The Story Behind the Controversially Named ‘Yellow Fever’ Restaurant in Long Beach


Photo above courtesy of Whole Foods 365.

Whole Foods has long had the tradition of inviting smaller businesses into their massively popular grocer spaces, providing them—should they be able to afford it—the chance to sell their product to a larger audience.

Bobby Hernandez from Recreational Coffee has been invited as did Laurie Gray from The Pie Bar.

But the grocer chain’s latest invite to its Long Beach 365 store is garnering a mass of controversy after they announced it on Twitter, with users proclaiming outright racism.

“Great name. Foresee no problems here,” was the first response to the tweet.

But Yellow Fever is not exclusive to Whole Foods and is, in fact, a business owned and ran by Korean-American restauranteur Kelly Kim.

With two locations—one in Torrance and one in Venice—Kim has created a quick, Asian bowl experience that garners crowds, love, and, of course, controversy with its name.

As Twitter continues to battle it out over the restaurant’s title, Kim reminds folks that her use of the sexual fetish term—typically used by white men to describe their desire for and objectification of Asian women: “I’ve got yellow fever!”—is intended to be both tongue-in-cheek and subversive.

“Growing up in Texas, I didn’t have a lot of exposure to Korean food and culture and I realized that my palette evolved into more of an Asian-American palate,” she said in an interview. “As I got older and grew into my career, I packed lunches during the week—mostly mixed rice bowls—when it dawned on me that I hadn’t seen the kind of food I was making anywhere before and that I could do this for a living. I wanted to start a restaurant, but I didn’t want to be tied down to one kind of food, like Korean or Japanese. I wanted to be the Asian version of Chipotle.”

Above: Kelly Kim in her Torrance location. Photo: Heather Vu.

In other words, Kim wanted a restaurant that spanned Asian cultures rather codified a single one. She has Chinese bowls, Korean bowls, Japanese bowls, Vietnamese bowls…

According to Kim, stereotypical words like “bamboo” and “lotus” were tossed out but lacked impact—and in that list of stereotypes, there was one that did stand out: Yellow Fever.

“One night, we just said, ‘Yellow fever!’ and it worked. It’s tongue-in-cheek, kind of shocking, and it’s not exclusive—you can fit all Asian cultures under one roof with a name like this,” Kim said. “We just decided to go for it.”

Much like the way in which “yellow fever” as a so-called fetish clumps Asian women, subverting it as a way to clump Asian bowls became the way Kim wished to market her endeavor.

This isn’t to say she was always entirely confident about the naming of her space.

“We were worried about a strike at first,” Kim said. “We are still scrappy and not a fully-known entity, so some people pass us thinking we sell bowls or, you know, something else. Once, I had a friend who was grabbing our food for lunch and her white friend wasn’t even sure if he was allowed to eat here.”

And surely, not all will agree with her.

Many folks from marginalized communities don’t want others pushing the edge. One woman noted on Twitter “I’m glad she felt it was a reclamation. I wonder how other people experience it. Someone Jewish might use a Jewish slur on restaurant to take the term back or whatever but I would still feel my gut twist up every time I saw a picture or drove by.”

For Kim, she owns it—and that’s all that matters.

“But it’s re-appropriating a term,” Kim said. “I’m taking ownership of something and defining it in my own way.”

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Brian Addison has been a writer, editor and photographer for more than a decade, covering everything from food to politics to urban transportation and housing. In 2015, he was named Journalist of the Year by the Los Angeles Press Club and has since garnered 12 nominations and an additional win for Best Political Commentary. Born in Big Bear, he has lived in Long Beach since college. Brian currently serves as a columnist and editor for the Long Beach Post.