What’s in a name?

The power and privilege behind problematic restaurant names.
Design by Jeannel Cunnan

Cheer tasty cheese may have a touch of Ted Danson to it but as an alternative to Coon, its racist predecessor, twee is good. The lollies once known as Red Skins (now Red Rippers) or the Eskimo Pie ice-creams we’ll soon call Polar Pies, prove the food world is not immune to questionable product names. But the past few months have shown it’s not immune to progress either.

When it comes to restaurants in Australia, it follows there are names that raise the ire, or at least the eyebrows, of the dining public. And when restaurant owners have so much skin in the game, why risk it on problematic monikers that have the potential to offend marginalised communities?

Restaurant names are the first marker of a restaurant’s identity; a stamp of what it is, the food it serves and the demographic it caters to. These days, even before the menu is finalised, a restaurant’s branding announces itself to the dining public, with the website, logo and Instagram presence rolled out days ahead of any official opening.

Whether it’s Mexican restaurants that reference the war on drugs or a white-owned venue that serves Asian cuisine while ridiculing Asian languages, when we talk about problematic restaurant names, we need to talk about race. We need to talk about power and who is in the position of privilege. Whose culture is being co-opted for profit? And ultimately – who is losing out in the transaction?

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As a restaurant name, “Some Young Guys” is innocuous enough. Some young men, full of culinary chutzpah, confidence and capital, open their dream restaurant. It’s a familiar story.

But what if those four owners are white men? What if the restaurant is a self-described purveyor of “pan-Asian” food? And what if “Some Young Guys” is styled as “Sum Yung Guys” in a deliberate lampooning of east Asian languages, rendered in a font that could be described as a colonial typographer’s day trip to Chinatown?

Sum Yung Guys is, by all accounts, a popular restaurant. Opened by owners Dylan Campbell, Jeremiah Jones, Michael Rickard and Matt Sinclair in 2017, the Sunshine Beach establishment has won the tick of approval from diners, as well as coverage in Australian food media, including Gourmet Traveller.

Sum Yung Guys is also a restaurant that arguably trades on the mockery of Asian communities and cultures.

“Many would find the restaurant’s name in poor taste,” says Dr Tim Soutphommasane, a professor in sociology and political theory at the University of Sydney and former Race Discrimination Commissioner. “But there could well be a compelling explanation for the choice of name. Is there? If there isn’t, it does raise questions about what’s motivating the owners to call it that.”

The owners of Sum Yung Guys declined to answer specific questions about the name, or whether they knew it was problematic prior to opening. However, in a video interview with a Noosa real estate agency in 2019, owners Campbell and Sinclair say it’s taken from a scene in the 1992 comedy Wayne’s World.

(For those unfamiliar with Mike Myers’s filmography, the scene depicts the villain, played by Rob Lowe, ordering Chinese food over the phone. The titular Wayne, played by Myers, suggests they order “the cream of sum yung guy”.)

In the interview, Sinclair says “a guy in the States” highlighted the problematic nature of their business name before they opened.

“He was posting all this stuff [on social media], [saying] we shouldn’t be using the name, and it’s this and it’s that. And we kind of freaked out a little bit and went, is it going to be pushing it too far? And we just thought, no.”

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I’ve heard this: Sum Yung Guys is funny. It’s word play. It sounds vaguely Chinese, maybe Korean. It’s an Asian restaurant. Get it?

But the rule of good comedy is it should always punch up, not tread on the cultural and linguistic heritages of minority communities. If the joke is supposed to be funny, then it begs the question – funny how? And funny to whom?

“There can be a fine line between humour and racism, and it’s not always clear where that line is. But people should understand that racism is, as much as anything, about power,” says Dr Soutphommasane. “When you have people draw upon others’ ethnicity or culture in ways that belittle or demean them, chances are you’ve got racism at play.”

For linguistically diverse communities who are told to “speak English in Australia”, whose local councils consider imposing limits on shop signage written in “another language”, whose last names are the butt of jokes on live radio, whose bilingual school programs are disposed of in favour of more “global” and cosmopolitan European languages, a name like Sum Yung Guys is symptomatic of a society that weaponises languages against the very people who own them.

