Cultural cringe?

I just discovered the board game Chinatown via this review:

One thing that struck me is the change of typeface on the original version to the new version.

Does anyone else feel a sense of cultural cringe at this choice? What are the ethics of stereotyping culture with type?


  • Max PhillipsMax Phillips Posts: 474
    Paul Rand used to call this Chop Suey lettering, though there are certainly more exaggerated examples. I guess some people might find that term offensive in itself.

    I agree it's a bit cringey, but I'm not sure see it as offensive or immoral. Maybe if I were Chinese I'd feel differently. Still, Dale Yu doesn't seem to mind. And I'm Jewish, and I don't find this insulting. Just wish somebody had better taste.

    Many of the world's cultures have developed stereotypical representations that are used in certain kinds of cultural products, often meant for children, like cartoons, toys, games, and Halloween costumes. There's six-shooter-and-Coca-Cola Americans, baguette-and-beret French, lederhosen-wearing Germans. And there's coolie-hat-and-clogs-wearing Chinese, brandishing chopsticks. I'm not crazy about this stuff, but I can't see why it's necessarily noxious. At the same time, some cartoonish cultural avatars are more problematic: the war-bonnet-wearing Native American. And some are clearly offensive: the cannibal African with the bone in his nose. So what's okay and what's demeaning?

    It's a really interesting question, and I can't think of a simple answer. I guess one way to decide what's offensive is to see who's offended. The Washington Redskins* need to change their name because many Native Americans find it offensive. Notre Dame's Fighting Irish* are okay because there don't seem to be any Irish or Irish-Americans who mind it.

    And does it matter who's employing the stereotypes? New York's Chinatown is full of Chinese-run stores and restaurants with Chop Suey façades. Are the owners disrespecting themselves? If a Westerner manufactures egg rolls and uses the same style of lettering on the package, is s/he disrespecting other people's cultures, or just showing poor taste?

    Still, I'm a fairly privileged white guy, and maybe I just don't get it. Would any Arabic speakers here care to respond to this? Any East Asians like to weigh in on this?

    *American football teams.
  • James PuckettJames Puckett Posts: 1,933
    edited July 2014
    I think this use is OK because America’s Chinatowns are the places where Chop Suey letters were invented and where they’ve been used traditionally. But if that font were on the box for a game about Korean BBQ restaurants and karaoke parlors that would be offensive.

    The stereotypical illustration of the nineteenth century Chinese railroad worker, OTOH, is foul.
  • Nick ShinnNick Shinn Posts: 2,015
    Forget it, Sye. It’s Chinatown.

  • Eris AlarEris Alar Posts: 407
    Thanks guys. I guess I don't like being branded in the stereotype of typical Australian's (as I don't fit most of the stereotype), and wonder how other cultures feel when we stereotype them.
  • Max PhillipsMax Phillips Posts: 474
    You don't have a hat with corks on it? I'm so bummed.
  • Nick ShinnNick Shinn Posts: 2,015
    I grew up in England but have lived in Canada since 1976, acquiring a touch of the local accent, for a somewhat “Mid-Atlantic” effect—or so I thought. But upon returning to the old country I am often mistaken for… an Aussie. I cringe!
  • I am an Aussie of Czech origin. I have a strange Swedish accent in the morning (I am told), which morphs during the day (with drinks) into a South-African one. Stereotype that!
  • Eris AlarEris Alar Posts: 407
    I just saw this one too - whilst not a faux arabic, it's clearly playing to a cultural stereotype.
  • Who's uncomfortable? Whose bad taste? In the U.S., a majority of Chinese restaurants still have signage in chop suey letters. Is it forced upon them by their cruel, White Devil overlords? Not at all--it's their choice, because it offers easy street recognition. Is it a stereotype? Of course. Is it a problem? Get a life . . .

    I can go down the ever-lengthening list of ethnic emporiums in the U.S. and still, in 2014, find a preponderance of ethnically styled signage. Though it's become subtler in the more sophisticated precincts, especially amongst the more upscale establishments, the references are still there. No one is offended--except, of course, overly cautious, ethnically unaffiliated Caucasians. One wishes that somewhere in the Caucasus (isn't that where they claim to come from?) there is a style of lettering that could be pulled out to embarrass them. (Where is Hrant when we need him?)

