This past April just saw us exactly 40 years on from the BBC series The Chinese Detective.
The Chinese Detective was undoubtedly ground-breaking television in 1981.
That it would still look ground-breaking if it were broadcast right now, 40 years on, is troubling.
I’m going to ‘fess up from the off here. I never saw much of The Chinese Detective at the time it aired. I was lost in a teenage drug-addicted haze and younger readers are going to have to imagine a Land Before On-Demand when the lure of street-life and intravenous chemical use meant that even asking someone to set the cassette player to record a TV show (if the household even possessed such a thing) required a monumental effort of will.
Truth be told, I’m not sure ‘representation’ even crossed my mind at that time. I was horribly aware that everything I saw on UK TV that even bothered to depict people of my ethnicity - East/South East Asian (ESEA) - was horribly garish and predictably patronising. I’d of course been relentlessly abused in the playground by kids who never called me by name when all manner of racist monikers (many based on stuff they saw on TV) were so readily at hand. The one thing I enjoyed doing and even seemed to be reasonably good at – playing guitar in a psychedelic punk band – led to my being nicknamed ‘Yellow Hendrix’.
So I didn’t see much of The Chinese Detective.
What I did see though, blew my mind. Brilliantly, uncompromisingly and viscerally grim with a kind of rawness which feels very much of the period. The series probably needed trigger warnings, so direct was it in its portrayal of the horrific racism suffered by its central character, John Ho.
The show shouldn’t look ground-breaking now though, surely – the fact the title character was so isolated and the show was entirely created by White men should really render it obsolete. Yet it’s still a beacon of representation nearly half a century onwards. According to Wikipedia ‘Ho is also often seen visiting his father, Joe (Robert Lee), for advice at the shipping container plant where he worked’ – even that one line bucks a fair few stereotypes.
John Ho was of course brilliantly portrayed by David Yip – an actor who has always strived to avoid stereotypes. I count it one of the privileges of my life that I know David. He’s not only a fantastic actor, he’s also a fantastic human being - socially concerned, politically aware, unafraid to speak truth to power and he genuinely wants to see more people of ESEA descent on British screen and stage. When I was slightly older I saw David in a touring production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar alongside another superb ESEA actor Lucy Sheen, which came to my college in Weston-super-Mare. A performance which changed my life. It made me believe it just might be possible to be an actor.
It was Lucy Sheen who invented the term ‘singularity in representation’. The UK TV industry’s approach to East/South East Asians often appears to be very much about that singularity and tokenism. It assumes we’ll accept that there is only one or two of us able to portray the occasional Chinese or Japanese characters they allow onto the screen.
Of course, it would be completely inaccurate not to acknowledge improvements on screen in general. 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians, though justifiably criticized for its narrow portrayal of the racial demographics of Singapore as well as its niche presentation of a very particular monied set of Asians, was an undeniable cinematic game-changer in allowing mainly East Asian heritage actors to be seen interacting on screen with sass, confidence and at the very centre of the drama without recourse to White gaze. Interestingly, one of the few exceptions to the overall ‘East Asianness’ of the cast was the Iban-British actor Henry Golding – a casting which still courts controversy as his character is Singaporean-Chinese, which only goes to prove how difficult being an ESEA heritage actor can be.
The extremely enjoyable Always Be My Maybe also managed a neat trick with Asian American representation. Indeed the US film and TV industry, despite its own history of racial Othering and exclusion, does at least always appear to be attempting to innovate. Cinemax’s Warrior even breaks ground with a stylistic device to eliminate the use of Asian language and enforced accents. Sitcoms like Fresh Off The Boat, Kim’s Convenience and Nora From Queens are steadily accumulating. Netflix determinedly screens Asian TV dramas alongside material from across the globe, enabling something like the Korean zombie period drama Kingdom to become a working mum in Huddersfield’s favourite show. It might be worth noting here though that Netflix has an entirely different approach to gauging a show’s ‘success’ that Marcus Ryder outlines very well here.
