June 15, 2024


World's finest Food

Wusong Road Pt. 2: Traces of Empire in the Food We Eat | Arts

If you think Wusong Road’s “Chinese Tiki” concept is unique, think again. Confusing? Sure. Problematic? Agreed. But Chinese Tiki is not new. A quick Google search of “Chinese Tiki” will bring up seven other similarly-themed restaurants in the state of Massachusetts alone. Some of these establishments are operating under the label of “Chinese Tiki” or something akin, like “Cantonese and Polynesian,” while others have more implicitly been deemed as “Chinese Tiki” by Google’s algorithmic calculus, based on keywords from reviews, menus, and websites. Wusong Road follows the former’s explicit mode of characterization: It’s website describes the new restaurant and bar as “American Chinese cuisine and tropical Tiki escapism.”

Chinese Tiki establishments can be found all over the US — especially in big coastal cities. Wusong Road is not alone in marrying Chinese and Tiki exotica, nor is it a revival of the practice. Wusong Road is the latest, more modern and stylized iteration of a tradition that runs through the fabric of culinary history.

On the website, Chef-owner Jason Doo, insists that the establishment “is not intended to be a ‘political’ or ‘social’ commentary on Tiki culture.” I would push back and ask, how can Chinese Tiki not be political? Sure, patrons enjoying a weekend dinner are likely not thinking about the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, U.S. military occupation, or the facetious history of white American attitudes towards Chinese food. Sure, Wusong Road may not be intentionally perpetuating harmful stereotypes about Hawaiian and Chinese women. However, it is vital to contextualize the history of oppression, colonialism, and cultural exchange that Wusong Road operates within.

By its very nature — ethos, design, food — Wusong Road is a result of the American empire’s living legacy, occupying a position in both culinary and broader American history. With Chinese Tiki comes a messy set of implications, fueled by entangled histories of Chinese ethnic and racial identification, assimilation, the colonization of the Hawaiian Islands, U.S. militarism, Cold War anti-communism, the promulgation of U.S. liberalism and capitalism, and more. This review will offer a sliver of Chinese American food history, and Wusong Road’s intervention on a longstanding political history.

Let’s break these dynamics down: As part of a digital archive project titled “150 Years of Chinese Cuisine in America,” a student group from UCLA cites that there are “over 45,000 Chinese restaurants across the United States, more than the number of McDonalds, Burger Kings, Kentucky Fried Chickens, and Wendy’s, combined.” It is safe to assume most of these restaurants are not Chinese Tiki, Cantonese Polynesian, or any other ambiguous permutation. The post-1965 immigration boom oversaw a significant diversification of Chinese food, as immigrants from different regions of China — for example, Sichuan, Hunan, Beijing, Hong Kong, etcetera— brought with them their localized culinary traditions.

Chinese Tiki occupies a unique place in Chinese food history. Dr. Tanfer Emin Tunç, a professor at the Hacettepe University Department of American Culture and Literature, places its peak popularity in the 1950s. In “Chop Suey and Sushi from Sea to the Shining Sea,” Tunç has written that during the 1950s, “most of these restaurants shared the same culinary palate — anything that featured pineapple or maraschino cherries suddenly became Polynesian or Hawaiian — and aesthetic, conflating a variety of Asian and South Pacific cuisines and cultures into menus decorated with hula girls and kitschy tiki artifacts.” She references two California-based Chinese Tiki restaurants, the China Trader and the Don the Beachcomber chains that “served a number of Hawaiian drinks and dishes,” while their menus “deployed sketches of relaxed and sexually accessible Hawaiian girls to sell cocktails, exploiting another culture in much the same way Chinese culture was being prostituted.” Restaurants like these did not just bastardize Hawaiian aesthetics to line their walls and decorate their bars, they also participated in a history of sexual violence that exploited and fetishized Hawaiian women. Sexualizing the sacred hula tradition filled seats in supposedly “authentic” Chinese and Polynesian eateries. These Chinese restaurants, owned by Chinese or non-Chinese people alike, catered to white customers by offering them escapes into a tropical-exotic-Orient hybrid.

Wusong Road Chef-owner Doo explains, “Growing up in my parent’s American Chinese restaurant… Scorpion bowls, pupu platters, zombies, Mai Tais, and Peking ravioli were all standard dishes… these dishes and drinks to me were Chinese, because if anything Chinese food is highly adaptable and will always change to serve local taste.” In a place like Cambridge, Doo offers Wusong Road as a tropical escape, while qualifying that the restaurant “purposefully lacks many of the totems and imagery from Maori mythology commonly found in Tiki bars.” Wusong Road is also absent of the sexually exploitative imagery of Hawaiian women. Does this mean Wusong Road loses all of its political implications and potential to be critiqued? I do not think so. The restaurant’s interior is still overwhelmingly decorated with conflations of Hawaiian culture and aesthetics. Imbued in these pieces of decor are reminders of empire, and the impact of U.S. capitalism and militarism in Hawai’i, and on Chinese Americans, too.

In analyzing the aforementioned Don the Beachcomber restaurant chain example, which was ironically started by a white man from the U.S. South, Tunç reveals that “[the restaurant] depicted imperialist maps and was decorated with nude hula girls.” She continues by arguing these depictions “attempted to counteract fears of Chinese immigrants as inassimilable yellow perils by comforting American society with entertaining buffoonery and gratuitous sex.” Don the Beachcomber had lasting impacts on white American perceptions of Chinese immigration and how Chinese Americans saw themselves. Tunç gives an apt analysis, as many Chinese restaurants serve as a space in which Chinese Americans are confronted with their own racialization, forced to hash out their racial identity to fit American capitalist and multicultural society calls for assimilation. For white consumers, Chinese restaurants have historically served as playgrounds to venture into the so-called unknown, the “Orient.”

Chinese food has a long and fraught history in America, and has undergone countless different iterations, evolutions, and reimaginings. This culinary exchange dates back to the 1700s when Western merchants first landed in Chinese ports. Like Doo, I agree that Chinese cuisine was — and is — a path for some Chinese people to find economic survival, and for others, success. Chinese food’s adaptability enabled it to become the sensation it is today, however, I would again push back on Doo’s willingness to assert that Chinese food’s adaptability necessitates the birth of Chinese Tiki.

Chinese Tiki subsumes Hawaiian culture and appropriates its aesthetics under the ambiguous guise of Chineseness — that which defines or is associated with Chinese ethnic identity — making nonsense of already uneven power dynamics. One thing is for sure: Hawaiian cuisine and culture are wholly different from Chinese cuisine and culture. The two are not synonymous and to envelope cherry-picked aspects of Hawaiian culture and aesthetics into the fold of Chinese cuisine erases individual identities and divergent historical challenges.

Looking at the complicated entanglement of Chinese Tiki, the concept is hardly an escapist fantasy to tropical paradise. Where are we, as patrons, owners, and critics of Wusong Road, escaping to? And why? The exotic and the Orient, images crafted by oppressive white hands, seems a hellscape I surely do not want to land in. Right in our backyard, Wusong Road provides us with something more than mai tai’s in fancy cups and $8.88 eats. What has arrived is an opportunity to interrogate our own interactions with American imperial history and the food that crossed oceans as a result of this devastating conquest and the colonial project.

—Staff Writer Hannah Tsai Kim can be reached at [email protected].