Sunday, August 15, 2010

"Tim Tam from Vietnam". Or, how NOT to make jokes about Asians.

Comedian Ben Price likes to describe himself as "Australia's Best Impersonator". He turns up on commercial radio here and there, impersonating famous people, but he also has an original character, Tim Tam from Vietnam. And if you are a moron, you can go pay money to watch him perform as this character. Oh damn, that was last month...

Now, if you've read this blog a bit, you'll know I am hardly opposed to racial comedy. Stereotypes can be funny. Indeed, some of my favourite comedians rely heavily on ethnic stereotyping - Dave Chappelle, Russell Peters and Jo Koy, to name but a few.

And to my Vietnamese brothers and sisters - while I got made love for y'all, you got to admit that your accent is just a little bit funny, and ripe for being made fun of.

So why do I think that "Tim Tam from Vietnam" is an utter steaming turd?

Well, first judge for yourself:

Better hold your sides together in case they split. Tim Tam's Facebook page has all the best jokes. For example:

"i just see Jim Cameron new movie about killing dogs in 3D is called Abattoir"

"We go to market on weekend, my son Ruba Phong ask ip he can have a big dog. I say no we have no room for a big dog, only little dog... our oven way too small."

"Dis my fav place to eat noodle. Also my uncle shop in Fooscray 2 minute poodles."

"I have sore neck for sic week, very sore. My fren tell me you should get Asian massage, I say no that is how I get sore nec. Ha very phunny!"

Have you finished laughing yet?

If you didn't find those jokes funny, maybe you don't grasp the incredibly sophisticated and subtle humour. See, Asian people have funny names. Asian people talk funny. Asian people eat dogs!

Tim Tam lives with his wife Yung Phat Cow and three children, Rubba Phong, Trashan Tresha and Sum Ting Wong. Of course, a name like "Sum Ting Wong" sounds Chinese rather than Vietnamese. And "Trashan Tresha"? Sounds Indian to me.

But what the hell, they are all Asian, and Asians are pretty much the same aren't they? So let's all laugh at them and their funny names and dog-eating ways. Oh, and see how in the photo he is doing some kind of martial arts pose? I hear that's another Asian thing.

Price does an interview in this suburban newspaper in which he lifts the veil on what makes him so incredibly funny and brilliant.

"Some people think that it is racist," Price said. "But racism is when you hate another culture, and I'm the opposite. I love multiculturalism. I think a good way to embrace multiculturalism is to involve them with comedy. And I send up everyone."

That's deep.

Now, I'm not saying Price hates another culture, but his comedy IS racist. Who is laughing at his material? Is it Vietnamese people? I doubt it. As you can see in the video, it is a mainstream white audience. They would not even know that his accent barely resembles Vietnamese at all (it is an amalgam of poorly imitated Chinese, Vietnamese and Japanese), because they don't know a lot about Asians except for the uneducated stereotypes. I'm surprised Price doesn't do the whole act pulling his eyes back into slits and saying, "Me soo solly!" Although I haven't seen his whole act, so you never know.

Let's hope that on his poster where it says "Only 2 shows", it means forever.

So, am I saying that no non-Vietnamese person should imitate Vietnamese people for their comedy act? Hell no. You just have to do it right.

As a counter-example, observe US comedian Anjelah Johnson, formerly of MadTV and elsewhere. Johnson is of Mexican and Native American heritage, and while she frequently mines her own cultural heritage for humour, her best-known bit revolves around her visit to a Vietnamese nail salon. I don't think she actually mentions explicitly that the workers are Vietnamese, but the accent is a giveaway.
This has over 20 million hits on Youtube so far.

Is Johnson's act racist? You could argue that it is. Is it funny? Certainly it is leagues ahead of Tim Tam.

From the discussions I've seen around the web, there are plenty of Vietnamese people who think her act is offensive, and plenty who think it is hilarious.

I'm not going to discount the opinions of those who are offended by it, but personally, I laughed a lot. I give it a pass, and it's not just because she is damn cute.

She actually nails the Vietnamese accent pretty darn well. I wouldn't say it's perfect by any means, but she gets the nuances mostly correct, and doesn't stray into any other Asian accent. I'll admit it does present a hackneyed stereotype - the dodgy Asian shopworker who is out to subtly cheat you. But I don't see it as being particularly nasty or ignorant. I figure that someone who can impersonate the Vietnamese so well must also be down with the Vietnamese.

