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SHIRLEY LEUNG

Herald’s ‘Wok Tall’ front page is no laughing matter for Asian-Americans

The Boston Herald’s front page for Thursday.
The Boston Herald’s front page for Thursday.

I won’t use the “R-word” to describe the front page of Thursday’s Boston Herald, with its “Wok Tall” headline and a clumsy photo illustration depicting Governor Charlie Baker sitting in a giant Chinese takeout box of fried rice.

That’s because our country is so polarized we can’t even agree what is racist and what is not anymore. But for sure, the Herald front page is highly offensive to Chinese-Americans like me — and it should be to everyone else.

Wok jokes are straight out of the 1970s. They weren’t funny then, and they aren’t funny now. What does “Wok Tall” even mean, anyway?

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The Herald has been giving House Speaker Bob DeLeo a hard time for spending $4,745 on Chinese takeout in April to feed people on Beacon Hill who were working on finalizing the state budget. On Wednesday, the Herald asked the governor whether he would support the state opening up all of its books to the public, and if he had a problem with DeLeo’s Chinese food expense. The governor didn’t provide straight answers, nor did he appear to be concerned about the matter.

I don’t have a beef with the paper taking Beacon Hill to task over the need for more transparency.

But in an attempt to embarrass lawmakers (“Baker backs DeLeo’s $5,000 Chinese feast, doubles down on secrecy”), the Herald succeeded only in embarrassing itself.

In a Twitter post Thursday, Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu, a Chinese-American, said “it is offensive and irresponsible that a major Boston publication would feature a cover image promoting stereotypes so often used to mock Asian Americans.”

Yes, the Herald’s story is about Chinese food, and a white takeout box and a fortune cookie may seem like apt images to represent that. But these tropes touch a raw nerve among Asian-Americans, the same way speaking in a mock accent or using gibberish to mimic Chinese speakers is troublesome.

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One egregious example from last year: WEEI sports radio host Christian Fauria mocked Tom Brady’s agent, Don Yee, using a stereotypical broken-English accent; Yee, who was born in America, speaks perfect English. The station suspended Fauria for five days, and he offered a sincere apology for his antics.

“The Herald should recognize the harmful impact of using racially charged images and take responsibility, especially because for children of color, every mockery can create anxiety and undermine what all our kids deserve — to feel that they truly belong in this country and community they call home,” Wu wrote.

Wu believes the Herald raises a legitimate issue about holding elected officials accountable but said the paper went about it the wrong way.

“For the story to be reduced to a set of stereotypes through this imagery distracts from and reduces the message of the news behind it,” she said in an interview.

Wu, in her tweet, said she had spoken to Boston Herald editor in chief Joe Sciacca about the cover. I reached out to him for comment but have not heard back.

In a story posted on the Herald website Thursday afternoon, Sciacca said: “The front page was purely a reference to Chinese food. But when a concern is raised that the words or images we use are hurtful, we do need to listen and apologize.”

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Jimmy Liang, CEO and chef for JP Fuji Group, which has eight Asian-style restaurants in the Boston area, said he couldn’t believe the Herald would publish such a headline at a time when race relations in America are fraying.

“Being clever is fine, but not at the expense of injecting more racism into this country,” Liang said.

For Leverett Wing, whose family ran a Chinese restaurant in Chelsea for three generations, the Herald cover brought back memories of having to endure off-color jokes.

“It’s third-grade humor. Ever since we were little, we have had our names, words, and language used as the butt of jokes,” said Wing, an Asian-American community activist who runs the Commonwealth Seminar, a program that trains diverse leaders in politics.

Growing up, Wing worked in the restaurant, called Wing’s, which was passed down to his father from his grandfather. A few times a week, he recalled, customers would read over the menu and attempt some sophomoric moo goo gai pan humor by asking, “Do I poo?”

“What the Herald did was just reinforce with readers the perception it’s OK to do that. It’s not,” said Wing, whose family has since sold the restaurant. “I don’t think they meant to be offensive. I think it was lazy. It was insensitive. Hopefully, if people speak out about it, they will learn from it.”

It’s sad that some people still need to learn something so obvious in 2019.

For his part, DeLeo didn’t hesitate to blast the paper’s coverage.

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“I am deeply offended and disgusted by the Herald’s racial and cultural insensitivity,” he said in a statement. “Although I can’t say I’m surprised.”

The Herald can make this right. A sincere apology would be a good start.


Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.