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Thursday May 2, 2002

Not Again! Abercrombie's Latest Cultural Foul-Up

Christine Lee

The clothing manufacturer Abercrombie & Fitch recently came under fire for its line of men's shirts depicting slant-eyed Asian caricatures and one liners such as "Two Wongs Can Make it White". The company pulled the shirts from stores and maintained that the racism was unintentional.

But further research shows the controversy is far from over. A women's T-shirt presently being sold online has three Chinese characters emblazoned on the front that form the name Li Hong Zhang. Although this may seem innocuous to most Americans, to many Chinese and Chinese Americans, this name brings with it controversial and sometimes painful memories.

Li Hong Zhang was a government official in China at the close of the Qing dynasty. Although his accomplishments were numerous, many Chinese remember him as the man who made large concessions to foreign countries in several of the "Unfair Treaties" China signed at the end of the 19th century. The most widely known and damaging of these treaties was the Treaty of Shimonoseki, signed with Japan in 1895.

The Shimonoseki Treaty was devastating to China's economic and political progress. Among its provisions was the creation of four foreign treaty ports and the ceding in "perpetuity" of Taiwan and the Pescadores to Japan.

Whether Li Hong Zhang was the originator of these terms or merely served as a diplomatic scapegoat is a matter of debate, but the fact remains that, for many Chinese, his name is associated with Chinese humiliation under foreign powers.

"Many Chinese [from the People's Republic of China] see him as a traitor, while Taiwanese may see him as someone who tried to stabilize China," says Dr. Benjamin Elman, a history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. "Rightly or wrongly, the failure of that period of time in China is often associated with Li Hong Zhang."

An accident? Not likely. Unlike Western names, each Chinese name is unique and made up by family members according to personal preferences, family tradition and sometimes fortunetellers. The possibility of the characters on the Abercrombie T-shirt coincidentally being the same as those of Li Hong Zhang is next to impossible.

So why would Abercrombie choose Li Hong Zhang's name for their T-shirts? Abercrombie spokesman Hampton Carney said the designers found the characters in a book and thought they were pretty. Carney said the designers and company were unaware of the meaning of the characters until contacted by Asian Diversity. The company will not be pulling T-shirts off shelves, he said.

According to Sandra Lee, president of Ethnic Solutions, a multicultural marketing agency focusing on the Asian-American market, 'You can look at it two ways. Sometimes when corporations try to target to Asians, they make mistakes. Maybe not intentionally, but, because they are unaware of the cultural differences, it happens. Or perhaps they thought it would be funny and didn't think of the possibility that Asian Americans wouldn't agree.'

Michael Chang, vice president of Stanford's Asian American Student Association, holds a stronger opinion about the shirts and Abercrombie in general. 'These shirts aren't a result of loose control within the company but a result of ignorance and bad senses of humor, from the AAPI perspective. That fact reflects management's lack of judgment.'

Alan Lee, a recent Berkeley graduate living in the Bay Area said, 'When I saw the original T-shirt design, I was half angry and half laughing. But when I heard about the story with Li Hong Zhang, it didn't make any sense to me. Abercrombie could have picked any Chinese characters, why those? It makes me think twice about walking into their store.'

And that is just the type of news that may finally make Abercrombie think twice about their marketing tactics.

Past Stories:

Abercrombie: Innocent Marketing Gaffe or Company-wide Neglect?

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