orientalism #3: Iron Chef and Pan-Asian Exoticism

When I was a kid, I used to sometimes stay at my grandma’s house, and she would always stay up until 9 or 10pm (big-kid bedtime) watching Japanese language TV. My grandma was born in the United States to Japanese immigrants, and speaks what she calls “pidgin-Japanese” to our Japan-based relatives, but still enjoys Japanese media, as long as it has subtitles. Sometimes, when I couldn’t sleep, I would watch Japanese TV with her.

Mostly it was soap operas, set in feudal Japan. But we also watched Iron Chef. As I did, later, with my parents. Featuring Iron Chefs Sakai, Morimoto, Chen– and, of course, over-the-top master of ceremonies Chairman Kaga, who would start every episode with a montage of self-satisfied ingredient-sniffing and imperious surveyings of his game show set domain.

Watch this for classic Kaga (plus inexplicable Pirates of the Caribbean music):

Now everyone knows American media really likes to import and translate foreign TV shows and films, and the extent to which the original cultural imprint remains can vary. The Departed gets transplanted from Hong Kong to Boston. The Ring moves to Seattle with a little white girl as evil ghost and blond lady Naomi Watts as terrorized protagonist, while The Grudge stays in Japan with a Japanese woman and little boy as evil ghosts and blond lady Sarah Michelle Gellar as terrorized protagonist. In Europe/Scandinavia, Let the Right One In is redubbed Let Me In and moved to middle America, while The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo keeps the exact same Stockholm setting and story and just switches to English (with some Swedish people having British accents, and some having Swedish accents, both equally inexplicably).

But maybe I can’t compare Iron Chef USA to these transplanted movies. Maybe a better point of comparison is “Wipeout,” which re-creates the zany Japanese game show obstacle course antics of “Takeshi’s Castle.” While the Japanese game show influence is obvious, there are otherwise no representations of Japanese culture in the American show. It’s more of an opportunity for us to see people get hurt by falling off of really ridiculous, brightly-colored things. (A universal pleasure.)

Iron Chef USA, however, has kept the Japanese-ness of its origins alive in two ways. First, by employing Iron Chef Morimoto, one of the original Japanese Iron Chefs. Cool. Fine. Second, by employing Mark Dacascos as the host and “nephew” (because all Asian people are related! Is that it!!) to Chairman Kaga.

Every time I watch Iron Chef USA on Food Network, I cringe at Dacascos’ performance. His studied, self-consciously clipped “Asian” accent. His theatrical overextensions, jumping between a serene arms-at-sides position to the exaggerated arms-sweeping of secret-ingredient-announcing. The little “whoosh” sound effects that accompany the piercing glances he throws at each of the contestants before said arms-sweeping secret-ingredient-announcing.

Ted Allen peers over Chef Morimoto's shoulder on Iron Chef America.

Ted Allen peers over Chef Morimoto’s shoulder on Iron Chef America.

Before landing his Chairman Kaga Lite gig in 2005, Mark Dacascos made a career as an actor and martial artist. He appeared in Double Dragon alongside Scott Wolf (I know I was like WHOA!) and in a CSI episode as a Buddhist monk named Ananda who is a murder suspect (with that same bewildering “Asian” accent—discussed below). He is originally from Hawaii, according to Wikipedia, born to a Chinese-Filipino-Spanish father and an Irish-Japanese mother. In his own way he is pretty pan-Asian.

But as he stands there on that Iron Chef USA stage, speaking in English, surrounded by mostly white people, enacting that bizarre ritual which kicks off every show which is based on Chairman Kaga’s original routine but here feels unnatural, exploitative, and like an attempt to capture a “mysterious” Eastern vibe using this inscrutable Chairman Kaga’s nephew character, as he shoots kung-fu glances at the contestants and then says in a kung-fu voiceover voice, “Today’s… secret… ingredient… is…” and then fog machines are unleashed and the ingredient is unveiled with Kaga Lite dramatically lifting his arms like a symphony conductor via a magician pretending at the ability to levitate objects, and whatever it is—let’s say it’s oysters—he then, wide-eyed, rolling his head in a kung-fu flourish, announces in the most melodramatic, Asian-y way possible, “Ohh-OYY-sterrs!!!” And the white people stand around and clap at this silly little spectacle. Then he yells in machine-gun Japanese-style French: “ALLEZ CUISINE!” (Something Kaga did too.)

