Representations of British Chinese identities and British


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Representations of British Chinese identities and British television drama: mapping the field
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Knox, S. (2019) Representations of British Chinese identities and British television drama: mapping the field. Journal of British Cinema and Television, 16 (2). pp. 125-145. ISSN 1755-1714 doi: https://doi.org/10.3366/jbctv.2019.0465 Available at https://centaur.reading.ac.uk/78894/
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Representations of British Chinese Identities and British Television Drama: Mapping the Field
Abstract: While important scholarship exists on the television representations of Asian American identities, research in the UK has been focused on African Caribbean and South Asian identities. Very little scholarly attention has been paid to televisual representations of British Chinese identities, despite the British Chinese constituting one of the larger and fastest growing ethnic minority groups within contemporary Britain.
Informed by an understanding of the complexity of the term ‘British Chinese’, this article explores the representation of British Chinese identities in British television drama. Despite the long-standing absence and invisibility of such identities in British television, as perceived within the popular imagination in Britain and British Chinese discourses, the article finds that a larger number of British Chinese actors have found notable employment in British television than is commonly acknowledged or remembered within the popular imagination.
The article draws on a database that deploys a range of research, including archive research at the BFI Reuben Library, to map the presence of British Chinese actors in British television drama since 1945. Through this historiographic focus, the article identifies some of the most significant trends in representations of British Chinese identities in British television drama. It then illustrates and provides more specific texture to these broader patterns through the close textual analysis of a case study, the BBC1 flagship series Sherlock (2010-present). It concludes by reflecting on the contemporary period, which has seen an influx of British Chinese actors in British television drama as well as high-profile diversity campaigning within Britain.
Keywords: BAME representations; politics of representation; yellow peril; Orientalism; Sherlock; BBC; Burt Kwouk; David Yip; Sarah Lam; Gemma Chan.
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Representations of British Chinese Identities and British Television Drama: Mapping the Field
This article is concerned to map out how representations of British Chinese identities ‘function as cultural sites for the articulation of specific meanings, relations, histories and struggles’ (Gray 2000: 125) within the history of British television drama. A body of academic research has been conducted in the UK and the USA on media representations of ethnic minorities, and this article builds on this valuable work. However, while important scholarship exists on the television representations of Asian American identities (e.g. Hamamoto 1994, Kim 2004, Ono and Pham 2009, Yuen 2017), research in the UK has been focused on African Caribbean and South Asian identities (e.g. Malik 2001, Malik and Newton 2017). Very little scholarly attention has been paid to televisual representations of British East Asian identities more broadly and British Chinese identities more specifically. With television continuing to be a key site for the production and negotiation of ideologies, identities and socio-cultural frameworks of meaning (Hall 1995), and to be linked in Britain to notions of public service broadcasting, it seems timely to begin to redress this gap and give long overdue consideration to television representations of British Chinese identities.
This gap is connected to the long-standing absence and invisibility of British Chinese identities in British television, as perceived within both the popular imagination in Britain and (more explicitly so) British Chinese discourses.1 Indeed, The Chinese Detective (BBC1 1981-1982) remains the only British primetime series to feature a British Chinese actor as the singular lead, and children’s series Spirit
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Warriors (CBBC 2010) was the first British drama series with a predominantly British East Asian cast.2 This is linked to the broader general invisibility of British Chinese identities in dominant cultural discourses within the UK. This absence within the popular imagination is especially notable given the long-standing socio-historical presence of the British Chinese within British society (Benton and Gomez 2008) and that they constitute one of the larger and fastest growing ethnic minority groups within contemporary Britain (ONS 2009).
What is more, as this article will explore, there has been a long-standing British Chinese presence within British television drama. This presence shows that the perception of the long-standing absence of British Chinese identities is partially implicated in (intentional or not) processes of overlooking, forgetting and marginalising, certainly within dominant cultural discourses within Britain. Given the self-perpetuating quality of discursive marginalisation, there is need for critical intervention to raise the profile of this representational presence within scholarship and the popular imagination, and encourage reflection on it, so that there can be more sustained engagement with this noteworthy aspect of Britain’s televisual cultural heritage.
