A poster boy for understanding?

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 March, 2007, 12:00am

If you were Chinese, would you be offended by a caricature of a Chinese man with exaggeratedly slanted eyes, a long pigtail and very yellow skin? Such a caricature does exist. It's in the form of a poster dating back to 1920, and it's now on exhibit in Hong Kong as part of a sale of vintage posters.

It shows a feminine-looking Chinese man dressed as a servant, holding a cup of tea. It was originally made as an advertising poster by a French colonial tea company.

I first saw it in 1998 in Seattle, when it was displayed near the entrance of an upscale restaurant owned by celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck.

The caricatured man's cheeky smile greeted all customers entering the restaurant. But Seattle's Chinese community was not amused, comparing the poster to the racist stereotype of Africans with thick lips and black skin. They were particularly upset that the restaurant had touched up the poster to accentuate the slanted eyes.

They held a number of protests outside the restaurant, threatening to storm in and remove the poster. Mr Puck's wife, Barbara Lazaroff, offered to tone down the slanted eyes and pigtail, but the protesters wanted the poster removed. She agreed, but then changed her mind. 'I'm not a racist,' she told me at the time, but insisted she would not be coerced into artistic censorship.

I was reminded of the poster when I saw a print of it being advertised last week for sale here. It made me wonder, as I did back then, whether Seattle's Chinese community had overreacted by getting upset over a poster dating back to the turn of the century, when political correctness did not exist and racism was normal.

But should we confiscate and destroy all such reminders of a past era because we find them insulting, or should we ignore political correctness and use them to understand the past?

What annoyed Ms Lazaroff, who had bought the print from a Paris art firm, was that the China Club in Hong Kong had purchased a similar print from the same dealer and no one here had complained about it being racist. That raises this question: could it have been that the poster stirred up such anger because it was displayed by a westerner? Would there have been such outrage if it had been displayed by the owner of a Chinatown restaurant?

Seattle's Chinese community is a mix of Hong Kong and mainland immigrants, as well as those born in America. Like other minority groups, they have learned to use the country's racial sensitivities and its laws to hit back whenever they feel aggrieved.

But I couldn't help wondering at the time how many of those same Hong Kong immigrants had also found offensive the racist slurs against minorities that are so much part of everyday language in Hong Kong.

I don't know if the poster, now on sale in Hong Kong, will find a buyer, or what that buyer will do with it. If the buyer is Chinese and decides to display it publicly as part of our 'collective memory', would that outrage the local population?

The more interesting question is what the reaction would be if the Hong Kong Club, with its colonial past, or the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club - which still insists on using 'royal' in its name - buys the poster and hangs it in the foyer.

Michael Chugani is a columnist and broadcaster. mickchug@gmail.com