What is racist typography?

Creators are drawing back the curtain on racist typography and its prevalence in Western culture.

Graphic designer and artist Holly Low (@wolylloh) took to TikTok recently to explain what racist typography is and its relation to anti-Asian propaganda in North America.

“I’m sure that you noticed that that was anti-Asian propaganda. You witnessed the birth of the ‘chop suey’ font,” she says, showing a series of examples in the June 25 post. “‘Chop suey’ typefaces come in all shapes and forms, and they usually have horrible names like ‘karate’ or something like that.”

Racist typography originates from xenophobic propaganda.

According to Low, it essentially refers to “taking things that the Western mind associates with other cultures, which is stereotypical and not really accurate, and trying to smash that into the Western alphabet” despite taking “absolutely nothing from their alphabets.”

She references additional examples of what she said are racist typefaces, like the “Western interpretation of Hawaiian typography,” with visual references to bamboo and tiki statues.

‘Reminds me of fast food chains that take what we Americans [think] foreign cuisine is, and sell a completely made up interpretation’

TikTok users are sharing their thoughts about racist typography and its origins in the comments for Low’s post. While many appear to corroborate Low’s points about cautioning against the use of these fonts, some users wonder what actual individuals from these cultures think about these typefaces too.

“I never learned this in design school, but have always felt a little off about typefaces like this so I’m really glad this is being talked about,” @strawberrycakeblush wrote.

“I’m Mexican and I don’t feel like the Mexican inspired font is racist,” @ismaelsiii replied, in response to Low’s examples of problematic Mexican typefaces.

“Reminds me of fast food chains that take what we Americans [think] foreign cuisine is, and sell a completely made up interpretation,” @stoptryingitscott commented.

The emergence of “chop suey” fonts, in particular, coincides with Orientalism and the West’s romanticization of the East.

“Mandarin is the granddaddy of what have come to be known as ‘chop suey’ types, American historian Paul Shaw wrote for Print magazine. “It’s a fitting name — just as chop suey is an American invention, so too are the letters of Mandarin and its many offspring.”

Mandarin, according to Shaw, was notably used by modern British artists William Nicholson and James Pryde, otherwise known as the Beggarstaff Brothers, for their 1899 poster for the film “A Trip to Chinatown.”

“By the end of World War I, chop suey lettering had become synonymous with San Francisco’s Chinatown,” Shaw added. “This may have been due to the influence of the Beggarstaff poster, or it could have been a way to distinguish the rebuilding of Chinatown as a tourist destination following the 1906 earthquake. The new Chinatown was flamboyantly, theatrically ‘Chinese,’’ complete with pagoda roofs and other exaggerated and stylized details.”

Last July, Ameya Okamoto (@ameyamarieokamoto), a nail tech and former student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago who currently resides in New York City, also spoke in depth about the history of ‘chop suey’ fonts.

“No matter where you are in America, if you are in a local Chinatown or at a Chinese restaurant, it is very likely that you’ll see fonts like this one … which imitates brush strokes, and they’re often called ‘chop suey’ fonts,” Okamoto says, referring to the ‘Wearing Apparel’ signage in the ‘Mandarin’ font outside of a store in Los Angeles’s Chinatown.

Chinese establishments in the 1930s began using these racist fonts in an effort to increase widespread appeal and intrigue among Westerners.

“A lot of Chinese establishments across America started using these racist undertone ‘chop suey’ fonts because they heighten the exotic appeal of their establishments,” she adds.

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