Alessi Mr. Chin kitchen gadgets - or, what were they thinking?

I am a usually a big fan of the Italian design firm Alessi, who make, besides other things, all kinds of cool, funky and expensive kitchen gadgets. However, this Mr. Chin line of kitchen timers and other gadgets made me wonder, what were they thinking.

alessi_mr_chin.jpgAccording to their web site, "The Chin Family" line was designed in association with the National Palace Museum in Taiwan. That really doesn't change the fact that to a lot of Asian people, to anyone who's had to endure the 'slant eyes' type of racist remarks , these things are going to be quite offensive.

I have noticed that there is a significant difference in the way racism is perceived amongst people of a particular race or nationality who have never been put in another, more hostile environment, versus those who have lived or travelled outside of their home country or community. So it's possible that the Taiwan museum people didn't see anything overtly wrong with the imagery, and that the (presumably Italian) Alessi design people took that on. To me, they look like retro '70s era depictions of 'Asian' (as in East Asian, not South (India, etc.) Asian) people, and while I like retro design, this is retro in a bad way. Cute, sort of, but so are Little Black Sambo and golliwogs.

I don't think I'll be getting any of these for my friends' birthdays anytime soon, Asian or not.

[Update:] This entry has garnered an interesting variety of reactions since I posted it. Quite a few people have said that I am making too big a deal of it. Well, for one thing it's my reaction to it, not somebody else's, and I find the imagery too close to the ones that have been used to depict Asians in a negative way. No it doesn't mean I am saying you should have the same reaction. If you are not Asian, or have never faced any kind of racism, and so on...but there it is. My general view on things like this is that you can never really understand another person's reactions to it, and therefore should not judge it by your own perspective.

Filed under:  offbeat

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Just wow. You are so spot on. I'm just shaking my head here. Yeah, cute, good design, but exactly, not a good retro at all.

I don't find them offensive at all. I find them very cute and well designed. Many Italians are depicted in ways that could be offensive, around the world, but Italians don't take it so badly. If you are not racist and too rigid, then life is more enjoyable. Take it easy!

Holy crap, that is so offensive! I know exactly too what you mean about people living in the home country not knowing as much about racism.

Funnily enough I don't find this racist at all and I'm Taiwanese-American. I guess symbols like that take on meaning over time, but I don't find it to be a big deal. I won't be buying one anyway, so perhaps that's why.

It seems to be good timing that I just saw Avenue Q, the musical, and there's a song called "Everyone's a Little bit Racist," so I'm taking this all in stride and not being personally offended by slightly racist things. After all, I'm a little bit racist too. :)

Over the last 40 years, we've been sensitized to these issues - highly sensitized. I think that's a good thing, but maybe hasn't happened in populations that are (or until recently were) less diverse than ours. Last year I came upon a European Web company whose logo was an Asian caricature that featured (as a recall) a pigtail, slanty eyes. and buck teeth.

I might have some of those details wrong but I do remember clearly how shocked I was when I saw it. It looked like something out of the 1940s. Sure enough, when their service launched, people protested the logo - and the founders were genuinely surprised and remorseful to have cause offense to anyone.

Someday maybe we can look at an image like this and feel that it's retro and nothing else. But, at least in the US, we're sure not there yet. Racial prejudice is still too commonplace for this kind of design to have the distance it would need to be inoffensive.

I thought it was adorable, but I can understand how it would be offensive. In my naivite' I interpreted the eyes as just squinty and smiling, not necessarily "slanty;" in fact, I thought a happy little timer-guy sitting next to the stove would really add some whimsy to my kitchen. However, I don't want to buy something that could be considered a bad flashback to '40's retro racist imagery. I'll have to find something a little less race-specific :)

Rebecca, I don't think there is any excuse in this day and age, for any company doing business globally to not do their homework in advance on things like this. Also, if they were selling this only in Europe...but they're not, they are selling it in the U.S. (it's even listed on Amazon).

I think it's cute and I don't find it offensive at all (being a chinese person myself). Though I understand how slanty eyes and yellow skin and oriental-y stuff were meant to be derogatory in the past, I think it would be a bit oversensitive to call them racist now. The truth is, as a chinese person I do have smaller eyes and yellower skin, and if a cute cartoon kitchen appliance were to be made of me, I don't see how else it could be designed.

For what it's worth, I live in a multi racial society and even as friends we always commented on each other's skin colour and slanty/big eyes all the time. Even as little kids we always drew chinese kids as yellow with slanty eyes, holding hands with big eyed long plaited indian girls, holding hands with red haired blue eyed caucasian boys. No harmful intention there.

