‘Chop suey’ fonts canceled? CNN expends bandwidth explaining how ‘racist’ Asian fonts are. Yes, really!

A CNN Style piece published Thursday as part of the network’s “Hyphenated” series seeking to explore “the complex issue of identity among minorities” in the U.S. claimed that so-called “chop suey” fonts are now considered anti-Asian and thus racist.

“Here’s a thought experiment: Close your eyes and imagine the font you’d use to depict the word ‘Chinese,’” the piece by Anne Quito begins. 

“There’s a good chance you pictured letters made from the swingy, wedge-shaped strokes you’ve seen on restaurant signs, menus, take-away boxes and kung-fu movie posters. These ‘chop suey fonts,’ as American historian Paul Shaw calls them, have been a typographical shortcut for ‘Asianness’ for decades,” Quito added.

The report went on to state that the origins of the font have been traced by Shaw to the Cleveland Type Foundry which secured a patent in 1883 to a calligraphy-type of print that was later called Mandarin.

“Mandarin, originally known as Chinese, is the granddaddy of ‘chop suey’ types,” Shaw wrote in the industry outlet Print. “Neither the food nor the fonts bear any real relation to true Chinese cuisine or calligraphy. But this has not prevented the proliferation of chop suey lettering and its close identification with Chinese culture outside of China.” 

Quito reported further that in the decades after the Mandarin font emerged, other Western-type designers created “Wonton, Peking, Buddha, Ginko, Jing Jing, Kanban, Shanghai, China Doll, Fantan, Martial Arts, Rice Bowl, Sunamy, Karate, Chow Fun, Chu Ching San JNL, Ching Chang and Chang Chang.”

“It’s hard not to cringe at the Chinese stereotypes bundled up with each font package — especially when seen through the lens of today’s heightened vigilance toward discrimination and systemic racism,” Quito wrote.

The piece went on to claim that white politicians, for years, have used similar fonts to stoke racial division and xenophobia. Author Cooper Union professor Alicia Cheng, Quito writes, drew attention to the “chopsticks font” in her book, “This is what Democracy Looked Like: A Visual History of the Printed Ballot.”

But while the CNN piece is critical of Western uses of Asian-type fonts, Quito does not that Asian Americans have also incorporated them in their businesses, such as Chinese restaurants, in order to convey traditional branding. 

“It’s worth noting that, in 1930s America, some Chinese immigrants themselves used chop suey fonts on their restaurant signs, menus, and advertisements, as a way to heighten the exotic appeal of their establishments,” she writes.

She also notes that other fonts are meant to convey other cultures such as Mexican-themed decorative fonts El Dorado and Taco Salad, as well as Pad Thai.

“Similarly, there are a host of crude, hand-drawn fonts purporting to capture the aesthetic of the entire African continent,” she wrote.

But Quito also cited Japanese American journalist Gil Asakawa, who launched his career in the 1980s amid what was described as “anti-Japanese sentiment.”

“I see (the font) 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,” Asakawa noted.

Shaw went on to note that the fonts live on “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,” he wrote.

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Jon Dougherty

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