Globalism and Racism

Mister Wong There’s been some drama over the German social bookmarking site Mister Wong lately. If you’re in the US, you may be able to guess the controversy. If you’re not, you probably have no idea what could be wrong.

The controversy is over the branding of the site: it’s name, illustration, and slogan. 8Asians, a group blog of Asian American & Asian Canadian bloggers (of which I am a member) was the first that I know of to publicly decry Mister Wong. As written by Ernie, one of the founders:

Maybe people aren’t as sensitive to political correctness as they are here in North America. But seriously, one of their web badges has the slogan “ping pong, king kong, Mister Wong.” Which I, of course, interpret as “ching chong, Mister Wong” and get INCREDIBLY FUCKING ANGRY.

The first few comments were sympathetic. One commenter expressed some confusion though. “Enlighten me. What on earth is offensive about the Mr. Wong website?” he wrote. After a few back-and-forth explanations, the issue died.

Two months later, Kristen Nicole of Mashable wrote about how Mister Wong was launching a US version. In her review, she wrote, “Despite the questionable name, Mister Wong has a lot going for it…” A commenter there also expresses some confusion: “Kristen, can you explain why you think the name is ‘questionable’?”

Another commenter replied, “It’s not so much the name that is questionable, more the cliched stereotyped image of Mr. Wong that comes along with it. I really hope they get rid of that on the US beta at least, otherwise there’ll be some angry Asian Americans out there.”

Then Kai Tietjen, the founder of Mister Wong, removed the illustration from the logo.

It was never my intention, nor that of my company, to hurt anyone with the use of the illustration. We are extremely sensitive to this issue and the feelings of others. We removed the original illustration off the top of the page some time ago, when the issue first arose, in hopes that no one would be offended by it any longer.

Apparently the 8 Asians article and angry comments on Mashable’s articles led to this decision. A short time later, a German newspaper picked up the story and Germans flooded the 8 Asians site. Some politely expressed their confusion and defended Mister Wong. Others haven’t been as polite, unfortunately.

Pete Cashmore from Mashable followed up on the story and succinctly summed it all up:

These kinds of clashes seem inevitable when companies launch globally: what’s culturally acceptable in one place is a hanging offense elsewhere. Often, as in this case, people are puzzled by the fact that they caused any offense at all. The “racist” label, however, is one that all startups will want to stay a million miles away from, even if they don’t fully understand their infraction.

That’s the real takeaway here, especially for any business going global. You may not agree with the controversy, but once you operate in the global arena, you have no choice but to respect the sensibilities of all the societies with which you want to do business. Even if you don’t agree with or understand those sensibilities.

Remember the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy? That’s probably an extreme example, but you get the point. A less extreme example is the Chevorlet Nova and how it didn’t sell in Spanish-speaking countries because “Nova” translates to “doesn’t go” in Spanish. This is actually an urban legend, but it’s a commonly cited example of going global.

Ernie, in my opinion, may have saved Mister Wong quite a bit of heartache and money by expressing his views at the early stages of their entry into the US market. For better or worse, the US society is relatively much more politically correct than other societies of the world. Denounce that all you want, but I guarantee you that if Ernie hadn’t spoken up, someone else would have.