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 scripts.
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 Alphabets (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.
The 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 l’Affiche, 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 l’Affiche.
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 masala.
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 welcome.
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.