“The universe has been to them.” (Resident Alien)
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So much inauthenticity, so little time. I grew up listening to Black AM-radio stations before I listened to “progressive” and “underground” FM-stations, even running one in college where even one Chop Suey restaurant in a state was a rare phenomenon complete with some murky brown gravy and column A plus Column B on the menu. But the dominant image was always Flower Drum Song and the Forbidden City night club, no different than a minstrel history.
My favorite TV ad of the period was the Jeno’s pizza roll commercial with the Lone Ranger and Tonto written by Stan Freberg for a sponsor who brought a nationally branded canned Chinese food from Minnesota, Jeno Paolucci who marketed pizza rolls like cigarettes.
In my second adult full-time job, I lived in an area where Chop Suey take-out restaurants were common in Black communities way longer than they had disappeared elsewhere, even in the Heartland. Chop Suey is still found on some menus in the US for perhaps anachronistic reasons. The persistence of stereotypes remain difficult enough to form Yellow Peril(s). And it’s always about the bean sprouts or the absence of noodles which seemed like the enduring sign of Chop Suey.
As with the reproduction of most genres, Eddie Huang’s approach seems again one generation behind in its use of anachronisms, especially since Linsanity, or like Awkawfina isn’t “naive” backward, even as I have appreciated the Asian language joke running through the Ocean’s (8-11-12-13) franchise. And yet there’s the suble syntactic precedence of Asian-American, Amerasian, Eurasian, and now “Blasian” each with their own set of Prince Chuck biases depending on setting.
From acclaimed writer, producer and restaurateur Eddie Huang comes his directorial debut BOOGIE, the coming-of-age story of Alfred “Boogie” Chin, a basketball phenom living in Queens, New York, who dreams of one day playing in the NBA. While his parents pressure him to focus on earning a scholarship to an elite college, Boogie must find a way to navigate a new girlfriend, high school, on-court rivals and the burden of expectation.
Boogie is set in the Chinese enclave of Flushing, but it’s Blackness against which the main character feels the need to measure himself. In theory, the dramatic tension in the story has to do with Boogie getting a scholarship, but in practice, it’s displaced onto whether Boogie can prove himself by beating the best player in the city, whose name is Monk, and who’s played by Pop Smoke in the late rapper’s first and only acting role. It’s not a part that involves much dialogue because Monk serves more as a symbol of Boogie’s (and Huang’s) insecurities than a character. Boogie stares Monk down through the chain-link fence surrounding the court on which Monk reigns supreme and almost destroys his budding relationship with Eleanor after finding out that Monk was her previous sexual partner. If Boogie has contempt for those it sees as aspiring toward white adjacency, it regards Blackness with a roiling mixture of covetousness and resentment. In the same way that Boogie and his father agree that beating Monk is somehow the solution to the fact that “no one believes in an Asian basketball player,” Boogie feels the need to stress to Eleanor that she will never understand what it’s like to have parents hold their sacrifices over your head. She has to remind him that she contends with her own racial trauma. It’s not a scene about seeking common ground; it’s a one-directional demand for acknowledgement of pain.
And certainly, especially in this moment of surging violence against Asians and Asian Americans, there’s something understandable about that desire to be seen and to have experiences of bigotry, marginalization, and immigrant struggles recognized. It’s too bad Boogie is so limited in its conception of what that pain entails that its main character’s anguish tends to veer more toward self-pity than anything broader. In Boogie’s defining speech, its protagonist bemoans the lack of imagination going into beef and broccoli, a classic Chinese American takeout dish that, as he sees it, Italians and Greeks and other cultures all have their own variations on. Beef and broccoli has sustained neighborhoods, Boogie allows, but it amounts to another means of discounting his community. “Chinese people could be so much more if this country didn’t reduce us down to beef and broccoli,” he concludes, a line that reads as astoundingly corny as it is sincerely meant.
Boogie may be centered on a teenager who was born in the 2000s, but its ideas about Asian American identity and being Chinese in America are vague, squarely from a few decades before, and don’t feel like they’ve undergone much examination in the time that’s passed since. Whatever desire to get real that the film was born out of, it ultimately feels like a sign that it’s time to do some growing up.
Even past Huang’s success of Fresh off the Boat in the post-Margaret Cho period of All-American Girl, the problem remains that prior to Yao Ming, the myth of short Asians persisted to make success in basketball elusive. And this ignores the decades of not being able to cast Asians in leading media roles except as stereotypes, shades of David Carradine versus Bruce Lee. Oh My. Linsanity is still around even if only in the G-league.
