Indigo Som is a Chinese American who grew up in Marin County, California and remains a California based artist. This image, entitled “Wu’s, Hattiesburg, Mississippi” is part of Som’s series Mostly Mississippi: Chinese Restaurants of the South 2004-2005. As the title indicates, the series focuses on Chinese restaurants located in Mississippi. Som describes her impetus for the project as stemming from the contrast between the ubiquitous presence of Chinese restaurants in America and the continued characterization of a Chinese presence in America as “perpetually foreign and intrinsically un-American.” The duality of this phenomenon was particularly striking to Som in the form of Chinese Restaurants and in particular unexpected Chinese restaurants which is to say those that you see “in tiny towns when you’ve been driving for hours with no Chinese folks in sight.” One such place was Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
In this image, the Chinese Restaurant Wu’s is shown in a desolate landscape. Although several cars are visible in the parking lot, the image conveys a sense of isolation. Further, although Som draws attention to the restaurant by using it as the subject of her photograph, she also highlights its mundane nature through brown and grey tonalities as well as the devoting nearly half of the frame to asphalt road along which Wu’s is located. The ways in which Chinese restaurants have become a caricature of Chinese culture are evident in this image. The font in which the name “Wu’s” is written appears to calls to mind, albeit tenuously, calligraphic Chinese lettering. In addition, the building which is otherwise a non-descript tan colored cement block, features a green overhanging pavilion roof that, despite bearing similarity to the drive thru next door, is enough to indicate in one quick glance that this is a Chinese restaurant.
Such embellishments are not necessary, yet they underscore the interplay between authenticity and foreignness that dominate American perceptions of Chinese culture. Nearly every American has eaten food from a Chinese restaurant, Chinese food is in many ways an American cultural staple. Americans have always incorporated things from other cultures, that is in fact a defining feature of the “melting pot mentality” of American culture However, Som’s image of Wu’s reveals more than mere appropriation. Rather what Som’s image shows is the continued isolation of Asian-American culture in favor of an imagined Asian-American culture. The fact that this restaurant in no way resembles actual Chinese culture is not important. Consumers of Chinese food in America are not seeking an actual Chinese culture, rather they are seeking an imagined one- one that is foreign but harmless, exotic but safe, distant but right at home. Again, creating caricatures of other cultures as a means of harnessing or destabilizing their presence in America is not something that is unique to Chinese-Americans. What is unique is the particular role played by Chinese restaurants in this process. They function both as a point of contact (in some cases real, more frequently imagined) between American and Chinese American culture, but also highlight the absurdity of the American conception of Chinese-American culture as well as the continued othering of Chinese and on a broader scale, Asian culture, that makes little logistical sense.