Thoughts on value

Just because you can get away with paying only $1 for dumplings, should you?

I wish I could say I intentionally took most of August off, but unfortunately, the time away from this newsletter had more to do with episodic depression, which happened to be exacerbated by a few things, including this gem.

Anyway, coming back to what I wanted to talk about. Recalling my discussion of authenticity in food in which Goffman’s actors and their roles are ones that have been established by a mutually agreed upon set of conventions. These agreed upon norms happen to incorporate the ideas of mainstream culture—and one of these ideas that I want to touch upon is that of perceived value.

Apply the concept of value to food, and I can only begin to tell you the number of statements that I read where a dish’s value is tied to a culturally accepted sentiment. And it is these deeply rooted notions that inadvertently result in gatekeeping cultures and their respective dishes from a going beyond a certain price threshold. Or more simply: the expectation that certain foods are always meant to be “cheap”, and that for them to command more than a certain price tag is impossible to fathom.

Here are a few examples from Yelp and Google Reviews that I pulled up from July:

“There are so many cheaper options around.”

“You can easily get ten dumplings for a dollar.”

“The food is so overpriced”

These comments come from everyone, including fellow second-generation folks, who have accepted that dumplings, in particular, have a price ceiling that they cannot pass. The base line is so often referred to, especially with quotes of specific price points, because it has become a presumed authority.

If dumplings are such a “cheap” item in the food hierarchy, are they also really that inexpensive to make?

Math time

Given that it takes an experienced worker to fold 200 dumplings per hour, let’s assume that four hours in a day is spent hand-pleating dumplings.

The food costs for these hourly churned 200 pieces come to a total of $24.84. If we were to take the stance that there is no food waste—an ideal but extremely unlikely scenario—the cost breakdown is as follows for chicken and cabbage dumplings:

  • Pre-made dumpling wrappers: $9.33

  • Ground chicken: $9.82

  • Ginger, cabbage, and scallions: $3.16

  • Seasoning: $2.53

If pre-made dumpling wrappers aren’t used, then we’d have to factor in additional time for dough prep and rest—which gets to my later question of the value of labour.

For this simplistic calculation, when we take the equation of (200 pieces) / ($24.84 food cost), we end up with a food cost of 12¢ apiece for chicken and cabbage dumplings.

These costs presume that certain ingredients, such as seasonings, are bought in bulk and through purveyors, and that the ingredients are sourced from purveyors and vendors, which offer more economical pricing due to scale.

At a base cost of 12¢ apiece, I can see how many are quick to surmise that dumplings are a “cheap” food item. However, not only are we leaving out the fixed costs of operating a business, but also the value of skilled labour.

Value of expertise and time

Sometimes I hear from second- and third-generation folks that dumplings should not be priced “so high” because their parents and grandparents can make them for less than the posted price.

Sure, you can make any food at home by paying only for raw goods, but are you expensing your time? Do you value the time you spent looking up the recipe, fumbling at attempt after attempt, or the inconsistent batch you ended up making?

And when you refer to your experienced family members, do you value the time they spent learning how to make each fold consistent? Do you value the time they spent honing this skill? Do you value the expertise that makes their finished products look so much better than yours?

Personally, in the hour that a skilled worker can fold two hundred dumplings, I end up with about three dozen misshapen inconsistent morsels.

This argument that I hear of how family can fold dumplings at home for so much less strikes a nerve with me because it so aptly reminds me of how devalued housework and home labour is. Just because you can do something at home doesn’t meant that expenses should go out the window. Value your time; value your parents’ time; and value your grandparents’ time. Not to mention, add value to the practice that it has taken to perfect this skill.

To evaluate how much each dumpling costs when labour is factored in at a business, let’s assume the minimum wage for what the lowest cost per unit is, then the $15/hour brings up the average cost per unit to 20¢.