Well. And as he does all this. I cringe.

Here’s a montage of what I can only imagine is every ingredient announcement ever (click here if video doesn’t work):

First off, Mark Dacascos is Asian-American. Yet every episode, he pushes his American subjecthood down under the surface and puts on this weird throwback Oriental act. And maybe because it’s done in such earnest, and maybe additionally because there’s such a disconnect between his Asian caricature and his own, clearly American, mixed features (this shouldn’t make a difference, but just seems to call more attention to it— not to mention the palatability/marketability of a conventionally handsome American Asian with tan skin and large eyes vis-à-vis a more traditionally featured Asian man), and the knowledge that this disconnect might be much less apparent to people who live in parts of the country without any Asians, such that they’ll be like, “Asians! That’s what they’re like!”—that it all feels, you know. Offensive.

Plus, there are hardly any Asians in TV/film, period. And what often happens when they ARE there, is it’s Asian-Americans playing Asian Asians. Like they’re not from here.

People might say that this act is harmless, that it’s just an homage to the over-the-top theatricality of Japanese television, and that might be true. But when analyzing pop culture (no seriously I wish there was a job just called “pop culture analyst” and that someone would hand it to me) I tend to take a multitude of factors into account: intent, performance, reception, broader impact. What you do in your living room when you’re joking around with your friends is going to have a different reception and impact than what Mark Dacascos does on the Food Network. In effect, it is at the very least a reproduction of Orientalist tropes of “the Asian” as mysterious, impersonal, and ultimately foreign.

Note on the “Asian” accent: What I mean by this isn’t your standard Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese et al accent. It’s more like what I referred to as the “kung-fu voiceover”: no traces of mispronounced words, all American-accented, but with a clipped, self-conscious quality that may or may not have originated in the kung fu dubbings of the 1960s and 1970s as an American voice actor’s attempt to sound “Asian” without effecting an actual accent. I have no sources to back this up. This is my impression. “Sau-SAGE!” “Pitz-a-doh!” “TO-MAY-TO!” Suffice it to say, it emphasizes a “foreignness” in the Asian figure that is divorced from any ethnic, cultural, or geographic reality.

Which is just what we need. More “Where are you froms?” More Asians-as-foreigners discourse. More Julie Chen-style desperate playing up of Asian stereotypes to a largely white audience.

For more on the above, listen to Andrew Ti’s very funny podcast from this week, about “Where are you from?” I’m already devising responses in my head to what I anticipate to be an increase in such inquiries when I move inland. (where am I from? California. where are my parents from? England, and Michigan. where are my grandparents from? England, Canada, and California. STRAW MAN MIND BLOWN.)

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4 responses

  1. Hi LIz,
    I read your blog, orientalism #3: Iron Chef and Pan-Asian Exoticism,
    about Iron Chef USA (it’s actually Iron Chef America), and I’d like to correct another mistake in your commentary. Before I was cast to play the role of “The Chairman,” I did more than just bit parts. I played lead roles in movies; Only the Strong, Brotherhood of the Wolf, Crying Freeman, Cradle to the Grave, Drive, and many more productions. I’m old, so most of these movies are probably before your time, but it’s because of my body of work, and the success of some of my films, that Fuji Company, who owns the rights to the Iron Chef franchise, found me. I’ve sent a link to my wikipedia page if you’re actually interested in what I’ve done.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Dacascos
    If you dis-like me, and the way I, the director, and the producers of Iron Chef America want “The Chairman” to be, I don’t understand why you watch our show. Well, no worries, that’s your prerogative. I just wish you would have done your research before you put things on the world wide web.
    Aloha,
    Mark Dacascos

    1. Hi Mark– Thanks for reading– I honestly never thought you would find my humble little blog so I apologize if any of this comes off as harsh. Even before your comment, I had worried this post might appear as some sort of diatribe against you, which is not what I intended. Rather (as the post states) my problem is with the character, and more broadly the way Asians continue to be represented in American media as inscrutable shadowy figures, or foreigners, or inherent martial artists, or some combination thereof. To what extent the Chairman character on Iron Chef America is the product of your own creation, vs producers and directors, I don’t know, so I’m not sure where exactly to direct my complaints.