It’s not the Sum Yung Guys name alone that offends. It’s the overall aesthetic, the extra details that bloat the package. In multiple iterations, the Sum Yung Guys logo is presented in wonton font – fun and vibrant colourways with the same Orientalist messaging. The cocktail menu once featured a drink called the Miso Korny, referencing the infamous depiction of a Vietnamese sex worker in Full Metal Jacket.

Then there’s the mural, a pastiche of Street Fighter characters brandishing chopsticks, an auto rickshaw, and a street food vendor wearing a conical hat with lasers shooting from their eyes. All this takes place on a streetscape festooned with lanterns, and studded with posters of Chinese words that read: HORSE, OX, RABBIT, GOAT, presumably in reference to the animals of the Chinese zodiac.

This visual centrepiece is breathtaking for all the wrong reasons. The main one being that it homogenises and flattens Asia’s 40-plus countries and cultures into a kitsch two-dimensional tableau. It’s lazy. It’s mediocre. It’s a neo-colonial act of erasure. But with the name, look and feel of Sum Yung Guys, of course it’s all of the above.

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Of course, there may be a compelling reason behind some restaurant names – an attempt to reclaim language, perhaps. Take, for example, Cartel in Sydney’s Chippendale, which bills itself as a “modern South American” bar and eatery, with tacos, ceviche, empanadas and margaritas on the menu.

Asked to explain the venue’s name, a spokesperson said: “Cartel, in the context of the new bar and restaurant, reflects the collaboration of people coming together, and the diverse food and drink offering the venue provides.

“Cartel worked closely with the community, and its team of South American senior staff, to form the bar that intends to provide a unique drinks experience leaning into Aztec ingredients.”

So a reclamation of the negative associations with the drug cartel activity that blights North, Central and South American countries, perhaps? Not at all, says Dr César Albarrán-Torres of Swinburne University of Technology, a senior lecturer in media who has published a book on the depiction of Mexican drug cartels in popular culture.

“It’s insensitive naming a restaurant like that because of the stereotypes and racism they perpetuate,” he says. But he’s not surprised that restaurants like Cartel – or Margarita Cartel in Burleigh Heads – have taken hold in Australia. Narco cultura, a subculture that glorifies drug cartel figures, has a strong following in Mexico. Meanwhile, television series like Narcos and Breaking Bad further glamourise cartel activity to global audiences, and desensitise viewers to the brutal reality of the drug wars.

“In Mexico since 2006, when then-President Calderón started a full-frontal war against drug cartels, it’s been a de facto civil war. Up to 60,000 people have disappeared, and many [victims], particularly women, are sold in human trafficking networks. Over 200,000 deaths in the past few years in Mexico derived from the cartel wars,” he says.

Dr Albarrán-Torres says these business names are also harmful because they present a parochial view of the diversity of Latin American people and culture.

“Without losing touch with the reality in our home country – because there is violence, there is abuse – I do think we want to be much more than that,” says the Mexican-born academic. “And if we’re to discuss cartels and drug trafficking, we should do it in a way that doesn’t make a spectacle or entertainment out of people’s suffering.”

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If you notice any nightlife in Mollymook, a beachside town on New South Wales’ south coast, chances are it’s coming from Gwylo. The “pan-Asian” restaurant’s name is an adaptation of “gweilo”, the Cantonese word for “ghost man”, “white man” or “foreigner”. It was historically a derogatory term for Caucasian people, though academics agree its pejorative nature has somewhat diminished over time.

For co-owner Matt Upson, it was the nickname given to him by a Mandarin-speaking colleague while working in a restaurant in Malaysia in the ’90s. The playful reference to his whiteness, he says, is a perfect fit for the restaurant.

“It’s definitely more of a tongue-in-cheek thing, because that’s the whole style of what we’re doing. It’s definitely not a fine diner. It’s a fun place,” he says.

