Sunday, April 09, 2006

Adidas sneaker roils Asian-Americans


By K. Oanh Ha
San Jose Mercury News

A debate pitting artistic expression against the marketing of an offensive image has ensnarled shoemaker Adidas, a San Francisco specialty clothing store, and a well-known Bay Area graffiti artist.

Some Asian-Americans are charging racism in the release of a limited-edition Adidas sneaker that bears an artist's image of an Asian man with bowl-cut hair, slanted eyes, pig nose and buck teeth. Asian-Americans say the offensive image, similar to ones used in anti-Chinese political cartoons in the past, perpetuates a negative stereotype of Asians. Meanwhile Adidas and the clothing manufacturer contend it's about art and self-expression.

To be sure, this is a tempest in a very small teapot. Only 1,000 pairs of the offending shoes have been produced. Sold at boutique shoe stores for $250, they're aimed at die-hard sneaker collectors, not everyday shoe-shoppers. But thanks to the Internet, images of the shoes are floating in cyberspace, sparking a fevered blogging and e-mail campaign among anti-bias activists around the Pacific.

The outcry is reminiscent of the Abercrombie and Fitch incident a few years ago, which resulted in the clothing store pulling from its stores T-shirts that featured offensive caricatures of Asians.

Bloggers in Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong have picked up the sneaker debate. ``First off . . . yellow. We're still the yellow peril to them, huh?'' wrote one blogger at Mr. Brown, a blog in Singapore. The shoe is part of an Adidas collection called ``Adicolor Yellow series.''

But much of the discussion is centered on the Bay Area, where clothing store HUF and artist, Barry McGee, are recognized names.

``I was offended and really hurt,'' said Cuong Lam, a self-professed Richmond ``sneakerhead'' with a collection of 60 shoes, including a handful of Adidas. Lam vented at an online discussion board devoted to sneaker collecting. His post is one of hundreds in a 13-page message thread titled ``Is Huf racist?''

``I've been put down all my life as a Chinese man. This reinforces the stereotype and how the rest of America views Asian people.''

The caricature is on the tongue of the shoe, on smaller decorative shoelace pieces, and the heel reads: ``Fong.'' McGee has used this image before in his art; Ray Fong is a fictional character he created.

McGee, who is part Chinese, has a reputation for being a subversive artist. He did not respond to Mercury News attempts to reach him by e-mail, at his home and through HUF.

For its part, Adidas said it ``appreciates all self-expression. . . . We had no intention of offending any individual or group,'' said a company spokeswoman in an e-mail to the Mercury News. ``Adidas knew of (McGee's) work and did not intend nor foresee any offense.''

The company said it has received complaints but it was not an ``overwhelming amount.'' The shoe, a collaboration between Adidas and HUF, was released April 1 in a dozen boutique shops worldwide. It has nearly sold out, said Adidas. HUF owner Keith Hufnagel dismissed the accusations of racism as ``Internet garbage.''

``They should do their studying before they say anything,'' he said. Before its release, Hufnagel said he didn't think the image would be objectionable to anyone. ``It's not bad if you understand the story behind it.''

Critics and Asian-American groups aren't appeased by the companies' responses.

The fact the image has been used previously in McGee's art as anti-racist commentary doesn't make it less objectionable, they say.

McGee's image ``might come from a good place, but slapping a Chinese face on a sneaker removes it from that context,'' said Aimee Baldillo, a deputy director at the Asian American Justice Center in Washington, D.C., which has received complaints about the shoe. ``Ultimately it becomes yet another harmful image that perpetuates the stereotype of Asians.''

The image is even more shocking, most say, because it came from Adidas, a global shoe maker based in Germany. ``I thought America had moved past that image of Asian people with slanted eyes and buck teeth, especially after the Abercrombie and Fitch controversy,'' said Wyman Jung, a 30-year-old Chinese-American in Berkeley.

While a few critics call for boycotting Adidas, most want an apology. Meanwhile, Asian-American groups say the incident is a wake-up call.

``It's very sad and disturbing that in this day and age, this stereotype is coming from a large and global company like Adidas,'' said Vincent Pan, executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action in San Francisco. ``It says we still have a lot of work left to do.''

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