Amy Schumer, Vogue, and Chinese Americans

A still from Amy Schumer and Anna Wintour Swap Lives

Whoever or whatever curates the Facebook Trending box, it often seems less like journalism than a crude organ of product placement: This fast-food join has a new menu item. That app has a new feature. Vogue made a new video in which Anna Wintour freaky-Fridays with her July cover model, Amy Schumer.

That last one I clicked on because Schumer’s May cover shoot for Vanity Fair was still bothering me — and I didn’t get why more people didn’t see what I saw.

In one frame from Annie Leibovitz’s shoot, not the cover itself but the one where Schumer’s crotch is on fire, she wears a T-shirt that says NO COFFEE NO WORKEE.

The slogan is popular on Etsy merchandise.

It’s also an old caricature of Chinese immigrant speech.

Terry Abraham’s article “No Tickee No Washee”: Sympathetic Representations of the Chinese in American Humor traces the history of expressions like “No coffee, no workee.”

In the 1937 film Tex Rides with the Boy Scouts, the Chinese laundryman (played by Korean American actor Philip Ahn) says:

No tickee, no washee, no shirtee. You bling tickee, you catchem washee.

This film did not begin this construction. The silent animated comedy short No Tickee, No Shirtee came out in 1921.

Schumer’s NO COFFEE NO WORKEE picture appeared shortly after after Calvin Trillin was raked over the Twitter coals (unjustly, in my opinion) after The New Yorker published his poem Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet? Yet Schumer avoided the same treatment.

Why?

The “No ____-ee, no ____-ee” formulation may have faded away like Chinese laundries. I don’t know that I’d heard it before Dr. Glick, the assistant principal at Hunter High, where 1 in 3 students were Asian American, said, “No tickee, no shirtee” at an assembly.

That was 30 years ago.

Dr. Glick was soon gone.

In a more recent debate over the phrase on Stack Exchange, one commenter dismissed its history:

No coffee, no workee is childlike. It’s cute. It’s playful. It’s exactly the kind of thing I’d put on a coffee mug.

Amy Schumer is beloved for puncturing stereotypes, so it’s hard to see her as an offender, however inadvertent.

Or maybe the crotch fire was a distraction.


Anyway, back to the Vogue video, which at this writing is approaching a million views on YouTube alone. While Schumer and Wintour swap careers and outfits, you hear sound effects from a kung fu movie or perhaps a Japanese steakhouse, and the words SO EASY! come up in golden Wonton font on a red background:

What this intertitle has to do with Schumer, Wintour, or swapping clothes or lives, I have no idea.

And the video ends with a gong.

I would like to see Amy Schumer acknowledge her participation in reinforcing these stereotypes, even if it wasn’t her idea.

Beyond that, I wish the folks over at Condé Nast could create an editorial environment that can save them from making jokes that they don’t fully understand.

They probably have people on staff already who can help them.


Thanks to Ed Park for keeping me on the case and Ben Zimmer for pointing me toward Terry Abraham’s article.

This is an excerpt from the June 19, 2016 installment of Eskin Premier, my email newsletter.

It’s not usually about Amy Schumer. If you’re interested in 📻,, 🎲⚾️🎮, 📰💻📱, 🚇📷, 🌳🏃, etc., you can subscribe to Eskin Premier.