Alison Roman and the NYT's Treatment of Asians and Asian Cuisine

At the intersection of internet controversies and stews gone wrong, Alison Roman is feeling the heat of a situation boiled over.

4 months ago

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At the intersection of internet controversies and stews gone wrong, Alison Roman is feeling the heat of a situation boiled over. After criticizing Chrissy Teigen and Marie Kondo in an interview with New Consumer, Roman was quickly called out for her caucacity—that a white woman who’d built her culinary empire by watering down Asian cuisine for a white, Times-subscribing palate had the audacity to denounce members of the community she’d so effortlessly appropriated from. Widening the lens beyond Roman alone, a more complete picture emerges when considering the broader, century-plus history of New York Times reporting on Chinatown: as a whole, the publication has facilitated a tastemaking and at times, taste breaking process, in which the popularization of ethnic foods hinges upon white chefs, white journalists, and white critics. As a result, both now and throughout history, the mainstream success of Asian cuisine has never guaranteed that actual Asians themselves are any better off for it.

In the earliest Times reportage on Chinatown, there are echoes of old traveler’s stories by white missionaries to China. Like a game of Chinese whispers, texts like The Chinese Traveller (1772) and S. Wells Williams’ The Middle Kingdom (1848) spread myths about the Chinese eating “many undesirable things” like “dogs, cats, snakes, frogs, or indeed any kind of vermin,” including rats and mice. These stories not only sensationalized but moralized, using food as the vector through which Chinese people could be cast as dirty, barbaric, and altogether unrelatable. Despite a facade of journalistic objectivity, the reportage that descended from these stories reads more like a hybrid genre of hyperbolic travelogue.

If traveler’s stories once mythologized the Far East, these travelogues narrativized the far American coasts; by this time, mounting Sinophobia had forced the growing population of Chinese immigrants to settle in Chinatowns in San Francisco and New York. The ensuing division began to loosen, ever so gradually, as tourists visiting these cities considered Chinatowns as an interesting addition to their itineraries, one that elicited both curiosity and fear. In Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States, Andrew Coe describes how these early non-Chinese visitors—first tourists, then the non-Chinese locals—hired police officers to escort them on Chinatown excursions, as if visiting a maximum-security zoo. A 1880 New York Times dispatch titled “With the Opium Smokers” chronicles one such journey, as the journalist takes a local police officer and a detective with him to Mott Street to satisfy his insatiable curiosity about Chinese food. “How about the rats and mice?” the journalist asks the detective. “Is it really true that they eat them, or is that just a traveler’s story?”

His journalistic concern with fact versus traveler’s fiction does little to rein in his artistic license: sensationalist reportage bursts into fantastical, narrative turns of hand, as he speculates about finding “dragons’ wings scattered over the floor, and ends of serpent’s tales disappearing under beds” in the houses on Mott Street. These Oriental imaginings are crudely interrupted by a bleaker reality, in which the journalist intrudes upon residences he describes as “anything but a human habitation” that amount to a hole of a “dark, damp entry.” These were probably genuine realizations for the journalist and the Times reader both, since widespread white aversion of Chinatown had effectively enforced physical segregation and financial embargo. Within this climate, Times reportage revitalized old myths about Chinese culinary habits within the new, closer-to-home context of impoverished Chinatowns, which represented America’s growing Chinese population not only as exotic and disgusting, but depraved; in other words, not as new Americans or even residents on American shores, but as foreign, undesirable, and subhuman Others that would, two years later, be institutionally alienated by the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.

Unsurprisingly, this type of journalism fueled existing racial tensions, which on occasion sparked into legal allegations. In August of 1883, Dr. Kaemmerer, a former Sanitary Inspector, visited a restaurant that overlooked a Chinatown residence belonging to Mr. Wong; he claimed that in Mr. Wong’s courtyard, Chinamen were handling things resembling “very small cats or large rats.” Reporting on this controversy, the Times once again promulgated the myths that incited it, framing the dispute with the loaded question “Do the Chinese eat rats?” Reading this report in 2020, the stubborn specter of these stereotypes becomes more perceptible; the way pandemic-related discrimination has centered on the eating habits of Chinese both in Wuhan and in American Chinatowns demonstrates how associations between Chinese and vermin were never just of the culinary, but characteristic kind, charicaturing Chinee people as repulsive and subhuman as vermin themselves. With this mentality, the article goes on to extend Kaemmer full benefit of the doubt, claiming that the courtyard’s reportedly repulsive stench prevented him from collecting any actual, conclusive evidence; Wong, on the other hand, is portrayed as an “indignant” Mongolian who planned to sue for slander, in an accent described as nothing less than “very emphatic pigeon English.”

With the Times bolstering widespread Sinophobia, it’s somewhat surprising that Chinese food—albeit, in the form of chop suey—was able to become as popular as it did by the end of the century. Regardless of its specific origins, the rise of chop suey would set a precedent in which the popularization of ethnic foods occurred independently of any meaningful acceptance for the people culturally associated with it. In savoring their piles of stir-fried scraps, white Americans found another way to use Chinese food toward their own, exclusive purposes: Chinese food could function as an exotic artifact to Other those who made it, whilst also providing a quick and cheap consumer experience after a long night out.

