Fri, Jan 21, 2000 - Page 1 News List

Offending restaurant decor given the axe

CULTURAL SENSITIVITIES A new theme restaurant called the The Jail has crossed the limits of decency by displaying pictures of Nazi concentration camps. The owner has pleaded ignorance and removed the items from the establishment

By William Ide  /  STAFF REPORTER

ABOVE: Diners check out the menu in a mock prison cell in The Jail beneath a concentration camp photograph taken in Nazi Germany.


Most customers who come to one of Taipei's newest theme restaurants, The Jail (惡魔島), have to wait in line outside for hours just to get an opportunity to have their hands shackled with handcuffs and be led to a "cell" where they eat behind steel bars.

What many may not notice, especially now, is that mixed in among the chains, barbed wire, handcuffs and the eatery's distinctively "restrictive" atmosphere are a number of images hung on the walls that are strikingly familiar -- and very offensive to some people.

Gracing the walls of the restaurant, along with traditional prison pictures, are photos of Nazi concentration camps, as well as a mural depicting women, men and children standing behind a prison camp's barbed wire fence.

Even more provocative for some is a "Gas Chamber" sign hanging over the entrance to the restrooms.

The restaurant's manager, Stone Cheng (程執昌), said he hadn't realized that the public would react so strongly to the pictures. Considering the possibility of having to withstand a flood of international condemnation, he has decided to take the offensive photos down.

"If there really is stuff here that makes people uncomfortable, then we will do what we can to change that," Cheng said.

And yesterday, Cheng did just that, packing up the pictures and painting over the "Gas Chamber" sign and removing a large wall mural.

Cheng said he never expected such a response, and didn't even know what was hanging on his walls until it was pointed out to him.

"We've brought together a lot of things -- a group canteen, individual cells and a VIP cell, all kinds of things, just for fun," he said. "We never thought this could have negative connotations for foreigners."

Pointing to the "Gas Chamber" sign, Cheng tried to explain why the sign was put over the restroom entrance, which has open pipes.

"We say jokingly that the bathroom is a place where noxious air collects, so we called it a `gas chamber,'" he said.

Some messages, however, need little explanation.

In one of the cells, a picture of the entrance to a concentration camp hangs on the wall. The words on a prison gate in the picture read "Arbeit Macht Frei" or "Work Brings Freedom," the same sign that greeted Jewish prisoners who went to the camps during the World War II. Nearby is another picture of an emaciated concentration camp inmate who stands in the foreground, his ribs protruding, while others huddle on bunks behind him.

Cheng was not the only one who was impervious to the meaning of the surroundings. Sitting in one of the cells, a group of Taipei twenty-somethings are commenting about The Jail's interior design. None mentions the pictures on the wall.

"The decorations here are really interesting," says one diner. "I've never been to jail, so I thought I would give it a try."

Behind the push to have the items taken down was the local representative of the Israel Economic and Cultural Trade Office, Uri Gutman.

Gutman visited the restaurant several times over the past two days and has been impressed by the owners positive response.

"They were totally embarrassed and willing to do everything," Gutman said.

Rather than create a fuss over the incident, which Gutman calls "borderline," he hoped the mistake would be educational.

"It seems like it's more a case of ignorance," Gutman said. "This is not anti-Semitism, it's a lack of understanding."

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