This post was updated on October 5, 2017. Please scroll to the bottom for updates.
A Canadian independent mobile game development company, Big-O-Tree, is in hot water this week after the Asian American community caught wind of the company’s first mobile game offering: an offensive, anti-Chinese game called “Dirty Chinese Restaurant”.
The game centers around protagonist Wong Fu, a pot-bellied immigrant from Hong Kong who is tasked with managing his brother’s new Chinese food restaurant. Judging from the game’s two trailers, game developers have taken great pains to include virtually every anti-Chinese stereotype one might be able to think of in this retro-style restaurant management mobile game. As Wong Fu, players have the option of gambling to raise money, hire undocumented immigrant workers, and pay employees exploitative wages. Workers can be motivated to work harder by invoking “sweatshop” mode. There is a mini-game where ingredients can be obtained by hunting dogs, cats, and mice, or by searching local trash bins and dumpsters. Players must bribe tax collectors, and may have their workers deported by immigration officers. An online webcomic published in association with the game suggests that protagonist Wong Fu might be an undocumented immigrant who snuck into the country on a falsified passport. Even the look of the game is offensive: characters are rendered in skin tones of bright yellow, and many restaurant patrons are inexplicably wearing coolie hats while they dine.
Food blog Grub Street noted that the game is one where “apparently no racist stereotype gets left behind.” Representative Grace Meng (D-NY 6th) took to Facebook to slam the game, saying “this game uses every negative and demeaning stereotype that I have ever come across as a Chinese American.” She urged the Asian American community to call out this shocking example of racism, and for Google, Apple, and Android to deny the game placement in their app stores.
Big-O-Tree games says that the game had its inception as “a dare”, and that the company — whose tagline is “because being politically correct is so… boring” — is trying to make games that are “tongue-in-cheek, shockingly humorous, and full of satire inspired by the mad world we live in.” In defending “Dirty Chinese Restaurant”, the company says that players are tasked with running a “genuine Chinese restaurant” that is themed as being dirty, and that the stereotypes presented are intended to be humorous rather than hurtful.
In a statement issued on their website yesterday, the game developers said:
It has come to our attention that our small, independent game, Dirty Chinese Restaurant, has upset some people due to its content. Our game is mainly satire and comedy influenced by the classic politically incorrect shows we grew up watching, such as: South Park, All in the Family, Sanford & Son, Family Guy, Simpsons, and Chappelle’s Show. We also listen to Jay-Z. Our game in no way is meant to be an accurate representation of Chinese culture.
I have a couple of issues with this defense, though. First of all, it’s hard to see how this game is satirical. Satire is over-exaggeration and hyperbole for the purpose of witty commentary on a popular social phenomenon; what, then, is “Dirty Chinese Restaurant” satirizing?
The story that game developers presented on their website indicates that the game was created as a response to a poorly-made restaurant management game the two founding members discovered in a mobile app store. If so, this origin story sheds no light on why or how a game crafted around anti-Chinese stereotypes would satirize other restaurant management games. It seems to me that game developers misunderstand the genre of satire, and are — like far too many non-POC content creators who believe themselves to be liberal — instead erroneously invoking the term as a thin veil for their own giddy hatespeech.
Second, what does the developers’ enjoyment of Jay-Z have anything to do with anything?
An important context for this game is that its developers are Canadians from Toronto, Ontario: where more than 10% of residents are Chinese Canadian, and where the city and its outskirts boast several ethnic enclaves comprised of Chinese Canadian small businesses. As someone who grew up as a Chinese Canadian in Toronto, the undercurrent of anti-Chinese racism exemplified by the developers of this game is particularly salient.
Like America, Canada has a long history of institutionalized and legalized anti-Chinese oppression. Around the same time that Chinese immigrants in the United States were completing the Transcontinental railroad, Chinese immigrants to Canada were also brought into the country to build the Canada’s national railroad under deplorable conditions. After the railroad’s completion, Chinese Canadians found themselves at the mercy of numerous anti-Chinese laws, including discriminatory head taxes and an eventual Chinese Exclusion Act passed in 1923. After Chinese immigration was reopened to Canada, many Chinese began immigrating to Canada creating thriving Chinese Canadian communities.
The changing demographic landscape of cities like Toronto created a palatable undercurrent of distrust and disdain for Chinese Canadians, even despite Canada’s stated commitment to multiculturalism and racial diversity. Chinese Canadian children growing up in my generation were no less likely than our American counterparts to be on the receiving end of anti-Chinese slurs from non-Asian classmates. Stereotypes — like those presented in “Dirty Chinese Restaurant” — abound.
I remember, in particular, when fears of a S.A.R.S. outbreak struck Toronto in 2003. Although the disease originated in parts of Asia, Torontonians interpreted concerns over S.A.R.S. as a license to treat all Chinese people as diseased. Traffic to Pacific Mall — a local Chinese Canadian mall (that, incidentally, I spent a lot of my childhood in) dropped by as much of 90% as Torontonians enacted an informal boycott of Chinese-owned businesses. The relationship between race, racism, and fears of infectious diseases during the S.A.R.S. outbreak in Toronto is discussed in this chapter (“Racism is a Weapon of Mass Destruction: S.A.R.S. and the Social Fabric of Urban Multiculturalism”) of the book, “Networked Disease: Emerging Infections in the Global City” (paywall). Anti-Chinese hysteria bubbled to the surface throughout the S.A.R.S. outbreak, and Chinese Canadians found themselves openly associated with dirt, disease, and foreignness.
It is these same stereotypes — as well as many more — that are celebrated in “Dirty Chinese Restaurant”; and the political context of Toronto that helped shape the game developers’ interest in making such a game cannot be overlooked. There is nothing smart or intriguing about the low-hanging fruit of racism the game developers have employed in this game. “Dirty Chinese Restaurant” is instead deeply offensive for the way that it takes cavalier, under-thought, and not-even-sorta-satirical glee in mocking Chinese people. The game developers say that the game arose after a multi-hour brain-storming session about what a game about running a dirty Chinese restaurant would be about; and, the fact that this game began as a drunken orgy of anti-Chinese racism is quite obvious in the final result.
This game — one which trafficks in appallingly racist anti-Chinese stereotypes and little else — does not belong in the app store. Huffington Post points out that the game was announced last October and although Big-O-Tree plans to release it to the Google and Apple app stores, the game violates the terms of service for both companies. As such, it is unlikely that the game will be permitted in the store; however, neither Google nor Apple responded to direct inquiry from Huffington Post on the game itself.
Update (October 5, 2017): The “Dirty Chinese Restaurant” mobile game has been pulled by game developers, and all web content hosted by Big-O-Tree Games related to the game has been removed from the internet. Please read this post for more.