Kelly Kim and her husband wanted the name of their new pan-Asian restaurant to stand out, eschewing bland or stereotypical phrases, like bamboo, dragon and lotus.
Then it hit them. Yellow Fever.
“That’s memorable,” Kim recalls saying to her husband Michael before they opened their first location in late 2013, in a Saturday interview with The Washington Post.
After Wednesday’s opening of a third location in a Whole Foods 365 store in Long Beach, Calif., it may be memorable in a different away.
The announcement triggered a national outcry on social media, with many criticizing the name’s racist undertones.
Yellow fever is a mosquito-borne infection that kills thousands every year, mostly in Africa, and named for the jaundice hemorrhage that the virus produces. But the phrase is also a common reference to a term associated with a white man’s sexual fascination with Asian women.
Kim, who said that before this week the name wasn’t an issue, did not take the term to have an overtly sexual or even negative meaning, adding that it is more nuanced than what critics have said.
The term implies “an attraction or affinity of Asian people or Asian things,” such as Korean pop music or karaoke, she said. “I never took it to a have deeper meaning. … It’s a little tongue in cheek, but I never saw it as offensive or racist or anti-feminist,” she said.
Kim, who is also the executive chef, said she discussed the charged nature of her restaurant’s name with Whole Foods, but could not recall if her partners or the company raised the issue.
Austin-based Whole Foods did not return a request for comment. The company lists Yellow Fever and another store, Groundwork Coffee, as “friends of 365,” a Whole Foods program in which local businesses are provided a space inside the store to draw more customers. (Whole Foods is owned by Amazon.com; Jeffrey P. Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon, also owns The Washington Post.)
The restaurant, which serves bowls of rice, noodles, or salad with various toppings and sauces, has long embraced its name and interpretations.
“Yellow Fever … yeah, we really said that. Yes, the name definitely gets your attention. But rather than narrowly associating it with a deadly disease or with perpetuating racial stereotypes, we choose to embrace the term and reinterpret it positively for ourselves,” Yellow Fever company material provided to The Post said.
In previous media interviews, Kim has acknowledged the potential for negative reactions to the name.
“Once, I had a friend who was grabbing our food for lunch and her white friend wasn’t sure if he was allowed to eat here,” she told Asian culture site Next Shark last year, adding that she wanted to “re-appropriate” the term to define it her way.
The discussion playing out on social media has been more heated.
“An Asian ‘bowl’ resto called YELLOW FEVER in the middle of whitest Whole Foods — is this taking back of a racist image or colonized mind?” Marie Myung-Ok Lee, an author and professor at Columbia University, wrote Saturday on Twitter. Others on social media called the name racist.
While some saw the name as racist, others noted association of the deadly disease that ravages poor nations.
“I can’t separate the name from yellow fever (the disease) or the freaking painful vaccination shot against it,” Laura Seay, a government professor at Colby College and an Africa analyst, wrote on Twitter.
Yet some on social media, like Seay, dialed back their criticism once they learned the store has existed for some time and was created and named after an Asian American woman.
Much of the discussion is aimed at Whole Foods and the perception of the store catering to an affluently white demographic.
“Don’t understand why “yellow fever” is racist? THAT’s exactly the problem,” one Twitter user wrote Saturday. Brin Inks, a woman interviewed outside the store by CBS 2, said the term carries an offensive sexual and racist charge.
Others were concerned that the restaurant’s name and partnership with Whole Foods legitimizes the term.
Kim is sticking by the name, she told The Post.
Negative comments and messages she has received this week have been from non-Asian Americans, she said.
Asian American and white customers alike have come to support her, she said, and business has been good at her new location, with no protests or backlash so far.
Long Beach is a food desert, she said, and the store has been a welcome addition. That makes a controversy all the more frustrating, she said.
“We’re just a small business. Now all of a sudden people are bashing on us,” she said.
Reviews of the chain have been mostly positive, noting the bright decor and wide variety of Asian-themed dishes, such as the Seoul and Tokyo bowls. Diners looking for a light refreshment can opt for the “Bruce Lee” — a green tea and lemonade mix. “So so SO delicious,” one Yelp reviewer glowed.
But other Yelpers took offense to the name.
“First off, change the name. Do you think it’s cool to use Racial term to yourself? Do you think it’s OK if Asian are calling themselves with that name?” one reviewer wrote in October 2016, leaving one star.
Another diner struggled to reconcile the name with her affection for the food.
“Ugh the name of this place skeeves me out,” a woman said in an August five-star review, “but I’ll be damned if they don’t make a tasty bowl.”