Apparently Racism is OK in Hamburg

The poster below is plastered up over many U-Bahn stations throughout Hamburg.

Photo by Eddie Gray

It’s an ad for a show by an apparently popular comedy act. The posters for their different shows are always on display at U-Bahn stations.  For those who can’t read German, their latest show is called ‘Chinese To Breakfast’ and as you can see shows these two idiots showing off their best Chinese impressions.

I can’t help wonder how those of Asian ancestry would feel seeing this on their daily commute at every single station the train stops at.  A poster like this would never be allowed to be put up in Australia due to its racist nature and if the media got wind of a show of this nature (I’m going to assume due to the image on this poster that this act makes fun of Asians) there would be protests until the show was shut down. However, here in Hamburg, it doesn’t seem to bother people.  I know the expat experience is all about accepting things that in one’s own culture wouldn’t be done, however, I can’t accept racism, nor do I think that German society should either.

Can anyone with a better understanding of this duo who seems to be called Alma Hoppe set me straight, does this show really make fun of Chinese people and is this an acceptable thing in German comedy and the wider society in general?? I’m finding it really hard to get my head around the fact that this might be okay here.


About Meg

A thirty something queer Aussie geek girl who now lives in Germany.
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27 Responses to Apparently Racism is OK in Hamburg

  1. Anke says:

    Never heard of them. The description at sounds like the show is political satire, and it includes poking fun at Germans, too.

    I could easily imagine that racist jokes about Chinese or other east asian people to be less eyebrow-raising over here than in Australia, because they are further away.

    • Riayn says:

      Political satire is one thing, but a poster that is so blatantly racist is another. I know that Germany doesn’t have as big an Asian population as Australia does, but racism is still racism no matter what races makes up your population.

  2. kimlg99 says:

    Alma Hoppe is the name of a cabaret. Chinesen zum Frühstück means “Chinese for Breakfast”, not “to Breakfast”.

    It being a cabaret means that the comedy performed there will be satire – usually politically heavy satire. This: is an explanation of the show. Basically what the show revolves around is a group of representatives are coming from the Chinese government for a breakfast meeting and two men are discussing the meeting. The two guys you see in the poster are the main players in the sketch. One is a lawyer, one is a businessman and the two debate things like Chinese/German relations, exports, family culture, German fighting dogs, protest politics and so on in a satirical, humorous manner. And knowing German cabarets, I would say Germans get made fun of as much as if not more than modern Chinese culture does. German cabarets tend to be very politically oriented and they make fun of everyone. That’s why they’re popular – because they have no taboos when it comes to making fun of all governments.

    The poster may not be in good taste but I think it’s a bit hasty to assume based on a poster alone that it’s a show that only makes fun of Chinese people or Asian people and German just think it’s okay to make fun of other cultures and races. In all the years I’ve lived here I’ve seen a lot of uproar over entertainers or celebrities making unfortunate racially or ethnically questionable statements. For example, an Austrian TV Volksmusik moderator once called Italians “spaghetti eaters” and people went berserk over that – and he meant it as a compliment!

    • Riayn says:

      Thanks for the clarification of the show’s title. I’ve only learnt zum as in reference to ‘to’ haven’t yet learnt when it means ‘for’.
      To me, people pretending to be Chinese by pulling a stupid face is very offensive, just as offensive as to paint ones face black and pretend to be African American is.
      I have no issue with political satire making fun of all governments and cultures, but the poster to me is in very bad taste and to an outsider suggests a show of a very different nature. Guess it is one of those culture misunderstandings.

      • cliff1976 says:

        Was hast Du zum Frühstück gegessen?” = “What did you eat for breakfast?”

        So there’s one instance of “zum” = “for.” That said, it’s pretty dangerous to start thinking of prepositions as foreign keys. Your relation will have to be a n:m relationship with so many tuples that it’s worthless to you as the application progr…er, speaker.

        By the way, remember the story about the Spanish basketball team and their Let’s-go-to-Beijing Olympic team poster?

        This attempt at humor yucky in my book, but certainly not limited to Hamburgers / Germans / Europeans.

  3. outoutout says:

    “A poster like this would never be allowed to be put up in Australia due to its racist nature..”

    Ah, but we did have The Jackson Jive…
    …not to mention all the people who insisted that it couldn’t possibly be racist:

    Seems to be the same sort of thing everywhere.

    • Riayn says:

      I remember that. Now that was unbelievable racist and the media gave Hey, Hey It’s Saturday the mighty smackdown that they most definitely deserved.
      I’m sure that there are people who insist that it isn’t racist to paint ones face black or to pull funny faces and call yourself Chinese but it doesn’t make the act any less offensive for people from those races.

      • Klaus says:

        > it doesn’t make the act any less offensive for people from those races.

