This article was created in partnership with the National Geographic Society.
In every one of my Chinese relatives’ homes when I was growing up in New York, there was a special drawer, cabinet, or sliver of closet dedicated to storing a precious commodity: the plastic bag. Because they were more often than not procured while shopping for groceries and other necessities in Manhattan Chinatown or Flushing, Queens, many of the bags appeared in shades of red, as the color signifies luck in our culture. These “thank-you bags” showed appreciation for a purchase, but they also served as a kind of portable good-luck charm. The collection of these single-use handouts has a particular, practical significance for me: my Chinese-American family’s thrifty, let’s-reuse-everything, no-waste immigrant ethic.
I live in California now, the first state to ban single-use plastic bags. In the few years since that ban was enacted, I still see plastic thank-you bags around here, but now they are the heavier, multi-use kind.
Countless businesses use thank-you bags around the world, of course, but the bags have a special nostalgia for some communities. Over the decades, many of the designs used on the bags have become associated with these communities, particularly Chinatowns, and have been repurposed in other contexts. Thank-you bags have also been viewed as symbols of the thriftiness of reuse. As plastic bags are now being phased out due to environmental concerns, designers are reimagining them in new forms that still carry cultural significance—of immigrant thrift, of friendly imagery, of the desire to fit in. These newer bags reference the same bright iconography—reds and pinks, smiley faces, Chinese characters—of those original grocery bags.
A (greener) take on a familiar icon
To designer Brandon Ly, the desire for frugal reuse helped drive a new wave of bags. “Our bag is pretty big, so I've been using it for everything from groceries to laundry to day trips, which seems fitting as Asian households like mine hardly ever let a plastic grocery bag go to waste,” he explained.
His California-based lifestyle products brand Black Bean Grocery offers a reusable pink grocery tote printed with a wiggly “happy bean” cartoon mascot and traditional good-luck sayings, incorporating the Chinese characters for “double happiness” and “fortune”—“basically so you’d be toting one giant good luck charm around,” says Ly. It’s his next-generation take on the long association of thank-you bags and luck in the Chinese-American community.
Ly’s family works in the Chinese import and supermarket business, so he grew up appreciating Asian product imagery and packaging design, which have inspired other bag designers as well.
Kathleen Tso and Vicki Ho founded Banana Magazine in New York’s Chinatown five years ago while working together in the fashion industry. “We’re trying to tell a story of navigating a shared identity, of attempting to resolve the friction between our Eastern and Western selves,” Tso said. The duo recently created a yellow BAESIAN bag (“bae” as in slang for sweetheart plus “Asian”) as a way to give their readers a playful way to show their Asian pride.
“It felt extremely native to the neighborhood, but it was also contemporized to fit with the millennial reader who was buying the magazine,” Tso said. “The repeating text reference reminded me of getting Chinese takeout as a kid in our tiny Chinatown in Plano, Texas, and I like the message it represents as giving us something to be proud of, showing pride and heritage in our own way.”
Bags as cultural memory
I myself don’t have a nostalgia for these bags. They were a staple of my childhood, and a functional item most of all. But that doesn’t mean something inspired by them can’t be good-looking and a source of pride, too.
In photographer Andria Lo’s own “Chinatown Pretty,” a long-running series of photographs showcasing senior residents of Chinatowns in all their sartorial splendor, variations on these bags figure prominently in self-presentation. In New York, a resident carries a reusable red tote paired with a pink plaid over-the-shoulder purse; in San Francisco, a man in a gray suit sports a red tie and a reusable red bag, while a woman in a pink corduroy shirt and pink rhinestone-studded sandals carries an array of groceries in the familiar plastic rose thank-you bag—this one actually printed with the words “Thank You.”
In recent years, fashion and streetwear labels have also referenced Chinatown’s thank-you bags in ironic and subversive ways. Though Tso says she has long been attracted to the simple, bold designs that appeared on thank-you bags, she has mixed feelings about their use by non-Asian companies. Ly’s response to imagery that feels culturally appropriated? “Inundate the market with our own stuff.”
Today plastic bags are produced at a rate of one trillion a year.
