Since April of this year, several New York City publications have called out Greenwich Village restaurant Lucky Lee’s for its blatant ripoff of Chinese cuisine. Maybe it’s because the restaurant’s owner, Arielle Haspel, referred to Chinese food as “unhealthy,” playing into years of anti-Chinese sentiment, or maybe it’s because of the weirdly racist name Lucky Lee’s, after her non-Asian husband whose name happens to be Lee, but I don’t understand why the restaurant continues to be popular with New Yorkers even months after multiple media outlets brought light to its insensitivities. Even though my friends and I refuse to support Lucky Lee’s after learning its background, the restaurant is still full every time I walk past. Do people not understand what is inherently problematic about a restaurant like Lucky Lee’s? Or does no one care?
Unfortunately, it seems to be a combination of both. Though Lucky Lee’s has been repeatedly disparaged in the press on accounts of racial insensitivity and accusations of gentrification, its patrons don’t seem to mind, and have been quoted saying that haters are “over-sensitive and overreacting.” Arguments like these just try to claim that these businesses are only providers of products for people to enjoy. But this is erasure of both history and of Chinese and Asian-American communities in America.
Historically, anti-Chinese sentiment in the U.S. has reared its head through violence and segregation. After the Chinese Exclusion laws of the late 1800s, Chinese immigrants were barred from coming to the U.S. and becoming citizens. However, NPR found that “Chinese business owners in the U.S. could get special merchant visas that allowed them to travel to China, and bring back employees.” In 1915, restaurants were added to that visa list, and where Chinese immigrants came, Chinese restaurants followed.
Shortly after, Chinese cuisine was Americanized with more sugar, more fried food and especially more quantity, which were all hallmarks of the Industrial Revolution. Chinese food throughout the century increasingly catered to a white, American demographic, and these white Americans are the same demographic that gave American Chinese food its reputation as unhealthy and dirty.
Lucky Lee’s issue has nothing to do with the fact that Arielle Haspel is not Chinese or Chinese-American — it has everything to do with the fact that her restaurant profits off an incorrect telling of history and perpetuates the demeaning image of East Asian food being “dirty.” For generations, Asian immigrants and their children have fought against racial stereotypes when it comes to cuisine. Buying food from Lucky Lee’s only perpetuates the same discriminatory sentiments that these communities have faced since their inceptions. Haspel has apologized and is “listening and learning.” But if she was truly listening and learning, she would close her restaurant. Lucky Lee’s remains open — and those affected by its stereotypes were only mollified with a “sorry if you were offended” statement. To make matters worse, it’s almost as if this apology cleared up all the controversy. People continued to eat there, continuing the erasure of Chinese-American history.
My opinion can’t stop you from eating what you want to eat. But establishments like Lucky Lee’s should at least respect the cultures they adopt in their business models. As consumers, we should be more responsible about the decisions we make and more critical of the establishments we give our money to.
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Email Kenzo Kimura at [email protected]