To help begin this process, this article will identify some of the most significant patterns in representations of British Chinese identities in British television drama, and then illustrate these dominant trends through a case study of the BBC1 flagship series Sherlock (2010-present). To do both is important, as the historiographic engagement with broader patterns helps to move current debates
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(where they exist) beyond the level of the anecdotal, and the close textual analysis productively offers nuance and concrete specificity. My discussion will be informed by an understanding of the complexity of British Chinese identity, drawing on the seminal work of such scholars as Rey Chow and Ien Ang, who have argued against understanding ‘Chineseness’ as pre-given, homogeneous and fixed.3 Chow has called for ‘Chineseness [to] be productively put under erasure – not in the sense of being written out of existence but in the sense of being unpacked’ (1998: 24). Providing an illuminating contribution to this anti-essentialist impulse, Ang has argued that:
Chineseness is not a category with a fixed content – be it racial, cultural or geographical – but operates as an open and indeterminate signifier whose meanings are constantly renegotiated and rearticulated in different sections of the Chinese diaspora. […] There are, in this paradigm, many different Chinese identities, not one. This proposition entails a criticism of Chinese essentialism, a departure from the mode of demarcating Chineseness through an absolutist oppositioning of authentic and inauthentic, pure and impure, real and fake. (2001: 38)
In its marked hybridity, the term ‘British Chinese’ opens up space for multiple lines of coexistence, contradiction and cross-connection and, to draw on Homi Bhabha’s thoughts, usefully ‘denies the essentialism of a prior given original or originary culture, [and so] we see that all forms of culture are continually in the process of hybridity.’ (cited in Rutherford 1990: 211) Gregor Benton and Edmund Gomez (2008) have argued that, whilst British Chinese culture has long been perceived from without as homogenous, it is, inevitably, anything but, with
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significant differences of regional, ethnic, class, linguistic and generational allegiances and divisions. The 2011 ‘Contesting “British Chinese” Culture: Forms, Histories, Identities’ conference organised by Ashley Thorpe and Diana Yeh considered British Chineseness as not a self-evident identity, but a contested political construction that may be mobilised differently according to context.
My discussion will further draw on an extensive database I have collated that maps the presence of British Chinese actors in British television drama since 1945. Striving for, but inevitably never achieving comprehensiveness, this database draws on information gathered from archive research at the BFI Reuben Library, online resources such as the Internet Movie Database, the BFI’s Screenonline database, the BBC Genome Project and several British Chinese online forums and blogs (e.g. www.britishchineseonline.com, http://bbczeitgeist.blogspot.co.uk), as well as newspapers and trade publications. It is informed by an understanding that the very on-screen presence of British Chinese actors, their appearance in British Chinese and/or Chinese roles, and instances of cross-casting, all have meaningful importance to representations of British Chinese identities.
Of course, the actors of interest to this research have often considerably hybrid identities: for example, as the first actor of Chinese nationality to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, whose subsequent career has repeatedly crossed continents, Tsai Chin is included in the database partly because her identity usefully raises questions concerning the definitions of Britishness that may underpin the notion of ‘British Chineseness’. The presence of many other actors highlights the
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non-monolithic complexity of the notion of Chineseness: Issues of postcolonial cultural identity affect actors such as Tony Then and Pik-Sen Lim who were born in the then South East Asian colonies (respectively, Singapore and Malaysia). Their Chinese identity is thus inevitably differently informed to that of biracial actors such as Paul Courtenay Hyu and UK-born actors such as Gemma Chan. With my research not intending to police ‘the border: the boundary between “Chinese” and “nonChinese”’ (Ang 2001: 85), but instead to engage with the ‘fuzziness of the identity line, the fundamental uncertainty’ (Ang 2001: 88) concerning definitions of Chineseness, the database has broadly tended towards inclusivity. This is especially important because my research precisely wants to avoid re-producing the marginalisation of the actors in question within the popular imagination.
