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 onthe cover of a favorite book or album: “ethnic type,”
lettering or type that suggests the culture of a specific ethnic orreligious group.
Many designers and critics claim to beembarrassed by ethnic type, damning it for its deficient aesthetics asmuch as for its racial insensitivity. Eager to point out thetype’s derogatory qualities, design writers toss togetherexamples—pseudo-Chinese fonts, fake Greek letters, and type thatacts as code for African or African-American topics—as if they areequivalent and interchangeable. But they’re not. A quick tour ofthe history of ethnic typefaces shows that there are many differentpaths taken by a typeface from its creation to its status as a visualshorthand for an entire group.
The simplest way to shout“ethnic!”is to substitute familiar characters from a foreignalphabet into the Roman one (such as the Greek sigmas that replace theEs on the classic New York City coffee cups). Alternately, otherdesigners try to mimic the characters in non-Latin writing systems byattempting to create letters with features derived from thesescripts.
Many fonts, however, are seen as exotic because of contextrather than innate characteristics. Letters written with a pointedbrush, a tool associated with more casual scripts, such as those inAuriol by George Auriol (Peignot, 1901), can feel “Japanese”without copying any features of the hiragana or katakana syllabaries. Infact, Auriol was the inspiration for the lettering on HectorGuimard’s Paris Métro stations, which, in that context,seems “French.” These types’ ethnic flair relies on aviewer’s inchoate expectations of what a given culture’stype should look like.
Such expectations can also be formed simplythrough repeated use. The most prominent examples of this phenomenon areRudolf 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, Neulandowes its bold form to Koch’s decision to cut the type directlyinto metal without any preliminary sketches, while Schneidler basedLegende on 15th-century Burgundian and Flemish bastarda scripts. Thesefonts’ ethnic connotations have developed gradually, throughrecurrent appearances on book covers and posters, by people whoconnected the typefaces with their own cultural biases and perceptions,slowly reinforcing the fonts’ ethnic associations inviewers’ minds.
Album cover from the late ’50s, illustrated by Mike Ludlow,uses a fake Hebrew font for the title. Image from the collection ofLeif Peng.
Other fonts are given new names by foundryowners, which lead to the typefaces taking on ethnic identities afteryears of playing other aesthetic roles. Thus, Mikita is considered bytype historians to be the oldest ethnic type since it has an“Asian” quality and can be traced back to a design byBruce’s New York Type Foundry in 1867. But that face, created byJulius Herriet, Sr., underwent a number of name changes, based on how itwas perceived over the years. Originally called Bruce’s Ornamentedno. 1048, it was copied in England the following year by the foundry ofJ. & R.M. Wood, which christened it Novel. Bruce later renamed it RusticShaded, a descriptive name that suggests a cabin’s carpentry. Butin the mid-’50s, when Charles Broad, the owner of Typefounders ofPhoenix, dubbed it Mikita, the letters must have been equally suggestiveof Japanese woodworking.
A decade or so later, the Visual GraphicsCorporation, a leading manufacturer of display phototype fonts, offeredit as Bruce Mikita (TB-29). The digital version of the face was createdin 2000 by Harold Lohner of Harold’s Fonts. Although unaware ofthe type’s history—on his website, Lohner asks, “Whowas Bruce Mikita?”—Lohner recognized the font’slatent qualities, writing, “It seems handcrafted and rustic andsuggests East Asian calligraphy.” Lohner based his version on ashowing of the face in Dan X. Solo’s Victorian DisplayAlphabets (1976). Interestingly, Solo, the owner of SolotypTypographers, considered the face Victorian rather than Japanese.
Mandarin, originally known as Chinese (Cleveland Type Foundry, 1883), is the granddaddy of “chop suey” types.
The one 19th-century face with an unmistakably Asian name and a suggestiveappearance is Chinese (Cleveland Type Foundry, 1883). Known since themid-’50s as Mandarin, the face is characterized by curved andpointed wedge strokes that superficially resemble two of the eight basicstrokes of Chinese calligraphy: the downward left stroke and the upwardright stroke. Unfortunately, the strokes, forced onto the armature ofRoman letters, are assembled in a manner that completely ignores acalligraphic emphasis on structural balance and harmony.
Mandarin isthe granddaddy of what have come to be known as “chop suey”types. It’s a fitting name—just as chop suey is an Americaninvention, so, too, are the letters of Mandarin and its many offspring.
Neither the food nor the fonts bear any real relation to true Chinesecuisine or calligraphy. But this has not prevented the proliferation ofchop suey lettering and its close identification with Chinese cultureoutside of China. Mandarin was used by the Beggarstaff Brothers (WilliamNicholson and James Pryde) for their 1899 poster “A Trip toChinatown.” The poster was included in Les Maîtres del’Affiche, the enor-mously influential monthly publicationshowcasing the most beautiful posters of t
he fin de siècle. Bythe end of World War I, chop suey lettering had become synonymous withSan Francisco’s Chinatown. This may have been due to the influenceof the Beggarstaff poster, or it could have been a way to distinguishthe rebuilding of Chinatown as a tourist destination following the 1906earthquake. The new Chinatown was flamboyantly, theatrically“Chinese,” complete with pagoda roofs and other exaggeratedand stylized details.
By the ’30s, chop suey letters were beingused to promote Chinese restaurants across the country. Chop suey, thedish, invented 40 years earlier, had become a culinary craze.Restaurants responded by including the dish in their name andemphasizing it in their signs and advertising. This can be seen insurviving neon signs—Guey Lon Chop Suey Restaurant in Chicago,Pekin Café Chop Suey in San Diego, and the Joy Young restaurantin Birmingham, Alabama—as well as in postcards and matchbooks fromthe ’30s through the ’60s. The oldest of these neon signshave sans-serif lettering and are as reminiscent of Morris FullerBenton’s Hobo (American Type Founders, 1910) as much as other chopsuey styles.When chop suey letters do appear, they tend to be rounderand blunter than later iterations of the style and with less overlapamong the strokes. The more familiar, and sharper, look is a post–WorldWar II phenomenon. Ironically, it was Chinese-American restaurateurs whowere choosing the chop suey lettering (and serving the dish), conferringa 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 publicationLes Maîtres del’Affiche.
In recent years,chop suey letters have begun to lose some of their exclusive identitywith Chinese food, as Japanese, Thai, and Indian food have becomepopular in the United States and Europe. The familiar letters can now befound in numerous pan-Asian restaurants, many of which serve otherWesternized favorites, including California rolls and chicken tikkamasala.
Ethnic type—not just chop suey but all of thevarieties—survives for the simple reason that stereotypes, thoughcrude, serve a commercial purpose. They are shortcuts, visual mnemonicdevices. There is no room for cultural nuance or academic accuracy in ashop’s fascia. Restaurant owners want passersby (often in carsrather than on foot) to know immediately that they serve Chinese (orGreek, or Jewish) food, and a lettering style that achieves this iswelcome.
Ethnic types have been dubbed “garbage fonts”by typophiles, and since the fonts are culturally inauthentic, they aredeemed an affront to the political sensitivities of ethnic groups (andto the enlightened morals of graphic designers). But it has often beenimmigrant entrepreneurs, not professional designers, who have chosen touse these typefaces and keep their popularity alive. As long as there ischop suey, there will be chop suey lettering.