This feature is part of CNN Style’s new series Hyphenated
, which explores the complex issue of identity among minorities in the United States.
Here’s a thought experiment: Close your eyes and imagine the font you’d use to depict the word “Chinese.”
There’s a good chance you pictured letters made from the swingy, wedge-shaped strokes you’ve seen on restaurant signs, menus, take-away boxes
and kung-fu movie posters. These “chop suey fonts,” as American historian Paul Shaw calls them, have been a typographical shortcut for “Asianness” for decades.
Shaw traces the fonts’ origins to the Cleveland Type Foundry which obtained a patent
for a calligraphy-style printing type, later named Mandarin, in 1883. It is perhaps no surprise that this Eastern-inspired lettering emerged in the late 19th century, an era when Orientalism coursed feverishly through the West.
“Mandarin, originally known as Chinese, is the granddaddy of ‘chop suey’ types,” Shaw wrote in the design magazine, Print
. “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.”
House of Moy Lee Chin Restaurant, Miami Beach, Florida in 1980. Credit: Library of Congress
Type designers in the West have since cooked up many of their own versions of chop suey. Variations on the font are commercially distributed as Wonton, Peking,…