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Red Scare: How 'Chop Suey' Fonts Sell an Exotic, Fictional China How 'Chop Suey' Fonts Sell an Exotic, Fictional China Red Scare: How 'Chop Suey' Fonts Sell an Exotic, Fictional China How 'Chop Suey' Fonts Sell an Exotic, Fictional China

Red Scare: How 'Chop Suey' Fonts Sell an Exotic, Fictional China How 'Chop Suey' Fonts Sell an Exotic, Fictional China

by Chappell Ellison

February 16, 2012


While it was Clint Eastwood’s Chrysler commercial that became the year's most-talked-about Super Bowl ad, the people of Michigan played witness to a local firestorm after Republican former U.S. representative Pete Hoekstra unveiled a new campaign ad aimed at unseating current Michigan senator Debbie Stabenow. Accusing Stabenow of supporting legislation that sent American jobs to China, Hoekstra's ad featured a young Chinese woman riding her bike through rice paddy fields, speaking broken English to the camera: "Your economy get very weak. Ours get very good."

Created by The Prosper Group, an ad agency that predominantly works with Republican politicians, the television commercial accompanied a similarly themed website, debbiespenditnow.com, that has since been taken down. But unfortunately for Hoekstra, the Internet never forgets, as the screenshot above shows. The website featured stereotypical imagery of China—dragons, paper lanterns, the Great Wall—surrounding several facts and figures. The site design also featured several typefaces that mimic East Asian calligraphy. Known in graphic design as "chop suey fonts," this style of typeface is an American invention that has long been used to sell China to western audiences. With its roots in turn-of-the-century San Francisco Chinatown, chop suey fonts prevailed as an intentional misrepresentation of China used for dramatic effect by graphic designers, Chinese immigrants, and now, politicians.

In an article for Print magazine, type expert Paul Shaw traces the origin of these Asian-inspired fonts. They began in 1883, when the Cleveland Type Foundry created a typeface called Chinese, which became known as Mandarin by the mid 1950s. The font became famous when it was used in a poster that promoted tourism to San Francisco’s Chinatown after the 1906 earthquake. After the devastating natural disaster flattened the neighborhood—which was essentially made of wooden shacks up to that points—businessman Look Tin Eli convinced shop owners to join him in hiring an American architect to redesign the entire neighborhood to look like China. The poster heralded a new Chinatown, one filled with pagodas and flamboyant Chinese imagery.

By the 1930s, Chinese restaurants across the country used chop suey lettering in their advertisements. Shaw is quick to remind readers that it wasn’t an act of cultural insensitivity: “Ironically, it was Chinese-American restaurateurs who were choosing the chop suey lettering (and serving the dish), conferring a bit of authenticity on two American inventions.” Chinese immigrants were eager to use chop suey types—not because they enjoyed the aesthetic, but because they were good businessmen who realized it allowed Americans to easily identify where Chinese food was served. Chop suey fonts are still connected to Chinese food today, found on takeout boxes, disposable chopstick packaging, and restaurant signage.

But though chop suey fonts rose to popularity through entrepreneurial Chinese immigrants, they waned in the second half of the 20th century as graphic designers shook off the prejudice that dominated the discipline through the 1950s Modern era. Today, chop suey types are still contested by those who find them derogatory. When Chinese-American author Jennifer 8. Lee received criticism that her blog header made use of “Chinesey” lettering, she rose in defense: “The font would be disturbing if I were using it earnestly to represent China or ‘Chineseness’… in a way the font is very appropriate since it represents the exotification of the ‘Orient.’ We are appropriating it, not in a serious way, but in a way of self-aware mockery.” Lee distinguishes her use of the font from less appropriate uses, like Abercrombie & Fitch’s 2002 line of t-shirts with caricatures of Chinese images.

Hoesktra’s camp emphatically defended the ad campaign at first, leaving the website up for days after it began to attract criticism. But things took a turn for the worse when a Reddit user   discovered the tag “yellowgirl” in the site’s source code, evidently referring to an embedded image of the Asian actress who appears in the commercial. Kristen Luidhardt, president of the Prosper Group, brushed off the controversy as an oversight, telling TechPresident: “As you saw from your own code example and file name, the color yellow was referring to the girl's shirt. The image in question was originally named ‘yellowshirtgirl’ but was mistakenly shortened. It's that simple.” Now, debbiespenditnow.com reroutes to Pete Hoekstra’s campaign website, petespenditnot.com.

Hoekstra’s use of chop suey fonts and other racially charged imagery shines a light on the stereotypes that still exist within every part of society, including the political and graphic design worlds. “Ethnic” typefaces, though often only found on sketchy websites offering free font downloads, survive today simply because they are good at what they do: distill an entire culture into a typographical aesthetic that becomes a signifier to the uninitiated.

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