Stereo Types

You might see it every day and never notice, but there it is,
on your takeout box of Chinese food, on your morning coffee cup, or on
the cover of a favorite book or album: “ethnic type,”
lettering or type that suggests the culture of a specific ethnic or
religious group.

Many designers and critics claim to be
embarrassed by ethnic type, damning it for its deficient aesthetics as
much as for its racial insensitivity. Eager to point out the
type’s derogatory qualities, design writers toss together
examples—pseudo-Chinese fonts, fake Greek letters, and type that
acts as code for African or African-American topics—as if they are
equivalent and interchangeable. But they’re not. A quick tour of
the history of ethnic typefaces shows that there are many different
paths taken by a typeface from its creation to its status as a visual
shorthand for an entire group.

The simplest way to shout
“ethnic!”is to substitute familiar characters from a foreign
alphabet into the Roman one (such as the Greek sigmas that replace the
Es on the classic New York City coffee cups). Alternately, other
designers try to mimic the characters in non-Latin writing systems by
attempting to create letters with features derived from these



Top: An early version of Mikita, (Bruce’s
New York Type Foundry, 1867) back in the days when it was named Novel.
Bottom: Mikado (Miller & Richard,
1887), a nineteenth-century face, whose name was probably inspired by
Gilbert & Sullivan.


Many fonts, however, are seen as exotic because of context
rather than innate characteristics. Letters written with a pointed
brush, a tool associated with more casual scripts, such as those in
Auriol by George Auriol (Peignot, 1901), can feel “Japanese”
without copying any features of the hiragana or katakana syllabaries. In
fact, Auriol was the inspiration for the lettering on Hector
Guimard’s Paris Métro stations, which, in that context,
seems “French.” These types’ ethnic flair relies on a
viewer’s inchoate expectations of what a given culture’s
type should look like.

Such expectations can also be formed simply
through repeated use. The most prominent examples of this phenomenon are
Rudolf Koch’s Neuland (Klingspor, 1923) and F.H.E.
Schneidler’s Legende (Bauer, 1937), which have become identified,
respectively, with African (and African-American) and Arabic subjects.
Neither typeface has any links with those cultures; instead, Neuland
owes its bold form to Koch’s decision to cut the type directly
into metal without any preliminary sketches, while Schneidler based
Legende on 15th-century Burgundian and Flemish bastarda scripts. These
fonts’ ethnic connotations have developed gradually, through
recurrent appearances on book covers and posters, by people who
connected the typefaces with their own cultural biases and perceptions,
slowly reinforcing the fonts’ ethnic associations in
viewers’ minds.



Album cover from the late ’50s, illustrated by Mike Ludlow,
uses a fake Hebrew font for the title. Image from the collection of
Leif Peng.


Other fonts are given new names by foundry
owners, which lead to the typefaces taking on ethnic identities after
years of playing other aesthetic roles. Thus, Mikita is considered by
type historians to be the oldest ethnic type since it has an
“Asian” quality and can be traced back to a design by
Bruce’s New York Type Foundry in 1867. But that face, created by
Julius Herriet, Sr., underwent a number of name changes, based on how it
was perceived over the years. Originally called Bruce’s Ornamented
no. 1048, it was copied in England the following year by the foundry of
J. & R.M. Wood, which christened it Novel. Bruce later renamed it Rustic
Shaded, a descriptive name that suggests a cabin’s carpentry. But
in the mid-’50s, when Charles Broad, the owner of Typefounders of
Phoenix, dubbed it Mikita, the letters must have been equally suggestive
of Japanese woodworking.

A decade or so later, the Visual Graphics
Corporation, a leading manufacturer of display phototype fonts, offered
it as Bruce Mikita (TB-29). The digital version of the face was created
in 2000 by Harold Lohner of Harold’s Fonts. Although unaware of
the type’s history—on his website, Lohner asks, “Who
was Bruce Mikita?”—Lohner recognized the font’s
latent qualities, writing, “It seems handcrafted and rustic and
suggests East Asian calligraphy.” Lohner based his version on a
showing of the face in Dan X. Solo’s Victorian Display
(1976). Interestingly, Solo, the owner of Solotype
Typographers, considered the face Victorian rather than Japanese.