= [(Cost of Goods for 200 pieces) + (Hourly Labour for 200 Dumplings)] / (Total Number of Pieces)

= [($24.84) + ($15.00)] / (200 pieces)

= ($39.97) / (200 pieces)

= 20¢

Even if you were to contend that some dumplings are folded at shops that are family-owned, and therefore there’s no labour expenditure, I’d ask you to reconsider. Why would you insist on devaluing expertise and skill just because someone is willing to suppress their salary from the equation to make prices work economically in your favour?

Then there are the other things to consider

So far, I’ve covered only the raw cost of goods and the hourly labour needed to wrap the dumplings. I’ve left out the math of operating a business: the fixed costs of rent, insurance, unemployment, licensing, garbage pickup, electricity, and more. And to be fair, I’m not as great at calculating this one out since I’d have to spread the costs across varied projects.

But what I can include in our consideration is the labour of preparing the ingredients and work space, and breaking down and cleaning the station after use. Even if the employees are prepping and cleaning for other work projects, we can still attribute a number to the cost.

For the purposes of this exercise, let’s assume that it takes two hours to prep the filling and clean the station thereafter, and that we are folding 800 dumpling pieces for the day.

= [(Cost of Goods) + (Folding Labour) + (Prep and cleanup labour)] / (Total Pieces)

= [($99.38) + ($15 * 4 hours) + ($15 * 2 hours)] / (800 pieces)

= ($189.50) / (800 pieces)

= 24¢

Without even considering fixed costs, we are almost at a quarter per dumpling in food and labour costs. The way that you find that most of Chinatown makes money is by selling through volume, as opposed to margin—and this illustration is indicative of how this is the case.

And if we want to get into the discussion of machine-made dumplings, I can tell you that in order to be able to operate the machine, you still need to know the fundamentals. How can you know what the output is supposed to be like if you don’t know any of the basics? Never mind that, let’s also consider that there is still a lot of manual labour involved in terms of preparing the filling and dough, pacing production, and ensuring quality assurance. The machine is a tool—it is not a replacement. As such, it merely increases the output, and does not depreciate the knowledge needed.

In short: yes, you should be paying more

We should be paying more for what we consume. Stop subscribing to the misinformed notion that certain cuisines—particularly Chinese food—should be cheap.

So, as a first step, how about you consider the price to cost ratio when you are grabbing a to-go order of dumplings, and add a few dollars to the tip bucket to help even out what you should be paying in 2021?

And as a second step, can we stop talking about how certain foods are “cheap”? Such a word has become synonymous with casting a barrier that never never allows certain foods to move at the same pace as economic inflation or to evolve in the cultural landscape. Let’s start with changing how we talk about food; if anything, food can be affordable.

Further reading

Thoughts on authenticity in food

And some snippet updates

Unfortunately, I read all the Yelp and Google reviews we receive across all our restaurants. I often see folks cite the food as not being “authentic” enough as the reason for their disdain, which seems to imply one universal truth for how food should be. This assertiveness between right and wrong in taste feels rather strict for something that is, in reality, subjective, and cannot be commanded by a single arbiter.

What forms this purported authority on authenticity? It seems, to me, that it is based on a set of stringent beliefs—ones that are, more often than not, informed solely by personal experiences. This strong and rigid commitment that some people have to authenticity is due to, what I surmise as, a strong commitment to the personal as truth. In turn, objecting against what constitutes as authentic is akin to confronting the idea that the individual’s past does not serve as universal fact.

Drawing on a recent example, there was a Yelp review that I read a few weeks ago where the reviewer cited having lived in southern China for years and therefore perceived themself as an authority on what was authentic dim sum. Their point of reference situated themselves not only in a specific geographic setting, but also within a certain period, which precisely echoes what Clarissa mentioned in her tweet above of this very notion of authenticity tying itself to an arbitrary time and place.

To get at these ideas of what I’ve found people have come to expect out of certain culinary experiences vs. what we are seeing now, I’d like for us to consider sociologist Erving Goffman’s concept of dramaturgy.

The world is literally a stage

One of the first texts that I had to read in university was Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, wherein he explains his concepts by using the imagery of theatre to illustrate the nuances of social existence and interaction.

At the core of each interaction is the actor—the central individual—and the audience. The latter is comprised of other individuals who observe the negotiations between identity and space, as well as react to the actor’s performances.

