The Fortune Cookie Incident

This is a story about a racist role-playing game I encountered at Dreamation 2019. This game exemplifies how racist expressions draw on public-facing and commercially available cultural expressions: in this case food, cinema, and sport. It is also a story about the man who designed and facilitated the game, but I wish it didn’t have to be. I want to focus on what he did, not who he is, because he now realizes the thing he made harms Asians and he wants to improve.

I don’t know whether he’ll succeed, though, because he wrote a game about fortune cookies.

If you prefer to watch and/or listen, here’s a sub-20-minute video version of this article. It’s identical to the article—you needn’t consume both.

Wait, Really?

Fortune Cookie Kung Fu; "Stand Up For What Matters" by [redacted] Games; presented by [redacted]. An INDEPENDENTLY PUBLISHED GAME - Part of the Indie Games Explosion! A stranger is a friend you have not spoken to yet. Lucky numbers: 59-28-60-03-70-81. Destroy evil wherever it lives. It takes courage to do right by others. Let the stars guide your fortune, and engage in deadly battle. The rules are very simple. Bring cash and show up early if you want to order Chinese (optional). Extra fortune cookies will be provided. Saturday, 6:00PM - 8:00PM; One Round; All Materials Provided. Beginners Welcome; Very Silly, All Ages.

The game description you just read is the most recent iteration of one which has appeared for the past several years—years!—on the schedules for Dreamation and Dexcon, two annual conventions in the Double Exposure series at the Hyatt Regency in Morristown, New Jersey. The only person I know who’s played this game is Banana Chan, who left halfway through the game because the other players were white men doing racist accents; but make sure to check out her upcoming collaboration with Sen-Foong Lim on a game about Chinese restaurants and vampires.

Thus I formulated Plan A: to assemble all my Asian friends to sign up for the game en masse and just … see what happened. It didn’t pan out because so many Asians that weekend were ill, tired, scheduled for other things, or already exhausted from all the racism they had experienced one day beforehand. I almost didn’t go, but I realized that if I held off in the hopes of making this somewhat extra stunt happen, someone else might have a bad experience just like the one my friend had. So by the time we get to the room where the game takes place, it’s just me and one Japanese friend, Amber Viescas. And no one else.

The game materials are already on the table. There’s a character sheet with “Scroll of Destined Hero” (no “the”) printed across the top, spaces to write down your fortune and lucky numbers, and a selection of special abilities for characters to choose from including “Ancient Wisdom,” “Cunning Treachery,” and other classics from your favorite Asian stereotypes. Also there’s a Chinese food menu that—no, wait, that’s not a Chinese menu, that’s the actual literal rules for the game printed in red and green on white paper, with images of chili peppers as bullet points.

Mendez’s hand with a fortune that reads, “Happiness is not the absence of conflict, but the ability to cope with it.” Behind him on the table are some game materials, one of which is a rules cheat with green text and red borders like a Chinese menu. And chili pepper bullet points.

Mendez’s hand with a fortune that reads, “Happiness is not the absence of conflict, but the ability to cope with it.” Behind him on the table are some game materials, one of which is a rules cheat with green text and red borders like a Chinese menu. And chili pepper bullet points.

Also there were actual Chinese menus (not pictured), and a folder with a cover image for the game that looked like the Chinese ninjas from Mortal Kombat, complete with mask, conical hat, and uniform that looks like you strapped a pair of Levis upside down to the front of your torso. The font for the game’s title is that fake calligraphy font you know and hate from Chinese restaurant awnings and menu titles.

The game facilitator walks in. He’s a white guy whom I’ll call Pete, and I find myself wondering if he’s the one I used to see walking around the convention space in a conical straw hat. He asks if we want to order Chinese. We decline, figuring we’re gonna get our fill of racialized food signifiers even without.

Pete explains that this is a game about silly, bad action movies which uses fortune cookies as inspiration. He mentions that the action movie influences need not be martial arts films, which is a surprise to me given the title of the game and the conspicuous racism that suffuses the game materials and the past few years of game descriptions, drawn directly from Western derision toward low-budget Chinese martial cinema. He instructs each of us to break open a cookie, write down the fortune, and write down our lucky numbers on the character sheet; then has each of us draw cards from a custom oracle deck to finish out our character inspirations.

