Charged Extra For Not Speaking Chinese?

A Wisconsin man has filed a discrimination complaint with New York City’s Human Rights Commission against the Canal Seafood Restaurant for allegedly giving Chinese customers a menu with lower prices. From the New York Daily News:

David Lopez, a visitor from Wisconsin, contacted the commission after eating at the restaurant with several friends last October.

He and his girlfriend knew something was wrong when a waiter told them that a serving of rice would cost them extra. They had noticed Asian customers munching on similar dishes served over a bed of rice.

“Being Hispanic, we both like rice,” said 46-year-old Lopez. “We saw other customers getting a different menu. We were told we could order from it if we spoke Chinese.”

The prices on that menu, written in Chinese, were an average of $1 cheaper per dish.

Well, gee. That’s just not nice. —MEGHANN MARCO

How mean for chow mein! [New York Daily News via Gothamist]
(Photo: OS2k)

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  1. kimsama says:

    “Eric Ng, president of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, said most businesses and restaurants in Chinatown are ‘honest and fair.’

    ‘We have never heard of something like this before, and we have no comment on that, since it is an individual business conduct issue,’ Ng said.”

    Oh come on…being married to an Asian, I know from experience that non-Asians totally get a more limited, more expensive menu at a lot of places. I’ve also been refused the “real menu” myself, until they realize I’m with an Asian (which is kinda humiliating). I’m glad someone is finally getting to the bottom of why this discriminatory practice is allowed.

  2. Boo says:

    Discriminatory pricing is entirely legal although distasteful. If you think about it this kind of pricing is no different than cheaper movies/bus passes for students.

    From my economy prof:
    Price discrimination practices are sometimes referred to as dynamic pricing, targeted pricing, flexible pricing and tailored pricing
    All refer to attempts by firms to capture consumer surplus by charging different prices to different customers

    Haggling over price probably preceded fixed pricing

    A survey of American consumers found that 64% did not know that it was legal for firms to charge different prices at different times of day

  3. skittlbrau says:

    I always assumed this is the case – I accept it as part of eating the good Chinese in Chinatown as opposed to the so-so stuff above Canal…

  4. MeOhMy says:

    “Discriminatory pricing is entirely legal although distasteful.”

    Offering variable prices for a variety of reasons is legal.

    Offering variable prices based on race, nationality, religion, gender, etc may not be.

    Having a special menu for Chinese people is pushing it, although they may be able to weasel out of it on the grounds that they would let a non-Chinese person use it provided that person could speak Chinese.

    I thought the “I’m hispanic therefore I also like rice” comment was very amusing.

  5. 44 in a Row says:

    While I have no idea as to the legality of this, it’s about as un-shocking as something can be to any one who has ever spent any time around Canal Street.

  6. Dustbunny says:

    I used to work for a Hong Kong company and I knew about the different menus from when I went out to eat w/my co-workers. But they always said it was beause the “real” Chinese menu had dishes on it that non-Chinese wouldn’t eat…like monkey brains or snake meat.

  7. spanky says:

    Um, yeah, if Eric Ng has never heard of this before, he needs to get out more.

    I once went to a Chinese restaurant with a friend who is Chinese. She went to powder her nose, so I was sitting at the table alone when the waitress came to bring us some hot mustard and some “plum sauce.” Shortly thereafter, my friend came out and sat down, and the waitress literally RAN across the restaurant with a dish of real plum sauce, apologizing for bringing the wrong one. HAR. I used to work in a Chinese restaurant, and I knew exactly what was in that gwai lo sauce: It’s applesauce and red food coloring.

    And that kind of thing is not uncommon at all. I get different menus, or I get charged regular prices while she gets the epicanthic eyefold discount. And it’s not limited to Chinese places, either, but all kinds of Asian businesses.

    But let me also say that “[b]eing Hispanic, we both like rice” is probably not the best angle to make your case.

  8. ValkRaider says:

    Of all the f$#king things we have to worry about in the world, and this guy is chasing this…

    Lame.

    Here’s an idea guy, If you don’t like the prices on their English menu – don’t eat there!

    It’s not like they are a mandatory government funded program… They are a freaking restaurant. They can charge you $100 to walk in the door if they want to. You can choose not to walk in the door if you want to.

  9. Falconfire says:

    Of all the f$#king things we have to worry about in the world, and this guy is chasing this…

    Because he has a right to, and last I saw nothing said he had to worry about human rights or the war in Iraq or anything else but his lame ass chinese food.

