By Jennifer 8. Lee | July 15, 2007
Jeff Yang discusses the China food scare in today’s Washington Post Outlook section — in a piece titled “A Taste of Racism in the Chinese Food Scare.” Culinary xenophobia is a fascinating topic, and long tied into the Chinese presence in America from its earliest days. (see my General Tso’s Kitty post from before).
Jeff Yang notes that “food libel” has long been a part of a larger fear of China and the Chinese. Actually, in general culinary xenophobia, has been a way to establish a difference between “us-ness” and “them-ness.” (note how both Filipinos and Koreans have been labled “dog-eaters”). It’s a very concrete way to establish that we are not only different on the surface (looks and language), but that somehow inside we are different.
So I’d like to point out this rare and popular advertising trading card from sometime between the 1870-1890s (I have yet to see an exact date for this well-known card) for a pest control product called Rough on Rats. The card, once part of a series is now the most sought after collectors item of the bunch. It shows a Chinaman eating rats with the slogan “They Must Go” (referring subtlely to both the rats and the Chinaman during the anti-Chinese laborer backlash from the whites). You can see it live at the Chinatown Historical Society of America in San Francisco as part of the Daniel K.E. Ching Collection (which has thousands of representations of Chinese Americans in 19th and early 20th century American popular culture). James Chan has an academic conference paper discussing the images of Chinese used in advertising called “Racism and Advertising in the Latter Half of the Nineteenth Century.”
Back to the WP piece — Yang notes that a Utah-based health food company, Health International, became the first to take this “China equals menace” meme to market, instituting a new label and ad campaign promoting its products as “China-Free.” But he notes that the problems have stemmed from China’s embrace of capitalist ethics, unrestrained by the government oversight.
The bigger thought being that businessmen, unrestrained by government or public opinion, will do things that they can get away with. China has industrialized helterskelter in decades what it took much of the world to do over more than a century.
My note: it was just over a century ago that Upton Sinclair published his groundbreaking, muckracking The Jungle in 1906 (still an inspiration to journalists today). He described how dead rats were shoveled into sausage-grinding machines; how bribed inspectors looked the other way when diseased cows were slaughtered for beef, and how filth and guts were swept off the floor and packaged as “potted ham.” Within months an outraged public and nauseated President Theodore Roosevelt demanded sweeping reforms in the meat industry and Congress passed a law establishing the Food and Drug Administration.
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