The founders of Web-based animation company Icebox.com aimed to create a forum to showcase original, cutting-edge cartoons by writers and producers whose credits include "South Park," "The Simpsons" and "King of the Hill."
Since the site's launch last month, visitors and critics have raved over "Hard Drinkin' Lincoln," an oft-inebriated, vulgar Abraham Lincoln who declares, "The last time I got this drunk I freed the slaves!" and "Zombie College," where humans have to fend off their brain-eating, living-dead classmates.
But the site began drawing as much anger as it did laughter last month with the launch of "Mr. Wong," a weekly series by two "South Park" writers featuring a pretty white socialite and her 85-year-old Chinese houseboy. With his sallow yellow skin, slanted eyes, buckteeth and inability to pronounce L's, Mr. Wong didn't appear particularly funny to hundreds who wrote to Icebox in protest.
Yesterday, the Organization of Chinese Americans (OCA), a national advocacy group based in Washington, issued a letter to the company calling for removal of the Mr. Wong cartoon. Giles Li, OCA director of communications, said the group drafted the letter after receiving several e-mails from irate Asian Americans and reviewing the Web site.
"Everybody has their rights to freedom of speech, but there are instances when you just have to watch what you say," said Li, who will be sending the letter to Icebox next week. OCA also is starting a letter-writing campaign to urge Icebox to pull Mr. Wong from its site. "For mainstream America to keep putting down a race of people because of what they are and who they are, it's not art. If that still passes as acceptable or even funny, we're not really moving forward from having separate water fountains."
Steve Stanford, co-founder and CEO of the Los Angeles-based animation company, said he was surprised at the negative responses to Mr. Wong. He said Icebox executives had screened the three-minute cartoon shorts on the Asian American Web site www.asianavenue.com, inviting people to comment on Mr. Wong. Stanford said half the people who wrote in loved the cartoon and thought it was funny.
Written and animated by Pam Brady and Kyle McCulloch, Mr. Wong features the travails of the feisty, vulgar houseboy who waits on his mistress, Miss Pam, hand and foot, following her everywhere and obeying her every command.
In one scene, when Mr. Wong asks Miss Pam for some money, she snaps, "I thought you yellow people were so sly. Can't you live on your wits?"
Later on, she offers Mr. Wong $100 if he can say "cotillion," which, despite his repeated attempts, it always comes out "coterrion."
Stanford said Mr. Wong is one of Icebox's most popular animation series and has drawn the most e-mails and letters. Icebox hopes to turn some of its animated series into movies or television shows.
"Certainly, we understand where [Mr. Wong opponents] are coming from, but even within the Chinese-American community, there's not a completely unified opinion," Stanford said. "From our perspective, the piece was designed to be entertaining, and clearly, it makes fun of some broad stereotypes. But while it has clearly offended some, the intent was not in any way hate-oriented or intended to demean."
Guy Aoki, president of the Los Angeles-based Media Action Network for Asian Americans, said Icebox may not have intended to be demeaning, but the series hurts Asian Americans by casting them as foreigners who are different.
"All the Asians I ever see on TV are people with accents," Aoki said. "When you see an Asian face in the media, we become the foreigner and people think, 'Go back to where you came from.' It would be different in the whole scheme of things if we had a whole range of Asian Americans in cartoons, on TV, where we're seen as regular Americans. But we're either being laughed at in sitcoms or beaten up in dramas. That's the sum of our existence."
Stanford said Icebox is standing by Mr. Wong and has no plans to end the series. He said Mr. Wong's character will become more fully developed as the series continues, with new episodes available on the site every Friday this summer.
"We absolutely stand behind the creators and the artistic freedom that we've given them," Stanford said. "We think it's a very good show."