  10. Tallanvor says:

    First, let me preface this by saying that there are plenty of honest Asians and Asian Americans out there.

    Now, working for a company run by a group of Chinese, I’ve found out just how dishonest they can be. –They’ll agree to one thing verbally and then stick something else in the contract just to see if they can get away with it. For their employees, they say they’ll take care of you (and your work agreement states that you are expected to be loyal to the company), but “taking care of you” means jack shit. And they’re CHEAP! It’s embarrassing to watch them haggle because they ask for things that no reasonable person would ever ask for.

    On the other hand, I went to school with plenty of honest, hard working people from China that would have been just as embarrassed by their actions, so maybe that says something about who manages to work their way to the top of the business world these days?

  11. superbmtsub says:

    The local authorities needs to lay the smack down on this restaurant and all others who follow similar practices. Been mistreated like that before in Canal and I walked out. On the way out, I realized that they could care less about me. Afterall, they got nonstop customers coming in.

    If those Chinese people want to haggle, let them haggle, BUT dont have dual prices on the menus.

  12. JuliusJefferson says:

    @ValkRaider:

    Would you be saying the same thing if this happened in the South and non-whites were given a different menu?

    There was a little something called the Civil Rights Movement that happened several decades ago.

  13. esqdork says:

    I’ve worked in two Chinese restaurants in my life (one of them owned and run by my parents) and there’s a very good reason for two sets of menus: non-Chinese people can be a real pain in the ass about things that deviate from their Chinese food paradigm of pork fried rice and egg rolls. It’s just not worth it to have some schmuck order something and then decide that they didn’t like what they ordered, especially if it was offal (which the Chinese have been serving in NYC for decades before Mario started charging $25 a plate for duck testicles).

    There is, of course, no excuse for charging different prices for the exact same thing. I suspect, however, that what was going was that there was some variation in the dishes and that certain dishes that were not on Lopez’s menu includes rice in the price. Believe me, the last thing on a Chinese restauranter’s mind is ripping off some tourist for a buck or two.

  14. RumorsDaily says:

    “Being Hispanic, we both like rice”
    “Being African America, we both like fried rice”
    “Being Jewish, we both like knishes”
    “Being Asian, we both like soy sauce”
    “Being Italian, we both like cheese”

    I recognize that he was saying it about himself… but it still seems wrong.

  15. krunk4ever says:

    Personally, I think the tourist’s claims are rather baseless. There are many types of dishes in a Chinese menu, from rich dishes to noodles to porridge to even a la carte, where rice is definitely charged separately. Obviously he can’t read Chinese and won’t be able to tell if the Chinese menu is charging more or less than the English menu. All he could say was on average, it was $1 cheaper, but how does even one come to that figure by just browsing through a menu that is in a language you can’t read?

    He could’ve pointed and asked for that dish that this other person was eating and asked how much it was and if rice was included, and I’m pretty sure the answer would be very satisfactory. I’m guessing he wanted something a la carte, but wanted free rice with it, and so the problem begins.

    //krunk (^_^x)

  16. esqdork says:

    Tallanvor,
    I’ve worked for plenty of scumbags of different races, genders, sexual orientations and with different religious beliefs. I don’t think that any one group is more likely to be sleazy than another.

  17. TechnoDestructo says:

    @Dustbunny:

    So, what if you’ve got an adventurous western weirdo? Or you at least offer the entertainment value of having that kind of stuff on the menu.

    Also, would he have gotten the menu if he DID speak Chinese, but wasn’t Chinese?

    Also, if the menus followed the same format, just in different languages, with every item in Chinese corresponding to one in English, chances are it’s the same menu. (That’s usually how things printed in multiple languages work)

    If not, well, then it might not be.

  18. Maulleigh says:

    I know I’ve seen stuff like that before. Little illegal stuff that isn’t big enough to make a big deal over. But it HURTS me in my SOUL!!!

  19. shoegazer says:

    This is news? They’ve been doing this in every Chinatown in every country I’ve been to (more than a few). Funnily enough they even do this in China – have one menu for the gweilos and another for the locals – you can usually tell by the fact that the one has seven pages more than the other.

