In the second part of his article, Daniel York Loh discusses the historic and ongoing issue with British East Asian representation, recently highlighted in the controversy around the BBC’s Living With The Lams
Featured image: promotional picture from the BBC’s Chinese Burn
I grew up with The Chinese Detective on TV in the 80’s. Memory tells me it was gritty and compelling, but it was a total oasis and what’s followed has been dire. Ten years ago CBBC attempted a fantasy Chinese-themed TV series entitled Spirit Warriors. A veritable smorgasbord of garishly exaggerated accents and a house acting style that can best be described as florid, surely though the blame cannot be placed on the British Chinese writer who developed the concept. It’s at least arguable that the white production team, who had the major hand in production decisions, ought to carry the can for any perceived failings.
Spirit Warriors had the questionable honour of being the catalyst for my activism. I auditioned for a role in it. Despite the earnest opinions of the other East Asian actors in the waiting room that the role would require a “Chinese accent”, it did seem to me to be written in rather stately, but nevertheless, colloquial, English. I therefore opted to use my own voice, doing my best to respect the script and thinking the production team might just want to go a more progressive route.
The series producer (the entire audition team were white) asked me what my greatest challenge as an actor had been. I waffled on about Moliere, Brecht and Shakespeare. I thought I sensed something in the producer’s eye but decided I was being paranoid. I taped the scenes, apparently to his satisfaction, him making little comment except to nod, seemingly approvingly, with a fairly opaque fixed smile.
“Because British TV producers appear to have a serious penchant for Orientalism which, as Edward Said posits, simultaneously exoticises and belittles us. In short, white British TV ‘s relationship with British East Asians can only be described as colonial. They like us to be “foreign”. They like us to be “Other”
The next day my agent called. Apparently the team were scandalised by my “low key” audition. They were expecting something “larger than life” with (yes, you’ve guessed it) a “Chinese accent”. Had I not read the brief? It said “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon“?
Let’s deal with those questions one at a time. I can do a variety of Chinese accents (there really is no one ubiquitous one). I hadn’t been asked to though and, anyway, the scenes were two Chinese characters talking to each other in their own language, why the hell would they have foreign accents? As for “Crouching Tiger” that film actually features Chow Yun Fatt, Zhang Ziyi, Michelle Yeoh et all actually giving understated “period” acting performances. Such is the white Western gaze, however, that literally all they seem to see is acrobatic chop socky and fierce gurning. Everything else appears “inscrutable”.
David Yip as Detective Sergeant John Ho in The Chinese Detective, 1981-1982
Because British TV producers appear to have a serious penchant for Orientalism which, as Edward Said posits, simultaneously exoticises and belittles us. In short, white British TV ‘s relationship with British East Asians can only be described as colonial. They like us to be “foreign”. They like us to be “Other”. Therefore, as BEA actors, we spend our lives affecting accents constructed in the imaginations and memories of white producers, sounding convincing (to white producers) speaking East Asian languages, looking convincing (to white producers) performing martial arts. In short, “performing” our ethnicity.
Some actors are of course forced into this but a certain type of performer thrives in this environment and earns a relatively easy living out of it, serving up their imagined “culture” as an act. They sometimes resent those of us who want to break down the barriers of perception that prevent us from being artists and actors in our own right without donning the ethnic drag.
And these “Chinese culture wars” are actually nothing new. Back in the 1920s or 30s there was a documented altercation that came to blows between two groups of Chinese immigrants in London owing to one group appearing as background artists in a film the other group believed depicted Chinese people insultingly. Somewhere around the same time a group of Chinese students protested to Parliament about what they saw as derogatory portrayals in no less than six concurrent West End stage plays featuring White actors in Yellowface.
The BBC’s Spirit Warriors
The recent kerfuffle over the BBC’s Living With The Lams is the second East Asian themed TV controversy in little over a year in fact. In late 2017 BBC 3 aired a comedy pilot entitled Chinese Burn, authored by, and starring, two Chinese actresses who, in writing terms, seemed to appear from literally nowhere. Both are from Asian countries originally and emigrated here as adults. “Motherland Asians” are the source of some controversy on #AsianTwitter. “Motherland Asians” are thought to not comprehend racism because they are from majority cultures beset with racism themselves and, in fact, often worshipping whiteness.
It’s never good to generalise of course and there are certainly substantial numbers of “Motherland Asians” who totally buck the stereotype and are fierce opponents of racism even in their own countries. Chinese Burn though did seem to conform to this paradigm with its unapologetic and unchallenged depiction of Chinese girls with pronounced White Male Fetish and a literal repulsion for Chinese men centering on a fixation with stereotypical notions of genitalia size that I can only describe as obsessional. I’m not sure what it tells us about the mindset of the nation’s favourite broadcaster that a BBC exec, who helped get this White supremacist fantasy commissioned, justified this racialised phallic-centricness as being “the writers’ lived experience”.
“From the British East Asian artistic community though the reaction to Chinese Burn was more akin to a primal howl of heartbroken agony than rage. The two writers had had so much initial good will it was like an Orientalised knife in the back”
Chinese Burn was marketed as a kind of “Asian girl power” outrageousness but the main fan base of the show seemed to be white males perhaps titillated by the accompanying bite-size promo video marketed with the pilot, How To Date Chinese Girls, which took pimping out exotica to a whole new level. Let’s pause for a second here and remind ourselves that this exercise in playground bullying tutorial and racialised grooming guide for young Asian females was paid for by BBC licence payer fees.
For a so-called “silent” minority group who are generally perceived to have no interest in public life or the arts, we’ve been involved in an awful lot of fierce arguments about our appropriated depictions at the hands of white producers. The protest around Chinese Burn though was of a different nature to Living With The Lams. With the former the bulk of the noise came from the British Chinese general public and #AsianTwitter who bombed the programme’s IMDB reviews and forced the producers to shut down the comments on the show ‘s Facebook page. Unfortunately, some of this protest manifested as blatant misogyny.
From the British East Asian artistic community though the reaction to Chinese Burn was more akin to a primal howl of heartbroken agony than rage. The two writers had had so much initial good will it was like an Orientalised knife in the back. Even now it hurts and the mere mention of the words “Chinese Burn” is enough to induce shudders of actual fear that Auntie Beeb will heap yet more publicly subsidised humiliation upon us (rumours of an entirely commissioned series of Chinese Burn have abounded and the example of Citizen Khan is indicative of the Corporation’s penchant for prolonged race-baiting in the form of humour).
It does beg the question as to how and why such projects get greenlit when the web literally abounds with quality content from British East Asian creatives. Perhaps an example of this content, the first instalment of the BEAST short films, directed by Rosa Fong from research material by Dr. Diana Yeh and created verbatim from interviews with British East Asians in Screen & TV might shed some light on the process.
And that’s been our lot on TV recently, save for the occasional provision of heavily-accented or foreign-languaged exotic background for centre-screen Earnest White Trauma In Foreign Country.
In the theatre, recent protests (2012 RSC Orphan of Zhao, 2017 Print Room) have seen us exploding all over the UK stage, firstly in terms of actors, but more recently writers, directors and other creatives. Truth be told I suspect the when the Living With The Lams team finally hired some British East Asian writers they found a more confident, assertive and, yes, experienced group of writers than they were possibly expecting.
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