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Stereotypes -- "chop suey" and other "ethnic type"
June 19, 2009 1:33 PM   Subscribe

Stereotypes -- Derided by typophiles as crass, "ethnic type" has a revealing taxonomy and, surprisingly, serves a purpose.
posted by cog_nate (66 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite

 
I see what you did there.
posted by kcds at 1:47 PM on June 19, 2009


That "Chinese" font serves a very important purpose for me--I avoid all restaurants that use it, because in my experience they're invariably crappy and bland.

Also, the toqued, mustachioed chef kissing his fingers on a pizza box never fails to indicate tasteless, cardboardy crust and not enough mozzarella.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:53 PM on June 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


Related
posted by Artw at 1:55 PM on June 19, 2009


Great article, although I take issue with the main point, namely:

Ethnic type—not just chop suey but all of the varieties—survives for the simple reason that stereotypes, though crude, serve a commercial purpose. They are shortcuts, visual mnemonic devices. There is no room for cultural nuance or academic accuracy in a shop’s fascia. Restaurant owners want passersby (often in cars rather than on foot) to know immediately that they serve Chinese (or Greek, or Jewish) food, and a lettering style that achieves this is welcome.

That's true and all, and it does serve a commercial purpose - but so too do the mobile billboard assholes that drive around cities for no purpose other than to advertise, waste gas, and circumvent visual pollution laws and sign codes. Just because it's useful doesn't mean it's good.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 1:59 PM on June 19, 2009 [3 favorites]


That "Chinese" font serves a very important purpose for me--I avoid all restaurants that use it, because in my experience they're invariably crappy and bland.

I haven't found the use of these typefaces to be correlated either way with food quality. There are some excellent restaurants that use them here, and some awful ones. I only found out which were which by eating at all of them and not returning to the bad ones. And I live in Berkeley, California, probably one of the most stereotype-sensitive places in the US.
posted by spitefulcrow at 2:00 PM on June 19, 2009


You know, we should be happy Chinese restaurants just use the "Chop Suey" typeface and not actual ethnic stereotypes like the "toqued, mustachioed chef kissing his fingers on a pizza box".
Can you imagine? Chinese take-out places would have pictures of buck-toothed coolies with pointed hats, a queue and round glasses. Mexican restaurants would have pictures of sombrero-wearing mustachioed men sleeping under a cactus. Bagel places would have pictures like this of hook-nosed Jewish caricatures wringing their hands as they make a bagel.
If anything, it's a marvel the Italian stereotype has stuck with pizza places like it has.
posted by dunkadunc at 2:03 PM on June 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


That "Chinese" font serves a very important purpose for me--I avoid all restaurants that use it, because in my experience they're invariably crappy and bland.

Arial serves the same function for me. Restaurants that misspell their offerings in Arial might as well have sanitation grades of F.
posted by infinitewindow at 2:04 PM on June 19, 2009


dunkadunc - almost ten years ago my "Childrens Television" class was touring the Blue's Clues studios, and they had an amusing anecdote about character design. Namely, they created a stereotypical french "character" for some normally inanimate object, and an Italian characterization for another. Both were equally broad. In the end, it was determined that the Italian character might be offensive, but that no one would really care with the French one. I doubt a British character would've even raised an eyebrow.
posted by Navelgazer at 2:08 PM on June 19, 2009


I really like a lot of these fonts because they're retro, though it's undeniable that in their sort of hamhanded clumsy signalling they reflect ethnic stereotypes of their times. I never actually thought of these type styles formally as a method, intentional or otherwise, of perpetuating ethnic stereotypes by using text - yet they certainly do call stereotypes to mind. Interesting take.
posted by Miko at 2:08 PM on June 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


You know what 'ethnic' fonts piss me off the most? English-using-Cyrillic to show Russian-ness. God damn it people, those are different characters, not a different font!
posted by FuManchu at 2:11 PM on June 19, 2009 [9 favorites]


That original "Chinese" font (nee Mandarin) is beautiful.
posted by Nelson at 2:14 PM on June 19, 2009


English-using-Cyrillic to show Russian-ness.

