Soleil Ho, the restaurant critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, visited Le Colonial, a 25-year-old Vietnamese restaurant in the city (it also has locations in New York, Chicago, and LA), and was not impressed. The food was not very good, especially for the price, but the problems she found are much larger than a single restaurant and its food: she took issue with the concept of colonialism as an appropriate theme for a restaurant.
Le Colonial is meant to evoke the spirit of 1920s Indochina, as Vietnam was known when it was occupied by the French. “What that means,” Ho writes, “is that the courtyard and dining rooms are full of banana trees and birds of paradise, sheer fabrics, rattan armchairs and red lanterns.” But who, in 1920s Vietnam, spent their time lounging in rattan armchairs under banana trees? Certainly not the Vietnamese. At Le Colonial, which is owned by a Frenchman, Jean DeNoyer, diners are meant to identify with the French colonizers. Which is a bit uncomfortable if you happen to be Vietnamese-American, as Ho is. “The difficulty I have with Le Colonial,” she writes, “is that its nostalgia is completely unrelatable. There’s nothing poignant about it; I don’t want to go back to that time and place, to presume that I would be the person served and not the one doing the serving.”
Ho spends some time talking about the allure of colonialism, specifically colonial Vietnam, with both a cultural historian and with the author Viet Thanh Nguyen, who has written about the impact of French colonialism and the Vietnam War on the Vietnamese people. What most puzzles her is why places like Le Colonial are able to continue to sell the fantasy of colonialism, unchallenged.
People who should know better, whether Asian Americans or those who simply know their history, are just as susceptible to the fantasy that musicals like “Miss Saigon” and places like Formosa Cafe represent. These productions, [Nguyen] told me later, are powered by white people at the most elite levels. “They own the means of production and representation, and as long as they do, it makes it really hard for those of us who don’t own these means to challenge them.”
It’s also really, really pretty. The nostalgia comes from the knowledge that all this beauty, this illusion of comfort and ease (for some people), would be swept away, “gone with the wind,” in the words of another popular white-centric fantasy. Who wouldn’t feel sad?
The difference now is that restaurant culture (and food culture in general) is not as white as it was back in the 1990s when DeNoyer founded Le Colonial. Now people like Ho and Nguyen, who are able to look at it from the perspective of the colonized, as opposed to the colonizer, are in positions to challenge this nostalgia. That is a very good thing. And Ho’s review is definitely worth a read.