However, in later decades critics increasingly took a more ambivalent view of the Charlie Chan character, finding that despite his good qualities, Chan also reinforces condescending Asian stereotypes such as an alleged incapacity to speak idiomatic English and a tradition-bound and subservient nature. Many also now find it objectionable that the role was played on screen by Caucasian actors in yellowface. No Charlie Chan film has been produced since 1981.
An updated film version of the character was planned in the 1990s by Miramax. While this Charlie Chan was to be “hip, slim, cerebral, sexy and… a martial-arts master,” nonetheless the film did not come to fruition. Actress Lucy Liu was slated to star in and executive-produce a new Charlie Chan film for Fox. The film was in preproduction since 2000. As of 2009 it is slated to be produced, but as of 2020 it has not been made.
In an industry that produces numerous strange collaborations with major Chinese financing there’s an irony to even claim “the first film by a major Hollywood studio to feature a majority cast of Asian descent in a modern setting since The Joy Luck Club in 1993.” And yet that’s the media frame they went with in its promotion, as though we’d forgotten about James Wong Howe and Nancy Kwan.
Crazy Rich Asians is the first film by a major Hollywood studio to feature a majority cast of Asian descent in a modern setting since The Joy Luck Club in 1993. Despite praise for this, the film received some criticism for casting biracial actors over fully ethnically Chinese ones in certain roles. Additional criticism was directed at the film for failing to include non-Chinese Singaporean ethnic groups, notably Malay and Indian actors—as characters.
The La Choy Dragon and the canning of Chinese food is an unfortunate modern convenience before improved freezing methods. And the market for Asian foods has fortunately changed in the 21st Century.
Chop suey is widely believed to have been invented in the U.S. by Chinese Americans, but anthropologist E. N. Anderson, a scholar of Chinese food, traces the dish to tsap seui (杂碎, “miscellaneous leftovers”), common in Taishan (Toisan), a county in Guangdong province, the home of many early Chinese immigrants to the United States. Hong Kong doctor Li Shu-fan likewise reported that he knew it in Toisan in the 1890s.
The long list of conflicting stories about the origin of chop suey is, in the words of food historian Alan Davidson, “a prime example of culinary mythology” and typical of popular foods.
One account claims that it was invented by Chinese American cooks working on the transcontinental railroad in the 19th century. Another tale is that it was created during Qing Dynasty premier Li Hongzhang's visit to the United States in 1896 by his chef, who tried to create a meal suitable for both Chinese and American palates. Another story is that Li wandered to a local Chinese restaurant after the hotel kitchen had closed, where the chef, embarrassed that he had nothing ready to offer, came up with the new dish using scraps of leftovers. Yet recent research by the scholar Renqui Yu led him to conclude that “no evidence can be found in available historical records to support the story that Li Hung Chang ate chop suey in the United States.” Li brought three Chinese chefs with him, and would not have needed to eat in local restaurants or invent new dishes in any case. Yu speculates that shrewd Chinese American restaurant owners took advantage of the publicity surrounding his visit to promote chop suey as Li's favorite.
Jim Henson and Stan Freberg both did ads for Esskay Meats, and they each did ads for different brands of chow mein (the Muppets for La Choy and Freberg for Chun King). Just like Jim Henson, Stan Freberg sold a lot of food to TV viewers by making them laugh. www.toughpigs.com/…
One Chun King commercial developed by comedian Stan Freberg featured an announcer claiming “Nine out of ten doctors recommend Chun King chow mein” while the camera panned to show ten smiling doctors in white coats, nine of them Chinese. culinarylore.com/…
The La Choy brand of easy-to-prepare Asian foods was founded in 1922 by Wally Smith and Ilhan New, two Detroit friends who grew bean sprouts, canned them, and sold them in Smith's grocery store. The company opened its first plant in 1937, and grew into a nationally sold brand.
The star of the campaign was Delbert the La Choy Dragon. Loud and clumsy, the Dragon bullied his way through the ads, proclaiming the virtues of La Choy products, and cooking everything with bursts of dragon fire (which, in some cases, set the filming studio on fire).
There were two sets of ads produced for the campaign. One set featured a hand puppet version of Delbert, interacting on a studio set with Mert, a timid Muppet in a suit. In the other set of ads, a large full-bodied Muppet version of the dragon interacted with real humans.
In 1989, Chun King was sold by RJR Nabisco to Yeo Hiap Seng of Singapore to help pay for Kohlberg Kravis Roberts's leverage buyout of RJR Nabisco. RJR Nabisco had previously sold the Chun King line of frozen foods to ConAgra Foods in 1986. After losing market share, Yeo Hiap Seng sold Chun King in 1995 to Hunt-Wesson, the owner of rival La Choy. Hunt-Wesson's parent ConAgra eventually closed Chun King's manufacturing facilities and phased out the Chun King brand.
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