Last summer I was wearing my Soviettes shirt and was laughed at by my Bulgarian housemates because some of the letters weren't even real.
posted by dunkadunc at 2:19 PM on June 19, 2009


We dealt with this exact issue just this week - the design was crying out for a chop suey typeface, but my social conscience simply would not let me go there. Compromise: a font called Hong Kong.
posted by squalor at 2:24 PM on June 19, 2009 [7 favorites]


Despite the traditional use of Chop Suey as shorthand for "loaded with MSG" and "badly dubbed Kung Fu movie," it actually works surprisingly well in conjunction with superfrenchy Art Nouveau.
posted by Sys Rq at 2:25 PM on June 19, 2009


See, to me that one says Mucha, or possibly Chinoise.
posted by Artw at 2:26 PM on June 19, 2009


(On preview, Hong Kong is the Art Nouveau typeface.)
posted by Sys Rq at 2:27 PM on June 19, 2009


Superfrenchy Art Nouveau AND Chop Suey?
Please tell me more.
posted by dunkadunc at 2:27 PM on June 19, 2009


Oh yeah, if you really want to emphasize otherness, you should use the English characters in popular Asian fonts. Nothing else screams "I am not a native speaker" like hideous kerning and letterforms.
posted by infinitewindow at 2:38 PM on June 19, 2009 [10 favorites]


I'm all for Frenchified Asian food - it's a collision that inspires yumminess.
posted by Artw at 2:38 PM on June 19, 2009


Also, in my experience, ity's the place with the crap signage that all the locals know about that is the winner, regardless of fond usage. As an outsider this place is indistinguishable from the place netx door where the napkins will give you tetanus.
posted by Artw at 2:42 PM on June 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


When I retire I'm opening a shwarma place with the sign done in the chop suey typeface. With a chinese food place next door with a sign using these fonts.

This is a neat piece of industrial history.
posted by GuyZero at 2:47 PM on June 19, 2009


We dealt with this exact issue just this week - the design was crying out for a chop suey typeface, but my social conscience simply would not let me go there.

I like the font they used for the Beijing 2008 logo. It's "Chinese" looking without being "chop suey."
posted by pravit at 2:48 PM on June 19, 2009


I wonder if there are Chinese or Kanji type faces that do the same thing but for western services, probably everyone recognises the roman alphabet and significant english words anyway so there's no need right now and I guess western trade is conducted mostly in business to business or professional goods and services structured in pedestrian, printed documents, but imagine getting to a point where you have a large, poor western immigrant population working family businesses in some asian country, forcing mutation of traditional native kanji into "crass" romanised kanji just so they have that immediate appeal on the street. It's amazing how these typefaces distil a geopolitical moment into neon brushstrokes at funny angles, but also that you can extrapolate those conditions backwards and forwards (from Constantinople to LA circa Bladeunner, or any other fantasy of cosmopolitanism) they're like potent smells, or things waiting to become potent smells.
posted by doobiedoo at 2:48 PM on June 19, 2009 [2 favorites]


You know what 'ethnic' fonts piss me off the most? English-using-Cyrillic to show Russian-ness. God damn it people, those are different characters, not a different font!

I feel exactly the same way about the use of Greek characters. Congratulations ABC Family, you have a show called GRSSK.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 2:52 PM on June 19, 2009 [7 favorites]


dunkadunc: hook-nosed Jewish caricatures wringing their hands as they make a bagel."

You must be thinking of the Einstein Brothers (protip: Jewish caricature mascots, not actual people).
posted by lostburner at 2:59 PM on June 19, 2009


Volapuk encoding is sort of the flipside--though done for practical, not aesthetic reason.
posted by neroli at 3:03 PM on June 19, 2009


Nice! Never did I expect to see sign for Chinese Gardens, home of the best Chinese food in my hometown (and current dwelling place) of Pasco, WA, linked to in an article on Metafilter. The world is getting smaller....
posted by Roach at 3:07 PM on June 19, 2009


...Mexican restaurants would have pictures of sombrero-wearing mustachioed men sleeping under a cactus.

How about sleeping on a bell?
posted by applemeat at 3:11 PM on June 19, 2009 [2 favorites]


If anything, it's a marvel the Italian stereotype has stuck with pizza places like it has.

