Accusations of cultural appropriation in the restaurant world have made headlines in recent months, but why aren’t we talking about the white-owned ‘Asian fusion’ eateries that continue to trade off casual racism?
One day, I walked past Auckland restaurant Monsoon Poon. I’ve ambled past the area plenty of times, but never with any real interest; it was a relic of another era, and the name itself ensured I’d never spend my money there. But that day, something caught my eye: a silver etching of the phrase “Love you long time” at the restaurant’s doorstep – or, sorry, ‘LOVE U LÔNG TĪME’, complete with faux Vietnamese accents.
Love you long time. Still? In 2020?
I noticed this around the same time anti-Asian racism was on the rise in New Zealand, compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic. It was a gross reminder that the wide acceptance of Asian food into the New Zealand mainstream has never meant the eradication of racism against Asians itself – people really be slurping up their dan dan noodles then crossing the street to yell at someone to go back to China.
Seeing the words “Love you long time” was jarring. It’s a phrase used to sexualise Asian women and reduce us to objects, often positioned from the white male gaze – first seen in Stanley Kubrick’s war film Full Metal Jacket, where a Vietnamese woman approaches two American soldiers and says, “Me so horny. Me love you long time.” The expression has racist roots, and is still used in mockery of Asian women – there’s no getting around that. Just three years ago, a South African Asian-fusion restaurant called “Misohawni” opened to fury on social media. “The phrase has been said to me on the street by men harassing me… When you put this on your sign, your menu, you celebrate your power over me. Your power to make me feel like shit just seeing it exists,” Dee Kim wrote on Twitter. After engaging with the criticism, the owners apologised and changed the name.
Monsoon Poon, which first opened in Wellington, has been running for nearly 20 years. It still has the two branches, in Wellington and Auckland.
Calling businesses out on social media without attempting a reciprocal dialogue can seem like an exhausting, unproductive cycle that rarely results in meaningful change. Sometimes it all just feels hollow. We saw that through the (now-closed) Bamboozle restaurant in Christchurch, where when on social media people expressed their anger at blatantly racist names like “Ho Lee Kok” and “Eja Ku Rait”, owner Phillip Kraal responded by defending his menu, with following nights at the restaurant booked out by diners – people rebelling against this “PC culture”. I thought maybe if I contacted the owner directly and met in the middle, the story could end differently.
So I set out to talk to the owner of Monsoon Poon, Mike Egan, who has co-owned the restaurant since 2001. I was swiftly told that Egan was experiencing the busiest July on record, and they weren’t sure if he would have time for me. What ensued was one of the strangest email exchanges I’ve had in my life.
“I’d love a chance to speak to you or another Monsoon Poon representative,” I wrote in my initial email. “This is mainly regarding the topic of Asian fusion and the naming/branding around Monsoon Poon.”
“Thanks for your email,” Egan wrote back. The name of Monsoon Poon, he told me, came from an attempt to reflect the geography of the region. At the time, a Wellington chef named Ming Poon worked next door to them. “We thought his name would be a good fit, as they both end in a double o and n. We were hoping he would come and work for us, but he went on to be the opening chef for Chow restaurant.”
Oh, so it was just a rhyming consideration, huh.
“Thanks for your reply,” I emailed back. “I appreciate the explanation.” Since it was becoming clear that I would not be able to get him on the phone, I attempted to go all in, raising the issue of the “love u long time” branding on the restaurant’s doorstep. “It’s historically a very racist term,” I wrote, “something that has been said to me and other Asian women, shouted at the school playground, or from cars, or in bars… The phrase, combined with the other meaning of ‘poon’, short for ‘poontang’, could suggest the name of your restaurant refers to something else. You have a cocktail named Poon Tang on your menu.
“Along with that, there are Chinese cartoon caricatures on your menu – Fu Manchu types, a slanty-eyed man springing out from a Lucky Fortune jack-in-the-box.”
Egan replied: “We have been open for nearly 20 years and this is the first time this has been brought to our attention, so thank you… Would a picture of Bruce Lee instead be acceptable, as he is one of our favourites?
“We can change the words to ‘we will love you a long time’ as we like the idea of enduring love. Thanks again for taking the time to assist us. I’ll get the designer right onto it.”
At first, in my naivety, I almost believed it was sincere. (“I would advise against using Bruce Lee,” I half-drafted in my head.) Then I read it again. Then, I discovered that someone else had already attempted to address Monsoon Poon’s gross branding… in 2006.