As opposed to this next clip - another Mexican-American comedian, Pablo Francisco - who appears to have never actually met an Asian in his life. In terms of ignorant stereotypes and "haha let's all laugh at them stoopid chinks" attitude, I would say it's even worse than Tim Tam.

Of course, not only is he guilty of racism, but he is guilty of not being funny. (The audience may disagree, but to hell with them.) Francisco should be wary next time he decides to take a walk through Chinatown in pursuit of material - he might get his ass kicked. Because all Asians know martial arts, dontcha know.

(Hat tip: Ed's Rant)

See also:

Racial humour - is it ever ok?

Eliot Chang - racist questions

Is Peter Chao racist? You be the judge

The burqa dance - what do you think?


  1. I'm embarrassed to say that the suburban newspaper is the one I work for and I had to edit that article.. I cringed as I did so!!!

  2. @ fourth daughter: I think you'd have cringed more if you'd heard his full range of material!

  3. I think that the reason Anjelah Johnson's skit is funny and the others suck ass is because she sends up herself at the same time - it's not just plain old othering.

    I mean, she shows herself being a fool and swallowing everything wholesale as well as the nail-lady being a ittle rapacious.

    The other guys are just like "hey, look at those weird Asians!" and the subtext is "but I'm normal and looking at them from over here in normal land where all you guys the audience are too, right guys?!"

  4. @ Sasa:

    well articulated. Plus she seems to have actually met real Asians, as opposed to the two other guys who seem to only want to observe them from a distance.

  5. I love it! Ben pulled the Seinfeld Racism Defence-

    Should've talked to her; I love Chinese women.


    Isn't that a little racist?


    If I like their race, how can that be racist?..

    I think comedians and artists get a free pass as far as offensive statements go. It's their job to help people reflect on the world around them, on their limits and their prejudices.

    Most Australians live in the outer burbs and for many, especially older ones, Asians are still a novelty. I know a lot who still lump them all together as "Japanese" and hold war-time grudges. So to get to the point where they're featuring in the mainstream (and you can't get more mainstream than Ben) white narrative at all is probably a good sign. A parallel is probably Con the Fruiterer (with his daughters Hula, Tula, Zula and Agape). They're easy, dull jokes, but the lowest common denominator can relate to them, and once they've finished laughing, they can move on. Laughing at the strange is one way of coming to terms with it.

    Ben's comedy niche is actually being relatively clean and inoffensive (compared to those who set out to swear and shock) and not too challenging (either intellectually or of prejudices), which gets him gigs on "family" TV, radio and stage shows. It's not my cup of tea but he's made more of a career than most who try their hand at Aussie standup. I think it serves a function.

  6. @ bonoboboy:

    Ben Price doesn't seem like a bad guy to be honest. I haven't heard his other comedy so I won't judge.

    I think comedians and artists get a free pass as far as offensive statements go.

    I'll give him a pass for offensive statements - it's not really that offensive. But Tim Tam fails the test of comedy, for me. It's just shit.

    Pablo Francisco, on the other hand, needs a few slaps around the facial region. I'm not offended by his act, but I just want to shout at him "what the f*ck is wrong with you?"

  7. @ES:

    Ugh. The first guy sounded awful. The way he "spoke" Vietnamese made me cringe. The same with that Pablo Francisco guy. At least, Anjelah Johnson sounded a bit more convincing. They have a long way to go before they're even remotely funny regarding ethnic humor such as Russell Peters, Jo Koy, and the awesome Dave Chappelle.

  8. ES, I think you've nailed it. Otherwise offensive material gets a pass if and only if it's funny.

    Those guys are clowns. Anjelah Johnson is both cute and funny, so thumbs up to her.

  9. ES, where's the "Like" button for this post? Good post.

  10. Eurasian Sensation, you're absolutely right. It is racist the whole Tim Tam thing. I'm Vietnamese and I found that very offensive.
    Russell Peters, Dave Chapelle and Jo Koy are people of colour - this is a point that matters, which has to do with 'effective' racism.

    I think Tim Wise discussing the use of the "N" word can be used as an analogy here
    The reason why it is racist "making fun" of Vietnamese culture and people, is because it is used in context (as you have pointed out, the audience is not Vietnamese).
    He is a white person making fun of a minority group.

    If it was reversed and it was a person of colour making fun of a white person (as Russell Peters does) it wouldn't be deemed as racist - Why?
    Because it's not "effective" Racism - which is too complicated for me to explain here and has to do with White privilege.

