OnPoint by Keith Ng

Of Penguins and Chinese

Salient is being dragged over the coals once again - this time, it's being accused of racism. At the best of times, it's a serious accusation, but in the shadow of the Wen Biao case, the university, interest groups, international students and even Salient's own students' association have slammed the student mag as insensitive, stupid, juvenile and racist. Then the Chinese Embassy got involved, and now the story is making its way through China.

So what's the fuss about?

Three issues ago, Salient printed on their jokes page:

Top five species we should be wary of
1) Those damn dirty apes
2) Choloepus Didactylus
3) Penguins
4) The Chinese
5) Very poisonous snakes

Humour is a tough business, and some forms of humour don't translate well. The problem with this one was that it relied on reasonably obscure cultural references as well as irony.

"Those damn dirty apes" is a reference to Planet of the Apes - a science-fiction movie based on the rather dumb premise that monkeys will take over the planet.

"Choloepus Didactylus" is the scientific name for a sloth. Sloths eat leaves and sleep two-thirds of the day, so the idea that they are dangerous is pretty ridiculous.

"Penguins" is a reference to the character called The Penguin in Batman. In particular, in the second Batman movie, The Penguin raises an army of heavily armed penguins to attack Gotham city. Again - more cute than menacing.

In this context, "The Chinese" is not actually talking about Chinese people. Like the other three, it's mocking scenarios in which the Chinese is considered "a species to be wary of" and suggesting that it is stupid - like the idea of an army of penguins. It is mocking xenophobia and racism by saying that it's the same as these other really stupid ideas.

The fifth, "very poisonous snakes", is a comedy twist. The first four are really stupid, then the fifth is a serious one. The sudden reversal in tone is funny. For example:

Top five items on the Al Qaeda wish-list
1) Nuclear device
2) Bioengineered plague
3) Nerve agent
4) Dirty bomb
5) Grand Theft Auto on the PSP

That's it. It was a joke. It had no racist or malicious intent. The target of the joke was not the Chinese, but the people who consider the Chinese as a threat. This was mocking racists.

Salient has nothing to apologise for. Please take it easy and stop sending angry emails to the editor. Those who have been sending death threats should be ashamed of themselves.

(Didn't find any of it funny? Well, dissecting jokes is like dissecting frogs - they don't tend to survive the process. In this case, I think the joke is well and truly dead.)

Keith Ng was a satirist for Salient (2002-2005). He is also Chinese. He is currently writing this disclosure in the third-person.