I ask if these characters are supposed to be Chinese. He says no, and that’s when the game goes from low-key awkward to intensely awkward.

Pete stops and explains that before the game, something weird happened. Someone hacked the website he normally used to generate fortune cookie-like titles and descriptions for his game sessions, replacing the usual messages with horrifically racist slogans. So he says he wants to dedicate this session to doing what’s right, to standing up for what matters, to fighting stereotype.

“That’s great,” I say, “but your game materials aren’t exactly helping you here.” Then Pete, to his credit, sits down and starts taking notes; and Amber and I do an hour of unpaid cultural consulting, starting with an abbreviated history of fortune cookies.

The History of Fortune Cookies

It’s 1864. The Tóngzhì Emperor, tenth of the Qīng Dynasty, rules China. The Tàipíng Rebellion and the Dungan Revolt have led to violence and famine. Thousands of Chinese laborers arrive in the United States to build the Transcontinental Railroad. They are, to put it delicately, treated poorly.

A black-and-white photo of many Chinese railworkers posing on a rail line. From the Chinese Railroad Workers’ Memorial Project.

A black-and-white photo of many Chinese railworkers posing on a rail line. From the Chinese Railroad Workers’ Memorial Project.

It’s 1882. The United States government passes the Chinese Exclusion Act, halting further Chinese immigration to the country on the grounds of a nebulous cultural and economic threat, which fans of my other articles will recognize as the Yellow Peril. The Geary Act of 1892 would extend the block on Chinese immigration indefinitely. After the turn of the century, only Chinese restaurateurs could circumvent the ban, importing friends and family for the express purpose of working in the Chinese restaurants which would become ubiquitous across North America.

It’s 1886. Lee Yick wins Yick Wo v. Hopkins, a landmark case in which the Supreme Court unanimously rules that a law, while race-neutral in its text, has been enforced in an intolerably racist manner. It has only a marginal effect on race relations.

It’s 1906. The Japanese bakery Benkyodo opens in San Francisco, California, supplying the Japanese Tea Garden with cakes shaped like what we now know as fortune cookies, but larger, based on tsujiura senbei (an older Japanese confection with an accompanying divination, available at shrines). Chinese restaurants soon adopt the cookie design as well.

It’s 1942. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signs Executive Order 9066, forcing one hundred twenty thousand Japanese Americans into internment camps. In the vacuum, Chinese food entrepreneurs take over manufacturing fortune cookies.

A public ceremony at the bleak Manzanar internment camp in Owens Valley, California. From the LA Times.

A public ceremony at the bleak Manzanar internment camp in Owens Valley, California. From the LA Times.

A series of racist tragedies created fortune cookies in their modern form. Chinese people came to the United States for the American Dream, but found exploitation and discrimination instead. Racist laws forced them to toil in Chinese restaurants under oppressive circumstances to survive here. The “lucky break” they caught came at other Asian Americans’ heartbreaking expense. Finally, white appetites, which had already twisted Chinese culinary traditions beyond recognition, forced Chinese restaurants to adopt tokens of Asian marginalization as their symbol. Is it any wonder, then, that racists who jeer at Asians like to bring up Chinese food in general, and fortune cookies in particular? But even without the chance to compound a century and a half of prejudice, I think racists would still rely on fortune cookies to mock us, just as they rely on the Deep South’s cuisine to mock Black Americans.

Food can be a love language, a pure and good way to share our culture with someone else; but food and prejudice are also inextricable. Ethnic expressions which are for sale—like Chinese food, Chinese movies, or Chinese boxing lessons—are the signifiers most familiar to racists. It’s not at all bad that they’re for sale; but when racists reach for something to twist into a weapon, the first thing they find is something they can buy.

This flavor of denigration is so prevalent that I feel a little condescending providing examples, but think about that “go cook my burrito” guy. Think about the cook who told Dave Chappelle “Blacks and chickens are quite fond of one another”. Think about the frustrating food comparisons that appear even in neutral to positive depictions of people of color. Think about rumors that Jews drink blood. Think of how Afro-Atlantic religionists had to fight all the way to the Supreme Court to sacrifice and eat animals in sacred ceremonies—the same animals everyone else eats, just killed more humanely than in the meatpacking industry. Even Irish, Italian, and Russian stereotypes rely on alcohol and seasonings. We can’t hate on the other without hating on what the other ingests.

