The Missing Chink

I just re-watched this.  It is still pertinent now, amazingly.  I am proud of it. All 4 episodes are embedded here. This was pre Gok Wan!

picture of Gok wan, leading UK Chinese celebrity
Gok was nowhere to be seen in 2004 when this came out. Hasn’t he done well since?

One day I will write about the aftermath of this show and how the UK’s Chinese community lost its mind, complaining to OfCom in record numbers / phoning me up with death threats – resulting in me doing a gig with an armed police guard / an early day motion in The House of Commons being among the highlights – but for now, you can watch each episode with a brief deconstruction, written in 2015, of what is going on:

The Chinese (and other East Asians) were all but invisible in UK culture. Arguably they still are.  Gok notwithstanding. 

This satire was originally conceived by me as a 60 minute mockumentary but instead I was offered 5 x 3 minute slots to make my points. Thinking this was just a cunning ploy by Channel 4. which I could outwit, I held out for the original pitch, only to be soon informed that I had lost one of my 3 minute slots! So I accepted the 4 remaining slots, which were written in 2003, filmed around the corner from my house and broadcast Mon-Thu on the week of Chinese New Year in 2004 on C4, UK.

The two protagonists, who are called Jerry and George in a homage to Seinfeld (though we never learn their names), are as far from a Chinese stereotype as you can get. They speak in regional accents and show themselves to be stupid, ignorant and lecherous in the course of the series.

Ep 1. Plays with the fact that in the UK, Japanese and Chinese (and in fact East Asia in its entirely) are totally interchangeable and no one (not even the two protagonists) seem to make or care about the distinction. This confusion is played out when discussing the career of the one well-known East Asian actor, Burt Kwouk (who appears at the end), who is famous for playing Japanese characters even though he is Chinese. The fact that the BBC’s “The Chinese Detective” was so named is ridiculed and the point is made that this was so long ago (1980) that no one remembers it or David Yip the actor, who gamely also makes an appearance.

Ep 2. Addresses the idea that East Asian men are non sexually threatening or desirable, whereas East Asian women are considered a desirable conquest. How do these two contrasting stereotypes square the circle? The story of Miss Saigon is argued to be racist by one of the protagonists, and both meekly accept the stereotype that East Asian men have small penises. Bruce Lee gets a mention!

Ep 3. Addresses the UK’s (at that time) total ignorance that China are a world beating sporting nation and the irony that they are known only for (the non-masculine sport of) table tennis. Even though England’s record breaking rugby union try-scorer, Rory Underwood OBE (the customer who the protagonists ridicule and are surly towards) is half Chinese, this fact is almost unknown to the general public.  Even amongst hard core sports fans, it is almost as if Rory’s Chineseness is whitewashed from his UK public image. He is still the record holder to this day, Dec 2015, yet I suspect the same response if you go out on the streets of UK and ask the question, “name a British Chinese sports star”. Bruce Lee gets another mention!

Ep 4. Examines the lack of relative power the Chinese (and by extension the entire East Asian) community has in relation to the UK’s other ethnic minority groups. A list of notorious instances of white actors blacking-up – in actual fact “Yellowing Up” – is named. Again, the point is made that the South Asian and black lobbies in the UK are so much more powerful than the Chinese lobby (if it even really exists) that recent racist portrayals of Chinese culture on TV would never have happened to any other culture. The series takes its satirical homage to Seinfeld to the max by stealing the idea that there is “a deal” which exists between the UK’s Chinese community and the UK itself, which is beneficial for everybody – but results in “The Chinese” being invisible. This idea lays the blame for the state of being invisible (or “missing”) on the Chinese community itself.  Jerry & George are shown ripping off a white customer at the end and are happy with the status quo.

The Fu Manchu Complex – less a review, more a commendation

The Fu Manchu Complex is a new play currently playing at the Oval House.  It is written by Daniel York, a colleague of mine, who I have known for over 20 years and who like me, is British born Chinese.  Like me too, he grew up here in UK and trained to be an actor in the 80s, like me not thinking his whole career would be defined by the fact that his father was born in SE Asia.   In fact it is arguable that were it not for the fact that his father is Singaporean and mine Guyanese (not exactly close, geographically – though they do look similar) Daniel and I would never have met, let alone done so many projects together.

Our entire careers have been defined by this one thing.   And guess what?  Given how little significance it had on my (our) lives growing up this is a frustrating thing.   We both dealt with this in similar yet different ways.  At the recommendation of the Chinese detective himself, David Yip, I changed the spelling of my professional name 20 years ago to appear more East Asian.  Daniel recently adopted this cynical approach, adding the name Loh to his actual name.  It is a smart move in this shallow industry.

When I first saw Daniel, he was acting in a production of Chay Yew’s first play, Porcelain.   It was in a tiny fringe venue, the Etcetera, and the house was not even full.  It was a great performance in a great show and this led to him going to the RSC for a season.  When my flatmate, Tony, started in Stratford, around 1993-94, Daniel was already there and we were introduced.   I even went to watch one of the plays he was in, Moby Dick.  We both, 20 years ago, did not realise the significance our being East Asian, albeit only half, would have on our fledgling careers.  Here was he, at the RSC, playing non-ethnic parts and I had just finished playing Hiawatha at the Royal Lyceum, and Lorenzo in The Merchant of Venice at the Sherman and a big tour of Wales.  There was good reason for optimism that our ethnicity would not affect our careers.  It didn’t pan out that way.

Cut to the RSC’s Orphan of Zhao 20 years later in 2012 and it is incredible and saddening to think that Daniel York (Loh)’s 1993 appearance in that season was the last time an East Asian actor had been employed at Stratford before then.  I don’t remember Moby Dick very well, but I do recall Dan having a significant part, which only highlights how retrograde a move the casting of The Orphan of Zhao (where only three East Asians of 17 were cast – in minor parts) actually was.

Daniel and I have dealt with this unforeseen and enforced straitjacketing of our acting careers in similar ways.  We have both become activists for the rights of East Asian representation in the industry, being the two East Asian Equity reps on the committee which got the Opening the Door thing going,  have both been brave enough to speak out about it in an industry where this is mostly feared, and we have both written satires to highlight the relative low status the East Asian has at the Equal opps / diversity table.

The play, The Fu Manchu Complex, is Daniel’s.  I won’t attempt a conventional review here. You can read other bloggers and reviewers, who have done that.  What I will say about it is this.  Go and see it.  I saw it myself on Saturday and laughed out loud on numerous occasions.  It is genuinely funny in places and the entire cast is East Asian in heritage.  Its cheap and its easy to get to and its funny.  And its short.  All the things that I like in a show.

More importantly than all of that, however, and what makes it more significant in my opinion than any of the other wonderful plays that can be seen this month featuring East Asian actors, ( Chimerica, World of Extreme Happiness, Golden Child ) is that this was written by a British East Asian writer.  This is so rare that surely this in itself needs to be supported.  That it aims to turn a spotlight on the whole issue of East Asian stereotyping itself, which Daniel and I know from 1st hand experience all too well, and does so in an at times hilarious way, is the bonus.

The Opening the Door initiative, which is in some quarters being debated as responsible for this current unprecedented showing of East Asian actors is nothing of the sort.  The Fu Manchu Complex is the nearest thing that is of real significance in opening any door whatsoever.  While I am all for China being the flavour of the month and am a great fan of the great American Asian playwright David Henry Hwang, the fact that a new British East Asian playwright is being brave, funny and clever is the one thing that I don’t want to overlook.  I predict in fact that in another 20 years, of all the productions this year, this play will be the one with the most historical interest and significance to the advancement of British East Asians and our struggle to be taken seriously.