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November 30, 2010 / Katie

Look at This F*cking Chinese Restaurant

this cha siu bao is mineThat’s right. Get ready. Hipsters are coming to a Chinese restaurant near you.

The news flash hit while I was browsing through the Urban Outfitters November 2010 catalog and stumbled across a few pages that the innocuous consumer might have otherwise overlooked. Turns out, Chinese restaurants, though widely known for their tasty and economical fare, are hotbeds of the très, très chic.

But could such an ordinary, everyday place (at least to my eyes) really be magical? I sat staring past the clothes in the pages and instead at the Golden Phoenix on the wall, the red seat covers, and the fobby waitstaff uniforms, wondering whether it might be a frequent haunt of mine (Golden Unicorn). It’s kind of like having a professional photoshoot done in your living room and the whole time you’re thinking, why on earth would anyone want to use a room full of mismatched furniture, crocheted doilies, and dusty chotchkies as a backdrop?

I don’t find the photos offensive, but something about them feels all wrong–out of place. The models appear more like little girls on their first trip to a Chinese restaurant, stuffing their faces with baos, than like the fearless trendsetters they aspire to be. The restaurant staff sitting in the background is comical (although realistic). They eat their dinner greedily with bowed heads. The manager steals a furtive glance at the photoshoot in progress, destroying the illusion of a prescribed setting.

I get the point, though. And, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, I will state it: Chinatown (and Chinese restaurants by association) is EXOTIC. Avant-garde. Cool. Kitschy. One step away from tacky. The question is, does it appear that way to you?

Sometimes. One of my favorite Edward Hopper paintings is a work entitled “Chop Suey.” It pictures two flapper-esque women (flappers, after all, were the hipsters of their day) sitting at a chop suey joint (all the rage in the 1920s) with a red clay teapot on the table. I love this painting because it feels at once strange and familiar. Hopper offers a glimpse into a place I will never go, a Chinese restaurant I will never eat at.

As for those hipsters? I’m sure they’ve wised up. Chinese restaurants are so ubiquitous and entrenched in the fabric of this country, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were already considered passé. Seriously, mapo tofu and soup dumplings are so 2007.

More photos:

urban chairs 

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8 Comments

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  1. Brad F. / Dec 1 2010 12:09 am

    I didn’t realize eating in Chinese restaurants was considered trendy. To me it doesn’t seem exotic. It seems like just another place to eat. Then again, I’ve done quite a bit of traveling too.

  2. Elaine / Dec 29 2010 10:40 pm

    Omg, when I got the UO catalog in the mail, I was so confused. It’s a bit weird – like a ‘special trip to the nearby exotic.’

    I have never understood why trendy people like to take commonplace things and places and put a new meaning and emphasis on them. Like triangles and fixed gear bikes. I just don’t get it!

    I feel like the worst thing was when Emo/Scene kids popularized depressive symptoms and its effects. It just made it worse for people who actually suffered from depression – it’s not meant to be a fashionable statement or fashionable behavior. It’s an actual disease and people can’t take it seriously when kids are doing it just to fit in and be cool.

  3. Susan / Jun 14 2011 1:32 pm

    If Hopper could do as an American scenario why can’t fashion magazine that caters to the permanent American youth culture? It is a trend, sign of the times and besides it encourages the usual tourism of an economically depressed neighborhood once the garment factories are closed.

    New labor intensive jobs are created ie Chinese women collecting bottles and cans to redeem for 5 cents each. I manage to take a photo of a Chinese woman’s collection near City Hall as an eyesore. However, I’m only able to put on facebook with no response.

    Now, there are cheap buses transporting students – workers to nearby cities or cross country. Their amenities are lower than Grey Hounds but you save money. In addition, there are no bus depots but you could shop around for their storefronts.

    Senior citizens cluster around small Columbus Park as well as small cramped Senior centers.

    It is nice that you can explicate various details of Chinatown’s changes in awe and being a 4th generation Asian-American qualifies you. However, I still feel you cannot relate to the on-going oppressions experienced by descendants of the “Coolie” railroad workers who constantly got to daily rid the stereotypical denigration of exising as an aging, single, beautiful “young” talented artist .

    • Katie / Jun 14 2011 5:12 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Susan. I think the thing that I love best about Chinatown is that it means something different to each person. For many it is an exotic locale, a kind of strange and magical place (see Chinatown, My Chinatown). For others it’s a crowded, dirty place where immigrants toil for long hours trying to make their own American dream come true. It’s a complex piece of geography that has a long and varied history (it didn’t always used to be Chinatown) and that’s why I can only speak for my own experience of the place.

  4. Christopher / Jul 19 2011 4:32 pm

    Your blog is great! I’d never seen that Hopper painting before. I love the sign.

    • Katie / Jul 22 2011 9:07 am

      Thanks, Christopher! That means a lot. I’ve always loved Hopper and this painting of his is a special treat.

  5. themiddlestsister / Nov 8 2011 7:40 am

    Your blog is gorgeous and so well-written. I love it.

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