And within this ecosystem, we are presented with two settings: the front stage and backstage. The front stage is where the audience observes the actor’s performance. Aware that they are being watched, the actor performs their part, while adhering to the agreed-upon social conventions. But it is when the actor retreats backstage that they are able to shed the accepted guise and relax as their true self.

Specific to the front stage is the actor’s deployment of “impression management”. In order to influence the perception of their performance, the actor both consciously and subconsciously self-regulates and -controls what is shared and observed with the audience.

If the above sounds familiar, it’s because we all have been making some effort at self-presentation throughout our lives. There are numerous “front stages” on which we perform, such as our workplace with our coworkers or at a bar with a first date. And when we retire for the day, backstage can constitute as our own apartment or an unfiltered group chat with close friends.

Applying dramaturgy to “authenticity”

Coming back to the topic on-hand, I’d venture to say that the very idea of authenticity, as we refer to it, is rooted in: a) the actor catering to the audience’s expectations; b) the audience’s values of what ought to be being informed through these and other personal experiences; and c) continued reinforcement of a through b and vice versa.

Where Chinese food has been ever-so present in North America for the last two centuries in both urban and rural spaces, its identity, as portrayed by various actors, has been continually reinforced by the audience’s expectation of what it has been and assumption how it should continue to exist as such. But these expectations and assumptions aren’t homogeneous in the least. As we can see in Ann Hui’s Chop Suey Nation, for instance, what constitutes as Chinese food in Canada varies across provinces with regional dishes (such as “Newfoundland chow mien” and Alberta’s “Chinese pierogies”).

This existence of multiple performances and audiences particularly come to light as cross-cultural exchanges have made themselves more readily available with tourism (barring the pandemic's effect in halting on travel). Going beyond the regional influences within North American Chinese food, there is a bevy of differences in experiences when it comes to Chinese food around the globe. And so the chef as actor comes to perform on a front stage that is now host to a wider variety of audiences and expectations. In which case, there is no level of impression management that will satisfy everyone.

In addition to the performance for others, we must also keep in mind the experiences that inform the tastes of second- and third-generation chefs are so vastly different from those of the first generation. No longer is the backstage informed solely by a monolithic background, but rather, it is instead a confluence of the immigrant household and the Western experience outside of the home.

As an example of this evolving backstage, when we opened the Nolita storefront, I described the menu to friends as the dishes that we grew up eating but adding the toppings that our parents told us weren’t “traditional”. We were being naughty, as I’d like to joke. To add a condiment that blended bacon and X.O. sauce to dumplings was very true to an upbringing where my family would store bacon in the same fridge that housed bittermelon. It is to say that just because my experience with food is different than someone else’s, it doesn’t mean that mine is any less authentic. It’s simply different.

This fixation on a cultural food cannon is unnecessarily rigid. Instead of obsessing over how the food “ought to be”, go along for the ride. Think of any dining experience like a book—you’re never going to get into it if you expect the plot to always follow a certain prescription. Part of going out to eat at a restaurant is to see someone else’s point of view; sure, they are still putting on a performance but isn’t it time that they should be able to share a part of themselves with you without pre-conceived opinions?

In other news…

  • Fee caps on third-party delivery platforms in NYC are now law (Pix 11)

  • Congress introduced the ENTRÉE Act to add $60B to the Restaurant Revitalization Fund (Nation’s Restaurant News); per Section 2(b), this bill seeks to provide relief for the Fund without the obligations of fulfilling Priority Groups

  • Excluded Workers Fund applications are expected to open this month; however, the DOL’s requirements are looking fairly restrictive (NY1)

Further reading:

So, who really benefited from the Restaurant Revitalization Fund?

The SBA released a data set detailing approval dates, names, and dollars

Are we better off knowing? I don’t know.

The SBA responded to the Independent Restaurant Coalition’s FOIA request with a data set detailing the recipients of the grant money. I would’ve also like to see the information about those whose grants were rescinded because of the priority group kerfuffle and subsequent injunction, but I’ll take what we can get. (Weirdly enough, the original link to the data set on sba.gov is now posting a 404 error EDIT: It’s back up; looks like they made some updates to the file with it being marked as “Last updated 7/12”).