      I just don’t understand why, in the translation from Japan to U.S., the Chairman character needed to remain Asian but eschew relatability, and to thus contribute to certain “orientalist” tropes; the discourse of Asians as foreigners; in turn, the casualness with which Asian actors and comedians are instantly associated with their racial identities, their racial difference. Of course I’m glad for the availability of Asian roles– at the same time that I really want to see these roles represent a wider range of Asian American identities.

      Obviously this all taps into much wider issues for me, so this Iron Chef discussion is really just a jumping off point.

      oh and apologies for the “bit actor” bit (changed)– I did go to your Wikipedia, it was just a language fail on my part. I do welcome any further comments you might have on this or related issues. You are by far the biggest celebrity to ever stop by this blog. :)

  2. Hi Liz,

    Thank you for your prompt response and your apology; I accept. And I apologize to you if I, by my portrayal of “The Chairman,” have offended or insulted you, or anyone you know. It was not intentional.

    Not I, the director, producers, or any of The Food Network team, have ever intended to offend or hurt anyone. Ideally, we want to entertain, inspire, and educate, our audience. We apparently do not always succeed, but we’re doing our best.

    When we were in our first season of Iron Chef America, the producers and I had brief conversations about “who” The Chairman was, what his back-story was.
    Fuji and The Food Network wanted to continue the Chairman Kaga legacy and make The Iron Chef American Chairman the original Chairman’s nephew. Hence, “in the words of my Uncle…” I was definitely hired to play a “role,” just like the actor in Japan who portrayed Chairman Kaga was. We are actors, playing roles, in hopes of entertaining our audiences. What, in my opinion, gets possibly confusing for the Iron Chef America audience, is that everyone else on our show, and on The Food Network, IS who they are presented to be; Bobby Flay is Bobby Flay, Michael Simon is MIchael Simon,
    except The Chairman is Mark Dacascos. I am definitely playing the role of The Chairman.

    The Chairman’s backstory was NEVER presented to me by the producers or anyone else in The Food Network. As far as I know, there is no “official” Chairman backstory. But as an actor, it was necessary for ME to create one so that I could “play.” As an actor, I needed something I could hang on to, something I could act, and if it was not made available by my producers or network, it was my responsibility to create one. And I did. And what the producers liked they kept in, and what they wanted changed, we changed.

    I have been studying Martial Arts since I was 4-years old. My parents are both Kung-Fu teachers. I still study Martial Arts and have been learning Muay Thai for the last 6 years. I attended a German Gymnasium in Hamburg (all subjects in German except English and French, of course), but at 17 years-old I moved to Taipei to study Mandarin and Northern Shao-lin Kung-Fu, with the aspirations of one day becoming a Buddhist Monk (Shao-lin Monk to be precise:). That obviously did not pan out as I am an actor, I have a wife, and we have three children. Life!

    I bring my life experience, my passions, my ideas, and my created backstory to my role as The Chairman. And then what I play and act is sort of guided by the director and producers of our show. I believe The Chairman has a good sense of humor and is often laughing “with” the audience, though they may not know it. I believe
    The Chairman finds himself amusing, as he has an abundance of passion for food and competition, and he knows that he is over-the-top, and he revels in it.

    Very cool that you caught the non-distinct, sort of Asian, accent. I was taught Oxford English in the German Gymnasium I attended, and because of the backstory I created for The Chairman, the hybrid accent he has seemed appropriate. Sorry you don’t like it, but thank you for noticing it! As an actor, I appreciate that.

    Alright, now I need to apologize for writing way more than you’re probably interested in.

    I think you’re a talented writer. I respect your opinions. I thank you, again, for your prompt response and apology, and I wish you well.

    With much Aloha,
    Mark Dacascos

    PS
    I’m not sure how much longer we’ll be taping new Iron Chef America shows (we’ve done over 215!), but if you’re interested, and in New York, please be my guest and come to Kitchen Stadium and watch a live battle. It’s fun! You have my email address.

    1. Mark, thanks for sharing your story– I appreciate it, and I’m sure my readers do as well. It’s definitely good to hear your perspective. I never expected to be discussing this with you but life is crazy and I’m glad it happened :) And if I do end up in New York in the near future, I may have to take you up on your Iron Chef offer! I will be moving from California to Illinois this summer to start grad school, so I’ll be 2/3rds of the way there…

      take care,
      Liz

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