Din Tai Fung and the Appropriation and Gentrification of Foodways
an article by Olivia Stark
Dear Asian Youth,
Have you ever felt like your cultural identity was being stolen or misused, but lacked the confidence and vernacular to call it out? Same. Around my sophomore year of high school, a new term started becoming very popular in all of my classmates’ academic vocabulary: cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is defined as “the taking over of creative or artistic forms, themes, or practices by one cultural group from another. It is in general used to describe Western appropriations of non‐Western or non‐white forms, and carries connotations of exploitation and dominance.” This new term popped up on my high school community’s radar after celebrities like Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry came under fire for their aesthetic utilization of other cultures in their music videos. Learning about this phenomenon was a bit of a sigh of relief, as it perfectly described many experiences I felt growing up as an Asian American in a predominantly white community. However, it quickly became clear that the parts of my own culture which I felt were being appropriated by my community would not be considered valid forms of “cultural appropriation” if they were not tied to a streamlined and easily-digestible argument. Of course, people understood that dressing up in a Native American headdress at Coachella was cultural appropriation, or that a non-Black person wearing cornrows was just wrong. But many of our discussions around cultural appropriation lacked nuance, and one thing was made exceptionally clear to me by my white community: cultural appropriation did NOT apply to food.
So, what was I to make of my white peers forming their social identities around a restaurant that I had been eating at since I was a child, that held a dear place in my heart, and that I had seen become gentrified to the point that it seemed to belong as much to them as it did to me?
Four years and one Asian American Studies degree later, it has become evidently clear to me that yes, cultural appropriation can and does apply to food; especially in Asian cultures, where food is such an integral part of our histories, identities, and racialization. However, when talking about the appropriation of our cultural foods, there is a lot of nuance to take into account. It is more difficult to make sweeping statements. For example, I recently had a friend ask me, “Is it cultural appropriation for a white person to eat Chinese food?” I mean, it would sound absolutely ridiculous to ban white people from eating Chinese food, wouldn’t it? If only Asian people could eat Asian foods, it would be astronomically detrimental to Asian eateries, which many Asian immigrants rely on for their livelihood. To say that non-Asians should not be able to consume and enjoy Asian foods sounds absurd, which is why I never said anything about my white peers’ extreme affinity for my favorite restaurant: Din Tai Fung.
Din Tai Fung first began in Taipei, Taiwan, as a cooking oil retail business, but was reborn as a restaurant in 1972. Since then, Din Tai Fung has expanded into a massive, international chain with additional locations around the globe. Din Tai Fung opened its first U.S. location in 2000 in a strip mall located in Arcadia, California, a predominantly Asian area. This was where my family was first introduced to Din Tai Fung by my Auntie and Uncle. They first took us to the Arcadia location long before the chain became the new go-to for Asians and non-Asians alike, opening seven additional locations in California alone. Though I was a child, I still have vivid memories of my first experience with Din Tai Fung’s famous xiao long bao, or “juicy pork dumpling.” My Auntie and Uncle showed me how to pick up the dumplings with my chopsticks, ever so careful not to puncture the dumpling’s skin and let all the soup rush out. I remember laughing as my white dad attempted to use his chopsticks only for the soup to squirt out of the dumpling and splatter everywhere. Although my family did not live near Arcadia, this became a common spot for us. I have many fond memories of waiting for hours just to get a table—how my sister and cousin and I would wait outside with our complimentary jasmine tea, sitting among all the other Asian American families waiting to savor their dumplings. I remember my dad telling us he went alone once with his other white friend. He recalls being stared at by all the Asian families and feeling like the minority for one of the only times in his life. Ironically, this was one of the only places I remember going as a kid where the rest of my family didn’t feel like the minority.