You're local pizza place has some guys having a knife fight on it's sign? ROCK!
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 3:23 PM on June 19, 2009 [3 favorites]


I only eat at restaurants that use nothing but Courier.

I don't eat out a lot.
posted by Xoebe at 3:27 PM on June 19, 2009 [2 favorites]


Bagel places would have pictures like this of hook-nosed Jewish caricatures wringing their hands as they make a bagel.

I need to tell all of you that the image of the conniving Jew linked to in Dunkadunc's comment is titled "Jew-bwa-ha-ha-ha.gif."

That is all.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 4:17 PM on June 19, 2009


Those Korean soap operas that were popular across Asia a while ago made an awesome font be created: Korean inspired Chinese Characters -- They had circles instead of the 'ka' radical (box), larger than normal hooks to fake the "n" and "k" Korean sounds.... I can't find these fonts anywhere, but they were awesome.
posted by sleslie at 4:17 PM on June 19, 2009 [2 favorites]



Bagel places would have pictures like this of hook-nosed Jewish caricatures wringing their hands as they make a bagel.


Whoops, meant to italicize that.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 4:52 PM on June 19, 2009


In the comics medium, using an "ethnic font" conventionally indicates that the character is speaking in the associated language. For example, in the Asterix comics, Gothic characters speak in a blackletter typeface similar to Fraktur, Egyptians speak in a rebus-like heiroglyphic text, Greeks speak in "GRSSK" (a great word for it, Bulgaroktonos!). Alternatively it indicates that the character has a foreign accent, or some strange voice.

I've found it useful occasionally for roleplaying games - if I want to make a handout with Dwarvish text, for example (say, the inscription on a door), and there's a character in the party who can read Dwarvish, I'll use a runic font, and a latin font based on the runic font; for Undercommon, a Cthulhu Runes type font and a latin font based on it, and so on. Caveat: if you just use font-changing, they can work it out using ordinary cryptographic deciphering, so unless you want them to do that, use some other text ideally in a non-English language. I find using decipherable text somewhat de-immersive, but on the other hand, the players spending the effort to decipher is a reasonable simulation for the characters spending the effort to translate.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 4:57 PM on June 19, 2009


Each time someone insults the comic sans font, it deeply hurts me and my people, the doofuses.
posted by orme at 5:08 PM on June 19, 2009 [9 favorites]


When I want to know about the food of a restaurant, I don't look at the font on the sign, I look at the demographics of the people eating there. (Hint: the empty restaurant on Chinese New Year? Not the place to go.)
posted by yeloson at 5:17 PM on June 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


Hey, I did that naturally by hand as a kid. When I was writing dialogue for someone with a soft quavery voice, for instance, I'd draw the letters all light and squiggly. People with harsh voices came out dark and jagged.

Thanks for nudging that memory back up.
posted by tangerine at 5:21 PM on June 19, 2009


dunkadunc- Mexican restaurants with a droopy-mustached guy in a sombrero, complete with bullet straps and twin pistols? Got one about two miles away. They still use the mascot in advertising, in a town that has no shortage of first and second generation Mexican immigrants.

Of course, this same town has a restaurant called "Tokyo House" which has Korean signs around, kimchi on the menu, and the "Beef donburi" is really just bulgogi. That's right, using real Korean is enough to look Japanese as long as you put "Tokyo" in there somewhere. I won't touch their sushi menu, but the bulgogi really is pretty good.

What really threw me off was an Asian restaurant that actually had a sign with ^_^ on it. I am both baffled and curious, yet I have yet to convince myself to go inside.
posted by Saydur at 5:36 PM on June 19, 2009


Mexican restaurants would have pictures of sombrero-wearing mustachioed men sleeping under a cactus.

