Remarkably, here we are well into a 21st century of unprecedented global connectedness and intercultural exchange and, for at least two omnipresent, billion-dollar Western companies, chopsticks remain the comic symbol of all things Asian.
Multiculturalism is the new creed of Western democracies, where interracial dating and marriage have become commonplace and Asian cuisine—Chinese, Korean, Thai and more—has never been more popular.
Amidst all this apparent social and culinary progress, however, the racist chopsticks jokes continue—perpetuated not just by the average, under-educated Joe in the street but, rather, by major transnational players such as the American fast-food giant Burger King and one of the world’s premier fashion houses, Dolce & Gabbana, based in Italy.
How could anyone with a clue about this side of the world write, film or approve an advertisement for a new, allegedly Vietnamese-flavoured burger in which diners are depicted awkwardly and unsuccessfully trying to eat this fresh creation with chopsticks?
“Take your taste buds all the way to Ho Chi Minh City,” the ad’s caption reads.
And, as it turns out, the sweet chilli sauce that supposedly provides the Vietnamese flavour to the tendercrisp burger is associated more with Thailand than Vietnam.
Oh, well—close enough.
Is it too much to expect at least one or two advertising execs at Burger King to have at least a passing understanding of this huge, ethnically diverse, burger-loving market we call Asia?
The ad, posted on Burger King’s New Zealand Instagram account, drew immediate condemnation on social media, prompting the company to delete the video and issue a red-faced apology.
The public relations fiasco revived memories of a similarly unfunny, racially insensitive series of ads run by Dolce & Gabbana last November that also employed chopsticks as the putative comic prop.
With the woefully misguided aim of promoting a runway show to be held in Shanghai, the three brief ads featured a giggling, seemingly air-headed Chinese woman who, decked out in swanky D&G attire, clumsily stabs at pizza, spaghetti and a cannoli with chopsticks as a male narrator offers her facetious instruction.
After Chinese social media blew up with outrage, the ad was pulled within 24 hours and company founders Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana issued a 90-second video plea for forgiveness in which they apologised in Mandarin.
That apology was somewhat undermined, however, by subsequent stories, backed up by a screenshot, of an alleged exchange between Gabbana and an Instagram user in which the designer described China using five poop emojis.
Gabbana claimed his account had been hacked, but hundreds of Chinese actors and models scheduled to appear in the Shanghai show withdrew nevertheless as a #boycottdolce campaign went viral.
To this day, buying the D&G label remains taboo in China.
The Chinese are hardly the lone target in the booming business of racial stereotyping in advertising, however.
Remember last December, when Prada, another Italian luxury fashion house, was obliged to withdraw attachable figurine charms for its famous handbags because they appeared to be black monkeys with bloated red lips.
Not to be outdone, yet another Italian luxury brand, Gucci, offered a US$890 blackface balaclava that was also a thick ruby red around the lips.
Somehow black people—who are, hands down, the most frequently abused by racist advertisers—were offended.
While both Prada and Gucci apologised for their inexplicably poor judgment, it seems only a matter of time before the next racist ad lights up the Internet, giving the lie to any notion of a brave new interconnected, multicultural world of racial equality and understanding.
Racial and gender stereotypes continue to abound. For young Asian women, “yellow fever” still runs high among many Western men, and for Asian guys—at least if you’re Chinese or, as is so often the sad case, perhaps Japanese, Korean or some other sort of East or Southeast Asian male who is mistaken as Chinese—the stereotypes are arguably worse: you’re either an invisible asexual nerd or a kick-ass reincarnation of the legendary martial artist Bruce Lee.
Of course, Asia harbours its own brand of commercial racism. Who recalls the laundry detergent ad in China a few years ago that depicted a Chinese woman who feeds a capsule of the advertised detergent to a grubby, flirtatious young black man and then stuffs him into a washing machine? After a quick wash, the man emerges fresh, clean and… Chinese!
And how about that cringe-worthy skit in last year’s four-hour CCTV New Year Gala in which a Chinese actor, in blackface with prosthetically enhanced buttocks, plays an African mother whose daughter, played by an actual African, has asked a Chinese man to pretend to be her husband so as to impress mama?
Of course, what African mum with a steatopygic ass wouldn’t be overjoyed to have a Chinese son-in-law?
You can’t make this stuff up—it just keeps happening.
It would be neither right nor proper to close this article without also shining a light on the damnable prejudice and racism taking place right here in Hong Kong, a city that totally ignored racial discrimination until 2008, when the long-debated Race Discrimination Ordinance was finally implemented.
Eleven years later, with discrimination against ethnic minorities institutionalised in our educational system and Chinese landlords routinely refusing to rent to South Asians and other minorities, you might wonder how many people have been prosecuted under this ordinance.
The answer: zero.