He acknowledges the name does carry risk. His father-in-law, a Chinese-Australian, expressed concern about the name before the opening, and Upson says many Mandarin- and Cantonese-speaking customers ask about the name. “I tell them [my story], they laugh at it and go, ‘Oh that’s funny.’ I hope everyone has that feeling towards it.”

But Gwylo knows its target demographic. Upson says he wouldn’t open a “Gwylo” in Sydney’s Chinatown without doing his homework. “I would do my due diligence and research into the culture and local landscape to see what my audience and target market would be.”

These are sensible precautions, says Eve Jingwen Chen, an associate lecturer in Chinese languages at the Australian National University. “I would say emphasising the ‘foreignness’ or ‘otherness’ of an Asian-themed restaurant in an Asian community is not a good idea.”

But Upson’s reasoning that the name Gwylo might be sensitive in the city, but not 200 kilometres south on the Princes Highway, is baffling. If we’re talking about whiteness, power, and privilege, it’s uncertain how this exercise in language-ownership evens out the field of equality and representation by symbolically shutting out Chinese people.

“Reclaiming ‘gweilo’ here constructs a new group identity, a group that includes potentially anyone but those who actually invented and used the word,” says Chen. “The Cantonese here in turn have become the ‘others’ or the ‘outsiders’ of this group labelled in their language.”

In Gwylo’s defence, Upson is doing what many 21st century “gweilo” are doing – reclaiming the word from its sensitive history. But there’s still something discomforting about a white owner, in the 21st century, proclaiming his whiteness in neon lights while cooking and profiting from food cultures that are not his own.

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Minh Nguyen regularly receives complaints about Madame Nhu, the clutch of Vietnamese restaurants he co-owns in Sydney. All the complainants, he says, are white people who have never been to the restaurant or had much experience of Vietnam.

The restaurant is named after Trần Lệ Xuân, also known as Madame Nhu, south Vietnam’s de facto “first lady” to President Ngô Đình Diệm from 1955 to 1963. She was a firebrand figure during the Vietnam war who took aim at the French, the United States, communists and Buddhists, and who has proven to be a source of fascination and wellspring for disdain by the foreign press and history books.

Within the Vietnamese diaspora in Australia, opinion is mixed. Some regard Nhu as a strong-willed figure who stood up to U.S influence. Others remember her infamous comments about Thích Quảng Đức, where she likened the monk, who self-immolated in protest against Diệm’s crackdown on Buddhist-led dissent, to a “barbecue”.

Nguyen acknowledges there was a “small risk” to naming his restaurant after such a polarising figure. From armchair historians, mainly. “[And] Buddhists would also take issue with the comments she made.” But he says her remarks need to be taken in a wider context. “It was more a question of communism and independence and the political disunity that was happening in that country. Her comments were aimed at that disunity.”

Madame Nhu has three Sydney locations in Surry Hills in the inner-city, and Chatswood and Hornsby to the north – areas that do not have Vietnamese-dense populations, and are therefore more likely to have diners who find the name benign.

“A Vietnamese restaurant in Surry Hills could get away with a slightly problematic name,” says Dr Sukhmani Khorana, a vice-chancellor’s senior research fellow at Western Sydney University, and researcher in the fields of migration and food politics. “But they are less likely to attempt that if they were in a part of Sydney that had a significant Vietnamese community, or sections of the community who found the reference to Madame Nhu [the historical figure] objectionable”.

Nguyen disagrees. “Yes, Madame Nhu is a divisive figure even within the diaspora. But those who see her in a negative light, in my experience and opinion, are in the minority. Therefore I don’t believe that we’ll have any issue opening a branch in predominantly Vietnamese suburbs.” He points to a 2016 protest by the Vietnamese community against a Brisbane restaurant named after Hồ Chí Minh, the north Vietnamese communist leader. “[It] shows that distance is not a barrier for Vietnamese people if they are really passionate about something.”

Madame Nhu, he says, is also representative of a time of significant cultural and culinary development in Vietnam, spurred by the migration of people from the north to south, and with it, the popularisation of phở, the beef rice noodle soup that originated in northern Vietnam in the early 1900s.

