Stereotype(face): Origins Of The Chop Suey Font

I must confess, I am unabashedly obsessed with fonts. Pretty ones, ugly ones, skinny ones, fat ones, overused ones, undervalued ones, and even the poor font that gets beat up every day in gym class (by which I of course mean Comic Sans). So you can imagine I’m pretty interested in “Chinese” and “Asian” typefaces and was intrigued by a recent article on GOOD interrogate where the chop suey font comes from and why they’re used and at times, useful. More than just because of its use of the font in Pete Hoekstra’s terrible racist ad, its obvious to most people that whatever is written in the “chop suey” type fonts is related to China and Chinese things. There are , of course (as a quick Google search illuminates) other versions of these “Chinese-style” fonts – karate font, chow fun font, takeout font, wonton font – all splendidly named to evoke standard American Chinese food images (I will presently just ignore the fact that the linked list of 30 Chinese-style fonts also includes a manga font and Osaka sans font, which are, you know, not Chinese).

But returning to the topic at hand, what’s the deal with these typographies? I know and you know that we see them everywhere, in Chinatown, on board games, menus, random things. Apparently the type, which tries to mimic(ish) Asian calligraphy styles, became popular when used in a poster aimed at attracting tourists to San Francisco Chinatown after the 1906 earthquake. Chinese American restaurants actually used the font strategically as it was an easily recognizable way to basically say “we serve Chinese food.” You could actually say that the font became popular in much the same way as the dish it was named after – something that catered to preconceived American notions about what was Chinese. And Chinatowns today certainly perpetuate the font’s usage. After all, it is a really easy identifier.

Hrm. And all these years, I’ve wavered between hating this font for being kind of racist and being okay with it for being so over-the-top kitsch (I think I might even own a t-shirt that uses the font). But of course a strategic and sometimes even ironic use of the font (like Jennifer 8. Lee’s website for her book Fortune Cookie Chronicles) and the derogatory way in which it is more often utilized by people and groups like Hoekstra and Abercrombie & Fitch are radically different. So what are we supposed to make of this? GOOD’s summary of the whole phenomenon is quite tidy: “ethnic” fonts survive (on weird free font websites) because “they are good at what they do: distill an entire culture into a typographical aesthetic that becomes a signifier to the uninitiated.” Are these fonts problematic? Yea. But it also doesn’t seem like they’re about to go away anytime soon…and sometimes, might they be okay? I know you can (at least try to) re-appropriate words, can you do the same for fonts?

[Image via FontBros]

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About Lily

East Coast Chinese American. I like thick-skinned dumplings and hard-covered books.
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