Racial Remark In Air China Magazine Sparks Anger
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
People don't pay much attention to in-flight magazines these days, what with iPads and smartphones to distract, but one on Air China is getting a lot of scrutiny in London. That's because the current issue of the Wings of China tells Chinese passengers heading to the British capital to take precautions in areas where there are lots of Indians, Pakistanis and blacks. This travel tip has drawn swift charges of racism from politicians and citizens in London, one of the world's great global cities that prides itself on its multiculturalism. This morning, Air China apologized and pulled the magazine. We called Frank Langfitt, who has long covered China for NPR and is now based in London, for details about the article that caused all this controversy.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Yeah. Well, basically, you see this in magazines all over the world. You - it's - the cover story is London. There's a picture of the House of Parliament. And basically, what Air China was doing was offering travel tips for visitors, Chinese visitors, to London. And they said the city is generally safe, which is certainly true. But then, they added, quote, "precautions are needed when entering areas mainly populated by Indians, Pakistanis and black people," as you mentioned in the introduction. And in the accompanying Mandarin, they describe areas where these - lots of these people are as, quote, "relatively chaotic" or you could say disorderly.
MONTAGNE: And so there's a - this has caused an uproar right there?
LANGFITT: Yeah. Well, it is getting some play. BBC has covered it. Other newspapers here have covered it, as well. Their reaction today - pretty negative on the streets - of people saying they feel this is overt racism. And they're also puzzled because I think there's a cultural - a really interesting cultural issue here. The ethnic neighborhoods in London are seen as selling points for many. If you take places like Brick Lane - I'm sure you've been there in East London - full of Bangladeshi restaurants. Lots of people go there for the food and just the atmosphere. And Virendra Sharma - he's a member of Parliament from London. He was born in India. This morning he was on talkRADIO, and here's what he had to say about it.
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VIRENDRA SHARMA: Giving this kind of advice is scaremongering and putting down some communities who are living peacefully in a very multicultural, multiracial society has - and has contributed hugely into the development of the economy of this country.
LANGFITT: Now, Sharma's actually written to a Chinese ambassador here in London, asking for apology. He's also invited Chinese to visit his neighborhood in Ealing to see what it's really like.
MONTAGNE: And, you know, you might think, oh, airline magazine. But in fact, lots of Chinese are traveling abroad in huge numbers. So they would be seeing this magazine.
LANGFITT: Some would, and some would certainly look at it and pay attention to it. What's interesting is I think there's a much larger cultural issue going on here and an economic issue. If you look back, China for many, many centuries was very isolated. People began traveling a little bit in the '80s. In the last decade, because of growing wealth, people have been traveling, as you point out, at unprecedented rates.
Today, I can be in front of the Louvre. I could be on Portobello Road here in London speaking Mandarin. That was unthinkable not so long ago. And so I think you're seeing a lot of growing pains. You know, Chinese tour groups are often seen in Paris and other places as loud and boorish. You had this case not too many years ago where a kid from China actually was drawing graffiti on the temples of Luxor.
MONTAGNE: And, Frank, how would you say dust-up in Mandarin?
LANGFITT: You could say, (speaking Putonghua), conflict, certainly in Putonghua, the common language there. I think, in broader context, what you're going to see here is this is a learning process, just as it was for people who are known as the ugly Americans back in the '50s, '60s and '70s. As Americans went out, they had a lot of money and traveled in great numbers. You got to remember that China only has a tiny percentage of minorities. Most of the population is the same ethnically.
And so I think that Chinese are going to have to become a bit more aware and sensitive and informed. Also, it's really interesting. Some of the people in China didn't like this Air China tip either. They saw it as racist. And the person who actually broke this story is Chinese. She's the Beijing-based news and documentary producer for CNBC, and she tweeted this out yesterday on her account.
MONTAGNE: NPR's Frank Langfitt speaking to us from London. Thanks very much.
LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.