The BBC would no doubt flag up the presence of Sandra Oh in Killing Eve but while this is no doubt a stylish piece of casting in a stylish show, it’s not saying much when the national broadcaster’s most visible ESEA actor is one not based in Britain, who’d already built up a sizeable industry profile in countries where she was given far better opportunities than she arguably would have received here.
In addition Sandra is, for the vast majority of time, a stand-alone figure in Killing Eve. She even remarked on this herself. In terms of her character, I’m reminded of something Lenny Henry once said about Idris Elba in Luther: ‘…Have you seen this? He never has any black mates. You never see him talking to his Uncle Festus or whatever his name is? He’s never down Jerk City having a curry goat and rice with his bredrens. You never see Luther with black people, what’s going on?’
It takes a long time for Sandra Oh’s character to connect with any Korean culture in the show and it seemingly only occurs when the Eve Polastri character is at rock bottom.
It all too often appears that the UK, despite some of the tokenistic representation becoming steadily more progressive, is still curiously mired in the past when it comes to ESEA representation. As the trade union Equity’s 2018 commissioned research by Professor Jami Rogers proves, actors of East and South East Asian descent are only on screen on British TV in any kind of numbers when the dramas are set in foreign countries. These are usually made by White creatives and usually star White male protagonists, though One Child was an exception which isolated the reliably compelling Katie Leung’s British-born protagonist in a foreign setting. In terms of approach towards presentation, portrayal and casting those series (One Child, Strangers, Chimerica and The Singapore Grip) are arguably no different or more progressive than anything made at the time of The Chinese Detective.
Nothing could possibly be more indicative of this stolidly exotic stasis than 2020’s The Singapore Grip. When describing the casting process around the show’s one major Asian character, Vera Chiang, producer Farah Abushwesha described a ‘global search’ (despite there being a plethora of British East/South East Asian (BESEA) acting talent, there is almost no fundamental belief in the British TV industry that British based East/South East Asian actors are even worthy of the name) because they ‘had to find somebody who understood the British sensibility and the humour within this as well as having that Asian aspect’.
This is an extraordinary admission in so many ways. What is the ‘British sensibility and humour within this’ and why would someone of ESEA descent not understand it? Or in this case was it the ability to navigate patronisingly clumsy double-entendre linguistic Malapropisms where elsewhere the character’s command of English is commended? What is an ‘Asian aspect’? The colossal Orientalism inherent in those two words is staggeringly indicative. It surely bears pointing out as well that the way the programme’s production company, Mammoth Screen, chose to market the Vera Chiang character did seem to place a heavy emphasis on mysterious seductiveness when we long for ESEA actors to have roles that will do their talent justice. Interestingly, Mammoth Screen were one of the many signatories on the producer Nisha Parti’s fiercely worded statement to the industry in the wake of Black Lives Matter. While Mammoth’s output since the letter was obviously commissioned before they signed, the fact that two of their major productions since the letter appeared (The Singapore Grip and The Serpent) both backdrop, anonymise and, to a large extent, exoticise South East Asia only goes to illustrate the hugeness of the strides that need to be taken in the wake of such a bold statement of intent.
The stand-out exception here would be Giri/Haji. While it was still created and produced by what looks a largely White production team and still casts mainly Asia-based Japanese actors as Japanese characters, it does though feature one extraordinary piece of characterisation in the shape of Will Sharpe playing something so rare it’s almost akin to the sighting of a unicorn: an actual mixed-race British East Asian character in a striking performance that garnered Will a BAFTA award.
This is why British East/South East Asians in Theatre and on Screen (BEATS) launched its three part BEATS Test at a British Film Institute (BFI) summit in January 2021. To pass, one must answer YES to three questions:
- Are there two or more BESEA characters?
- Do at least two BESEA characters speak in fluent English with British accents?
- Does at least 1 BESEA character pursue their own goal separate from the white characters?