Pete did not know the history of fortune cookies. He does now.

In Netflix’s  GLOW,  based on a real American professional wrestling promotion from the 1980s,  Ellen Wong  plays a Cambodian woman forced to wrestle as an Asian-themed heel named “Fortune Cookie.”

In Netflix’s GLOW, based on a real American professional wrestling promotion from the 1980s, Ellen Wong plays a Cambodian woman forced to wrestle as an Asian-themed heel named “Fortune Cookie.”

“Bad” Movies and Broken English

“Then there’s the character sheet. This grammatical error,” I say, “‘Scroll of Destined Hero’—do you know where that comes from?”

“Probably not somewhere good,” says Pete.

“In Chinese–in Classical or Mandarin, for example—the word order for this phrase would be ‘destined hero of scroll’ [pretty sure now that it’s ‘yùnxiá de juànzhòu’] and there wouldn’t be an article. So if you’re starting out in English you might have trouble remembering to put in an article. That common mistake becomes a way racists make fun of how Chinese people talk.”

Then Amber explains how the abilities on the character sheet line up with stereotypes. We don’t spend much time on the “bad movies” issue, since Pete had already decided before the game started that divorcing his game from low-budget Chinese cinema would be a good idea, and even had a cyberpunk drift of it which seemed way less racist, although it’ll have its own orientalism issues. But to be clear for those of you following along at home, lampooning wǔxiá cinema by making fun of cost-cutting measures in Shaw Brothers movies is punching down, especially when you marry it to racist food tropes. You’re making fun of people for being poor and making internationally successful movies anyway, before we even get to the martial arts stereotypes which are the #3 most popular theme for racism towards Asians after creepy sex things and food, narrowly beating out mathematics and Confucius.

Hold Up. So Is Making Fun of Wǔxiá Films Illegal?

Nah. You just gotta be good at it. My favorite parody of bad wǔxiá does so in a loving, affirming way. It’s called Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

SIDEQUEST!

Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon affectionately parodies older wǔxiá cinema. It takes tropes from low-budget film—exaggerated wirework, unconvincing disguises, slain masters, sexy orientalized(!) Arabesque desert raiders, overwrought ways to murder people, and the theft of the most stolen object in all of martial fiction (the Wǔdāng Manual)—and plays them for melodrama and staggering beauty. It most directly calls back to a low-budget but nonetheless excellent and groundbreaking 1966 film called Come Drink With Me, starring Zhèng Pèipèi—who plays the villain in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Several scenes in CTHD are shot-for-shot recreations of scenes in CDWM.

Mendez holding his (probably stolen) copy of  The Wu-Tang Manual  by the RZA.

Mendez holding his (probably stolen) copy of The Wu-Tang Manual by the RZA.

Pretty much every actor in CTHD maintains a straight face the entire time, even after the restaurant fight scene which is supposed to tip the movie’s hand that yes, this is a joke. In this scene, which has next to no plot relevance, Zhāng Zìyí visits a tavern while dressed as a young man, just as Zhèng Pèipèi did in CDWM. She finds it packed to the rafters with eccentric martial artists armed with weird random objects like an iron abacus for no good reason whatsoever. They manufacture a reason to fight and she beats all of them, demolishing the tavern in the process—a nod to the fact that if a restaurant appears on-screen in a wǔxiá film, there is a 100% chance a fight will break out à la Chekhov’s gun.

The fact that millions of people, including mndz on his first ever date in the year 2000 before seeing any wǔxiá whatsoever, saw CTHD and interpreted it as a dead serious action-tragedy speaks to its success as a parody. It lampshades all the same silly genre tropes as works like Fortune Cookie Kung Fu, but does so with subtlety, artistry, and deep love for the genre, rather than with the obvious go-to jokes for every bully who ever hazed an Asian kid on a playground. It is hilarious in a way that makes viewers in the know feel uniquely seen and validated, while still providing a satisfying experience that’s valuable in its own right for viewers who don’t know wǔxiá. CTHD is simultaneously two movies, the serious drama and the parody, and those two movies converse with one another in a way that strengthens both.

