Boycotting Wolfgang Puck
Betting on the power of word-of-mouth

Erika Hayasaki August 15, 1998 0

Seattle’s ObaChine restaurant strives to please with gourmet Asian cuisine and decor with an Asian flare. But there may soon be a conspicuous absence of one thing: Asian patrons—at ObaChine and any of the other upscale restaurants owned by the husband-wife team of Wolfgang Puck and Barbara Lazaroff.

The national boards of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) and the Organization of Chinese Americans (OCA) recently passed resolutions urging a national boycott of all Lazaroff and Puck-owned products until a controversial poster is removed.

The first step towards a nationwide boycott was taken at the JACL national convention in Philadelphia, Pa. over the July 4th weekend. Janice Yee, president of the Seattle JACL chapter, proposed a resolution supporting the boycott that passed with overwhelming support.

“We don’t want her [Lazaroff’s] actions, in her refusal to take the poster down, to go unchallenged,” Yee said. “We will maintain this boycott until she takes the poster down.”

JACL has 110 chapters nationwide with over 100,000 members, according to Yee. Each chapter will be responsible for educating their communities about the issue through publicity and education events.

The Organization of Chinese Americans passed the resolution at its national convention held July 17 in Washington D.C. OCA has 41 chapters and 30 college affiliates nationally, with a membership of approximately 10,000.

“The national OCA passing this resolution recognizes the poster’s negative impacts,” said Wang Yung, past president of the OCA Seattle chapter. “And it puts to rest those characterizations of Seattle as overly-sensitive.”

Five months ago, Asian Americans in Seattle urged Lazaroff, the interior designer for Wolfgang Puck’s restaurants, to remove the print of a Chinese man that they considered a racial caricature. After meeting with community members to discuss the issue, Lazaroff declined to take the picture down. A spate of local media coverage ensued when crowds of Asian American community members and students twice picketed in front of the restaurant.

Seattle’s Asian Pacific Directors’ Coalition hatched the idea of a national boycott after it became clear that Lazaroff had no intention of removing the poster. Al Sugiyama, director of the coalition, said they are also planning to inform NAACP and the National Jewish Federation about the boycott.

The main purpose of the boycott, according to Frankie Irigon, Admissions Director at the Center for Career Alternatives, is to use networks of local chapters to carry out awareness-raising efforts about the existence and impacts of racist stereotypes.

“Not Art”

The poster hanging in the Seattle restaurant is taken from a tea advertisement painted by a Frenchman in the 1920s. The poster has the restaurant’s name emblazoned above it and greets patrons at the reservation desk.

Critics have objected to stereotypical exaggerations of the Chinese man’s features, particularly the appearance of slanted eyes, jaundiced skin, and feminized posture and hands. Asian American scholars have stated it is the type of colonial depiction that fostered “Yellow Peril” conceptions of the Far East around the turn of the century.

The same poster that is causing controversy in Seattle hangs in the Phoenix ObaChine restaurant, as well as the Santa Monica Chinois restaurant. Lazaroff claims it has been a good luck charm in the Chinois restaurant since she began displaying it there 15 years ago.

Lazaroff’s collection of art, which decorates ObaChine, is worth more than $100,000 and comes from her extensive travels throughout Asia.

Lazaroff has said she is not a racist, even though she continues to display the poster. She has pointed to her Jewish background and Chinese American goddaughter as evidence of the diversity in her life.

Ron Chew, director of the Wing Luke Asian Museum, met with Lazaroff last March to try to persuade her to remove the controversial poster. He said Larzaroff showed him other pieces of her collection of art from Asia.

“Most of the images she collects were created in the period of the late 1800s to 1900s. A lot of them were European depictions of Asians. She has quite a collection,” Chew said.

Seattle artist James Leong said the poster should not be confused with art.

The Frenchman who drew the poster intended to use it for a tea company advertisement. Over 10 years ago, Lazaroff took the original drawing and made a copy of it. The copied version is the one that now hangs in her restaurant.
“It has nothing to do with art whatsoever,” Leong said. “It is a commercial piece that was made at the expense of the Chinese.”

Rising Stars

Puck and Lazaroff, the famous couple whose claim of trendy upscale restaurants made them millionaire-celebrities beginning with Hollywood’s “Spago” in 1982, own 30 restaurants around the world, including one in Kuwait. They plan to open two new restaurants in Melbourne and Tokyo.

The multi-million dollar restaurant empire includes 18 casual dinning cafes, such as Spago, Chinois and Wolfgang Puck Pizza Cafe, as well as three ObaChine restaurants and one package foods division. Their restaurant can be found in Las Vegas, Florida, Arizona and throughout California.

The name “ObaChine,” was coined by Lazarofff. “Oba” was derived from the Japanese Oba leaf, while “Chine” is the French word for China.

“Ultimately we wanted a name that would inspire people’s imagination,” Lazaroff told the Puget Sound Business Journal. “ObaChine sounds like a magical land I’d like to visit.”

John Trejo, the praised former-chef at Seattle’s ObaChine, is half Italian and half Spanish. He worked at ObaChine for nearly two years, but left the Seattle ObaChine about eight months ago.

Trejo had no experience cooking Asian food, so Wolfgang Puck put him through a three-month crash course in Asian cooking in California. Trejo then went on to teach the Seattle ObaChine staff.

Rick Noguchi, a member of the Arizona JACL chapter said there has not been a lot of controversy surrounding the artwork in the Phoenix restaurant.

“There’s no critical mass of Asian here in Arizona, so it is pretty hard to do any kind of demonstration,” Noguchi said.

“It’s an easy matter for her just to take the pictures down. In that sense, this is silly,” said Wang Yung.

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