Of the 370 000+ applications received, less than a third (101 004) were funded. The median award was $125 631, and the average was $282 909. The average being at least $150 000 higher than the median brings me to the next point, which is 5% of applicants received more than $1M+. But this group of 5% ended up totaling 39% of the total $28.6B fund. It’s not to say that a lot the businesses receiving more than $1M didn’t deserve it—I’m sure many do, but I do have some thoughts below on some of those who received such a lump sum.

Shall we begin?

Disclosure: I filed the applications for the businesses that I am involved with and received funds for all of them. The numbers are readily available in the data set and the business entity names are fairly self-identifying.

Where did the money go?

Mapping out the money by state, we can see that the top recipients were: California ($5.7B), New York ($3.7B), Texas ($1.7B), Illinois ($1.4B), and Florida ($1.3B). Approximately 60%–70% of the funds received in these states were by those that self-certified as minority-, women-, or veteran-owned (priority groups).

If we take a look at the number of total grant recipients who belonged in one of these categories, we can observe the following (and yes, groups can overlap; I didn’t review the data for exclusivity):

  • 44% of applicants stated they were women-owned, receiving a total of $10.2B in aid, which is only 35% of the total grant money available

  • 34% of applicants stated that they were minority-owned businesses and/or in economically disadvantaged areas, receiving $9B in aid, which hovers at 31.5% of the total grant money available

  • 6% of applicants stated they were veterans, receiving a total of $1.7B in aid, which is ~6% of the total grant money available

It becomes apparent that not all groups are created equal, with the largest disparity between number of women-owned businesses being approved for funds vs. not being awarded a comparable amount in grant money. Minority-owned and economically disadvantaged located businesses do better in terms of closing that difference, but it is only with veteran-owned businesses that we finally see a 1:1 ratio. While it’s difficult to scrutinize this large delta without reviewing the applications and amounts requested vs. granted, I can’t help but wonder where a lot of the money ended up going.

10% of grant recipients belonged to a franchise business

To dive deeper into the numbers, we see that franchisees took home ~$2.65B of the possible $28.6B available, which is comparable to the 10% total applicants who noted themselves as a franchisee. And of those grant recipients, the top ten franchise applicants received approximately $1B in grant funds.

Even more striking about those top ten franchises? Subway franchisees dwarf the number of applications compared to other franchises (McDonald’s didn’t even crack 100 franchisee applications) by a ratio of 7:1 with the next closest franchise (Dunkin’ and Dunkin/Baskin Robbins co-brand).

Subway

  • 2868 applications granted

  • 72% self-certified as belonging to one of the priority groups

  • $362M distributed to Subway franchisees

Dunkin’ Donuts (and Baskin Robbins co-brand)

  • 404 applications granted

  • 78% self-certified as belonging to one of the priority groups

  • $90M distributed to Dunkin’ franchisees

IHOP

  • 295 applications granted

  • 76% self-certified as belonging to one of the priority groups

  • $118M distributed to IHOP franchisees

Kona Ice

  • 207 applications granted

  • 61% self-certified as belonging to one of the priority groups

  • $15.5M distributed to Kona Ice franchisees

Menchie’s

  • 147 applications granted

  • 66% self-certified as belonging to one of the priority groups

  • $18.5M distributed to Menchie’s franchisees

Denny’s

  • 137 applications granted

  • 64% self-certified as belonging to one of the priority groups

  • $79M distributed to Denny’s franchisees

Jimmy John’s

  • 131 applications granted

  • 44% self-certified as belonging to one of the priority groups

  • $29B distributed to Jimmy John’s franchisees

Golden Corral

  • 125 applications granted

  • 64% self-certified as belonging to one of the priority groups

  • $277M distributed to Golden Corral franchisees

Charleys Philly Steaks

  • 112 applications granted

  • 92% self-certified as belonging to one of the priority groups

  • $32M distributed to Charleys Philly Steaks franchisees

Moe’s Southwest Grill

  • 108 applications granted

  • 73% self-certified as belonging to one of the priority groups

  • $22M distributed to Moe’s Southwest Grill franchisees

Even though there is an “owner” at the end of the day for a franchise business, they still have had quite the leg up in comparison to their local small business siblings. After all, franchisees benefit by building off of the established brand and receiving the coverage of continued regional and national advertising campaigns.