    Luckily I learned the Mandarin and Cantonese for “Give me the big menu, not the foreign one”, and that’s usually enough to win the server’s approval. It helps that I’m Asian and most off the time they assume I’m a tangrén (foreign born Chinese)

    @Tallanvor: A friend in Guangzhou once told me, “A chinese woman cleans her house by throwing the dirt into the street”, and it’s true – they take care of their own, but to hell with the rest. I think you’ll find one goes hand in hand with the other – they are hard working, brilliant folk who are culturally ingrained to get as much bang for their buck as they can, sometimes even to the point of dishonesty.

  20. Tallanvor says:

    @esqdork: I’m not saying you won’t find sleazy people in every race, or more or fewer in any one race. Every group has good and bad people.

    I can’t help but be reminded of Avenue Q’s song Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist. Part of the problem is that we all have experiences that cloud our judgment. –If we try to claim it’s not true, then we’ll never be able to see past it.

  21. ValkRaider says:

    @JuliusJefferson

    Absolutely. Yes.

    Eating out at a restaurant is entertainment. I have always believed that the government should not restrict places like restaurants or theatres from discriminating.

    It is their business, and it is not a crucial life sustaining service they provide. They should be allowed to pick and chose who ever they want to serve or what they want to serve to them – based on ANY criteria they choose.

    Now, however, if you want to be a successful business – it would be wise to NOT discriminate.

    Especially today, in the information age – as it is very easy to spread information about these sorts of things and bad PR is not a good business decision.

    But if a restaurant owner wants to chance alienating good paying customers and risking protests and whatnot – then they should be allowed to.

    Now, I do believe that we should have the concept of “blacklisting”, much like we have in the housing market and the department of defense.

    If a landlord is documented performing housing discrimination, they become blacklisted from any military person renting that house. When you get your housing allowance from the military you have to give them a copy of the lease and if it is a blacklisted site you get no BAQ (Basic Allowance for Quarters). In many communities being blacklisted would be a “death-knell” to a landlord.

    We could do the same with businesses. If you get caught discriminating based on protected statuses (race, religion, etc etc) you get blacklisted. No more government assistance, insurance, loans, or anything along those lines. Restrict government employees from expensing any meals at the establishment. Etc etc etc.

    I never said discrimination was good – simply that a different menu in Chinese vs. English is nothing to worry about. And we don’t even have all the details – possibly they could have used the Chinese menu had they been able to read Chinese.

    What about student or senior discounts? Discrimination. How about “child” plates? That is discrimination. I should be allowed to order a child sized hamburger and fries if I want (maybe I am not that hungry) but I can’t because I am over 12.

    There is discrimination everywhere people. You are free to not patronize businesses that discriminate. However now, we are expending tax dollars to allow this person to file a complaint and investigate $1 rice sides…

    Can a white person get a scholarship from the UNCF?

  22. Her Grace says:

    @Boo: I don’t know. My being a student has nothing to do with my race or what languages I speak. While it’s certainly legal to charge different prices for different groups (like students, seniors, kids, people who travel only at rush hour…okay, I’m thinking in public transport because I’m bitter the Australian government won’t give me a student price because I’m not an Aussie), I have to believe it’s atleast a grey area when it comes to changing prices when the groups are based on (assumed) ethnicity.

    Meanwhile, at my favourite dumpling place, my girlfriend and I are often the only anglos in the building, but the owners regularly give us a discount. We’re polite and eat there about once a week, and the language barrier (the owners are a married couple, the wife runs the cash usually and speaks very little English) never interferes with being nice or them giving us free food.

  23. TWinter says:

    A Chinese-American friend claims that Chinese who run restaurants in western countries are among the most racist people in the world. We’ve also had various incidents in Chinese restaurants because I’m white and get treated differently, and one take-out place clearly cooked the same dishes to different standards depending on whether I ordered in English or she ordered in Chinese.

  24. Boo says:

    @Maulleigh: Here’s the thing: it’s not illegal. It would be illegal not to let you IN but once you are there they can technically charge you what ever they think you will pay.

    What is important is that once you know they do it never go back, tell your friends not to go and spread the word on pages like this. If you make a big enough stink there is the chance that it will stop. Worked with Amazon charging higher prices to return buyers and with enough noise can work elsewhere.

  25. edjusted says:

    Distasteful, yeah. Racist? Maybe sorta. Maybe not. What about all the Chinese people here who *can’t* read Chinese? They probably get the “English menu” and pay the “English menu prices” too!

  26. bearymore says:

    This is ridiculously common. Even worse than the price issue is the fact that the good stuff often doesn’t appear on the foreign devil menu and some of the more interesting ingredients get left out of the dishes themselves.

