I’ve been going to Elephant Bar for years. It’s the Applebee’s of pseudo-Asian food of indeterminate origin: satisfying, unspectacular, and full of families on Saturday nights. I can’t count how many times I’ve enjoyed the plain teriyaki chicken and rice dish alongside an embarrassingly fruity cocktail, chatting with friends over the noise of crying children. For whatever reason—okay, an obvious one being that there are very few places to eat in Cupertino– I keep coming back.
So it was with great surprise that, on my last visit, I stopped, looked around, and said, “Holy shit. This place is an Orientalist wonderland.”
I can’t really say why I never noticed that before. Note that this realization came after three years spent getting a graduate degree in history, in a department where Edward Said is mentioned in everyday conversation (not to mention he’s painted on the front of our freaking bookstore!) and that, particularly in my exams semester, British empire was a huge focus and whatever hypersensitivity to empire nostalgia I already had during this time was undoubtedly heightened.
The giant elephant in the front of the restaurant: well, that’s unavoidable. The animal skin prints that sweep parts of the décor—zebra, giraffe, tiger—aren’t exactly subtle either. The turn-of-the-century, slow-sweeping fans brushing back and forth along the ceiling are a nice touch. They always remind me of the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland. On this particular visit, however, I also finally noticed the late 19th-century-style European trunks with travel stickers reading “Zanzibar” and “Timbuktu” that serve as ambient decoration over some of the booths.
Tie all these pan-African and –Indian elements together with Elephant Bar’s commitment to serving pan-(East)Asian-infused cuisine and you have—tah dah!—an Orientalist wonderland, just like I said. It’s a campy, Disneyish mixture of the exotic with cavalier disregard for specific geographies. The trunks definitively indicate that the overarching tie-in to this mish-mash of “the Rest” (see: Niall Ferguson, below) is the pan-British Empire.
Elephant Bar is by no means the only establishment to capitalize on our collective British imperial nostalgia. There’s this colonial African-themed wedding that made headlines last year for its callous obliviousness, down to hiring black servants to fill the colonial-era black-servant-costumes. And in Victoria, British Columbia for a graduate conference about (aptly) race, I got the chance to visit the landmark Fairmont Empress hotel in downtown Victoria. Now, Victoria is a beautiful remnant of British hegemony, in some ways Britishier than Britain, still celebrating tea time and replete with Queen Victoria statue and British colonial buildings and even slightly, slightly British accents. Inside the Empress, past the gorgeous tea room that’s a must-do for tourists, across from the Authentic Native Art store, there is the absolute centerpiece of Orientalist fantasy—the Bengal Lounge.
Its name emblazoned across a gong-like hanging sign. Slow-sweeping British-in-India style fans brushing the ceiling. A complete tiger skin plastered over the fireplace. It was a place of great diversion for me and my fellow conferencers, at the same time that it was, of course, slightly horrifying. Orientalist and nostalgic to the very core.
What’s most striking to me about the brand of imperial nostalgia exemplified by Elephant Bar and the Bengal Lounge and other such places isn’t that it’s pervasive or offensive or wrong. It’s that it’s so, well, nostalgic.
I recognize and welcome it even as I conscientiously object to it. There’s something warm and familiar about the trappings of British society in the tropical jungles of India and Africa– the giant, sticker-laden trunks, the loose cotton dresses, the pith helmets. That’s because, culturally, this setting is interwoven into some of our most beloved literature and film classics and thus into our collective historical fantasy. As hard as I try, I can’t help but associate good memories with this setting, even though I never lived it, even though I recognize it as a dark time/phenomenon in the history of human and global interaction.
In The Secret Garden, Mary has spent her whole childhood in India, born to Britisher parents in the Empire’s Crown Jewel. Her neglectful socialite parents are lost in a cholera outbreak in their colonial home early on in the book, which is the reason Mary is sent to live with a distant relation on the Yorkshire moors (where she discovers the titular landscaping).
In The Jungle Book—well, in almost any Rudyard Kipling book—we’re in deepest India. More notably for my childhood, the 1994 Disney live-action “reimagining” of the story casts a 20-year-old Mowgli against a British colonial presence which involves him falling in love with a British officer’s daughter (Lena Headey) and becoming the love rival of another officer (Cary Elwes). Notably, Indian native Mowgli is played by Chinese-American actor Jason Scott Lee.