And with the high number of approved applicants for Subway franchisees, I’d venture a guess that the parent corporations also provided support in varying degrees for RRF applications. To contextualize the numbers, the sandwich giant had 2868 approved folks, which represents over 10% of all U.S. Subway franchise businesses (per 2019 data), whereas McDonald’s only saw 67 approved applications out its 13 175 U.S. franchise locations (per 2020 data). Smaller chains, such as Kona Ice and Menchie’s saw a large number of their franchisees receive grants as well, 16% (out of 1279 locations) and 41% (out of 358 locations) respectively, which leads me to believe that some parent companies were more willing than others to lend a hand in guiding applicants through the process.

Meanwhile in NYC…

An interesting data point this information release is the businesses that benefited the most after the injunction. What I ended up finding was that the June approvals included quite a few fine dining establishments, large caterers and venues, small business chains, and hotels (and a JFK Dunkin’ Donuts that received $10M). If it wasn’t made clear before the pandemic, it should be noted now: these businesses that command such capital and cachet are seldom operated by or have a majority shareholder that is a minority, woman, or a veteran.

To understand how much was at stake here by moving all the priority groups to the very back of the line, for the June recipients that received over $1M in grant funds, it totaled to $864M with some recognizable names:

  • Greenwich Hotel, $5M (approved June 4)

  • The William Vale, $5M (approved (June 25)

  • Le Bernadin, $5M (approved June 4)

  • Bowery Hotel, $5M (approved June 4)

  • Gabriel Kreuther, $4.86M (approved June 25)

  • Daily Provisions, $2.975M (approved June 4)

Granted, everyone applied at the same time in early May, but these amounts are also based on gross receipts where you can see how well-to-do these businesses are to begin with (and this does not count any licensing or other deals/businesses that the individuals may have). Where the Fund was meant to help the mom-and-pop shops, the injunction ended up dealing quite the blow and reinforced the message of who really matters in this ecosystem—those who are already at the top.

Further Reading

Will New York permanently cap delivery platform commission fees?

San Francisco was the first on June 22—will New York City follow suit?

San Francisco made big waves last month when its Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to pass a permanent 15% fee cap, thereby limiting the amount that delivery platforms can charge restaurants. In a give-and-take approach, the legislation does not limit delivery platforms from charging restaurants additional fees for “marketing” and “additional services”—which gives way to DoorDash’s partnership plans.

The commission limits are not new, as many large cities—including New York, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., and Portland—enacted laws limiting commission fees, citing the economic devastation brought on by the pandemic. However, these caps were limited in scope by the duration of the pandemic (and in NYC’s case, the duration of the pandemic plus 90 days after being able to resume 100% indoor dining). And with states lifting restrictions, there is a tremendous level of anxiety from businesses about what it means going forward. While delivery platforms saw record growth in 2020, restaurants and bars across the country have been left in the lurch—and holding onto massive debt—particularly with the Restaurant Revitalization Fund fully depleted. Thus, it becomes a no brainer, from my perspective, that cities need to review their local ordinances before they expire, and greatly affect vulnerable and recovering businesses.

