In 1800, my ancestor Aaron Barlow traveled with his daughter Esther to Norfolk, Virginia where both got caught by a yellow-fever epidemic and died. They are buried in a mass grave there, along with hundreds, if not thousands, of other victims. Death by yellow fever was never pleasant and the disease has killed millions–though there is a vaccine, thousands still die of it each year.
Any student of history knows about yellow fever. Any student of film does, too: One of Bette Davis’s signature roles was Julie Marden in Jezebel, a woman who ends up in the middle of a New Orleans yellow fever outbreak.
But contemporary entrepreneurs, apparently, do not.
Whole Foods is hosting a restaurant in Long Beach, California called “Yellow Fever” with the tag line, “Asian bowls for your soul.”
My first reaction on reading about it this morning was, “Oh, for your soul? Because it will kill you?” My second was, “And just how racially insensitive do you have to be?” The “yellow peril,” after all, was a phrase of anti-Asian hysteria that lasted well past the end of World War II. Connecting “yellow” with “Asia” still has overtones of that.
The co-founder of the chain doesn’t get it. “I think it’s been silly, and I think it’s a bit funny that it’s all of a sudden a big deal,” said Korean-American Kelly Kim to a reporter for the New York Daily News. Personally, if I were starting a restaurant (not as far-fetched as it might seem: I once did own a cafe), I would not start out with a name that would make anyone who has received vaccinations for travel in yellow-fever areas start with a slightly sour taste in their mouths (the vaccine itself can cause a reaction) and then turn away along with all of the self-aware Asians who wouldn’t set foot in the place.
That one of the founders is Asian-American doesn’t excuse the choice. Nor does ignorance. It would have taken only a moment to discover the resonances of the name. Kim, clearly, does not care. She suggested to The Daily News that the uproar came from those who “want to stir the pot a little bit.” That’s not just ignorance, that’s willful ignorance.
And it’s of a sort any good liberal-arts student has outgrown.