I'm half Korean, and I don't have slanted small eyes, but I still got bullied in school by kids who would make their eyes slanty by pulling them with their fingers and taunting me. It traumatized me for years and this doll reminds me of that. No thank you.

man, if slanty eyed imagery of east asians offends you, you'd probably better not come back to Japan. That's how most men are portrayed in caricatures here.

hmm I don't remember seeing all men portrayed with slanty eyes in Japan. (If anything, the way many gaijin are portrayed with 'empty' eyes in Japanese cartoons would be a more to the point in this discussion.) I'm sure that there was no intent to offend anyone with the Mr. Chins, but a little research into how very similar images have been used in the not so distant past would have revealed a lot. Again, to me they are a bit too close to crudely racist images, unlike other folk art from China, Japan, etc.

The responses have been quite interesting - I guess that it all depends on our own personal experiences and perception. I know black people who collect things like golliwog images and such and don't consider them to be offensive too. I'm a bit like the anonymous commenter who got teased - too many bad memories like that. (And I don't have 'slanty' eyes either. I suppose many people don't like it when we don't conform to stereotypes.)

I bought them, I love them, see nothing wrong with them. See caricatures like this in Asia all the time.

I'm half Japanese and half Taiwanese-American and it certainly didn't offend me. You're entitled to your opinion and its good that you are steadfast in them. However, I asked friends (multi national) and family about this one and not one of them found it offensive at all (all college educated professionals btw, so they are pretty informed on the complexities of race issues). I am quite sensitive to the issue of racism through my own experiences in school via bullying and on a regular basis in the western world, however this is a non-issue in my beautiful slanty grey-green eyes :) I would gladly have one on my kitchen counter-top.

To me this image is a nightmare reminder of caricatures that some schoolmates used to draw to taunt me and my 'slanty eyes'. I was the only Asian kid at a rural school. I think that Maki is quite right, everyone has their own point of view when viewing imags like this and I for one would never ever buy this for myself for anyone in my family or my friends. Everyone is entitled to their opinion but I find the comments dismissing people that find the face racist to be quite pompous and insensitive.

btw maki I love the blog ww

Quote: "I find the comments dismissing people that find the face racist to be quite pompous and insensitive"

Where does pompous and insensitive come into it? Have you not noticed that some of us who are OK with it are Asian too. It would be great if you could relax and not be so judgmental. People are entitled to say whether they think it offends them or not.

And yes I agree, Maki's blog is awesome and informative. We are lucky that she spends time and effort informing us (for free as well). Thank you Maki for creating a wonderful resource.

Makiko Abe

I have to agree- having grown up in the USA, to me this seems retro and not in a good way. When I travel in Italy, I often notice that their pop culture incorporates some stereotypes that would raise red flags here. I don't think there's any particular viciousness behind it. As they become more multi-cultural, I'm sure it will become more of an issue, but as commenter R. Blood pointed out, their society is much more homogeneous than ours, and they're just getting started on that thorny path.

Has nobody else noticed the supreme irony of the Alessi watch ad right above the comment stream?

Couldn't have said it better myself! Spot on blog entry, in my opinion. :)

I can see both sides of the argument on this one. On the one hand, there is something cute about the timer in the chibi sort of way, in the same way those fat chef timers are cute at first. But, just as I know more skinny chefs than fat, the longer you look at it, the longer you realize there is something just a little wrong with the item. I realize that, from a sociological perspective, we need stereotypes, that doesn't mean we need to perpetuate them like this.

However, since the designer worked specifically the taiwainese museum, I don't necessarily see why it had to encompass all of the asian contient. They were working with a Pacific rim country, there's no pressure to represent southern or central asia as well.

That being said, I feel this would better if they had taken classic symbols of Pacific rim asia instead of deciding to do this retro...thing.

I travelled a lot around the world and to be honest this perception of racist or pc is an American thing. Being pc is very big in American, some might say to and extend that it becomes ridiculous, but this is not so in the rest of the world.

With Alessi's Chin line I can see how this might be considered 'racist' in the US, but things like this are definitely not perceived racist by the general public in the rest of the world. Stereotype certainly, but that's the whole idea of course.

If you want to invoke an image of a Dutchman you'll go with windmills and wooden clogs, an African is black with a big nose and an Asian has slanted eyes. So stereotype definitely, racist no.