        That argument would convince me if it came from an Asian person.
        Hamburg is home to a Chinese General Consulate and one of Germany’s biggest Chinese populations, as well as being a partner city of Shanghai.
        Considering how easy it is to officially hurt the feelings of the PRC government nowadays, don’t you think if people really felt offended, we would have heard by now?

  4. Klaus says:

    @kimlg99: Excellent observations.

    I agree, the poster is not in good taste. But so are, for example, many covers of Titanic magazine, which nevertheless delivers some of the most pertinent and hardest-hitting satire around in Germany:

    While Germans are hyper-sensitive to anti-semitism and racism against Turkish people (and for good reasons), there simply is no big awareness of possible racism directed at East Asians. One reason is they form such a tiny minority in Germany.

    Living in Taiwan myself, I am very much aware of cultural and racial stereoptypes from all directions and do not want to imply everything is fine. It just does not seem to be that big a problem in this case.

    I find it very encouraging that Philipp Rösler has become Vice Chancellor now, and I do not know of anyone making a subject of his Vietnamese heritage at all – much like all that talk about Angela Merkel’s competence being a woman (“Does she have what it takes?”) pretty much faded away after she became chancellor. That says more about modern Germany’s attitude than some poster on the subway.

    Finally, let’s all sing together with Monty Python: “I like Chinese”

  5. Klaus says:

    This one is even better. 40 years ago, Monty Python already said it all.

  6. Scott says:

    I’ve decided that racism is relative (and universal… I don’t exclude myself). A nation based on immigration or with a history of colonialism will have different sensitivities to racism than a country like German, which has neither.

    For example, a couple of years there was a PR campaign for universities in eastern Germany entitled Studieren in Fernost featuring two Asians named Gang and Dong that I found totally offensive even though the blogger I’m linking to worked on the campaign and is my friend and ex-boss.

    This lack of sensitivity is especially annoying since Germans are all too quick to point out racism in other countries, yours and mine included. I guess the best thing to do is to politely point out racism when we see it but to keep in mind that we’re coming from a different perspective.

  7. Kimlg99 says:

    I don’t condone the poster but neither can I condone drawing broad conclusions based upon its viewing and applying it to all Hamburgers. The poster’s existence doesn’t make it apparant that the people of Hamburg are okay with racism. I don’t think it necessarily makes the cabaret performers recist, especially when it very well could be the show has a very anti-racist lesson. A lot of assumptions are being made before all the evidence is considered. I’d ask the cabaret about the poster and consider their reputation before making a final conclusion.

  8. Klaus says:

    Still trying to figure out if I should feel offended by this Taiwanese “German style” bakery chain using an ugly Bavarian clichee character with a Hitler moustache as their mascot:

    Concerning the R-word: Can we all agree that there is a fundamental difference between racism and the (be it satirical or thoughtless, but not evil-minded) use of cultural, national and, yes, sometimes racial stereotypes?

  9. Lita says:

    I absolutely agree with you – this is bad taste and disgusting.
    Even if it meant “the Chinese joining Germans for breakfast”.

    From what I can understand in the short summary on
    it has nothing to to with racism in the German society, but more with reducing the inadequate German elitist self-perception and attitude to absurdity.
    Especially when I read their last paragraph.

    I can easily see how this must offend people NOT ONLY from other cultures, but ALSO Germans – knowing what level of terror, violence and horror came from this “Land der Dichter und Denker”.
    To me as a German this kind of program in such a context and with this vocabulary is just UNBEARABLE – even though I might be able to understand Alma Hoppe’s and her friends’ ambition.

    Especially this summary does not have anything to do with a racist statement to me – BUT with bringing up a painful truth, that the German society indeed is infected by a thoughtless and unbearable complacancy against other societies and cultures.

    It seems as if this satirical program was being written to reveal this German latent plus the obviously existing arrogance – in a crude act of self-criticism and by using the vocabulary that brings up uncomfortable associations and dashing water on the mills unconvincable dumbass nazis.

    Such kind of attitude and the kind of “intellectual” involvement is just inappropriate and a No-go!
    Especially we Germans (Dichter und Denker, haha, hmpf) really should be more sensitive in broaching such a topic, even if in well-meant self reflection, IF so.

    The lack of sensitivity in this campaign is just outrageous.
    With overdrawing the arrogant German attitude and with the sarcastic view, false friends ( – a grammatical phenomeon when translating directly) and equivocation of the German language, I think the ad agency FAILED DESPICABLY in transferring this ambition – IF really existing.

    Hamburg, as a cosmopolitain city, should be smart enough to prevent a loss of reputation caused by such offending, unreflecting and insensitive campains!

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  11. Leaded Coffee says:

    Interesting post. As a person of Filipino/Spanish/and Japanese descent and American nationality, I have experienced only one instance of where a restaurant didn’t serve me (they completely ignored me considering I had the menu and waived the waitress over at least five times). Besides that, I have experienced, as a whole, more of a dismissive attitude rather than a racist attitude, probably because I don’t speak German and I that I’m an American. I was visiting on an extended vacation.