Mandarin, originally known as Chinese (Cleveland Type Foundry, 1883), is the granddaddy of “chop suey” types.

one 19th-century face with an unmistakably Asian name and a suggestive
appearance is Chinese (Cleveland Type Foundry, 1883). Known since the
mid-’50s as Mandarin, the face is characterized by curved and
pointed wedge strokes that superficially resemble two of the eight basic
strokes of Chinese calligraphy: the downward left stroke and the upward
right stroke. Unfortunately, the strokes, forced onto the armature of
Roman letters, are assembled in a manner that completely ignores a
calligraphic emphasis on structural balance and harmony.

Mandarin is
the granddaddy of what have come to be known as “chop suey”
types. It’s a fitting name—just as chop suey is an American
invention, so, too, are the letters of Mandarin and its many offspring.
Neither the food nor the fonts bear any real relation to true Chinese
cuisine or calligraphy. But this has not prevented the proliferation of
chop suey lettering and its close identification with Chinese culture
outside of China. Mandarin was used by the Beggarstaff Brothers (William
Nicholson and James Pryde) for their 1899 poster “A Trip to
Chinatown.” The poster was included in Les Maîtres de
, the enor-mously influential monthly publication
showcasing the most beautiful posters of the fin de siècle. By
the end of World War I, chop suey lettering had become synonymous with
San Francisco’s Chinatown. 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.

By the ’30s, chop suey letters were being
used to promote Chinese restaurants across the country. Chop suey, the
dish, invented 40 years earlier, had become a culinary craze.
Restaurants responded by including the dish in their name and
emphasizing it in their signs and advertising. This can be seen in
surviving neon signs—Guey Lon Chop Suey Restaurant in Chicago,
Pekin Café Chop Suey in San Diego, and the Joy Young restaurant
in Birmingham, Alabama—as well as in postcards and matchbooks from
the ’30s through the ’60s. The oldest of these neon signs
have sans-serif lettering and are as reminiscent of Morris Fuller
Benton’s Hobo (American Type Founders, 1910) as much as other chop
suey styles.When chop suey letters do appear, they tend to be rounder
and blunter than later iterations of the style and with less overlap
among the strokes. The more familiar, and sharper, look is a post–World
War II phenomenon. Ironically, it was Chinese-American restaurateurs who
were choosing the chop suey lettering (and serving the dish), conferring
a bit of authenticity on two American inventions.



The Beggarstaff Brothers (William Nicholson and James Pryde)
used a variant of Mandarin in their 1899 poster “A Trip to Chinatown.”
The poster was included in the influential publication
Les Maîtres de

In recent years,
chop suey letters have begun to lose some of their exclusive identity
with Chinese food, as Japanese, Thai, and Indian food have become
popular in the United States and Europe. The familiar letters can now be
found in numerous pan-Asian restaurants, many of which serve other
Westernized favorites, including California rolls and chicken tikka

Ethnic type—not just chop suey but all of the
varieties—survives for the simple reason that stereotypes, though
crude, serve a commercial purpose. They are shortcuts, visual mnemonic
devices. There is no room for cultural nuance or academic accuracy in a
shop’s fascia. Restaurant owners want passersby (often in cars
rather than on foot) to know immediately that they serve Chinese (or
Greek, or Jewish) food, and a lettering style that achieves this is

Ethnic types have been dubbed “garbage fonts”
by typophiles, and since the fonts are culturally inauthentic, they are
deemed an affront to the political sensitivities of ethnic groups (and
to the enlightened morals of graphic designers). But it has often been
immigrant entrepreneurs, not professional designers, who have chosen to
use these typefaces and keep their popularity alive. As long as there is
chop suey, there will be chop suey lettering.

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