Mexican restaurant signs are the only reason I'm familiar with this caricature. It's on every other place out here in California.
posted by designbot at 5:47 PM on June 19, 2009


Well, if your talking comics with lettering with fancy fonts you've got to mention Todd Kleins work on Sandman - it's font tastic.
posted by Artw at 6:05 PM on June 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm reminded of the many businesses that use Papyrus in their signage; it's easy shorthand for an ethnic restaurant serving the cuisine of an "exotic" country, something related to wellness or natural/organic products, or a yoga studio.
posted by elmwood at 6:18 PM on June 19, 2009


Ethnic types have been dubbed “garbage fonts” by typophiles, and since the fonts are culturally inauthentic, they are deemed an affront to the political sensitivities of ethnic groups (and to the enlightened morals of graphic designers). But it has often been immigrant entrepreneurs, not professional designers, who have chosen to use these typefaces and keep their popularity alive. As long as there is chop suey, there will be chop suey lettering.

I'm sorry, Paul Shaw. Stereotypes which make someone an "outsider" do not suddenly become sanitized when the outsiders take on those stereotypes in order to participate. Nor do the earnings of the discriminated absolve the moral error of those who discriminate.

These stereotypes prevent people from seeing each other as equals. They encourage people to pigeonhole each other without respecting how a culture sees itself, or how an individual is unique. They define "safe" areas of social and economic activity while propagating the subconscious superiority of the insider. And saddest of all is when the outsider must consciously or unconsciously act a part, due to the small-mindedness of the insider, whether graphics designer or consumer.
posted by honest knave at 6:52 PM on June 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


There's a "chinese" dipping sauce at my grocery store that not only uses a "chop suey" font but the name of the sauce is "Ah So Sauce". I always want to buy it just to have and to laugh at, but then am I not the same as the racist? /strikes long skinny beard, puffs on opium pipe
posted by DU at 6:59 PM on June 19, 2009


DU: It is not the font, or the designer of the font, or the existence of a stereotype which makes the racist. It how we treat people, as individuals, and as societies. These things are fine in places where we don't let ourselves be limited by them, and don't limit others using them. But it's not the market which makes things better.
posted by honest knave at 7:19 PM on June 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


I always want to buy it just to have and to laugh at, but then am I not the same as the racist?

My suspicion is that this is made and the packaging designed by actual Chinese people, who deemed it necessary to hit whitey over the head with the authenticity. As in "how can we make it absolutely clear that this is Chinese?" (I see it at Shaw's. I'm certain a non-chinese person wouldn't have the audacity to keep that packaging for this long)
posted by Mayor Curley at 7:30 PM on June 19, 2009


My suspicion is that this is made and the packaging designed by actual Chinese people...

Nope.
posted by neroli at 7:40 PM on June 19, 2009


Mayor Curley: After a bit of research, I doubt it.
Ah-So (as well as Mee Tu (cringe), Grandmother's, and Sorrel Ridge) are made in New Jersey by Allied Old English, Inc.
posted by dunkadunc at 7:41 PM on June 19, 2009


My suspicion is that this is made and the packaging designed by actual Chinese people

Your suspicion, usually so accurate, is off in this case. Ah So sauce is made by Allied Old English of New Jersey.

They also make Plantation brand molasses, so apparently someone's got a tin ear over there.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:43 PM on June 19, 2009 [2 favorites]


Oh, snap! You other plucky young detectives were miles ahead of me, because I was boggling at "Plantation brand molasses" and laughing too hard to type.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:44 PM on June 19, 2009


My favoritest Salvadoran place in Berkeley (believe it's cAlled Plantains. It's on University right next to the old UC Berk movie theater) has a logo made from the dread font Papyrus, so typography don't always correlate to quality.
posted by Senor Cardgage at 7:49 PM on June 19, 2009


By the way, the CEO of Allied Old English hates modern art.
posted by neroli at 7:50 PM on June 19, 2009


Just to continue this fascinating derail, how the hell does that regressive "arc" (tm!) site that neroli linked to have non-profit status?
posted by stagewhisper at 8:44 PM on June 19, 2009


These stereotypes prevent people from seeing each other as equals. They encourage people to pigeonhole each other without respecting how a culture sees itself, or how an individual is unique.

Bah. People AREN'T equals. Next time you feel like Chinese food, go eat at a French restaurant and see if you get the same slice of culture.
posted by scrowdid at 10:58 PM on June 19, 2009


These stereotypes prevent people from seeing each other as equals.

I have these ingrained stereotype - I firmly believe that people Mexico are generally fluent in Spanish and probably know more than I (or the pimply kid at Taco Bell) do about Mexican food. You can go ahead and shuffle the country, language and cooking style on this. I'll wait.

