Sum Ting Wong


I was telling an old pal of mine the other day about the wonderful pwning of KTVU in San Francisco. You’ve heard the story, though oddly she hadn’t — oddly, because she’s usually pretty au-courant. If you haven’t heard, KTVU called up the NTSB after the Aseana crash to ask the names of the flight crew. They ended up in the merciless hands of some prankish summer intern, were given the list of improbable names shown above, and solemnly repeated them on-air, carefully overpronouncing each one(*).

The best part was when they got to Ho Lee Fuk: they pronounced the last syllable
to rhyme with ‘kook’, that is, with a long yod-less ‘oo’ vowel, the ‘u’ of Italian ‘Udine’.

Naturally I thought this was the funniest thing ever, but my friend did not.

You know what she said, don’t you? Of course you do:

“That’s… racist!”

I didn’t argue the point, but I don’t agree. The somewhat juvenile fun of making English phrases that sound vaguely like Chinese (or Korean) names may not be terribly respectful to these ancient and venerable cultures, but it’s not connected with any theory of round-eye superiority, or any practice of keeping Asians in their place.

The Nazis were racist. The Klan were racist. The Zionists are racist. “Ho Lee Fuk” is Beavis and Butthead. The joke is not on the Chinese or the Koreans. The joke is on the station.

This is one of the reasons for my recent dislike of the term ‘racism’: its nebulous over-broadness. It used to refer to something pretty specific. Now it’s been stretched to cover tasteless coarse humor.

Of course this all brings me back — as so much does, these days — to Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman. If you’re inclined to see racism underlying the outcome of that story, I’m less inclined to disagree with you than with my friend who was upset by Ho Lee Fuk.

Yet at the same time I feel there’s something perseverative and dug-in about speaking of the ‘persistence’ of racism.

“We’ve come so far, but not far enough.” “We’ve done so much, but there’s more to do”. In one way these are undeniably true observations, but stating the problem in these terms fails to do justice to the severity of the problem. It’s not that we face a weakened, but still powerful, familiar opponent. It’s that we face a new, and very powerful, opponent, and we don’t yet have the right toolbox of terms and concepts to describe what he’s doing, much less deal with him. We persist in mistaking him for his grandfather.

I have a length limit on posts, so I’ll leave it at that for today. More to come.


(*) It’s become rather difficult to find a clip of this wonderful moment online; the station has invoked the DMCA to get the Youtubes of the world to take it down. This too is perfect, isn’t it: censorship through property rights.

18 thoughts on “Sum Ting Wong

  1. This presumes that you believe in his grandfather. For a time during the twentieth century, America had formalized racism–actual, honest-to-goodness policies motivated completely by perceived racial identity. The Zionists/Nazis/NPs had the same, again during the twentieth century (except for the Zionists, who are still going strong).

    How racist, though, were the earlier genocides and slaveries? Were they as “racist” as Russian serfdom? As racist as the Troubles in Ireland? As racist as Roman conquest of the Gauls?

    No; they were about something we might more accurately call “money and power.” The idea that the past was characterized by actual “racism” is a ridiculous, fanciful, Walt-Disney-esque lie, told by the very institutions that created the formal twentieth-century racisms.

    In fact, that kind of blunt, stupid, Hollywood-style racism was a creation of the twentieth century. It was new then. The people who believe that it was old are the same kind of morons who think The Help is a good movie. Before that time, the problems we now stupidly attribute to racism were caused by illusory resource shortages and elite gamesmanship.

    Wealthy Asian American Democrats now cheer a half-black President as he ships crates of M67s to Congo warlords to insert steel into the bodies of little fully-black children, while white libertarians object because they don’t want to pay for the grenades. Something is wrong, yes, and there is “more to do,” but it has nothing to do with race, and everything to do with the larger power imbalances that motivated you to begin complaining about the two party system. The faster we drop the idea that any of the cutesy superficial differences between people are having a large-scale systematic effect on world policies–be they race, ethnicity, sex, sexuality, or favorite variation of cheesecake–the better.

  2. When I was a kid we had a whole series of somewhat similar jokes.

    Have you read the book Blood on the High Hurdles? Yeah, it’s by Won Hung Lo!

    Have you read about the rape at the gas station? Yeah, it’s by Who Pumped Ethyl?

    Did you read the book Sailing on the Yellow River? Yeah, it’s by I Pee Freely.

    And so on and so on… it’s just juvenile bullshit, not racism.

  3. Drunk’s right. Also: Seymour Butts, Mike Hunt…. It’s really a race-neutral affair! And I, too, thought the prank was hilarious.

  4. I have to admit that when I saw that, I laughed my ass off. How could you not? After decades of subversion by millions of schoolkids, Sum Dum Fuk at a TV station finally fell for the gag. Apparently, he never went to school with Dick Hertz or A. Nell Fisher.

    In the “you can’t make this up” category, the name of the company that owns the station is Cox Media. Heh heh, heh heh. He said “Cox.”

    Mr Ucker, head of the Cox company and a member of the BoD asked the employee, Dick Johnson to leave in an effort to save face. He said it was the hardest decision he ever had to make but someone had to take the matter in hand.