    But of course Tim Wise explains it here: ""

    As you probably have gathered I'm a big Wise fan.

  11. @Ann:

    "White Privilege"? I thought we'd socially evolved beyond that silliness. Put simply, it's patronizing to say that one group of people can be made fun of, but another group can't.

    Double-standards which attempt to "protect and empower" minorities do the exact opposite. The subtext is that brown or black people are too weak and incapable of protecting themselves so white people need to treat them like children. It's disrespectful.

    I've known Vietnamese people who wouldn't react to a racist joke by crying and acting like victims, they'd kick some ass. As they should.

  12. @Gilbert: er... do you know what white privilege means? Have you studied it?

    Double-standards? Hmm what about the better funding of private schools as opposed to public schools in Australia? I think that's what you would call a "protect and empowerment" of rich white folks.

    What you don't understand is that white privilege doesn't describe the people who are disempowered but more about the ones that are empowered way above the rest.

    To fail to understand that is to ignore that there is institutionalised racism - and I'm sure you wouldn't want to do that.

  13. FUCK the Tim Tam from Vietnam.

    I'm offended by this, not that our society really respects minorities being offended - they just dismiss it as complaining (@Gilbert).

    But when the White majority are offended - oh me oh my! It ain't complainin', it's just 'fact'.

    Đụ má.

    @Ann: I completely agree with you.

    Tim Wise is a LEGEND. He also talks about this issue of parody, use of racial slurs, history, and representation, which you mentioned.

    Just to highlight one of his points that's related to ES's post:

    "Let me give you an analogy to make the point. I'm from the South, I don't much like the word "redneck" because I know it's often a slur against rural, working class whites. But I got to be honest, when Jeff Foxworthy, the comedian, does 20 minutes of redneck jokes, it doesn't offend me that way it would have been if it were Jerry Seinfeld doing it, because Foxworthy is in that family.

    It sort of goes back to that wisdom we understood in the third grade, which is: I can talk about my momma, but you had better not talk about my momma. And I think that's something we need to understand...

    If white folks don't like it, oh, it's a double standard. Why can't I use the word [nigger], too? History is a double standard, deal with that first and we can talk about the rest."

  14. Gah! These people need a good slapping! Especially that Pablo guy!

    Great rant, ES!

    @fourth daughter:
    My bro works for another suburban newspaper, and that's where I first came across the article about Tim Tam!

  15. @Ann

    Institutional racism might still exist, but many people attempt to prove it by demonstrating that some ethnicities are richer than others.

    That's a logical error. More specifically, it's the fallacy of "post hoc ergo propter hoc". The existence of poor minorities doesn't necessarily imply racism.

    Some people are smarter than others and some people work harder than others. Some people are born rich and others get lucky. So be it.

    My wife grew up poor in a 3rd world asian country, and came to the US because she wanted the opportunity for a better life. She found it by working hard.

    If I told her that she's a victim of institutional racism because she's foreign, brown, and a woman she'd laugh me right out of the house.

    As a final note, I'd like to point out that asians in the US have a higher per-capita income than whites. Does this mean that there is "asian privilege" and that asians discriminate against whites?

  16. @ Gilbert:

    white privilege does indeed exist, just as male privilege and heterosexual privilege do. How you define it might be different to how Ann or myself might define it.

    It's not merely about who makes the most money. It's also about turning on the TV and seeing lots of people who look like you and who you can relate to. It's about sending your CV to an employer and not have them dismiss it because they assume you don't speak English well. It's about not wondering whether it's racial when things go against you.

    Now, in the scheme of things, being Asian is not a huge obstacle to succeeding in life, in comparison to the situation of say, an Aboriginal Australian or an African American. But that doesn't change the fact that anyone who is a member of the dominant class has privileges that they can take for granted.

  17. ES,

    This is an interesting discussion, and I'm glad for the opportunity to participate and to explore differing points of view.

    You mentioned about sending a resume to an employer and having it dismissed because your name might appear ethnically different. I don't believe that this is a situation unique to predominantly white countries.

    Here is a thought experiment: If an Englishman emigrated to Indonesia, and applied for a job, wouldn't he expect that many employers might see his Anglo name and be unsure of his Indonesian-language skills? How about a Swedish person who emigrated to an Arab country? Or a person from Africa with a traditional African name applying for a job in Vietnam?

