Tuesday, 5 December 2017

An Open Letter to the Director General of the BBC, Sir Lenny Henry, Mr Shane Allen, and Ms Alex Moody - 'Chinese Burn'


To Tony Hall, Baron Hall of Birkenhead, Director General of the British Broadcasting Corporation; Sir Lenny Henry; Mr Shane Allen; Ms Alex Moody

Dear Baron Hall, Sir Lenny, Mr Allen, and Ms Moody

Chinese Burn (BBC3): A Complaint

A Hong Kong Chinese, a Taiwanese Chinese, and a Crazy Rich Asian enter a pub. The landlord looks at them and says, ‘What’s the joke?’

As this was how I felt after watching ‘Chinese Burn’, I am writing to complain about the non-inclusion of British Chinese (whether mixed-race or not) voices, and the marketing and aftermath of this show. I believe that if these issues had been handled, ‘Chinese Burn’ could have made for a more enjoyable comedy experience for all. ‘Chinese Burn’ is not a British sitcom and it lacks that British Chinese voice, and as a result, it does not and cannot fully reflect Chinese life in Britain. That is why it cannot and will not shatter stereotypes about the Chinese/East Asians in Britain and elsewhere, but instead create more of them. I feel very strongly about this, and that is why I am complaining.

The typical British-raised Chinese woman will not use ‘Asian’ to refer to ‘East Asian’. Although she might act, she will never encourage her bestie to play any prostitute, or use ‘fuck’ to describe her family (she’ll complain, but use words that are wittier). Most importantly, the kinder, more nuanced views of non-Chinese people that the British-born Chinese have when compared to eg American, Canadian, or Australian Chinese are lacking. As a result, although the show was about Westernised Chinese, I could tell that these were ethnic Chinese characters who had not had a British childhood and youth, but who had moved to the UK from abroad.

The reaction from abroad has been to the strong language and stereotypes in the show, but from my British-born Chinese perspective, these are really, really, really tame and acceptable because this is a comedy and not real life. For me, what was troubling and puzzling was that this sitcom went against originality and British sitcoms. After it became clear that the racism, sexism, and stereotyping against East Asian men came from the two main characters, for example, the main characters did not become the butt of jokes that pilloried them for this. Instead, tired, oft-repeated stereotypes about non-Chinese people and Chinese/East Asian males replaced witty observations of life, and the misuse of slapstick and physical comedy left a main character stripped of dignity until the end – a state which a British sitcom never leaves an underdog in.

If I, someone with no professional background in British comedy, can see this, why couldn’t the professionals? Did someone not read the script or watch rehearsals, and suggest alternatives? Did someone not suggest that a single British Chinese voice be brought in to collaborate with the immigrant voices? If Gok Wan and Alexa Chung were not available, what about Jo Ho and Ming Ho, who are two BBC scriptwriters? If new voices were needed, what about Bubzbeauty, Rebecca Boey and Chris Chan? Did the show’s creators, who are not British, get the appropriate support they needed to create the best show they could? Most importantly, is this the standard that non-white creators are up against, and is this the sort of content that the BBC is after - that non-white creators have to create characters that throw each other under a bus to be acceptable?

This show implies that the characters are underdogs simply because they are Chinese. It also implies that the Chinese experience is a foreign one, when in fact, it can also be British – Chinese food in Britain is different from Chinese food in China and Asia for a reason. It also implies that there is a serious disconnect between the BBC and those outside the BBC. As the most glaring example, how I am treated and viewed in real life is not mirrored in how 'Chinese Burn' treats and views its Chinese characters, and for 'Chinese Burn' to get the green light in the first place, its previewers must have had certain preconceptions about Chinese people in Britain that the people I am with do not have.

By leaving out the British Chinese voice, this show reinforces the perception that ‘the British Chinese are not real Britons’. This is a hypocritical stance to take when so many have declared that the BBC has and is to be more diverse. It is also hypocritical to see current British comedy shows pussyfooting around very real societal problems because of the fear of political correctness and how ‘certain groups of people might react’, but then see ‘Chinese Burn’ given that privilege to insult and mock a group of people for being that group of people and not for eg their bad actions and behaviour, and then for that group of people to be ignored when they voice their very real concerns about this.

‘Diversity’ is not just about skin colour, but also about voices. Skin colour should never be used as the only benchmark for diversity, ever.

In writing this complaint, I hope that public promises about ‘diversity in British programming’ do not result in the erosion of what ‘British programming’ is in terms of quality and content, and I also hope that this ‘diversity’ initiative is not a box-ticking exercise to say, ‘well, we’ve brought the [insert novelty group here], we’ve ticked the box, now let the audience decide’, and then not support the creators of new content adequately. I wonder if BBC Three is doing the right thing in not making a statement of any sort to reassure licence-fee payers that their money is not being spent to mock them, and in not making a statement to assist the creators of the show, to say that certain decisions lay with them and not the creators. Equally, I hope that this will not be used as a stick to beat BBC Three with, especially as British programming needs all the channels it can get to compete in output.

Ultimately, I think BBC Three and all who call for increased diversity in the British media must put their money where their mouths are; I honestly believe that BBC Three should have tried harder and given more support to the creators of the show before, during and after the airing of ‘Chinese Burn’.

Had I known what this show was really about, I confess that I would not have watched it, but having said that, my eyeballs and my mind haven’t been scarred for life, so that’s all right. Would I watch more episodes? I would, but only if the British Chinese involvement is there, and only if proper support is given to the creators.

Yours sincerely
Beanie Lei