  5. I don’t think it’s funny. I think the only way it’s funny is if you think there’s a germ of truth in the stereotypes: “those people” really talk that way; they’re small, easily victimized, and prone to gibberish. “Those were probably the last phonetically malformed thoughts in their little heads before they died! Even as the ground rushed up at them, they mispronounced ‘wrong’ for our amusement.” To me, that’s the nucleus of the putative humor in the episode, one’s own failure to understand other languages, and I just can’t manage to be amused at it. The joke is our own limited comprehension, as a culture of the phonetics of foreign languages.

    So naturally my family thought it was this daring, incandescent wit, and I got to listen to them all watch it on YouTube and squeal with delight. They thought it was amazing and awesome that something like that got on the air: there was a sense that ordinary folks had put one over on the censors (and on the slopes, presumably). When I was unable to hide my disgust, they belabored their opinion that the newscasters weren’t to blame—they were just the butt of a very cruel joke, utterly without fault in the debacle. I at least could see that, right? But that’s really only true if it’s somehow acceptable to genuinely be stupid enough to think those are actual Korean names.

    Why must I bow to this stupidity?

    • Is anybody asking for a bow? Would maybe an agreement to disagree suffice?

      They thought it was amazing and awesome that something like that got on the air: there was a sense that ordinary folks had put one over on the censors

      Which was just my own response; but

      and on the slopes, presumably

      … that wasn’t any part of the fun of the thing for me. Of course I can’t speak for anybody else.

      • I agree. The joke itself is too old to be funny or racist, but the notion that someone managed to get the TV station to broadcast it, that totally cracked me up.
        I mean how could anyone fall for this? Was it because it was someone from the NTSB who gave them the names? Are people so obedient to authority now?
        About Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, I notice that I no longer fully trust any social narrative that leaves out class/money/power and discusses only identity politics.

        • Obedient to authority — or maybe deferential is closer to the mark in this case — yes, that’s the core of it. The station got this obviously bogus stuff from… somebody in Washington! End of story.

      • For me, the joke’s not good enough for the sense of getting something over on the censors to carry any power. It’s just too dumb, too easy, too second-grade or earlier.

        I can sense your displeasure at my asking about a bow, but I just can’t seem to resign good-gracedly, even, to this.

        To me, the joke doesn’t exist in isolation (it sure as hell doesn’t for my family); what’s funny is the notion that as the plane goes down, those poor hapless slants very Asianly mispronounce “we too low!” and “sum ting wrong!” and they go down in flames as semihuman as they lived—still talkin’ fuckin’ wrong! Put simply, if those people aren’t dumb for talking like that, that joke isn’t funny for that audience.

        In my analysis (such as it is) of the phenomenon, “When we imitate Asians we are unable to reproduce correct English or correct foreign languages” isn’t a particularly funny joke. Ergo, it’s not the real punchline for the people in question. Anyone can misunderstand things and say dumb shit about foreign cultures and languages, but not everyone’s going to claim that’s a joke.

        I’m not winning any friends here for saying so, but I’ll have earned a reputation as a bland and moronic killjoy anyway, so I suppose there’s relatively little lost now in sticking to my guns here. Sorry to pollute your airwaves.

        • It’s not that bad, if that’s how you feel about it then that’s fine. I will note that some such constructs of language are multi-lingual, thay’re not all Chinese, and if you make fun of everyone then fair is fair.

    • Save the Oocytes’ comment suggests an important point–the question of whether this prank was racist is what gets the attention. Personally, I’m in favor of the prank. Ether way, it belongs in a totally different cartography than say this–where the victim was definitely disfigured (possibly traumatized) for life. Though perhaps racist doesn’t accurately describe the latter example either; the fact is race (in this case, the so-called African-American race) obviously was integral.

      Like every other word that comes within a mile of politics, “racism” has been completely sterilized of meaning, rife for unendable, fruitless semantic debate. Probably better to stop using it–at least where there’s libel to be disagreement as to what it means–and focus more on spelling out concretely what the problem is.That we have–to pike from Graham Greene–a torturable class.

    • It’s not funny not because it’s racist, it’s not (it’s glossist); it’s not funny because there is nothing funny about getting terrifically killed. Most curiously, but most justly observed heretofore, most people bound by big social theories, seldom step out into the shoes of the theories’ objects. 我是中国人

    • It’s not funny not because it’s racist, it’s not (it’s glossist); it’s not funny because there is nothing funny about getting terrifically killed. Most curiously, but most justly observed heretofore, most people bound by big social theories, seldom step out into the shoes of the theories’ objects. 我是中国人

  6. slopes and slants
    [no chinks or gooks?]
    bog rat micks dagos wops
    heebs coons honky red necks

    wet back spics
    iredskin injuns and anglo
    pendejos too

    even towel

    wished that plane had
    a load of verbal pollo
    campero speaking
    a language tinged
    with the brownish

    secret recipe
    marinated chickenw
    find so lovely in those
    few parts of the world sending

    planeloads of the orange and yellow
    paper wrappers and boxes to LAX DFW
    SAT even IAD

    with the proper chicken all get along
    slurs go away

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