Ultimately for Nguyen, who fled Vietnam by boat aged five, he says the name choice was his way of setting the record straight about a complex woman whose reputation has been largely shaped by Western media and white historians.

“The question people often ask about a government’s legacy is whether the country was left in a better position at the end of its reign than at the beginning. Most old Vietnamese people I know, who actually lived through the war, still retain a certain nostalgia for Diệm’s Vietnam,” says Nguyen. “If that says anything at all, it’s that the story of Diệm and Madame Nhu are more nuanced and complex than what Wikipedia and Western-centric documentaries would have us believe.”

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Problematic restaurant names are problematic twice over. First, when they cause harm to minority communities. Second, when owners refuse to be held to account about the insensitivities of the name.

“When you start delving into the artwork, design and branding of our restaurant you enter an incredibly subjective topic. We don’t feel the need to ‘defend’ ourselves against suggestions it is ill-natured,” said Matt Sinclair of Sum Yung Guys in a statement.

“The people that truly know the boys behind SYG [Sum Yung Guys] are aware of the very serious commitment we’ve made to produce the best possible experience for anyone who crosses our path.”

Since opening four years ago, Sum Yung Guys say they’ve received only positive coverage from several food publications, including this masthead.

“At no time has any of this publicity generated any concerns about our name, [or] questioned our experience or eligibility to cook this style of food,” said Sinclair.

Similarly, Gwylo and Cartel say they haven’t received negative feedback about their names.

It could be because the model migrant complex encourages people of colour to stay quiet and invisible in order to live a life free of conflict. It could also be part of the broader pattern in society where it’s a more odious crime to question a person’s racially insensitive behaviour, than to be the instigator of the behaviour itself.

“Surely we can agree articles like this are the only problematic medium in society right now?” said Sinclair. “Does the world really need another fuse lit to incite hate, now or ever?”

Restaurants are integral to the fabric of Australian society. It’s the reason why we were collectively devastated when dining rooms had to close during the various lockdowns of 2020. The hospitality industry was one of the most visible casualties of COVID-19.

But restaurants wielding problematic names and concepts should not get a free pass to offend minority communities. Racial insensitivity does not take a holiday while a virus ravages the world.

“The food industry is part of the society we live in, and unfortunately we live in a society where there is still a lot of casual racism or unconscious bias that goes unquestioned,” says Dr Khorana. “It’s often dismissed as ignorance, but I think if it keeps reoccurring, it’s more than just ignorance. It’s wilful ignorance.”

Restaurants are embedded in our way of life, so it follows when a restaurant exhibits a controversial or racially insensitive title, it’s a signpost to minority communities: this is not for you. You are not welcome here.

“I would like to think post the popularity of movements like Black Lives Matter, particularly amongst younger Australians, there is more awareness of their own privilege,” says Dr Khorana. “Whether they’re white or come from some other community, and they would be more sensitive to a restaurant being named in a manner that is offensive to minority cultures. And that [diners] would be more willing to not necessarily participate in cancel culture, but try and talk to the owners or chefs about why that’s problematic, and try to change that and raise awareness.”

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Jared Merlino has done just that. As the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests powered on, the Sydney restaurateur decided to change the name of his inner-city rum bar from The Lobo Plantation to The Lobo.

“It’s a sign of respect to people of colour and shows we understand certain labels, certain names, certain institutions, certain types of businesses have oppressed people in the past,” he says. “For us to be able to say we acknowledge that name potentially offends, and to remove that offence, that’s the minimum we could do.”

Signage at the entrance to The Lobo in Sydney.

(Photo: Supplied)

When the bar opened in 2013, the original name was based on Julio Lobo, a sugar tycoon active in Cuba in the early to mid 1900s. “We wanted the name and venue to be centred around sugar, sugar being the foundation of rum,” says Merlino.

But as the years progressed, and Merlino read up on the history of plantations in the Caribbean and the US, he became less comfortable with his business name, and its barbaric associations with slavery, oppression and the forced labour of Black people.