In Disney’s Tarzan, we’re in 19th-century Africa, where a white man orphaned by jungle cats and raised by apes is discovered by a British professor’s daughter, who he subsequently falls in love with. Tarzan is wild, raised in the primitive African jungle setting, and their romance holds undertones of the savage meeting the “civilized man.
In The Mummy, we’re in 1920s Egypt, at the time in a state of limbo regarding independence from Britain (achieved in 1922 but conditional until 1936). Swashbuckling American adventurer O’Connell and half-Egyptian love interest Evie unleash a mummy’s curse and enlist the help of memorable characters like WWI RAF veteran Winston, now a tottering hard-drinking regular at a Cairo bar, who puts his adorable pilot’s cap and goggles back on to fly them in his biplane over the dunes to the mummy’s lost city. Notably, the major Egyptian characters are played by an Israeli (Oded Fehr), a South African (Arnold Vosloo), an Indian (Erick Avari), an Irish American (Kevin J. O’Connor), and a Venezuelan (Patricia Velazquez). Non-major Egyptian characters either perish from pressurized salt booby traps or join the boils-ridden “Imhotep”-chanting mob.
In Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom, the second installment of the 1980s trilogy (let’s discount Crystal Skull, shall we?), we visit colonial India alongside the intrepid American archaeologist-adventurer. Plenty of people have already complained about the problematic racial representations in this film—mostly the centerpiece of barbaric Indian devil-worshipers who serve as the villains. It’s the 1930s, but we don’t see too many Britishers, so not a huge representation of imperial nostalgia. But definitely Orientalist.
In the Adventureland area in Disneyland, next to the Indiana Jones ride (which creates a new story for the franchise vaguely reminiscent but wholly separate from Temple of Doom), the Jungle Cruise takes you down a simulated Zambezi or Congo or somesuch to see exotic African animals and a few savage natives (all animatronic of course), proctored by humorous guides in khaki shorts. The Bazaar sells kitschy souvenirs like rain sticks and plush monkeys and safari gear. Aladdin’s Dinner Show sits next to the Enchanted Tiki Room. The former Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse now belongs to Tarzan.
In Heart of Darkness, the reader is struck with the same fear and wonder as the narrator Marlowe as his riverboat plunges deeper and deeper into darkest Africa, as he represents a structured British civilization slowly slipping away. Strange sounds reverberate from the trees at night; mute savages lay dying in groves; animalistic fury seems to sit just beneath the surface of every native worker. Terror and madness only await the British man who ventures that deep into the continent. This terror and madness is recast into the Vietnamese jungles for Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, and, maybe a little bit (but with more of a dry heat), into Iraq for Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker.
What does it all boil down to? Well, I suppose that British imperial nostalgia is burrowed into my very being. I was raised on the stuff, indoctrinated by 19th-century British authors and the 20th-century filmmakers who adapted their stories and the theme parks and theme restaurants who used their accoutrements as décor. I am guilty of British imperial nostalgia, even as I am critical of British empire.
This brings us to the very obvious point that, even as one is critical of empire, one cannot reject everything that occurred under empire. These were people’s lives—these were people’s lived experiences—these were generations of people, centuries of culture, centuries of innovation and production and literature and art and philosophy and knowledge.
Now don’t go all Niall Ferguson on me. Just because you accept that the cultural remnants of British empire are not completely without value (depending, of course, on how they are executed—most new recreations of empire are inherently problematic, but we’re obviously not going to disavow The Jungle Book) does not mean you promote and defend the very idea of British empire, nor promote and defend its modern-day inheritors (for Ferguson, American empire). As Ferguson so astutely points out in Empire, British empire brought plenty of “good” things to the world: liberty, Common Law, Protestantism, the English language, and team sports. Where would we be without these things? We’d probably be fine. But at the same time we don’t know what we would be. That’s the unavoidable, tragic, true point. It happened. And it forever altered the trajectory of global history. And it gave us a past to be nostalgic about, willingly or not.
I feel like, regardless of how I try to rationalize it, my British imperial nostalgia will continue to be tempered by a guilt that will, ultimately, result in an extreme ambivalence. So I won’t be boycotting Elephant Bar just yet. Empire is problematic. But empire happened.