Roman Debree/Shutterstock
Roman Debree/Shutterstock

The Rich, Complex History Hiding Within Chinese Plate Designs

Two years ago, I pulled a melamine bowl out of my mom’s cabinet, handed it to her tattoo artist friend, and said, “I’d like this, please.” He looked perplexed. A bowl, he asked? I pointed to the red band on the outside, lined with geometric swirls and pretty, abstract shapes, and nodded. After 6 hours in the hot seat, I had it -- the tattoo I’d been dreaming of for years, and the confirmation of my middle class, jungle Asian upbringing. 

The design is iconic. You’ve probably seen it at Chinese American restaurants peeking out under heaps of orange chicken or at home, holding a hastily put-together rice bowl. The red band features an abstract floral design and a smattering of white semicircles in the background. (I still think they look like fingernail clippings.) Four white circular panels feature a message in Chinese characters: 萬, 壽, 無, and 疆 (wàn shòu wú jiāng, or “may you enjoy boundless longevity”). In truth, I never contemplated the meaning behind that message or the design it accompanies until now, despite having eaten out of bowls and plates like these since I was a baby. The pattern was just part of the backdrop to my life, as mundane as the Count Chocula that I ate while my eyes lazily traced the curves of the petals.

It felt absurd to ask an art expert about the design for this article -- almost like asking a jeweller about a piece of garbage I found on the ground. But Karin Oen, a curator at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, was happy to oblige. Via email, she wrote, “The easy answer to your question is it’s based on a type of late Qing porcelain called wan shou wu jiang (万寿无疆).” Wan shou wu jiang is a genre of commemorative porcelain that varies in design, commonly painted with motifs like dragons, gourds, and flowers. However, they all incorporate the phrase.

According to the Gotheborg Antique Chinese and Japanese Porcelain Collectors' page, the use of the phrase in ceramics could be traced to a yellow set crafted to commemorate the wedding of the teenaged Emperor Tongzhi in 1872. Though the wish was lost on the emperor, who died from smallpox at 18, the design lived on, appearing in other imperial celebrations and eventually trickling down into privately produced ceramics. Many of them made their way to the West as birthday gifts for overseas friends and family or for sale to Westerners.

“By then, there was already a deeply established export porcelain industry,” Oen told me, “with a pretty direct pipeline from the Pearl River Delta to points in the States and Europe.” There was a worldwide craze for Chinese porcelain, which was an important status symbol for Anglo, American and European consumers. Out of all the variations of wan shou wu jiang ceramics, it’s significant to Oen that the one design to rule them all is the red one. Drawing a connection between the design and the exotification of Chinese art and cuisine in the West, she surmised, “Maybe we could chalk it up to that ‘gong-y’ aesthetic—the redder the better. There are so many other patterns of ceramics, with bright colors like turquoise and yellow… To me, it’s kind of random, but I wonder if this is because of folks’ affinity for the red color, which makes it very clear that it’s Chinese.” Another explanation could be that red symbolizes luck in Chinese culture. 

chinese bowl
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In the late 1990s, the melamine manufacturing business began to boom in China, and cheap plastics became as synonymous with China’s worldwide reputation as fine porcelain did a hundred years prior. “In the past 20 years,” Oen said, “these plates and bowls have become quite ubiquitous throughout China and its diaspora.”

It makes sense that tableware with this design was so embraced by Chinese restaurateurs: they’re cheap, easy to acquire from restaurant wholesalers, and aesthetically appealing. One really interesting development is their appearance on tables in new wave Asian restaurants owned by millennials, like Dumpling in Minneapolis, Minn. In addition to the melamine plates’ durability, Bunbob Chhun, the owner, cited “the nostalgic element of going to a Chinese restaurant and seeing certain plates on the table.” When he was a kid, going out to eat with his family was a rare splurge: “it was a special treat for us, because money wasn’t easy to come by at the time. So when I saw those plates, it was always a happy moment.”

In addition to looking cool, the plates help situate Dumpling’s Asian American fusion vibe. “If we plate a non-Asian food, like our short rib, on a super Asian-looking dish like that, it plays with the power of association,” Chhun mused. “It might help the customer see it as Asian.” It’s like an inverse of what we often see in restaurants that claim to “elevate” marginalized cuisines and ingredients by placing them on ceramic white plates with lots of empty space, as a sort of appropriation that reverses that usual power dynamic.

When I saw the work of Brooklyn-based ceramicist Stephanie Shih, I saw all of these thoughts -- on appropriation, nostalgia, and history -- sharply reflected. Her latest sculpture series, Oriental Grocery, is made up entirely of handmade ceramic replicas of condiments commonly found in Asian American pantries, like sesame oil and Sriracha. Shih paints the sculptures with an eye for close detail, from the stylized calligraphy to the oversized oysters on a Lee Kum Kee oyster sauce bottle. Before this, she made ceramic pleated dumplings, her fingers easily falling back into the muscle memory developed during her childhood. But the reception she received put her off: “Something people asked me -- well, no Asian people asked this -- was, Oh, you should paint these to look like they’re dipped in soy sauce!” Others suggested she sell them in Chinese takeout boxes or answer her studio phone with, “Hello, can I take your order?” It was just a joke to them, she said. 

She channelled her frustration into the condiment project. “The first condiment I made was the black vinegar, and I think that the reason I chose that was that it felt like an insider thing: a nod to other Chinese and Asian people.... White people definitely didn’t know what the black vinegar was.” Asian viewers loved the sculpture, so she took to Instagram to solicit ideas for other condiments to sculpt, asking, “What are different items from your pantry that you remember from your childhood?” Her sculptures are honest about the way she and many people like us grew up: The flavors of home came in $4 bottles and jars of whatever our families were able to find at the Asian grocery (if there even was one nearby).

I think that’s why that red bowl pattern appeals to me so much: it’s an honest admittance that the way I grew up wasn’t fancy or exotic. Rather, the fact that it’s a gorgeous cultural art product condensed into a mundane housewares design feels right to me, as someone who feels like a simulacrum of a real Vietnamese person, after being estranged from my family’s origin point my whole life. And like Stephanie Shih’s ceramic condiments, this pattern is a beacon for my fellow Asian Americans. I can name more than a few instances where Chinese grocery cashiers, pho shop servers, and random folks off the street have jolted after glancing at my arm and said, “I love that bowl!”

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Soleil Ho is the restaurant critic for The San Francisco Chronicle.