Ornaments invoking the exotic elegance of far-away Asia brought customers in the door to try new styles of cuisine, unfamiliar to most early twentieth century Minnesotans. Similar designs still pervade the decor of many local Asian-themed restaurants, incorporating the historical traditions of Asian American food culture—along with tropes that, with the experience of a century, can be interpreted as stereotypical and demeaning.
In businesses’ attempts to market an “edgy” or “playful” image, stereotypical images are tongue-in-cheek, but what appears kitschy and fun can also be objectifying when applied to actual people. Asian faces and complex cultural identities become caricatures rather than realistic illustrations. Such representations reinforce the image of the perpetual foreigner, as opposed to Asian cultures contributing to the diversity of the American palate.
Other Asian themed restaurants convey Asian culture in less exaggerated ways, melding elements such as family heirlooms and pictures with contemporary design. One gets a sense of Asian American culture, as opposed to the culture of Asians who happen to be living in America.
Some of the owners and chefs who own the establishments in this essay are first-generation Asian Americans who emigrated from Asian countries, others are second-generation Asian American citizens born to immigrants, and still others are neither. Their personal experiences and the foods that they serve have a long history in local restaurant culture—regardless of whether they are marketed that way.