In the first of a two part article, Daniel York Loh discusses the controversy around the BBC’s Living With The Lams and how British TV still has a major problem with East Asian representation
There’s an old entertainment joke which goes like this – “everyone is an expert on two businesses: their own business and show business”. To which I would add – “everyone is an expert on two cultures: their own culture and Chinese culture”.
Certainly, production company Twenty Twenty TV (who have no track record of producing drama whatsoever) seemed to embody the latter joke-based-in-truth when they managed to get a proposed children’s sitcom, Living With The Lams – about a British Chinese family living in their own restaurant – commissioned by the BBC with not a single writer or creative of British Chinese, East Asian or even any other cultural background other than “White British” attached to it.
Let that sink in for a moment. An entirely White Caucasian team have spent the last two years developing a racially specific storyline about something they have no 1st, 2nd or barely 3rd hand knowledge of. There’s another joke we make sometimes about White actors and their propensity to portray literally everyone on the planet when it’s a juicy role for them : “White actors are so clever. They can play anything”.
“They’ve brought in British East Asian writers late in the day, when a White British lead writer is already in place, when the “series bible”, as well as two complete pilot episodes, have already been written. Also, the company are only committing to two BEA-penned episodes out of the ten”
Since then, the Living With The Lams team has engaged a series producer, Raymond Lau, who is indeed British Chinese. Raymond speaks impressively of how proud he is, after a 20 year TV career, to be working on a show that has a British East Asian family at its core. A quick glance at his IMDB page however reveals that over that 20 year career he’s not managed to place a single British East Asian actor on screen in anything he’s produced.
This is pertinent because BEATS Org (British East Asians in Theatre and on Screen), who are leading the protest campaigning for an all East Asian writing team, is made up of BEA creatives who have actively platformed BEA presence in drama, indeed have fought hard for it under duress, sometimes even at a risk to their careers. Noble intentions are laudable but change has to be affected through action.
It would be unfair to say, though, that Twenty Twenty haven’t attempted to engage BEA writers. Indeed they’ve approached an impressive line – up of writers from that diaspora. However they’ve brought them in late in the day, when a White British lead writer is already in place, when the “series bible”, as well as two complete pilot episodes, have already been written. Also, the company are only committing to two BEA-penned episodes out of the ten planned as there are no BEA writers with the requisite “experience”.
Raymond talks in his statement about children’s comedy requiring “a certain skill”. While I’ve no wish to pick a fight with a complete stranger I do feel I have to point out that this level of care is being demanded by someone whose Twitter handle, @ChairmanLau, puns on the name of the man who killed more Chinese people than anyone in history and who some historians contest was a greater mass-murderer than Hitler and Stalin.
Daniel York Loh
Twenty Twenty TV also had in place a “Chinese cultural consultant” to advise on all things… Chinese. That person has since departed the position. Details have emerged of the Living With The Lams pilot scripts which would seem to confirm everyone’s anxieties, with a whole host of Orientalist cliches (“tiger mum”, “fortune cookies”), factual inaccuracies (dumplings in the oven), and the sort of terrible punning (“wok and roll”) and casual racial insults (“chonger”) more in keeping with a late Bernard Manning routine.
All of the British East Asian writers raised concerns about the scripts and outline of the show. All thought there should at least be a BEA lead writer on board and there should be more BEA writers actually writing episodes as opposed to providing cultural consultancy and looking nice and Chinese in the Day One writers room publicity photograph.
The concerns of British East Asian writers was ignored though. And so this protest action has ensued in the form of an open letter to Twenty Twenty and CBBC requesting an all British East Asian writing team.
“It’s not British East Asian writers who lack experience, knowledge, or a “certain skill”. It’s CBBC and Twenty Twenty TV and the entire British television industry which has failed, repeatedly and dismally, with British East Asian subject matter and characters”
Series producer Raymond Lau complains that it’s “hugely frustrating to be judged on two pilot episodes” and cites the need for the non-East Asian writers’ work to be allowed to “improve and evolve”. Of course, I empathise with this. But it’s also hugely frustrating to be deemed to lack “experience” before you’ve even written a word.
Surely British East Asian writers should be allowed to “improve and evolve” on an equal and empowered basis. I’m afraid you can’t have it both ways. If you’re going to cite innate expertise based on experience as a justification for excluding the very people whose stories you’re telling then it stands to reason that that innate expertise needs to be tangible and demonstrable.
Otherwise it just looks like you’re enforcing privilege. And privilege really ought to be earned. Because it’s not British East Asian writers who lack experience, knowledge, or a “certain skill”. It’s CBBC and Twenty Twenty TV and the entire British television industry which has failed, repeatedly and dismally, with British East Asian subject matter and characters. It’s surely time for that industry to show some humility.
As British East Asians who refuse to be compliant “chongers” we just can’t live with the Lams in their present state.
Daniel York Loh has worked as an actor at the Royal Shakespeare Company, National Theatre, Royal Court, Hampstead Theatre, Edinburgh Traverse and The Gate. He has also appeared in the feature films Rogue Trader, The Beach, Act Of Grace and The Receptionist.
His full-length stage-play The Fu Manchu Complex was produced at Ovalhouse in 2013. His most recent play, Forgotten 遗忘, ran at Arcola last year. He is one of 21 “writers of colour” featured in the best-selling essay collection, The Good Immigrant. He is currently Chair of the Equity Minority Ethnic Members Committee and is a founder member of BEATS (British East Asian in Theatre and on Screen) @BeatsOrg .Follow @danielfyork