The Lobo received some backlash about the name change. “Mainly online trolls, people who would say, ‘This is ridiculous. My family owned a banana plantation in Queensland and they didn’t use slaves’,” says Merlino. “They couldn’t get their head around that – we’re not referring to every plantation.”

The name change is a small but meaningful step and one he hopes will add to the growing momentum for social change.

“I hope it’s a pattern that manifests even outside the hospitality industry – that people of privilege like myself can step back and see the privilege we hold, and our ability to make change from this position. That’s what I really hope.”

The full statements from Sum Yung Guys and Cartel are below

Statement from Matt Sinclair, Sum Yung Guys

“Sum Yung Guys is the brain child of 4 young men, with a combined 50+ years in the hospitality industry. A very clear and concise idea to celebrate and share everything we have come to love of the South East Asian culture and cuisine. We have not only eaten, cooked and researched many variations of this cuisine for many years, we have committed to travelling extensively to the region to remain in touch and continue to learn.

“Sum Yung Guys has had the privilege of working alongside some of the greatest industry figures such as Victor Liong (Lee Ho Fook), Jerry Mai (Pho Nom, Annam), Louis Tikaram (Stanley), Melissa Leong (Masterchef). These establishments and individuals have been great leaders for the diverse Asian cuisine we are fortunate to enjoy in Australia. Having great relationships with such people suggests they are confident our heads and hearts are in the right place, making us very welcome in the food community.

“Our restaurant has been involved with and supported by some of the countries leading publications and networks, including Delicious Magazine, Masterchef and Gourmet Traveller. Some of the greatest platforms for celebrating diversity. At no time has any of this publicity generated any concerns about our name, questioned our experience or eligibility to cook this style of food. If anything, being told once that ‘How dare white guys cook Asian food’ made us quite upset. If you think of chefs like, David Thompson, Neil Perry, Andrew Mconnell, Martin Boetz etc they have all forged incredible careers and created restaurants that produce some of the greatest examples of Thai + Cantonese + Modern Chinese this country has ever seen. We are in no means putting ourselves in that league, however we do look to them as an enormous inspiration.

“The relationships we have developed with growers and suppliers within the Asian community, extend far beyond business transactions. We have been able to share and celebrate the amazing culture we all have a passion for, irrespective of heritage. Just another reason why we will continue to generate our interpretation of this exciting cuisine.

“When you start delving into the artwork, design and branding of our restaurant you enter an incredibly subjective topic. We don’t feel the need to ‘defend’ ourselves against suggestions it is ill natured. The people that truly know the boys behind SYG are aware of the very serious commitment we’ve made to produce the best possible experience for anyone who crosses our path.

“I suppose you could ask many people from different backgrounds, a leading question and get many different answers?! In the 4 years we have been operating we have developed an incredible following and unprecedented support from people of all backgrounds.

“People will always deduct their own ideas and opinions on who we are and what we stand for. We hope to read more uplifting and positive articles from GT, aiding in the much needed recovery of hospitality in 2021. Surely we can agree articles like this are the only problematic medium in society right now? Does the world really need another fuse lit to incite hate, now or ever?”

Statement from a Cartel spokesperson

“Cartel, in the context of the new bar and restaurant, reflects the collaboration of people coming together, and the diverse food and drink offering the venue provides. The new venue opened its doors on Chippendale’s eclectic Kensington Street [in December]. The unique modern South American concept pays homage to the intense and diverse cultural and culinary makeup of South America – with a vibrant and experiential drinks and tapas style food menu that reflects the best of Mexico, Peru and Colombia.

“Cartel worked closely with the community, and its team of South American senior staff, to form the bar that intends to provide a unique drinks experience leaning into Aztec ingredients including Chapulines (grasshoppers) and Sal De Gasano (spiced worm salt) to create fun Aztec twists on classic cocktails.

“Cartel’s purpose is to provide a fun environment for all people to come together and enjoy incredible drinks and food. Since opening our doors [in December], we’ve only received great feedback on the experience and concept.”

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