Jamal Perry has been managing bars for the last sixteen years. Most recently, he ran a couple of Oakland dives: Bigum's Silver Lion and the Golden Bull. Both have since closed, but Perry is now launching a more luxurious venue just north of Chinatown. Perry hopes to attract a share of the area's burgeoning nightlife while drawing in the 9-to-5 crowd for power lunches and after-work drinks. He's set to open before the end of the year — but some people in the neighborhood are less than thrilled.
At issue is the bar's name, "Geisha," a word that Perry's detractors say props up a demeaning image of women of Asian ancestry as submissive, erotic playthings, readily available to fulfill every man's wanton desire.
Beginning almost two hundred years ago in Japan, the word identified a type of female entertainer. Wearing ornate kimonos and distinctive white makeup, geishas in the original sense are known for giving dance, music, and song performances at formal parties, where part of their role is also to engage guests in conversation. They still practice their craft, but their numbers have dwindled from a peak of 80,000 in the 1920s to fewer than 5,000 today.
During the American occupation of Japan in the late 1940s, the word became defiled when the booming flesh trade appropriated it to solicit US servicemen, who started referring to prostitutes as "geesha girls." Incensed by this development, some true geishas actually considered dropping the name altogether. Co-opted since then by all manner of exploitative interests beyond Japan, it has collected permanent baggage, as anthropologist Liza Dalby wrote in her essay "The Exotic Geisha." "The seemingly indelible definition, 'a Japanese prostitute,' has finally faded from newer English dictionaries, replaced by 'artists' and 'traditional entertainers' ... [but] the portrait of the geisha as sexual toy, groomed in ornate traditional fashion, trained in the arts of pleasing men, remains firmly framed in the western gallery of female icons."
Perry, who is biracially Korean and black, dismisses the notion that he is milking a stereotype that plays off his own Asian heritage. "It's not just like ... I'm going to run with the theme of 'me love you long time' type of thing," he maintained. "It's just not a marketing ploy."
His own interest certainly seems genuine. Claiming a deep affinity for Asian culture, Perry sports tattoos of geishas on both arms. Asked when he was first drawn to them, he responded, "I don't really have a moment where I was like, 'Oh, geishas!' It's just something I've always gravitated to and thought, sexy and classy, you know what I mean? Exotic."
His bar features two massive geisha murals in what appears an emulation of classical Japanese style. Painted by artists from Temple Tattoo, the colorful murals dominate an otherwise black interior. Although it is not entirely clear how else the name will manifest itself in the establishment, the prospective menu features several Asian-fusion dishes and a range of sake-based cocktails.
Namie Shin, Perry's collaborator and a chef who will be managing the bar's kitchen, explained, "We're trying to remove the word 'geisha' from the derogatory association that it had in the past. People think of it in a negative way, they think of brothels and whatnot, but they can now have a positive association with it."
However, Diana Pei Wu, who lives near the bar and serves as a faculty lecturer in UC Berkeley's ethnic studies department, said the health and well-being of area residents is threatened by having this word quite literally hanging over their heads — as it does in dark metallic lettering at the establishment's 316 14th Street location. Pointing out that young women of color in Oakland face "racialized, gendered violence" every day, she asserted, "I can't condone that kind of environment, and a bar named Geisha would actually contribute to that atmosphere."
Wu has been dismayed to hear "friends of friends" inquire if the bar will be haven to prostitutes. "This is what is in the public mind about this word, and regardless of what the intention of the owners is — or what they say their intention is — the word conjures up the stereotype," she said. "The goal is to get people to come in based on whatever their stereotypes are."
Many other social-justice proponents echo her sentiment; Perry's bar has already drawn harsh criticism across the Internet from popular web sites such as Asian Pacific Americans for Progress, reappropriate, and Angry Asian Man. Geisha even has a preemptive Yelp listing where scathing reviews have been piling up (for instance: "Offensive to the Asian American community. Please do not support unless they TOTALLY restructure their image/marketing AND apologize").
"I'm not even of Asian descent and I'm pretty horrified by the name," said Richard Wright, a local DJ who used to spin right around the corner from Geisha at the Breakroom Cafe. As a sort of neighborhood emissary, Wright met with Perry months ago inside of 316 14th Street to negotiate a name change on behalf of concerned residents. The two had a cordial meeting, but Perry declined to consider changing the name and Wright came away dissatisfied.
"The kind of justification that [Perry] gives is just like, well there are beautiful paintings on the wall ... focusing on the art of the geisha," he recounted. Wright, who is Black, argued that "if a place was opening up called the 'Happy Mammy,' and they said that they had beautiful vistas of plantations on the wall, that wouldn't help anything. ... I do believe if it was a name that was considered derogatory to black folks, there actually may be more action around it."
Not that there hasn't been action. Wright, Wu, and four other community members recently pled their case in front of the Oakland Planning Commission on October 7, when Perry was scheduled for a hearing on his application for the bar's required Major Conditional Use Permit. After the group's passionate testimony in the public comment period, Commissioner Blake Huntsman marveled, "I don't think anything's come before us where just the name itself, as far as a business, has inflamed people in this way," and asked Perry to consider "if in fact you want to open on such a note." Planning Commission Chair Michael Colbruno cautioned, "I just know if I were starting a health drink and I thought the name 'E. Coli Drink' sounded cool, I'd kind of want someone to come and tell me that it's got some ramifications that aren't good."
While each of the six commissioners expressed such reservations, they ultimately awarded Perry with the permit on the grounds that his choice of name lay beyond their purview. However, the only two female commissioners in attendance did not vote in favor of this action; Sandra Galvez abstained, and Vien Truong dissented, declaring, "We have the responsibility to protect the citizens of Oakland."
Perry contends his bar will help execute that same responsibility in its own manner. His application paperwork for the permit promises security officers at the door who "will deter, impede, and report criminal activities such as vandalism, car break-ins, assaults, robberies, etc."
This setup, while likely beneficial in a general sense, does not alleviate Wright's biggest fear: "If this place opens up with this name, I have this nasty image of people going, drinking, getting drunk, leaving the establishment and looking for a 'geisha' for the evening, you know? I'm sure that's not going to be the typical experience, but I am concerned that it will contribute to harassment of women of Asian descent in the area."
Both Wright and Wu emphasized that they want to see more commercial development in their neighborhood — just not at the expense of public safety. They intend to continue pressuring Perry to change the name of his establishment, which they would eventually hope to patronize if he does.
"I would love to have a place to kick it, where we could be creating the kind of Oakland that we want, all of us collectively," Wu said.
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