In 1903, a Times article would praise chop suey—despite explicit reservations about Chinese people and their cuisine, more generally—noting that the “cheap and substantial meal” was made cheaper by the fact that Chinese waiters appeared “indifferent to tips,” because they did not talk and seemed “indifferent to praise or blame,” as did the cooks. Through this journalist’s take, the reader assumes a selective gaze, one that is determined to enjoy a novel culinary experience without certain costs—the literal cost of Chinese labor, but also the social cost of meaningfully interfacing with Chinese people. In this vein, the article continues by celebrating the ability of any ordinary American to enjoy chop suey from any of the new, uptown chop suey joints, without actually having to step foot near Chinatown itself. Though each of these newer joints put their own twist on the humble dish, every bowl of chop suey drove a wedge between Chinese food and its context—that is, Chinese people, Chinatown, and even the specific culinary practices that led to its existence. These specifics, of course, mattered little to the average American diner, since Chinese food was never about Chinese producers but rather, white consumers; specifically, about enriching their bodies, their pockets, and eventually, their social identities.

Since it wasn’t just the practicality but the symbolism of chop suey’s affordability that drew non-Chinese diners to chop suey joints. By the late 19th century, Manhattan’s Bohemians began to distinguish themselves from New York’s growing elite through patronizing Chinese restaurants. “If Mrs. Astor dined at Delmonico’s,” describes Coe, the Bohemians “chose dark and dingy restaurants down in the immigrant districts, where the food was cheap and the clientele disreputable.” By 1900, the Times would report there’d been nothing less than an “outbreak” of Chinese restaurants all over Manhattan—a particularly foreboding metaphor to read while sheltering-in-place—diagnosing the city as “chop-suey mad,” an affliction that threatened to spread into the suburbs, then the Midwest, and all over the country, where eating the dish—preferably with a rowdy, drunk, sometimes artistically inclined crowd—would eventually become, at least amongst whites, a marker of cosmopolitan worldliness.

Growing up during the early 2000s, I was oblivious to the fact that I was witnessing history repeat itself; all I knew is that by the time I’d started high school, it was common for my white friends to enjoy dim sum, bubble tea, and pork buns, gestures that—given their earlier intolerance, in grade school—amounted to something like progress, however superficially, in the right direction. Then in college, alongside the rise of Instagram, it seemed that the popularity of Asian foods had paved the way for Asian chains like Boba Guys, Din Tai Fung, and Nobu to gain cult status; with these shifts, it seemed that food had become less about eating and more about a food-adjacent, brand-certified, Instagrammable hype. Now, the presence of Asian food seems to span far beyond its literal, edible iteration: items like Sriracha, Pocky, and ramen have become icons to be emblazoned on t-shirts, moulded into keychains, or stenciled over stationery at stores like Urban Outfitters, purveyors of a modern and mass produced type of Bohemia, usually available via complimentary express shipping to consumers all over the country. All to say that our inherent experience of food has never simply culminated with our digestive tract but rather, encompasses the symbolic capital of consuming, or not consuming, specific cuisines—what associations are evoked by it, what identities are signified by it, and what in and out groups are defined by it. Though the popularization of ethnic foods in this century might have been reinvigorated by a type of Instagram-filtered, #NothingFancy aesthetic, Asian cuisine has long been consumed by white people first as a food, then as a signifier, since those early New York Bohemians dubbed themselves the first ‘underground gourmets’ and ‘chowhounds’ over bowls of chop suey.

As online experiences become more prevalent, the consumption of food will be increasingly influenced by the symbolic capital it does, or does not confer; in this context, reportage like that of the Times provides the rhetoric through which consumers understand this system of exchange—one that has consistently benefitted white consumers and, with the popularization of New York Times Cooking, white chefs. If this system thrives through rendering once ethnically specific products somewhat culturally agnostic, the Times has complemented this trajectory by treating Asian populations within Chinatowns as a backdrop to the main event of white consumerism.

In 1988, for example, D. Keith Mano reported that Chinatown, despite being the “original ethnic theme park” in which the visiting “Caucasian does not feel insecure,” is made off putting by the housing conditions of locals; in a description that reads almost identically to reportage that, about a century prior, described houses on Mott street as “anything but a human habitation,” Mano describes modern Chinatown apartments as “between barely tolerable and inhuman.” Like the associations with vermin that persisted through the 19th century, and reportage on “outbreaks” of chop suey joints, Mano’s description of residents spreading in an “unsuppressible” manner, “like groundwater through a cheap basement wall,” extends this collection of metaphors and their connotations: that actual Chinese people, despite the attractiveness of their neighborhoods or cuisines, should be contained from contaminating the general population.