I'm kind of thinking that it doesn't matter what font the sign out front is written in - I'm going to continue to believe these things. Sure, we could go to Mexico or where ever and do whatever it takes to re-educate them so that they all speak English with a sort of Nebraska accent and their native cuisine consists entirely of TV dinners and oversalted noodle dishes that come in a cardboard box (just add ground beef and water). And pretty soon everyone would be an insider. Safe. Sanitized. Equal.

I started being creeped out by malls about 15 years ago because no matter where you went it was the same stores selling the same bland, soulless crap. So if this is the plan, do me a favor and shoot me in the head before you start. I'd rather not watch it happen to the human race.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 12:22 AM on June 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


>> If anything, it's a marvel the Italian stereotype has stuck with pizza places like it
> has.

>
> You're local pizza place has some guys having a knife fight on it's sign? ROCK!

ABRAHAM

Do you toss your crust at us, sir?

SAMPSON

I do toss my crust, sir.

ABRAHAM

Do you toss your crust at us, sir?

SAMPSON

[Aside to GREGORY] Is the law of our side, if I say
ay?

GREGORY

No.

SAMPSON

No, sir, I do not toss my crust at you, sir, but I
toss my crust, sir.

GREGORY

Do you cook from frozen, sir?

ABRAHAM

Frozen, sir! no, sir.

SAMPSON

If you do, sir, I am for you: I serve as good a pie as you.

ABRAHAM

No better.

SAMPSON

Yes, better, sir.

ABRAHAM

You lie.

They fight.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 3:19 AM on June 20, 2009 [4 favorites]


I think I'm with Kid Charlemagne on this.

Also, if using a faux-Asian font (or faux-Hebrew, -Arabic, -Blackletter, etc) is racist and crass, then what should you use if you are trying to evoke a certain ambience, and especially if you are, for example, trying to advertise your wares in English when your language does not use a roman alphabet? I mean, should every single shop-front or logo use all lowercase grotesque du jour? Yes, please shoot me.
posted by Hal Mumkin at 5:36 AM on June 20, 2009


Princeton:
Say, Kate, can I ask you a question?

Kate Monster:
Sure!

Princeton:
Well, you know Trekkie Monster upstairs?

Kate Monster:
Uh huh.

Princeton:
Well, he's Trekkie Monster, and you're Kate Monster.

Kate Monster:
Right.

Princeton:
You're both Monsters.

Kate Monster:
Yeah.

Princeton:
Are you two related?

und so weiter
posted by sien at 6:10 AM on June 20, 2009


Irregardless, I don't see anything wrong in using a black-letter font for a German restaurant- however, black-letter font is an actual font that's used in German-speaking areas. Now, if they started using ß for B's, that would be annoying and would fall into the same pot as fake Cyrillic or Grssk.
posted by dunkadunc at 6:35 AM on June 20, 2009 [3 favorites]


I wonder if there are Chinese or Kanji type faces that do the same thing but for western services, probably everyone recognises the roman alphabet and significant english words anyway so there's no need right now and I guess western trade is conducted mostly in business to business or professional goods and services structured in pedestrian, printed documents

You don't think Chinese and Japanese people use roman letters and words for 'cultural effect' in design the same way we use their characters? They do it quite a bit.

In fact, since far more Chinese and Japanese learn some English in high school then we do their languages, I would guess it's even more common.

(Oh, and this is the most popular misapplication of English on the site. It's not for cultural effect or anything though, but pretty hilarious)
posted by delmoi at 7:20 AM on June 20, 2009


I have these ingrained stereotype - I firmly believe that people Mexico are generally fluent in Spanish and probably know more than I (or the pimply kid at Taco Bell) do about Mexican food. You can go ahead and shuffle the country, language and cooking style on this. I'll wait.

Except they have taco bells in mexico now. Clearly a harbinger of the downfall of society.
posted by delmoi at 7:26 AM on June 20, 2009


In the comics medium, using an "ethnic font" conventionally indicates that the character is speaking in the associated language. For example, in the Asterix comics, Gothic characters speak in a blackletter typeface similar to Fraktur, Egyptians speak in a rebus-like heiroglyphic text, Greeks speak in "GRSSK" (a great word for it, Bulgaroktonos!). Alternatively it indicates that the character has a foreign accent, or some strange voice.