    Other than that, I think Hamburg is a wonderful city and believe America should take lessons from Germany in terms of progressive social improvements and city planning.

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  13. Kat says:

    I lived in Australia for 8 years and know that the kind of poster that u see above is what I witnessed during my stay in Aussie land. I used to see this kind of “joke” on TV on a show called Fast Forward. Same thing at school etc, etc. Sounds to me that the kind of mentality that ppl have over in Germany is similar to Aussies. So glad I live in Canada now. I’m proud to be a Canadian.

    • Riayn says:

      Fast Forward screened in Australia from 1989 to 1992 and I agree, the show used to be full of racist jokes. Fortunately, Australia gotten a clue and these kind of jokes are not as tolerated as they once were and you would never see a poster like this being displayed. Unfortunately, the same can not be said of Germany who still find these racist jokes funny in 2011.

  14. The poster surely looked tasteless to me, I took a photo here yesterday I personally don’t like these jokes, where they imitate Chinese people speaking German with a “l” for every “r”. It’s not funny to me. But to insert “racism” here is a bit extreme, don’t you think? Even more so assuming some general ideas about Germans based on that. I think making fun of other nations should be part of satire and comedy, but how this is done should depend on each culture.

    Congratulations, if you don’t have this kind of posters in Canada and Australia, but that doesn’t say anything about Germany. Surely Germany has a lot of problems with racism, but what I like about Germans is that they talk about it openly, unlike in Canada, where racism also exists (and should be dealt with), but everybody’s so PC on the outside and a lot of things are taboo to talk about. I think it’s just backwards, I’m proud to be Slovenian.

  15. Ally says:

    I agree with you. It’s so tasteless. Every time I see those posters in the U-Bahn I feel embarrassed to live here, and I’m not even German, I shouldn’t care.
    This might be ok in a small town but in Hamburg, it’s a no-no.

    • cliff1976 says:

      That’s interesting. Why might it be OK in a small town, but not big one like Hamburg?

      • Ally says:

        Well, not so much “OK” but more “understandable”. In a small town with no foreigners around you’d think “they don’t know any better, if it’s funny to them and not hurting anyone it shouldn’t bother me”.
        Racism is never OK.

  16. Laura says:

    I want to thank you so much for this post, because your moral intuition was spot-on. I saw this racist poster every time I got on/off the U-bahn and the S-bahn. And every time I saw it, it made me cringe. I was shocked and disappointed to see something like this up in public.

    I am an Asian-American woman who grew up in Washington, DC. After graduation, I spent a year living in Hamburg, Germany. It was a very exciting experience and I wouldn’t give up that up for the world, but it was also a challenging experience for me at times. Most Germans had never met an American who looks like me before, and there were a great number of social and cultural differences between Germany and the United States that affected the way in which I experienced my time in this otherwise lovely and super cool city.

    I really loved my time in Germany in general, and my time in Hamburg in particular. I think I drank more beer in that one year of my life than I ever will again. As a queer woman, I can also say that I felt much more comfortable being open about my identity as a gay woman in Hamburg than I would in smaller, conservative American towns.

    My German friends at the university were very cool, very cosmopolitan, very worldly, and their command of American culture and the English language were just unbelievably fantastic. But I was very disappointed with the surprising amount of disrespect, subtle prejudice, and outright racism that I encountered in other realms. Even though these episodes were rare, they were a new experience to me. Although America certainly still struggles with some of these issues, I think that decades of living together with black, white, asian, hispanic, and native-american persons has forced us to be more responsible about the ways in which we portray “others” in media.

    It is not that we are more “PC.” As hard as it is to believe, most of us just don’t think that way. Americans named John, Brandon, Miguel, Ming-Lee, and Sonia work together, go to school together, live together, marry each other, fight with each other, care for one another, etc. Our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents come from different places, but for better or worse, we are here now, and we are here together. And this is something that most Americans intuitively understand.

    What really disturbed me about this outrageous poster was that people here seem to be willing to go out of their way to diminish or to excuse its radical lack of respect for the dignity and the individuality of fellow human beings. Yes, I am American. Yes, I am Chinese. Am I not a person of equal dignity and worth? Racist images like this aren’t racist because the person who made it thinks he is a racist–images like this are racist because they show radical disregard for the individual human dignity and essential worth of a human being. A Chinese person is a person, not a “Chinese.” A gay person is a person, not a “Gay.” Anytime we perpetuate images of “others” in an essentialized, monolithic way, we run the risk of being racist.

    What’s wrong is wrong. Have the courage to call it that. Don’t make excuses. And definitely don’t be a go-along.

    Thanks again for speaking up about this crappy poster. Props to you!

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