Zhāng Zìyí in men’s clothing posing badassfully with her sword in that restaurant fight scene from  Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Zhāng Zìyí in men’s clothing posing badassfully with her sword in that restaurant fight scene from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

So never let it be said that mndz doesn’t appreciate wǔxiá comedy. I do. But I want more than obvious punching down, and you shouldn’t settle for any less either. Besides, do you really want to punch down at someone much more practiced at punching?

Back to fortune cookies.

An Insurmountable Obstacle

It turns out Pete’s college Dungeons & Dragons games originally inspired the game. His group often ordered Chinese food when they played D&D, so fortune cookies were always lying around. He wanted to design a system that used fortune cookies. Yes, the association with kung fu came from a place of racism—not even really subconscious racism, just thoughtless racism that imagines itself a victimless crime, yet reinforces the lie that it’s okay to talk to us like this, to talk about us like this, to talk about us without asking us who we are or what we want. But Pete recognizes he made a mistake. He’s sat and taken notes for an hour, agreed he should phase out the kung fu association, and asked if we’d be willing to look over his next draft of the rules. He also mentions at some point that he’d brought this game to a Metatopia game design conference, where several professional designers told him not to make this game, which makes its continued existence kinda mystifying. We tell him yes, sure, we’ll look over it, though paying cultural consulting jobs have to come first.

“But here’s the problem,” I say.

“If your game prominently features fortune cookies, everyone will assume you’re racist. Racists will want to play your game because they hope they can indulge in racism while they play. Others won’t even give it a second look because they’ll assume it’s harmful.

“Now you know and I know that you just like fortune cookies, that you just want a cute oracle system for your game. But most people won’t care. They won’t look past that one external signifier, that fortune cookie. They’ll pre-judge you and your game based on that signifier. And it’s not your fault. You didn’t make fortune cookies racist. A hundred fifty years of bad actors who weren’t you caused us all to make a bunch of negative associations every time we see a fortune cookie. And you will never overcome those associations. Nothing you do will matter as much as that one outward signifier packed with evil by people who have nothing to do with you. No matter your truth, you’ll never get over it.

“And that feeling? That knowledge that you will be judged by a signifier whose meaning you have no control over, and that it will eclipse the truth of what’s going in?

“Imagine that printed on your entire body and your entire life, and that’s how racism feels.”

The Takeaway

Pete parts with us on good terms. He emails me a little later thanking me for my time and my help. I’m hopeful, somehow, that he’ll find some way to make a fortune cookie game that’s not racist. Please don’t worry about Pete. Especially don’t track down and bother Pete. That’s not what this is all about.

What this is all about is the relationship between commerce and outward-facing cultural signifiers and racism. They come from restaurants, movie theaters, and martial arts schools; and as role-playing games gain more success and attention, they might come from role-playing games too. Within our community, they already do—from Oriental Adventures, Shadowrun, Legend of the Five Rings, and Kindred of the East. Our meals, movies, fighting styles, and games don’t get to be just that, any more than we get to be just people. Racism, not race, destines us to be our cultures’ representatives.

It’s also a reminder that the past never stays buried. Fortune Cookie Kung Fu’s story didn’t start when it first appeared on the schedule at a convention. It started in Qīng China, 1864. Racist traditions always survive, as full of life and uncertainty as any positive tradition. The story doesn’t end here, either. What will this game look like when it returns at Dexcon in July? If a guy as well-meaning as Pete can make a game like this, what else is out there?

So when you create content about marginalized people, don’t stop at obvious signifiers. Racists forced Chinese Americans to sell fortune cookies to survive, so leaving this fraught symbol in Chinese hands is your safest bet. The cultural expressions we sell are the ones most likely to carry oppressive baggage. Instead, dig for touchstones underrepresented in the public eye. The thing you make will be stronger for it, and so will we.


This is my first Patreon-supported post; if you liked it, back me and help me ensure there’s more to come! Respect to my friends and backers who helped look over this piece. You can hear me talk more about this topic this coming weekend at PAX East, where I’ll join Banana Chan and Sharang Biswas on the Designing Asian Settings and Themes panel in the Arachnid Theatre from 1500 to 1600 on Saturday 30 March. No fortune cookies will be provided.