Asians Decry Adidas Shoe as a Misstep

Adidad Shoe
The shoe depicts a character with a bowl haircut and slanted eyes. (Adidas-Salomon AG)

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By Michael Tunison
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 14, 2006

A new, limited-edition shoe from Adidas-Salomon AG, part of the "Yellow Series" and decorated with the face of a character who has buck teeth, a bowl haircut and slanted eyes, has provoked a heated debate about the lines dividing racism, art and commerce.

The character on the shoe is the creation of a San Francisco graffiti artist, Barry McGee, who is half Chinese. McGee, who calls the character Ray Fong after an uncle who died, said the image is based on how the artist looked as an 8-year-old.

"You have to look at it as a piece of artwork," said McGee, 40, who used Ray Fong as a graffiti tag in the late 1990s and later in art installations and catalogue covers. "The way we put it all together, it becomes a collectible as art."

The shoe was released April 1, with 1,000 pairs on sale at a dozen boutiques in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Paris, London, Tokyo, Hamburg and Denmark. It retails for $250 and comes with a graffiti art fanzine.

Since then, several blogs and message boards have been consumed with fervid debate over the shoe, and Asian American organizations have said it evokes damaging and long-standing stereotypes.

"You're kidding me, right?" read an entry on the Web site Angry Asian Man. " That's racist! "

Others point out that McGee's mother is Chinese and that he often uses art to explode stereotypes of Asians. On the blog AdJab, Adam Finley wrote, "My theory . . . is that Adidas is trying to target a younger, hipper demographic that is already familiar with the underground art world and the images can seem controversial when not seen in the proper context."

The Organization of Chinese Americans, which is based in the District, has received about 40 complaints from its members, according to communication director Anh Phan. The organization has sent a formal letter of complaint to Adidas, asking for removal of the shoe from the market.

"We initially didn't think it would become that big of a deal, but our members seem to think otherwise," said Phan. "Taken in context with all the mentions of yellow, it's upsetting. We want people to be mindful of that when trying to promote their products."

Dorothy Wong, the group's executive director, said such images define Asians as foreigners. "And it fuels an anti-immigrant sentiment that has been coming to the fore lately," she said.

McGee's role as an artist and his ethnic background have confused the issue for some.

Still, said Frank H. Wu, dean of the Wayne State University Law School and author of the book "Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White," the images have an effect that cannot be ignored.

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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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