At first, I find myself resisting the notion that cheap plastic thank-you bags might be considered an Asian accessory, or in vogue in some way. Plastic shopping bags were a rarity in the 1970s, but were rapidly adopted by supermarkets and restaurants around the world. In Chinatown, the choice of food delivery bag likely started out as a conscious one: to use both traditional symbols and friendly messages and imagery borrowed from other parts of American culture— like the smiley face—in an effort to appeal to white audiences and as a response to the racism of the wider world. Since then, these bags have achieved iconic, kitsch status; the visuals have been incorporated into all kinds of merchandise, from t-shirts to basketballs.
The choice of color speaks to the community. In a recent New York Times photo story, “The Red Bags of Chinatown,” photographer James Prochnik depicts the bags as “Chinese lanterns, filled with sunlight, fish, and hope.”
On the one hand, this seems awfully romantic. But Prochnik’s point is this: In other neighborhoods, bags come in so many colors as to signify nothing. Things are different in Chinatown; the red bags are a symbol of continuity and identity, in a place where those things are often under threat. To him, there is beauty in this ordinary item being a cultural signifier—even as he supports the environmental reasons for banning single-use plastics. Though justified, “it’ll be a loss” when they’re gone, he says.
In 2015, New York City council member Margaret Chin of District 1, Lower Manhattan, which includes Chinatown, co-sponsored a bill that would have instituted a fee on single-use plastic bags. “In diverse communities all across the city, residents of all backgrounds say they’re ready to make the simple shift to reusable bags,” she said. The measure didn’t pass, but the state has a law requiring large retailers to take back bags for recycling. New York City residents still use more than 10 billion single-use plastic bags a year, costing the city $12 million in disposal costs, since the bags aren’t recyclable at curbside.
To both reduce that environmental impact and still play homage to the cultural significance of thank-you bags, other designers are making reusable options on a larger scale.
A decade ago, after San Francisco became the first city to pass a ban on single-use plastic bags, the artist Lauren DiCioccio began collecting bags she saw around town and making embroidered versions of the designs, including a version of the rose thank-you bag, the red design embroidered on pink organza. She wanted to highlight their ubiquity and beauty while underscoring the absurdity of their disposable nature. Eventually, DiCioccio began manufacturing affordable, durable versions of the bags in San Francisco; they’re sold online and in shops across the country.
While functional, DiCioccio hopes her bags will also serve as a light-hearted message about the ethics of reuse and thriftiness. When she presents her embroidered bags at cashiers, she’s often greeted with a “wonderful moment of confusion that always results in a laugh and nod.”
In 2007, Emily Sugihara, the founder of Baggu, based her reusable bag design on the traditional plastic shopping bag. Since she had trouble finding a reusable tote that was both affordable and durable, she and her mom decided to make their own. “My mom has always been a tree-hugger,” she told me. “She had a crazy pile of plastic bags under the sink, and a cabinet no one wanted to open. It was weighing on her psychologically.”
Since then, the company has sold millions of reusable bags—Sugihara says a typical Baggu, if used for a year, replaces 300 to 700 plastic bags. The thank-you versions of that design, customized for each store location, consistently rank among the company’s most popular items.
Today plastic bags are produced globally at a rate of one trillion a year. We know that plastic is choking our world. Fees or bans on single-use bags are going into effect and being debated in many places. At the same time, the shopping bag can hold more than its contents; it can carry the cultural and historic traces of a community’s story. The reusable bag, perhaps, is a way of both getting rid of excess plastic and preserving that cultural memory.
Bonnie Tsui is a longtime contributor to the New York Times and the author of the award-winning American Chinatown. Her next book, Why We Swim, will be published by Algonquin Books in Spring 2020. Follow her on Twitter at @bonnietsui.
Andria Lo is an editorial and documentary photographer in the San Francisco Bay Area. She photographs Chinatown Pretty, covering the street style of seniors living in Chinatowns all over the United States. Follow her on Instagram @aweilo.
National Geographic is committed to reducing plastics pollution. Learn more about our non-profit activities at natgeo.org/plastics. This story is part of Planet or Plastic?—our multiyear effort to raise awareness about the global plastic waste crisis. Learn what you can do to reduce your own single-use plastics, and take your pledge.