    I think what bothers type designers is that such lettering is so closely akin to cartooning. But what about F. H. E. Schneidler's Legende? That's a splendid design, intended to evoke the Arabic world, at least the world of 1001 Arabian Nights. If I were a shopkeeper in Cairo, I'd rather see that than have Imperial Rome pushed down my throat.
  • edited July 2014
    No one is offended…
    Some non-Chinese Asians are justifiably sick of being associated with chop suey fonts:
    But what about F. H. E. Schneidler's Legende? That's a splendid design, intended to evoke the Arabic world…
    Legende was based on Schneidler’s own pseudo-civilité inscriptions, there’s nothing Arabic about it. See Kapr, p210, fig 364. Legende works well for the Arabian Nights—I grew up on the 1946 Longman’s edition of Lang’s translation that uses Legende for heads—but that’s a positive association far different from the stereotypical “Chinaman” pictured on the box art in question. Which brings me to my point: context matters with regard to cultural sensitivity. Using Legende to evoke the beauty and richness of Arabic literary tradition isn’t going to offend anyone except an uptight type historian. But yhoughtlessly choosing a chop suey font for a Korean comedienne is ignorant and distasteful at best.
  • James. you're correct in saying that Legende was created as a kind of free Civilité, but the Arabic analogies were evident early on, so much so that it's impossible to not see them. In fact, I would think twice about using it in a context in which civilité would be appropriate, say, as the title for the Essays of Michel de Montaigne. I'd likely chose something else, so as not to be ambiguous.

    You speak confidently about Legende not being offensive to anyone in the Arabic world. On what do you base that opinion? Perhaps some people are offended by it. My view, as a typographer, is that Legende is a superb design, but that's all I can say for certain. When I see latinized Hebrew letters used by a delicatessen, I chuckle at their silliness, but when I see them on a Neo-Nazi website, my reaction is quite different. As I alluded to earlier, the Roman Imperial Capitals look authoritative to us, but might well look like a symbol of oppression to someone else.

    A similar situations exists with the use of Rudolf Koch's Neuland in African-American literature, and more recently with Carol Twombly's Lithos. It's not for me to say whether it's offensive or not, though one must respect those who share an identity with the subjects that find it so. I can say, however, that it's become tiresome--a reflex applied without imagination. Some types become untouchables in that way, at least for certain applications. I'm sure cosmetics manufacturers feel that way about Optima.

    Speaking of Optima, I'm reminded of a case of typographic class distinction. There was a good restaurant in Boston's Chinatown called the Shanghai, which had signage set in the standard Chop Suey letters. The family's restaurant in Cambridge--not so good--had a similar graphic treatment. When it was taken over by the owner's daughter, a Harvard graduate, who moved the restaurant north of Harvard Square, it was renamed the Changsho and its signage was recast in Optima. Gone were the cheesy dragons and vinyl seats; in came patterned cloth and lacquered woodwork. In time, that style became the upscale Chinese restaurant meme, now its own cliché, like Chardonnay Chicken.

    America was a melting pot from the beginning, and there were commercial and other reasons to hold onto cultural identifiers. Europe has become that, too, in more recent years, though sometimes with great resistance. In a country such as the U.S., which is filled by people with hyphenated identities, one can choose which side of the hyphen to be on at any time.
  • When I see latinized Hebrew letters used by a delicatessen, I chuckle at their silliness, but when I see them on a Neo-Nazi website, my reaction is quite different.
    Neatly put.
  • I met an old school friend yesterday. He has his sons name tattooed on his forearm and stated, ‘the lettering looks japanese but it’s actually english’. It was actually faux hebrew. I can only assume he asked for a Japanese style and the tattooist was quite ignorant.

    I chuckled at their silliness.
  • Chinese here. Not offended at the poor type choice, but really cringe at the poor taste. Do get slightly offended by the art work on the third version though. The original was better overall.
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  • I recently saw a lovely little book where a guy was inventing very long German compound words. What made it very difficult to read (for me as a German) was the fact that he set the German words in a English blackletter.
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