When an Asian restaurant named Yellow Fever opened more than four years ago in the unassuming Southern California suburb of Torrance, some people were perturbed but kept their opinions to themselves. After all, they thought, how much harm could a single fast-casual restaurant do in a strip mall?
The business expanded, opening another location a few miles northwest on a bustling boulevard in the Venice neighborhood of Los Angeles. Yet it was only last week, after Yellow Fever opened a third location as part of a Whole Foods 365 store in Long Beach, Calif., that criticism overflowed on social media.
“WAS ‘ME LOVE YOU LONG TIME’ RICE BOWLS ALREADY TAKEN, @WholeFoods @365byWholeFoods????” Jenny Yang, a comedian and writer in Los Angeles who grew up in Torrance, wrote on Twitter.
As the Asian-American cultural critic Jeff Yang would note minutes later in a reply to Ms. Yang, there was another layer of nuance: The restaurant’s co-founder and executive chef is an Asian-American woman.
The public debate created an opportunity for Asian-Americans and others to grapple with larger questions about reclaiming disparaging language and about the power of corporate America.
Yellow fever is traditionally known as a virus transmitted by mosquitoes, but the phrase is also used to describe a sexual fetish for Asian women, often by white men.
“This is not about taking down someone who is obviously putting a lot of energy into building their business and owning their dreams,” Ms. Yang said. “But when a restaurateur chooses to use a joke at the expense of Asian-Americans, I would hope they would consider the consequences on how they represent us — especially if they’re going to have a larger platform partnering with Whole Foods.”
For centuries, entrepreneurial Asians have leveraged the power of American racism to their advantage, said Mark Padoongpatt, an associate professor of Asian and Asian-American Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
In the mid-1800s, the “Siamese twins,” Chang and Eng Bunker, marketed themselves as exotic and of the Orient. Anna May Wong, considered one of the first Chinese-American movie stars, built her career largely by taking on the stereotypical roles Hollywood reserved for her.
More recently, though, Asian-Americans have deliberately sought to reclaim and then recast some of the most timeworn tropes.
Last year, the Asian-American band the Slants won a yearslong battle that ended up before the United States Supreme Court, affirming their right to trademark the name, which draws on a demeaning stereotype about the shape of Asian eyes. And the television show “Fresh Off the Boat,” and the memoir off which it is based, have sought to explore and dispel the misconceptions the title breeds.
As critics of Yellow Fever have pointed out, those cases involved art of a different kind. While food can be expressive, critics said the restaurant appears to be making little effort to challenge ideas about how Asian women are viewed sexually.
“I do think it’s great to see an Asian-American woman start a successful business, and partnering with Whole Foods is probably a big benefit to her,” said Karin Wang, a vice president with the Los Angeles branch of the civil rights organization Asian Americans Advancing Justice.
But she added: “As an Asian-American woman, I look at the term, and it’s either a terrible disease you get in tropical countries or it’s an offensive concept of white men pursuing Asian women based purely on their race. I don’t know what’s worth reclaiming about that.”
In interviews, Kelly Kim, Yellow Fever’s executive chef and co-founder, has said that she was drawn to the name because it was memorable and that she and her husband, Michael, were trying to reappropriate it to mean something less pejorative.
A media kit for the restaurant said, “Yellow Fever … yeah, we really said that.” The kit said the name was attention-getting but that “we choose to embrace the term and reinterpret it positively for ourselves.”
In a statement on Saturday, Ms. Kim added, “Yellow Fever celebrates all things Asian: the food, the culture and the people, and our menu reflects that featuring cuisine from Korea, Japan, China, Vietnam, Thailand and Hawaii.”
Dr. Padoongpatt said the Kims’ statements hint at a more troubling issue: It is not that they do not know how loaded the phrase is — it is that they know and do not care.
“We want to be able to say, ‘Just educate yourself,’” he said. “But not caring is much more aggressive. It’s much more explicit, and basically mocking.”
Ms. Yang targeted some of her ire at Whole Foods for implicitly endorsing the restaurant’s name.
“The Whole Foods executives, of all of the different independent restaurants based in Southern California, chose Yellow Fever to represent Long Beach, which has so many Asian-Americans, so many southeast Asians, so many Filipinos — it kind of baffles me,” she said. “The moment you get a corporate partnership with Whole Foods, that’s a bigger platform.”
In an interview with The Washington Post, Ms. Kim said she had discussed the restaurant’s name with Whole Foods, but could not recall how the issue was raised.
Whole Foods, which lists Yellow Fever as a “friend” of its store in Long Beach, Calif., did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
The restaurant’s name has probably been a net positive for Whole Foods and for the Kims from a publicity and marketing perspective, said Susan S. Harmeling, an associate professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Southern California.
Dr. Harmeling, who is also an expert in business ethics, noted that it is difficult for a restaurant to break through — especially in a county like Los Angeles.
“She knew exactly what she was doing,” she said of Ms. Kim.