me in Melbourne, I trolled him by taking him to an “Asian” restaurant. It was Spice Temple in Crown, run by Neil Perry, a “Modern Chinese” restaurant focused on regional Chinese cuisine. Going inside was like descending into a gentrified opium den. It was dimly lit, with Asian-ish furniture, and the serving staff were all white, dressed in cheongsams. I took a sneaky photo at the severe frown on my dad’s face as we sat on plush red velvet and black furniture.

“I thought you said this was a Chinese restaurant,” he said.

“It is. Look at the menu. Sichuan pork rib,” I said, stifling my giggles, trying to sneak another photo of his suffering.

We ordered. The dishes weren’t that bad. In the end, in magnanimous recognition of this, my dad said, “If I don’t think of it as ‘Asian’, it’s all right.” Nowadays, before my family flies down to Melbourne, he’d often tell me to book specific restaurants. I don’t think my dad’s approach is the right one in this case. Sure, a restaurant like Mr Miyagi isn’t aiming to be Asian, but it isn’t aiming to be respectful either. It isn’t something I can easily ignore. Instead, I think of my mom. She likes to tell me, “Don’t get mad, get even!” Each time we speak out, we build a little more social capital. Maybe I can build enough to get a restaurant to change its branding.

Is Racist Branding Funny to You?

In the neighbouring land of many sheep and Lord of the Rings, a Western-owned fusion Asian restaurant in Christchurch called Bamboozle recently came under fire on social media. It had a menu that included, among other things, a dish called “Chirri Garrik An Prawn Dumpring”. New Zealanders declared that they wouldn’t go to a place with racial tropes on the menu. Heartening as that was to see, it looks so far like the restaurant probably isn’t going to change its menu. And unsurprisingly, it’s also had its defenders. A poll on Stuff.co.nz with 34.3k votes was 43% “Yes, it’s racist and insensitive” and 58% “No. Lighten up, it’s funny.”

So funny.

Not having racist branding is actually not hard. Serious talk here. We recommend thinking your project over each time and looking closely at where your humour comes from. Are you deriving “humour” by mocking an entire group of people or their culture? If so, maybe don’t do it. It isn’t called having to be PC, it’s called good business. When you own a business that lives and dies on reviews and word of mouth, do you really want to alienate whole swathes of your customers before you even get started? Think about it. Or maybe just employ an agency that isn’t rooted in the 60s. We can help.

Still, count me surprised if the owners of Mr Miyagi bother to issue an apology on their own steam, let alone change the branding. Other Asians have already tried complaining after a post about the place was spread on an Asian Facebook group. They hear us, but they don’t care, despite getting reviews on Yelp and other sites complaining about the language on their menu. That tonally ugly business card is still handed out at the end of each meal, beautifully typeset. I could have said something to the serving staff at the end of the meal, but it wasn’t their fault. To live as an Asian person in Australia, it’s sometimes easier to fake a smile when someone asks you how the meal was, in front of a tray of racist business cards.

I hope they change. I’d like to go back. The cheesecake was almost perfect.


Image from Sash Japanese, Urbanlist.

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