Sascha Bollag was running errands in Harahan on Tuesday when he saw a sign that made him turn his car around to see if he had actually seen what he thought he saw.
The sign for the Shimmy Shack restaurant on Dock Street was topped with a joke in plastic lettering: “What time does a Chinaman go to the dentist? Tooth a hurty!”
“I was very surprised,” said Bollag, who lives in New Orleans. “Obviously, the term ‘Chinaman’ is what caught my eye and upset me. That’s a term that I feel generally — and say what you want about political correctness — has not been acceptable in polite company for 30 years.”
Shimmy Shack owner Jimmy Collings, however, said he often puts up jokes he considers harmless, “goofy stuff” and that he doesn’t consider the term or the stereotype invoked to be malicious or racist.
“It’s a joke my father told me when we were kids,” he said.
The term, which dates from the mid-1800s, is sometimes thought of as less than a slur, perhaps because it sounds like a literal description, akin to “Englishman.” It’s not difficult to find instances online of people saying the term should be acceptable.
Former Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee, a Chinese-American, used the term publicly on occasion. In 1999, he responded to a political attack calling him a “400-pound Chinaman” by saying he was more offended that he had been called fat.
Dictionaries, however, are unambiguous about the term, describing it as “offensive,” “dated or offensive” and “often offensive.”
Jenn Fang, a Chinese-American writer and blogger, addressed the use of the term in a 2014 piece titled “Yes, the term ‘Chinaman’ is derogatory.”
She argued that even though the term is sometimes considered to be merely archaic, it carries the stain of its original context, a time when Chinese immigrant laborers were subject to racist caricature, mistreatment and worse.
“The phrase ‘Chinaman’ is not ambiguously offensive,” Fang wrote. “It is a relic of a time when Chinese-Americans and other Asian-Americans lacked most basic legal rights; when the vast majority worked as indentured servants; when rape, beatings and lynching were commonplace; when the life of an Asian-American was jokingly worth so little, a common idiom arose around it.”
Jefferson Parish Councilwoman Cynthia Lee-Sheng, Harry Lee’s daughter, said Thursday, “I think if you asked most Asian-Americans, they would say they consider the term derogatory, and it is typically used in a derogatory manner. But I also think that you start with people’s intentions and whether they meant to be hurtful, and with this guy, that doesn’t appear to be the case.”
Lee-Sheng said she remembers looking up the word when it was used by, and against, her father and learning more about its origins.
Despite its ugly history, she said, she recognized the often subversive or disarming nature of her father’s treatment of the term.
“That was very much my father’s way, to take something like that and make it funny,” she said. “That’s what people loved about him and what I loved about him.”
This isn’t the first time Collings has gotten complaints about one of the jokes on the Shimmy Shack sign.
He said a joke using the word “midget” led to a call from a local family. He also briefly used the sign to wish Caitlyn Jenner, the former Olympian who came out as a transgender woman last year, a happy Father’s Day. “It was up there for two hours; my wife said, ‘Take it down,’ ” he said.
Collings said he planned to take down the latest joke soon.
“I guess I got some Oriental people who aren’t crazy about this one, so I guess I got to take it down,” he said, stumbling into another term for Asians that fell out of favor decades ago.
“Nowadays, it’s so politically correct you gotta be careful what you say,” he said, lamenting the bygone days of jokes from comedians like Henny Youngman and Rodney Dangerfield.
“I guess I’ve gotta live with it.”
Bollag, who isn’t Asian, isn’t buying the just-a-joke response, noting that one can joke that “tooth hurty” is a good time to go to a dentist without dragging racial stereotypes into it.
Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.