Flash forward to 2013 and Din Tai Fung opened a new location in Glendale, CA at a popular shopping center called The Americana at Brand. I was thrilled that a new location was FINALLY opening closer to where I lived. We would not need to drive as far to get our beloved xiao long bao and maybe, the wait times would not be as lengthy either. However, when I first visited the new location, something felt different. The people working there were white. The people eating there were white. Instead of waiting for our table in a little corridor with all the other Asian families, we now had the option to shop at high-end retailers until we received a text that our table was ready. And when we sat down at our table, they gave us ice water, without us even asking! This was a far cry from the usual Chinese dining experience. They traditionally serve hot tea, and you have to ask the servers at least five times before finally getting some ice water. Soon enough, my white high school classmates caught on to the delicious phenomenon that is xiao long bao. Din Tai Fung immediately became a popular staple of my white peers’ diets and social lives. It was on everyone’s Instagram story every weekend; people started having birthday parties there, and I found myself getting flooded with DMs saying, “OMG you like DTF too? It’s my fave!” To be honest, it was jarring to see a mecca of my childhood so quickly colonized by the white community that I had always felt somewhat alienated by. In just months, it felt as though Din Tai Fung no longer belonged to me as much as it belonged to my white peers. It was constantly evolving into a place I no longer recognized. My Chinese grandparents insisted the food at the new location tasted different and my entire family scoffed at the fact that they added truffle xiao long bao to the menu. Girls at my high school suddenly seemed to model their entire personas off of liking this “authentic Asian cuisine.” Not only this, but white classmates of mine heralded themselves for the “discovery” of Din Tai Fung. How can white people “discover” a food I have been eating my entire life?
I must acknowledge, however, that this “discovery” did not come out of nowhere. Din Tai Fung USA, as a business, has transitioned to be less of a social space for the Asian American community and has instead become a larger, more service-oriented establishment, capitalizing off of the upper-class’s demand for an authentic taste of another culture. This is apparent not only by my own personal anecdotes, but also by broader changes to the brand over the past ten years. These changes included a significant increase in price, cosmetic changes to the restaurant interior, and locations in which the chain chooses to open new branches. My white classmates’ sudden dumpling obsession was a clear symptom of this type of capitalism and gentrification at work. And of course, it doesn’t hurt that the food is genuinely delicious.
Attending a high school in which cultural appropriation was so demonized, I could never understand this supposed rule that my feelings were not valid because cultural appropriation “did not apply to food.” After some time and reflection, I’ve realized that the rule was never really, “cultural appropriation doesn’t apply to food,” it was actually, “cultural appropriation doesn’t apply to anything that we, as white people, would like to continue appropriating,” which very often targeted Asian culture. Looking back, Din Tai Fung was not an isolated incident. White girls wore traditional cheongsams to prom, dawned bindis and kimonos at music festivals, and there was even a period of time when Hello Kitty and “kawaii” aesthetics permeated my high school’s fashion scene. However, even this was all influenced by larger capitalist forces. Similarly to Din Tai Fung, retailers like Urban Outfitters capitalize off of this fetishization of Asian culture by creating Asian-inspired designs that make cultural appropriation not only accessible to white people, but also make it feel acceptable. By opening new locations in high-end shopping centers in predominantly white areas, Din Tai Fung has done the same by telling white people, “look, this restaurant and these foods are for you!”
A few weeks ago, the original Din Tai Fung USA location in Arcadia closed down for good. Before that, it had converted into a take-out only model, as it did not fit with the brand’s new, high-end aesthetic. I hardly ever visited that location anymore, but hearing about its closing triggered joyful childhood memories of dumpling eating competitions with my sister and visits to JJ’s bakery across the parking lot to buy lotus paste mooncakes during mid-autumn festival. Despite the gentrification and location changes it has gone through, I still enjoy Din Tai Fung. In fact, I’ve consistently gotten takeout from the Century City location every couple of weeks over the past few months. I mean, who can survive quarantine without some xiao long bao? I still look forward to the explosion of hot soup when you bite into a fresh dumpling, the garlicky crispness of the string beans, and the fluffy Cantonese style fried rice that is impossible for me to pick up with chopsticks (seriously, if anyone has figured out a good method, let a girl know). I am glad to still enjoy all these things, and glad others can enjoy them as well. But at the same time, I mourn what Din Tai Fung used to be; the complimentary jasmine tea, the disposable chopsticks with “xlb eating instructions,” the significant role the original Arcadia location played in my identity growing up, and everything else that was lost along the way in order to make room for the affluent classes of mainstream America.
- Olivia Stark