Rant: The Squint and the Wail

Posted inID Mag
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How can slant-eyed objects that make many Americans cringe be acceptable to Asians?

When I first saw the Chin Family, Stefano Giovannoni’s 2007 tabletop collection for Alessi, I had just one question: Why not call it the Ching Chong Family? The line of salt and pepper shakers, spice grinders, kitchen timers, and egg cups have Oriental features so exaggerated I wondered how they escaped censure by an anti-defamation league.

I showed pictures of the gadgets to my left-leaning New York acquaintances of European descent. One friend gasped. “They couldn’t have made this more offensive if they tried!” she said. Others erupted into cringing, nervous laughter.

Then I approached my left-leaning, first-generation Chinese-American friends, expecting the same indignation.

“I feel like punching them,” Kathy said.

“Because they’re derogatory?” I asked. “No, because they look like those inflatable toys that bounce back up when you hit them.”

I pointed out the slant in Mr. Chin’s eyes and asked if it bothered her.

“The eyes?” Kathy said. “I didn’t even notice them.”

Flummoxed, I turned to my parents, both of whom emigrated from Taiwan in the ’60s. My father told me that the Manchus of the Qing Dynasty (from which the Chin Family gets its name) would often apply makeup so that their eyes appeared more elongated, a feature that conveyed heroism.

When the Chin Family debuted in Taiwan this summer, it was a resounding success.Commissioned by the National Palace Museum in Taipei, home of the world’s most famous collection of Chinese art, the pieces sold out at the museum’s gift store within two weeks. They are available through Alessi dealers worldwide, and sales have reportedly been brisk.

How can an object that makes so many Americans squirm be so palatable to the rest of the world?

“You can say it’s a stereotype, but it’s an accurate representation,” said Houng Wanyu, who, as editor of the National Palace Museum’s publication department, oversaw the Chin Family’s development. “It would be weird for them to have Hello Kitty’s little round eyes.”

Houng added that museum curators who collaborated with Giovannoni raised the question of stereotyping, but it was “a very small matter.” The curators were much more concerned about the pieces’ historical accuracy—ensuring, for example, that motifs from the Song and Qing dynasties didn’t get mixed up.

I spoke to Giovannoni himself: “This is a Chinese icon, so of course the eyes are one of the most recognizable elements,” he told me over the phone from Milan. He clearly had no intention to offend, and I had hard time holding the features against him.

I came to realize that my unease with the Chin Family’s orbs resembled any other position of intolerance. It was a refusal to see an apparent act of indecency as simply a cultural viewpoint. Slanted eyes appear throughout Asia in advertisements, cartoons, and product packaging. What I saw as a mockery of Asian features—by an Italian designer, no less—was, to my peers and parents, a non-issue.

Humbled, I took the pepper and salt shakers home and set them on my dining table. After a few days, they had morphed in my view from outrageous tchotchkes to authentic East-West mash-ups. Almost every decorative element of the Chin Family is rooted in Chinese history. Even the vibrant colors, which feel so contemporary, were inspired by Chinese porcelain fired centuries ago. Yet these motifs are expressed in Western salt shakers and egg cups.

For Giovannoni, the Chin Family is part of a much larger project to uncouple household objects from status. “People don’t need their objects to say, ‘I am rich,’ or ‘I have culture.’ We have to think of them not as abstract designs but as individual characters with a personal identity—characters who can communicate with us in a more direct way.”

In the cultural mosh pit of America, with our heightened sensitivity toward otherness, a slant-eyed pepper grinder isn’t just cute; it can also be appalling—which means we’re in an excellent position to realize Giovannoni’s intentions. How better to strip away the feelings of superiority derived from highfalutin design preferences than by embracing a culturally questionable object? The more honestly I confronted my discomfort with the Chin Family, the less abstract the products became, and my relationship to them grew that much more personal.

I’ve even given the shakers names: Mr. Ching and Mrs. Chong. That’s not racist, is it?

Michael Hsu covers design for GQ magazine, where he is a contributing editor.