Wednesday, October 16, 2013

This Chinese food makes me sick. . .

Chinese food makes me feel great actually - the title is supposed be an LFO reference as an example of an inappropriate lyric. . . remember LFO?! No? Maybe that's for the best. So yes, this happened. . .

Were you able to watch the whole thing? It took me a few tries. I originally found out about this uh. . . song on Angry Asian Man (click the link). So, is this the worst thing EVER? No, I don't think so, but is it awful? Pretty much. Yesiree, this music video has more than few people riled up for a number of reasons and it's fairly obvious why, but for those of you who can't understand why a young girl singing about Chinese food is making people upset then watch as I dig into this video like I dig into a bowl of BBQ pork on rice with a side of kailan at Ka Ka Lucky (Toronto East Chinatown REPRESENT!).

Here's my favourite Chinese food - bbq, kailan and rice (I'm a simple man), $4 in Chinatown baby! 
On the surface this video is basically this girl, Alison Gold singing about how much she loves Chinese cuisine - what's the harm in that? Well aside from being lyrically mind-numbing and vocally lack-luster (though I suspect this song is aimed at children) this song and its video actually perpetuate ideas of orientalism! That's right we're busting out the O-word. Now how is this!? Well let's get the song out of the way first, as I feel that most of the problems people have with this is the video itself. Lyrically I suppose the song is more silly than offensive (see a full lyric sheet at the Angry Asian Man post I referenced) but essentially it's Gold going on about how she likes, fried rice and noodles and chow mein and then this dude in a panda-suite starts rapping about how he likes broccoli and sweet and sour sauce and using chopsticks and Panda Express (I think it's some American chain or something). 

If I had to agree with Gold on one thing it's that chow mein is awesome.
Now noodles, fried rice and chowmein are popular forms of Chinese food and broccoli has often been included in various Chinese dishes I've had. Fine. . . but it seems what she's actually singing about is American "Chinese" food which while quite tasty, is often quite limited in it's portrayal of authentic Chinese cooking. I'm not saying I don't like chicken balls, egg roles and General Tao's chicken but at the end of the day many of these dishes were either adapted from way more complex Chinese recipes or straight up invented in North America by restaurant owners to fit the tastes of Non-Chinese North Americans. The fortune cookie is perhaps the best example of this as it was originally based on a traditional Japanese cookie, tujiura senbai and re-purposed by an L.A. based Chinese-American business man. As such these are not really the best representations of authentic Chinese cuisine and that is probably irksome to a lot of people. Furthermore the way in which a lot of American Chinese food is sometimes represented in popular media can be fairly orientalist - as this sort of 'other worldly' food that is as delicious and exotic as it is food-poisoning inducing. This is not to mention that American Chinese food names and motifs have been hurled at Asian-Americans as racial slurs for years. So yes the topic is understandably a bit sensitive for a number of folks. Now how about the video?

If your interested in learning about the histories Chinese food and American Chinese food and the divergence between them (among other things) I hear this is the book for you! (Though I have yet to read it myself). 
The video is the most problematic part about the whole thing and contains a few major 'orientalist' stereotypes. Let's examine them! I'll do this in list form cause its easier to track - I'll identify the stereotype and then explain what's wrong with it. 

This is apparently a "stock photo" if that's any indication how popular this motif is.
1. The bowing, smiling, Chinese spouting waiter - Yes I know, he is a waiter and waiters ought to be polite for customer service and all that but the image of the docile, smiling Chinese waiter serving their particularly white customers while bowing profusely and speaking accented English is a stereotype as old as colonialism. How often do we see the reverse situation in popular media, of a white waiter serving an ethnically Asian customer? Not very often eh? This motif harkens back to the old master and servant roles imposed by a number of colonial European regimes in China and elsewhere in days past and has continued to be perpetuated into the present largely through cinema and television. Think this is a stretch? Ask yourself how many times you've seen the Chinese waiter character in American film and television and then ask yourself how many times you've seen a Chinese character who wasn't a waiter or some other stereotype. . . Yeah. Also the whole part at the beginning in which he says a bunch of stuff in Chinese can be construed as being pretty damned orientalist precisely because we have no idea what he's saying - there's no subtitles! I have enough experience with Chinese to know that he's actually speaking Mandarin but I'm pretty damned sure that this video wasn't made for Chinese people so he might as well be speaking gibberish. In other words it seems that the only reason he's there in that scene is so people can say "Look! A Chinese guy, SPEAKING CHINESE! WHILE COOKING CHINESE FOOD! How exotic!" - orientalist! 

2. Emphasis on the fortune cookies - It always strikes me as odd that one of the visual symbols that is most commonly associated with China and Chinese cuisine in North America, the fortune cookie, isn't even from China. I know that fortune cookies continue to be a big part of the North-American Chinese dining experience, but strictly Chinese it is not. So what? you change the lyrics to "I love American-Chinese food"? No. You just simply don't write a song about Chinese food and avoid the whole dilemma.   

I typed 'geisha' into google and immediately got this. It took less than thirty seconds to type in the word, get the results and realize all of them had the word 'Japanese' in their descriptions - I didn't even have to click on anything so there's no excuse. Click on the pic to make it so you can actually read the text if you want.
3. The frickin' Geisha - At one point in the video Gold and her friends are dressed as what I only imagine are supposed to be Geisha. Geisha have nothing to do with Chinese food - they are Japanese. Japan and China are totally different countries and were at one point engaged in BRUTAL warfare with one another. Suggesting that China and Japan are more or less the 'same thing' is just about as orientalist as you can get.

So you might be thinking, "Alex, you just wrote a three page critique on this little girl's video! What's wrong with you!? Don't you have anything better to do!? She's just a kid!". Well for your information I wrote this in-between classes and true, Gold is a kid but my beef is not with her as at 13 (or however old she is) I wasn't very culturally sensitive either (not to say that kids are incapable of being racist mind you). But I am pretty damned sure she didn't write the song nor conceive the video. My problem is that adults who should have known better were responsible for the offensive content in this video and it doesn't make sense to throw the book at some people for racist ignorance and not others. There's nothing wrong with liking Chinese cuisine and singing about it. . . I guess. . . but if your gonna do something at least try not to needlessly piss people of by not checking your facts! We have a thing called the internet nowadays so you don't need to own an entire set of encyclopedias to know stuff anymore. Writing a song or making a video about Chinese food? Well don't. But if you absolutely have to then do some research, educate yourselves and it will make your lives so much easier and less hate-filled. Trust me! I'm a white guy who blogs about East Asian stuff for goodness sake! Just something to think about.

After-thought: What the kind of 'clubbin' is Alison Gold doing anyway!?         

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