    This doesn’t just happen here, but in China as well. I majored in Chinese in college and lived in Taiwan for two years. As a foreign devil, I almost inevitably got the “special” menu. From conversations with waiters, they seemed honestly to believe that westerners wouldn’t like authentic cooking.I’ve certainly overheard many tourists say as much.

  27. SOhp101 says:

    Rice at a Chinese restaurant is typically extra. If it is a Korean or a Japanese restaurant, rice is usually free. Korean and Japanese restaurants, however, are typically more expensive.

    Chinese restaurants typically have different menus in English vs. Korean/Chinese (in Korean for those Chinese restaurants owned by Koreans) because nearly everyone unfamiliar with traditional Chinese cuisine would likely blanch the moment they read some of the things available.

    This is just the way it is in Southern California (and a lot of other areas) for the most part so I don’t see what’s wrong here. Maybe he just can’t tell Korean restaurants apart from Chinese restaurants? Maybe the food tastes all the same to him…

    If you are REALLY that miffed about supposedly paying extra just for not understanding the language/culture, leave less tip to balance the extra you’ve paid. Most Chinese restaurants have bad service so the level of service likely won’t change.

  28. magilacudy says:

    This happened to me recently at an Indian takeout restaurant in Iselin, NJ. Charging me 4 bucks for rice? Probably not worth suing over, but enough to get me pissed off.

    Boo… honestly, how is that legal? Let’s see a national ‘ethnic’ food chain (Taco Bell or Olive Garden) pull that and see how fast the ish hits the fan.

  29. lore says:

    @magilacudy: But you get free rats with a KFC meal!

  30. Weihovah says:

    i’m chinese and i get charged for rice when i order family style regardless of the menu i order from. the stuff that the chinese people were eating were probably “over rice” dishes which are individual portions and cheaper. american chinese takeout restaurants include rice with almost everything so tourists who’ve never been to chinatown might think they were getting ripped off.

    as for the different menus, restaurants are giving what they think their non-chinese customers want. there’s a reason suburban takeout food is different from what you get in chinatown. i’ve been to chinatown with non-chinese people several times and roughly half of them complain when the authentic stuff doesn’t taste like their favorite takeout

  31. Erzengel says:

    Im a half black half white mexican, and i love rice.

    Everytime i go to any asian food place, may it be chinese or japanese (my two faves) i like to do simplethings, like saying hi in their language, and thank you (nihao, hajimemamashite, xie xie, domo arigato). i noticed a great change in their attitude towards me, and even get explanations about real asian food. I went to a japanese place with my gf and another girl friend of us, who happens to be fluent in japanese, and just because of her, we got to try “the other menu”, and she is as mexican as myself.
    I think its funny, maybe weird… wrong? i dont know… i really dont think so. makes me feel they keep the best just for the people who really may enjoy it.

  32. skippywasserman says:

    I dunno, I never had trouble getting the nice folks in Chinatown to be fair with me. I don’t speak chinese, but can say “hello” and “thank you” and find that if I am polite and ask “Um, I’m kinda in the mood for a dish I haven’t had in a while, it’s . Do you think the chef will make that for me?” Sure enough, that’s what comes out and it costs less than everything else on the menu.

    Of course, it probably helps that I go regularly to those places and everyone there knows I’m going to tip really damned well, be polite, bring friends in routinely, and generally do well by them. Oh, wait, that works in every restaurant, not just Chinatown.

  33. Jesse in Japan says:

    Before I moved to Japan, I lived in the Kansas City metro area. Every time I went to a Japanese restaurant, I found that nobody there spoke Japanese. They were always all Koreans or Vietnamese.

    By the way, Erzengel, you probably shouldn’t say hajimemashite in a restaurant. It means, “It’s nice to meet you,” and you would use it when introducing yourself.

  34. Rajio says:

    @Ingen Angiven

    lol i was about to say the same thing.

    being human, we all like food.

  35. paulinsanjuan says:

    I used to live in NYC and I’ve had free rice, not free rice, expensive rice and noticed different prices for things like haircuts in Chinatown. All those associations know exactly what’s going on. Their stance, in a way, is exactly representative of this somewhat shady restaurant.

    I’m asian and spent the last 4 years in Puerto Rico. If I went to a place where prices were not published, like food stands and taxis, I was almost always overcharged, especially taxis. And what’s interesting is that taxis do have published prices and fees set by the government. But they never go by this amount, and will always quote themselves a “propina” or tip. Unless, you are a pretty girl with a nice “budin”.