Since the 2000s, headlines have cycled through tropes about the “rediscovery” or “rebirth” of Chinatowns, and, in doing so, perpetuate the authority and preferences of an outsider’s gaze upon a communities which—prior to said rediscovery, or rebirth—are implied to be unknown, non-existent, or wholly redundant. As the general populations on both coasts have grown, the stakes of this reportage have increased: such articles don’t just maintain the segregation of Chinese communities, but actively drive their displacement by effectively celebrating gentrification.

A 2001 Times article on Los Angeles’ Chinatown, for example—or “Out There,” as the author Frances Anderton called it—celebrated it being “Reborn as a Bohemian Outpost.” Low rent aside, Chinatown’s allure lay in the “charming exoticism” of its streets which, as one gallery owner described them, were “trendily seedy, with rundown facades and romantic lanterns and washed-out, dirty, lurid flaking colors.” Similarly, in a 2000 article on New York’s Chinatown, Denny Lee noted “Your Father’s Chinatown” had been replaced with an influx of new bars and clubs that brought with them crowds typically associated with the bordering neighborhoods of SoHo and East Village. Like their West Coast counterparts, these new Chinatown visitors found themselves “charmed by the neighborhood’s ethnic flavor,” despite it being “a bit off the beaten track”; the owner of the then-new Good World Bar and Grill, Annika Sundvik, said she’d kept the original Chinatown awning from the previous tenants, an erotic massage parlor, when establishing her “swank, futuristic” Swedish canteen. In each of these cases, it’s the ethnic flavor—not to be confused with the actual presence of ethnic communities themselves—that makes Chinatowns so enticing. As with the Urban Outfitters paraphernalia, any of these new bars amounts to a consumer experience that gestures toward, though is completely dissociated from, an Asian identity—that to some, functions merely as an accessory, a backdrop, a semi-ironic awning.

Though like all ephemeral trends, even the ornamental value of Chinatown eventually risks fading into redundancy. Matthew Schier’s 2015 report on Mr. Fong’s as “Chinatowns’ Unlikely New ‘It’ Bar,” for example, goes beyond depicting Chinatown as an aesthetic or even financial opportunity “off the beaten track” of SoHo and rather, as an distant and untraversed land that a more fashionable crowd has to navigate in order to reach their destination. One of the bar’s partners, Lucas Moran, describes the journey to Mr. Fong’s in an Indiana Jones-esque tone reminiscent of the late nineteenth century Times travelogues; if, back in 1880, white readers dared to venture to the “dark, damp” entryways off Mott Street, Moran in the twenty-first century similarly endures “this weird jaunt,” en route to Mr. Fong’s, “through the alleyways that are rat-filled and streets that are only one block long.” Though Schier eventually deems Chinatown altogether irrelevant to Mr. Fong’s popularity, being  “just a cool bar in the middle of nowhere,” as the model Janice Alida put it or simply, as another patron noted, an “oasis” amongst the “fish smells.”

With the popularization of New York Times Cooking, the tradition of entrusting ethnic foods to the authority of white tastemakers has become more personal, and accessible. Take Roman’s contemporary, Mark Bittman, for example. In 2013, he detailed his own “Chinatown Surprise” at stumbling across what he describes as an “odd concoction” and “weird dish” at the restaurant Spicy Village. He provides instructions to the reader on how to recreate the dish at home and, despite insisting that his take does not intend to detract from the original version, Bittman simultaneously proclaims that—despite being recently taught the dish by the cooks at Spicy Village—anyone at home can easily “get the technique pretty much right,” and can actually improve on the original by using “better potatoes” and substituting noodles for rice, which is a suggestion he judges to be “a fun kind of overkill.”

Which is part of the problem when dealing with matters of taste: to insist that a dish should always be eaten with noodles instead of rice is to risk a type of culinary fascism which, if history has taught us anything, never ends well. Though what we have, as a highly imperfect alternative, is not a democratic nor evenly represented culinary sphere, but a history of journalism and culinary columns that denigrate Chinese people and their cuisine. Considering the Times more broadly doesn’t reduce the culpability of individual chefs or journalists but rather, recontextualizes them as part of a bigger system—one that explains how, in the same moment, Roman was dubbed the “prom queen of the pandemic” for her viral stream of Asian-inspired recipes, while actual Asian people in Chinatowns and all over the United States were confronting, between speculations about pangolins and open-air wet markets in Wuhan, a surge of xenophobia that specifically coalesced around what, and how, they eat.

Between reportage on Chinatown and its various culinary offshoots, the New York Times normalizes a view of Chinese people and their cuisine as entities that are entirely subject to the whims of white palates. As this body of reportage demonstrates, it’s the inconsistency of white taste that renders its subject precarious, and confers itself power: to date, the Times has asserted its authority to shift the public’s perception of Chinese cuisine—initially, as dangerous and depraved, then as curiously exotic, cheap and convenient, and now, highly desirable.  It’s tempting to assign a linear narrative to these representations but really, they’re just manifestations of the same, persistent patterns. When it comes to even the most popular of Asian foods, disgust always lingers closely below that sometimes under-seasoned, though perfectly Instagrammable, surface of desire.


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Kim Hew-Low

Published 4 months ago