Furthermore, what my discussion will demonstrate is that, the particularities and differences of their identities notwithstanding, a major commonality of experience for these actors is that the complexity of British Chinese identity is usually managed and erased through restrictive industrial practices and a representational ordering process (Dyer 2002). British television drama has frequently ascribed to them a notion of Chineseness that is not the ‘open signifier’ Ang (2001: 35) envisions, but one reduced to corporeal difference, rendering them a homogenous Other ultimately defined by their (flattened) Chineseness. The database brings together these diverse actors in order to begin to carve out a space for considering their lived experience, and to take account of the opportunities that have been available and/or lacking for British Chinese actors within the increasingly precarious working conditions of the British creative industries. In doing so, my work
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is aligned with that by Chow and Ang, whose anti-essentialist approaches to Chineseness resonate with the argument observed by Stuart Hall that ‘the fact that “race” is not a valid scientific category [does not] “in any way [undermine] its symbolic and social effectuality”’ (2005: 301).
Dominant Representational Patterns
The first point to note is that the commonly perceived long-standing absence of British Chinese identities is positively challenged by the presence of a wider range of British Chinese actors working in British television drama than is commonly acknowledged or remembered within the popular imagination. Familiar assumptions that relevant roles have been played by the same handful of actors, headed by the near inescapable Burt Kwouk, need to be revised in light of the fact that actors such as Jacqui Chan, Daphne Cheung, Paul Courtenay Hyu, Andy Ho, Arnold Lee, Pui Fan Lee, Robert Lee, Pik-Sen Lim, Barbara Yu Ling, Fiesta Mei Ling, Elizabeth Tan, Tony Then and Vincent Wong, have found notable employment in British television drama following the establishment of television as a mass medium in the 1950s. It is important that this range is noted, otherwise one risks neglecting and erasing the presence and creative work of actors such as those named above and their peers.4
Apart from the positively surprising scope of field, what has not been surprising to find is that there has been a limited number of more high-profile British Chinese actors. Headed by Burt Kwouk, these would include David Yip, Sarah Lam, Benedict Wong and more recently Gemma Chan. This is echoed across the Atlantic,
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where the stardom of Bruce Lee crowns a (proportionally larger) group of more prominent Chinese American actors working in television, including Rosalind Chao, Lucy Liu, Richard Loo, Keye Luke, Beulah Quo, Victor Sen Yung, Ming-Na Wen, B. D. Wong, Russell Wong and (to some extent) Joan Chen and Anna May Wong. British Chinese actors appear usually in minor roles, often playing one-off characters, in ways that transatlantically resonate with Dorothy B. Jones’ (1955) pioneering study of Asian stock characters, including the role of waiter.
There is evidence of role segregation and major/minor role stratification. Here, I draw on Eugene Franklin Wong’s (1978) important work, which argued that the US film industry was marked by these practices, whereby white actors could portray non-whites, but not vice versa; and that, the larger a role was, the more likely it was that a white actor would be cast. This holds true for British television drama, in that if a role is not specifically written for a (British) Chinese character, it is still today more likely to go to a white actor; British Chinese actors tend to get cast for (British) Chinese roles, less so for ethnically unmarked roles. The actor’s British Chineseness is often an important, if not a defining feature, of the role he/she gets cast in – and with sensitive portrayals that engage meaningfully with the lived experience of British Chinese identity being noticeably sparse, this ethnic marking (as my discussion will explore further shortly) is predominately problematic. Here, Dan Li’s 2013 appearance in Doctor Who (BBC1 1963-1989, 2005-present) is a rare instance, in that his British Chineseness is neither singled out nor made an issue within the episode. His character’s name, Alexei, furthermore hints at a complex ethnic identity and suggests that the role was not specifically written for a British
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Representations of British Chinese identities and British