    I would suggest that anywhere you go in the world, if your name originates from an different cultural background, employers only looking at a resume will wonder if you are fluent in the native language.

    As for seeing lots of people on TV who look like you, I'm not sure how it is in Australia, but in the US there is a great deal of diversity.

    Let's try another thought experiment: Imagine a Scot emigrates to Indonesia. What do you think would be the response if he wrote a letter to the editor of a major paper bemoaning the lack of Scots on Indonesian TV hurting his self-esteem? What do you think would be the response if that Scot wrote to the Indonesian government with this concern?

    How do you think the information ministry authorities in Vietnam would react to an African emigrant who wrote about not seeing lots of Africans on Vietnamese TV? Or in Thailand? Think about a similar situation in Japan, India, Saudi Arabia.

    I would like to suggest that relative to the rest of the world, predominantly white western countries probably tend to be more inclusive than most others.

    Of course there is always room for improvement, but the "progressive" tendency to demonize white people and try to make them feel guilty even as they go above and beyond what other nations do in both accepting and assimilating immigrants seems unfair and counterproductive to genuinely improving society.

  18. @Gilbert:

    Your 'thought experiment' is flawed.
    In case you didn't know unlike Vietnam (and please don't EVER talk about Vietnam considering you know nothing about the history there) there are hardly any Africans there - never was (in great magnitude) and probably never will be. (I can't and are not even allowed to live there!) Now if you say 'African' and 'Vietnam' was just abstract examples, then I'm afraid you are misguided in your 'knowledge' about Racism.

    I did a semester on Conditional Philosophy and 'If A then B, If B then C, so therefore C equals A is not considered true. Haha (re: your 'cum hoc ergo propter hoc') But for some weird reason you've used it here in this 'thought experiment'.

    In our country be it Australia or U.S. on the other hand carries a completely different HISTORY all together. Asian Australians have been here for hundreds and hundreds of years, back breaking work to build this country in the form of indentured servitude - same with Asian Americans - AND YET we are STILL MADE to 'PROVE' why we're here.

    You see, being Asian in Australia is different to being African in Vietnam. Historically and culturally.
    Vietnam also doesn't have a history of marginalising/abusing different people (except after 1975) THE WAY THE WHITE EMPIRE HAS ALL AROUND THE WORLD. Shipping Indians all around the world to work as slaves. Transatlantic slave trade. Less you forget about that! What about modern day slavery - you think the rich nations don't have a hand in that either? And the other kind of 'slavery' you know in the form of cheap labour.

    Perhaps that's why Vietnam still has over 50 tribal (and different ethnically) communities living there till this day. Unlike Australia where Indigenous People communities have been destroyed.

    'tending to be inclusive' as you have pointed out - is not just 'Oh white people are so nice' but because it WAS and IS necessary since they abused the heck out of people of colour for centuries to build the nations that they now live in.
    They should as heck feel guilty - THEY ARE STILL LIVING on the stuff that they cultivated over centuries of abuse. I don't think that it's a mistake that
    the some of the richest countries in the world have owed their wealth to the slave trade and 'coolies' trade.

    (The diamond on the crown of the British Queen belongs to India - why isn't she giving that back. Where are all the jewels they've stolen?)

    Look at this country - the last mass murder by the Australian government of Indigenous Australians was in 1929 - heck that's when Charlie Chaplin was gracing the silver screen - it wasn't even that long ago! And the 1960s and 70s the Stolen Generation!

    So before you say we are holding white nations to a different standards to say... Vietnam, in regards to 'multiculturalism', how about we all take a step back and realise why - with the given history - we aren't demanding they be MORE ACCOUNTABLE.

    1. Hmmmm. This is a bit of a conflation. First of all- I believe that you are referring to the logical property of transitivity, If A=B and B=C, A=C which can be a valid. This is not the same thing as the formal fallacy Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc- which is the false belief that because event A happened immediately prior to event B, A caused B. These are two different things.

  19. I think that Ben Price is the guy who does the lame celebrity impersonations on the Gold FM breakfast show. It was 15 years or so ago that Krusty the Clown discovered on The Simpsons that mocking racial stereotypes wasn't funny yet Australian 'comedians' still have not learned this lesson. It's actually the lowest and laziest form of humour as instead of doing any research you just take a few stereotypes together and hope that there are no Vietnamese in the audience. Hmmm, I wonder why he chose to do his act in Dandenong and not Springvale?

  20. You people are fucking pussies. Both of those stand ups were solid.