I believe the original use of this was Walt Kelly's Pogo -- Deacon Mushrat spoke in gothic blackletter, P.T. Bridgeport (modeled on P.T. Barnum) spoke in circus posters, and so forth.

Some representative samples.
posted by rifflesby at 10:08 AM on June 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


Scrowdid: Bah. People AREN'T equals. Next time you feel like Chinese food, go eat at a French restaurant and see if you get the same slice of culture.

Former NYT food critic Ruth Reichl: "Basically, Americans are racist about Chinese food. We just don't think it should be as expensive as western food. When my friend Bruce Cost had a great Chinese restaurant in SF, one of the reviews actually said, "What makes him think we should pay as much for Chinese as French food?" And he was buying from the same purveyors as Chez Panisse."
posted by johnasdf at 1:17 PM on June 20, 2009


You don't think Chinese and Japanese people use roman letters and words for 'cultural effect' in design the same way we use their characters? They do it quite a bit.

I guess this is like anglophones using pseudo Cyrillic to sell "russianness" to other anglophones (except I imagine english used in Asia has as many associations with class as it does with culture), but I was thinking more along the lines of appeals between different ethnic groups, especially from a poorer immigrant population, like the immigrant Chinese using Chop Suey to highlight their take-aways in America. I don't think I've seen anything like that happening in reverse in East Asia, like kanji script given a roman/arabic/african/etc. tweak for the sake of selling cheap immigrant catering or blackletter chinese to shift ye olde fish and chips in Shanghai.
posted by doobiedoo at 3:12 PM on June 20, 2009


Sure, we could go to Mexico or where ever and do whatever it takes to re-educate them so that they all speak English with a sort of Nebraska accent and their native cuisine consists entirely of TV dinners and oversalted noodle dishes that come in a cardboard box (just add ground beef and water). And pretty soon everyone would be an insider. Safe. Sanitized. Equal.

I started being creeped out by malls about 15 years ago because no matter where you went it was the same stores selling the same bland, soulless crap. So if this is the plan, do me a favor and shoot me in the head before you start. I'd rather not watch it happen to the human race.


I didn't realize that "Cut it out with the racist stereotypes, guys," was equivalent to a call for Orwellian groupthink imperialism. Thanks for explaining that to me.

As to the, "But without ethnic font # 308, how will someone evoke ethnicity whatever if it's required for their project?" question -- there are thousands, probably millions, of fonts out there, able to convey almost any mood you could desire. I'm pretty sure that "Look here, hungry denizens! Food that is not from this place!" is well within their scope.

As for the African(-American) subject books as discussed in the previous post, I think there the issue is that designers just need to stop trying to evoke "Africanness" through the choice of font, because African(-American) writers and subject matter are not some magic Other category that needs a clear visual marker so everyone else knows what they're looking at.
posted by bettafish at 4:56 PM on June 20, 2009


When you go on at length explaining that these differences create an insider / outsider culture and that in insider / outsider culture is BAD and so anything that calls attention to these differences is bad I start to question your reasoning. The more passionate you get about the horribleness of this situation, the more you make me think of any number of creepy distopian novels.

Ultimately it comes down to this: these differences exist, Kanji doesn't use the same pen strokes as Courier New and the guy who runs the sushi place doesn't have any Italian grandmothers and probably doesn't know the first thing about polenta. So?

I mean I just can't get it up to be offended if the local spaghetti place has a sign in Times New Roman, and rather than offend, this just amazes me because I can see it's internal logic.

If I'm looking for offense in the world of multi-culturalism, I'm going to start by asking why we don't call the countries Deutschland, Nippon or the Helvetic Republic? I mean they have perfectly good names. Why can't we be bothered to use them?
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 8:55 PM on June 20, 2009


Can you imagine? Chinese take-out places would have pictures of buck-toothed coolies with pointed hats, a queue and round glasses.

How about a pot-bellied monk?
posted by morganw at 12:21 PM on June 21, 2009


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