Permanent fee caps in New York

Introduced and heard by the Committee on Small Business just before the long weekend, NYC Council Members Francisco Moya and Mark Gjonaj shared Int 2359-2021, which seeks to lift the disaster restriction on Local Law 2020/088. In addition to this amendment, three others were proposed and reviewed on July 1st by the Committee:

  • Int 2333: as it pertains to the prohibition of delivery services arranging and listing food service establishments without their consent

  • Int 2335: as it pertains to requiring transparency in the telephone numbers for food establishments listed by delivery services

  • Int 2356: as it pertains to the prohibition of delivery services charging food establishment businesses for calls that do not result in a transaction

With regards to Int 2359-2021, Council Members Moya and Gjonaj make few changes to the original Local Law. The key differences are as follows:

  • Statements regarding the Local Law only being in effect during declared emergencies are omitted

  • Addition of the word “transaction” as it relates to credit card, so that it no longer just reads “credit card fee”, but rather, “credit card transaction fee”. In including the word “transaction”, delivery platforms are no longer able to massage the definition on what constitutes as such a fee into something more

    • Keep in mind that 2(b) states that any additional service, apart from the delivery fee, cannot exceed 5% (for a total maximum charge of 20% to restaurants), but credit card transaction fees were not included in that 5%. Thus, having a loosely phrased “credit card fee” posed as a possible loophole that delivery platforms could exploit should they wish to

    • To bolster 2(b), a definition of credit cards has been added as well

Should this amendment pass and signed into law, it would take immediate effect. At the moment, the amendment’s status is noted as “Laid in Committee”. This term means that floor action action will be postponed to the next legislative day. In other words, the vote has not yet taken place, but we’ve already had at least one hearing on the matter. Unfortunately, though, it can take some time before we see a vote. Take this example, as mentioned by City Limits, where Local Law 2019/092 was heard in January 2019, but not voted upon until four months later in April.

With the state of emergency no longer in effect as of June 24 in New York, the city’s fee caps are slated to expire on September 22nd. In other words, the clock is ticking. Restaurants cannot afford to wait much longer and risk being subjected to unreasonable commission fees if delivery platforms are not willing to work together with small businesses as equitable partners. City Council needs to intervene now and take the preventative action and protect our dining establishments by moving on this package as quickly as possible.

Edit 1: I originally tied the lifting of restrictions (June 15) to the end of state of emergency; however, Governor Cuomo officially lifted the state of emergency on June 24. I’ve updated the text as needed.

Edit 2: Council Member Gjonaj’s Chief of Staff Reginald Johnson noted that the expiration clause was meant to be written as an “and/or” trigger, as opposed to my parsing of AND, which means that 15% delivery fee commission will lift on August 17. I’ve included a copy of Local Law 2020/088’s expiration clause below with my emphasis in bold, and am letting Edit 1 stand for previous reference.

The requirements of this section apply only during the period in which a state disaster emergency has been declared by the governor of the state of New York or a state of emergency has been declared by the mayor, such declaration is in effect in the city, and all food service establishments in the city are prohibited from operating at the maximum indoor occupancy and for a period of 90 days thereafter.

Further reading

NYC Chinatown: (Not) for Your Consumption

Paying tribute to a neighbourhood is to embrace wholly—no digital brushing needed

I wasn’t sure if I was going to have a post this week, but seeing fashion designer Prabal Gurung tout his love for Manhattan’s Chinatown, all the while purposefully erasing it through photography for his Resort 2022 collection, had me in such a state of unease that I wanted to comment on it.

While Gurung’s comments to Vogue, block-quoted below, could be perceived as uplifting, the images, particularly the two that I want to unpack here, reveal something that does more so the inverse through its erasure a neighbourhood’s lived narrative.

I used to live in Chinatown, right before I launched my collection. That’s where I started to plot and plan what I wanted my career to be, but I was fully aware of how invisible the community was to the rest of New York. When we talk about the city we talk about the glitz and glamour, but its grit and the character is in neighborhoods like Chinatown. I wanted to celebrate that.

To contextualize what it means to show off or visit New York’s Chinatown, we have to understand this historical morsel: throughout the 19th century, slumming was a popular past time for New York’s wealthier uptown residents to participate in what was essentially class tourism. Horse-drawn carriages would guide “tourists” through Chinatown’s narrow streets, allowing them to to gawk from above at what and who they saw as different and “exotic”. It’s not so much that the community was invisible to the “rest of New York”, as it was continuously positioned as foreign, with its residents essentially casted as outsiders whilst trying to survive and navigate an immigration system that explicitly targeted them.

What do we see (or not see)?