Inspired by the industry forerunner Bechdel and Riz Tests, the BEATS Test is by no means intended to exclude other representations of East and South East Asian people, but to highlight a frequent trope in which second, third or fourth generation British-born East and South East Asians are so often erased from representation completely. In my reading it simply challenges programme-makers to create two East/South East Asian characters amongst any cast of ESEA characters who are not required to speak in Asian languages or exaggerate a foreign accent.
After all, if we add up all the aforementioned UK TV dramas set in Asian countries listed above, the ratio of indigenously British ESEA characters to foreign ones is something like two or three to 100. An extraordinary statistic – even more so when you consider one of those two or three actually bagged a BAFTA award. An astonishing success rate – so astonishing you can only wonder why they don’t do it more often.
It should also be stressed that the Test refers to ‘characters’ – not the actors playing the characters. Many reading this might be amazed at the sheer number of times that ESEA characters are written in bad White Gaze versions of pidgin English, amazed at the amount of times ESEA actors are told they sound ‘too British’, astounded that we’re actually told to be ‘more Chinese’. Question two of the BEATS Test is really not about the natural accent of the ESEA actor portraying the character. It’s about the dialogue they’re given to say.
A short 10 minute presentation on yellowface, whitewashing, stereotyping and the whole problem with casting East & Southeast Asian actors on UK screen. Courtesy of BEATS.
None of this is to eschew the first generation narrative which is a massive part of all our histories, but I’m not sure we really get that story on our TV screens at present. Rather, what we get is a ‘foreign backdrop’. The same way the Bechdel Test would be admirably set aside for a solo-performer feminist monologue, I’m sure everyone would welcome a proper nuanced drama centering a first generation East/South East story. The BEATS Test is there to challenge and be challenged. It’s not a set of rules.
I personally think, despite the relatively small size of the UK ESEA acting contingency, the sheer diversity of it is breathtaking. I want to see that diversity represented in all its vibrancy and in a way that dismantles the often colourist, culturally exclusive barrier structures that currently police it. I want more immigration, not less. I’d love as many ESEA artists as possible to immigrate to Britain but I suspect the Home Office might have something to say about that.
I also say this as a writer and creative who is heavily invested in bringing first generation characters and narratives to the stage and screen. So much of my work has been about this. I have two projects in development right now that are entirely centred around first generation narratives BUT, crucially, they both pass the BEATS Test. Indeed we found that many of the feature films we researched that did pass the test featured very good first generation representation and most of them centre first generation characters (Ping Pong, Lilting, The Receptionist etc).
I am also keen to look at innovative creative approaches to casting/performance (such as the stylistic accent choice in the aforementioned Warrior) which allows a playing field where all ESEA heritage actors from all backgrounds can be considered and cast on their qualities as actors rather than perceived ethno-cultural cache.
Finally, as there has often been confusion about this in the past, none of this is in any way a criticism or condemnation of any actors who take and perform the roles in those TV dramas listed above (I’m one of them!). The screen is very much a director’s medium and actors are presented in a way that fits the requirements of the programme-makers and producers. All too often those requirements are entirely conducted under the most solid of White gazes at present.
I came across a quote once from the late actor Robert Mitchum of Night of the Hunter fame: ‘you can’t buy diamonds at the five and dime’. Meaning that, as actors, we’re really only ever as good as what we’re given to do. I actually think ESEA actors spend much, if not all, of their careers under the terrible undue pressure of weighing up how many of the opportunities that come their way are not actually problematic.
So there is no criticism of ESEA actors intended but it’s impossible to raise representation issues without critical thinking. If we are thinking critically we would surely have to concede that in most crucial areas British television’s portrayal of East/South East Asians is still some way behind The Chinese Detective.
A full 40 years after it aired.
Daniel York Loh can be found on Twitter.
All opinions expressed in our ‘Think Pieces’ series are that of the author and do not reflect the editorial direction of &ASIAN.