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Thursday, March 5, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Restaurant's Art Decried As Racist -- Obachine Owner Dismayed At Complaints

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

Enter downtown's ObaChine, the upscale Pan-Asian restaurant owned by chef Wolfgang Puck, and his wife, Barbara Lazaroff, and it's the opulence, not the food, that first commands attention.

Lazaroff, who oversees the design of all the restaurants in their California-based food empire, has spared no expense. Walls in the acclaimed restaurant are lavishly adorned with temple carvings, Japanese ink drawings and antique Buddhas.

And at the entrance, behind the reservation desk, is a spot Lazaroff saved for a personal favorite, a framed print that's been a good-luck charm since she first used it 15 years ago at Chinois, the Los Angeles restaurant that, along with Spago, established the couple's reputation.

Last week, Lazaroff's good-luck charm lost its spell. Now at the center of a simmering controversy, it soon may come down.

The print is a turn-of-the-century depiction of a Chinese man wearing a servant's jacket and holding a cup of tea. He is wearing a long braid, or queue, and the slant of his eyes is exaggerated. Originally, the image was used as an advertisement for a colonial French tea company, but Lazaroff had it altered to include the restaurant's name.

While Lazaroff calls the image cute and benign, some members of the city's Asian-American community say it's stereotypical and racist. They have demanded that the print be removed from the trendy restaurant at 1500 Sixth Avenue. Ron Chew, director of the Wing Luke Asian Museum and the most outspoken in calling for the print's removal, also has threatened a boycott.

Lazaroff was planning to travel here from Los Angeles to meet with him today.

The local chapter of the Organization of Chinese Americans, a national civil-rights group, will seek to meet with Lazaroff, too, said Connie So, a local board member and a University of Washington ethnic-studies lecturer.

"We would like an apology, and we want them to take it down," So said this morning, adding that tiles behind the bar that have the image should also be removed.

The local chapter of OCA, the largest Chinese-American civil-rights group, has about 75 members, among them prominent politicians like Gov. Gary Locke and former Seattle City Councilwoman Cheryl Chow, So said.

Lazaroff was stung by the criticism, and disturbed by disruptions at the restaurant caused by groups that have come to see the poster.

"My intention was never to offend anybody," Lazaroff said in a telephone interview. "It's a benign individual who's sipping tea. I've had it hanging for 15 years in Chinois, and no one has ever said anything about this print."

The print has appeared in at least two of the couple's other restaurants without drawing complaints, she said.

For Lazaroff, who said she has not yet decided what to do, the issue boils down to freedom of speech and political correctness that leads to censorship. For Chew, the issue is simply racism.

He began to hear rumblings about the ObaChine print months ago. He saw it for the first time last week, and although he was forewarned, the picture still had a powerful impact.

"My jaw dropped," Chew said. "I normally don't get worked up about that stuff but that image is very, very racist. For a restaurant that serves Asian food to have their name on that is very revolting."

Chew said the image comes out of an era in which Chinese were stereotyped as exotic, mysterious, inscrutable: "Those stereotypes were used to justify racist legislation under which the Chinese were attacked."

Chew's demand that the image be removed reached Lazaroff at her Beverly Hills home. What followed, Lazaroff said, were two sleepless, agonizing nights.

She surveyed her Asian-American friends and associates. No one said they were personally offended by the art, Lazaroff said.

What upsets Lazaroff most is that she feels she is, in effect, being painted as a racist.

"I can understand that since I'm not Asian that maybe my sensibilities are different," she said. "But to me - and this may be offensive to some people - I think he's really cute."

The demand to remove the picture is tantamount to artistic censorship, Lazaroff said, arguing that if she agreed to take it down, she then would have to take down any work that offends any group.

"Obviously there's a very sensitized public in Seattle, much more so than in L.A.," she said. "I feel very conflicted. As a businesswoman, the smartest thing to do is to take the piece down, but it really is a point of principle."

Chew countered that although the image doesn't portray a typical sinister Fu Manchu figure, the poster's purpose is racial stereotype.

"I accept that there wasn't any intent on offending the community, but it's belittling of Asian people."

Nor does Chew buy the argument that because the image is historical, it's defensible.

"I'm seeing the history through the eyes of what history meant to the Chinese," he said. "It was an ugly history, and that picture speaks to the ways that the Chinese were wronged. For them to use that image innocently without providing a context is wrong."

Since seeing the picture, Chew has spread the word. He has called the governor's office and contacted other Asian-American groups.

Chew said, "They have the right to put up whatever image they choose to, but I have the same right to speak out about it. I'm exercising my freedom of expression in much the same way they are."

Ferdinand M. de Leon's e-mail address is: fdel-new@seatimes.com

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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