So as it pertains to the photography for this collection, I suppose the immediate question would be whether or not it is possible to reclaim Chinatown from this lens of the exotic. In earnest, I would think so should there be an intent to actually celebrate the community in such a way that it turns this consumption of the Other (à la Edward Said) onto its head. But as we will see with Looks 16 and 18, shot by Jingyu Lin, below, we have something else entirely different.

Let me point your attention to the top right of both photographs. If it looks a little odd to you in terms of texture, it’s for a good reason. Let’s take a look at the side-by-side posted by the W.O.W. Project on their Instagram stories, where it becomes pretty clear that the strange texture was a result of a clone brush not properly deployed in Photoshop to mask the original artwork and text.

The photographs capture a glimpse of a mural, titled “In the Future, Our Asian Community is Safe”, on Mosco St., which was recently painted by a group of artists, led by Jess X. Snow in collaboration with the W.O.W. Project and Smithsonian APA Center.

In a related Instagram story, Snow points out that the side-by-side of the model on the left and Mei Lum (of Wing on Wo) on the right were actually photographed on the same day, noting that “@timmych4u and I were also trying to take photos in front of this mural I painted and we were asked by @prabalgurung’s team to come back when they were done.”

From a visual studies perspective

The blatant disregard for the original artwork and its intention to acknowledge indigenous land with digital brushwork is apparent, but I also want to take a step back and reflect on what’s transpired here from the lens of visual studies to really articulate the impact of what we see by this editing choice. And to do so, I want to draw from one of my favourite texts, Roland Barthes’ 1979 work Camera Lucida and Allan Sekula’s essay entitled “The Body and the Archive”.

Barthes states that “The Photograph is violent… because on each occasion it fills the sight by force, and because in it nothing can be refused or transformed.” Of course, this text was written at a time when it would be impossible to fathom a point in time when a click of a mouse could alter an image in its entirety. So what I would posit here is that the Lin’s altered photograph (it’s not clear if Lin edited the image or if a team in post did so) still asserts itself by forcefully commanding your attention; however it instead now announces what its creator wants, as opposed to captures, to be irrefutable. In turn, there is an added dimension to the photograph where it can so easily shape-shift and transform, potentially misleading us—as opposed to leading—to what ought to be seen. Not only is the photograph inherently violent, but it has also become potentially deceptive. Running counter against Barthes’ own idea that the frame cannot be transformed, this photograph forces its new reality upon us, without so much as a mention to the actual reality.

Which in turn brings me to Sekula’s essay where we are presented with the archive (i.e. the body of records or collection of images) and its dichotomous qualities: repressive and honourific. The archive does not have to be static in quality; it can very much be in constant flux, with the potential for meaning to change over time and context. And so what we see from comments and reviews (Refinery29, WWD, Vogue) from those who do know of what has transpired is an honouring this body of work—supporting the “celebration of Chinatown” as Gurung titles it.

However, when laying context overtop these images, specifically the two that I’ve highlighted above, I would contest that this body of work quickly takes on a repressive quality at both micro and macro touch points: the immediate archive (i.e. its images) and the contextual archive (i.e. the conversation/coverage surrounding the body of work). To obfuscate what was there in the photographs not only demonstrates repression in the form of denial of visual fact, but also in the compounding of the lack of discussion at large about what should have been seen. It is to say that the invisibility that Gurung mentions in his interview with Vogue cuts so much deeper when we situate this body of work in the context of how it forces the mural’s artistic quality and message out of the frame.

Final thoughts

To tout your love for a community requires to embrace it in its entirety.

What could have been easily solved by a shifting of the framing is instead damned with the deliberate transformation of how the reality should be depicted. What could have been a love letter to a neighbourhood hit hard by the pandemic is instead nothing more than a prop. What could have been an opportunity for meaningful dialogue and larger action has instead contributed to the continued silencing of voices of a community.

I’m going conclude by simply leaving leave Jaya Saxena’s tweet here about Jenny G. Zhang’s February article for Eater. If you have the time, I’d suggest the read and maybe we can go from there.

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