Jean Teng informed me the other week that this place actually still exists. Asians tried to cancel them back in 2006 when they slithered to AKL from Wgtn, & they scaled back a couple of the most racist elements of their website. Now they're pretending that never happened. https://t.co/WFPTOKEgok
— Tze Ming Mok (@tzemingdynasty) August 8, 2020
Tze Ming Mok, writing for her column Yellow Peril on Public Address, drew attention to Monsoon Poon in a scathing restaurant review when it first opened its Auckland branch. Later, in a follow-up, she initiated a takedown of Monsoon Poon, whose website at the time boasted a whole lot of tired and racist broken English jokes. Mok emailed Angry Asian Man, a popular Asian-American activist blog platform. “They had already been undoubtedly bombarded via email,” Mok wrote. In the blog post, she mentions the use of the phrase “love u long time” multiple times.
It’s hard to believe that Egan had no idea about this campaign. I’ve seen emails that confirm other owners of Monsoon Poon had eyes across what Mok wrote, so even if Egan wasn’t directly involved, the idea that Monsoon Poon has been open nearly 20 years and I’m the first to approach with concerns is laughable; the name might as well be, as Mok humorously points out, “Seasonal Downpour Vagina”. “Love U Long Time” is their tagline on their Twitter bio, and, to add, Jenny Yang, a prominent Asian-American comedian with over 47K followers, tweeted about Monsoon Poon in 2018. It’s clear they knew what they were doing, had Asians express their apprehensions before and just… didn’t care.
If he’s serious, well, then I look forward to seeing “we will love you for a long time” hammered into the concrete the next time I walk past. Which, by the way, is still pretty bad – not that he’s willing to listen to why.
In any case, Egan sent one last email, insisting that he was taking it seriously – he agreed with all my points, after all. “I really don’t have any more time to discuss this,” he bluntly ended with.
There is nothing inherently wrong with a non-Asian chef or restaurateur opening an Asian restaurant. It’s when stereotypical representations of Asian culture are used like props that things get dicey – you know, places like Monsoon Poon, which perpetuate a false narrative of “Asianness”, spliced together by some lazy and/or racist pop culture references. It’s Orientalism, basically. Instead of trying to understand and respect the culinary traditions of what they’re profiting from, many Asian fusion, broadly “Pan-Asian”, or “modern Asian” restaurants pillage cuisines for the most western-friendly dishes and flavours, repackage it, dress it up with portraits of East Asian women on the walls, lanterns, racist cocktail names and weird “Oriental” mascots and charge a premium for it. It’s like they handed a brief to their designer that just read: “Theme: Asian”.
Monsoon Poon is by no means the only restaurant that engages with this practice. White + Wong’s, with branches in Queenstown, Auckland’s Viaduct and Newmarket’s Rooftop on Broadway, also has a purposely provocative name poking fun at a Chinese accent, speaking to Winston Peters’ ridiculously racist 2014 joke – “As they say in Beijing, two Wongs don’t make a white.” Fang, a Sichuan restaurant in Parnell, Auckland, is named after a fictional chef who learned the recipes from her grandfather, “Tom Yum”. Tom Yum is a Thai hot-and-sour soup, not a Sichuan dish. The namesake of Mr Tanaka’s Yakitori Hut, a new place in Ellerslie, is a turn-of-the-century Japanese “simple fisherman” invented by the three non-Japanese owners. Fun Buns in the Hawke’s Bay was called out for its imagery in 2017, but the Fu Manchu-esque logo remains. The Blue Breeze Inn in Ponsonby Central, Auckland, is a Chinese-fusion restaurant with a tiki bar theme boasting cocktail names like “Samoan Sunblock”, “Pele’s Passion” and “Lady Lychee”. Mekong Baby’s dessert menu is called “Happy Endings”. To my knowledge, all these restaurants are white-owned, with many awards between them.
I have yarns about these issues with those in my Asian communities all the time; we see what’s going on and we roll our eyes. But when we take to social media, raising our concern about these restaurants, and others in New Zealand, time and time again, restaurant owners choose not to do anything about it. Unfortunately, it’s probably because these restaurants do well – because people don’t see what the big deal is.
But through this period of increased consciousness around racism, we’ve seen how names, symbols and statues mean something to how we see ourselves – and others – in society. They show what we value, what we care about. For me, and many others, it’s frustrating that our culture can be reduced to a series of western-friendly touch points, regularly treated as a wink, wink, nudge, nudge joke. I mean, the phrase “love u long time” is just really fucking degrading. How hard is it to listen to the community you’re making money out of? Very hard, apparently.
Sure, you could say it’s just a name. But it’s a name that supports the continuation of casual racism, and that’s a little bit shit. Especially when there’s an obvious solution.