  36. Don Roberto says:

    The fried rice at Chinese restaurants is to be avoided; I’ve heard that it’s basically yesterday’s leftover steamed rice that has gone a bit dry.

    As for the two menus, I agree with some here. If you could read what’s on the Chinese menu, you’d probably walk out anyway, because you wouldn’t want your food prepared anywhere NEAR that stuff.

    The best chinese food I’ve ever tried was in Beijing and Chengdu. Beijing food was pretty tame, but flavorful. Chengdu food was numbingly spicy and smelled very good.

    American-chinese food is just.. well it’s mass and it’s ok if you can trust the restaurant and need something quick.

    Authentic chinese here in the states is ok, but for some reason I liked it better when I was in china.

  37. Kornkob says:

    *shrug* It seems to me that if the standard is ‘if you speak and read a specific language I’ll give you a discount’ is as reasonable a standard as ‘if you are at least this old’ or ‘if you are at least this young’ or ‘if you can prove you are a member of this group’ or ‘if you get good grades’.

    I don’t see what all the hubub is about.

    As for the passel of reactionaries who are up in arms about his generalized comment about hispanics liking rice— how silling does this have to get? Subcultures do tend to have food preferences. There’s nothing wrong with pointing them out. In this case it’s not relevant to the story and probably should have been omitted because it isn’t relevant but identifying a subculture’s food preferences is not wrong– hell, look at the distriubution of resturants in the US (and elsewhere) and the menu items offered there. What one person calls ‘racial profiling’ someone else might call ‘market research and targeted offerings’.

  38. joeblevins says:

    Don Roberto… Fried rice is best cooked with day old rice. Ever tried cooking it? Get a real Chinese cookbook translated, they will refer to using the cold rice. Don’t want it fresh, it will break up and get gooey.

  39. lore says:

    @joeblevins: You’re absolutely correct. I’ve done both and day-old rice is farrrrrrr better. It’s the dryness of the grain that keeps it apart from the stuff you’re throwing in the mix.

  40. Pelagius says:

    “Being caucasian, I like white rice with butter on it.”

  41. silenuswise says:

    Kudos to Meghann for this post, which is a fascinating topic from a legal standpoint. Troy F. gets the prize for nailing the key observation: “Offering variable prices based on race, nationality, religion, gender, etc may not be.”

    The key word is “may”, since there is a real hazy area in the legality of discriminatory pricing. Ladies’ Night? No longer legal in a number of states. Senior discounts? Legal, with the rationale being that such pricing has neither harmful intent nor ill effects. Is there harmful intent or ill effects in charging non-Chinese-speaking customers a different rate? At best it’s shady, since it’s hardly a necessity for the restaurant. At worst it’s a carry-over Asian cultural practice (as some commenters have pointed out) that is decidedly un-American. More probably it’s something in between.

    Should country clubs still be allowed to exclude blacks? How about women from the Augusta? Gays from the Boy Scouts? And how about this: can I capture consumer surplus with a “whitey night” at my bar? Whites get in free, since such dynamic pricing might be economically beneficial to my bottom line–i.e., whites will spend more, so I want to attract as many as possible.

  42. unsunder says:

    A new chinese restaurant opened up in our town so we gave it a shot. We met the cook and waitress who were husband and wife and made friends. We went there 3 or 4 times a week. No matter what we ordered it was always $4. Is this any different?

  43. SmoovyG says:

    Being a white guy who married into a chinese family and then moved to Los Angeles’ “new” chinatown, I see this sor tof thing a lot. One restaurant actually avoided my table during dim sum one morning when my wife and in-laws had to run out for a half an hour and it was only me and my white friend sitting there. I’ve also been charged more at the market, or completely ignored by market employees when I’ve needed help. It’s exceedingly frustrating, and I can totally see where this gentleman’s annoyance stems from.

  44. olegna says:

    True story:

    I used to buy fresh Tofu in Chinatown. I noticed that when Chinese are in line they are served first over non-Chinese. This was confirmed by an older Chinese woman who noticed that I was standing there waiting for my fresh Tofu while the man behind the counter would serve Chinese standing in line behind me first and serve me only after the next person behind me was non-Chinese.

    I’m not a racist or anything. I found it quite humorous and the older Chinese woman and I had a laugh about it. It was good, fresh tofu so I tolerated it.

  45. olegna says:

    Er, I am referring to NY’s Chinatown. . .