Finding the British East Asian

Skipping this week’s Rec Me Friday because honestly, I’m slowly running out of inspiration. There are a great number of amazing television shows I could feature but each recommendation requires effort and inspiration I don’t fully have right now. I do a have a few recommendations in mind though so don’t worry, I haven’t completely abandoned this blogging venture (yet).

In the meantime, I thought this would be a good moment to discuss an important topic in entertainment – minority representation. As an Asian American, media representation for minorities, including East Asians, is always on my mind. I’ve found that like with most POCS, Asians are underrepresented in American media as well as the occasional British television programs I watch. But when I studied abroad in London, I became more fully aware of just how hard it is for East Asians to be represented in UK media.

And so, for my Journalism class in London, I chose write an article on the media presentation of East Asians in the UK. I’m sharing the feature now as well as some musings on experience being an Asian American living the the UK.

Discussing representation for East Asians in British television and my experience as an Asian American living in London


REPRESENTING EAST ASIANS IN BRITISH MEDIA


In 2012, when the Royal Shakespeare Company debuted an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar set in East Africa, the entire cast was British – and black.

That same year, the RSC staged a production of Much Ado About Nothing set in India with a cast of all British South Asians.

But when it came to the RSC’s 2012 production of The Orphan of Zhao, the play widely regarded as the Chinese Hamlet, only three of the 17 actors were of East Asian origin.

Not one East Asian had a leading role.

This lack of representation of England’s Eastern Asian population in British media is nothing new, even though their numbers are growing. According to UK census reports, the nation’s British Chinese population grew from 250,000 million in 2001 to 433,000 million in 2011. Yet, British East Asians are seldom represented on stage, television, film, radio, or new media platforms such as YouTube.

Daniel York, a British Chinese actor, described the absence of Eastern Asians in British media as “a running joke amongst people” where “literally everyone you mention it to goes ‘No, wait, you’re right, there are no East Asians.’ ”

Even Labour MP Gareth Thomas has noticed the lack of East Asians in Britain’s media industry. The politician recently told Press Association that shows such as EastEnders and Coronation Street have a “disappointing” record for hiring East Asians. He said he rarely saw East Asian actors or actresses on TV despite large communities in Britain.

“In nearly 30 years I’m told EastEnders has only ever had one regular East Asian character, a young female DVD seller who lasted just six months,” Thomas told PA.

Long-running British soap operas such as EastEnders and Coronation Street have each introduced only one East Asian character in their entire history. And those very few British East Asians who manage to appear in mainstream broadcasting often find themselves having to conform to stereotypes.

“Many of these representations are … still heavily accented, outsiders, foreigners made to be the butt of the joke or cruel shady gangsters exploitative of the poor hapless and helpless indigenous people like Caucasians,” said Lucy Sheen, a British Chinese filmmaker and actress.

Villain in BBC’s Sherlock ‘The Blind Banker’ episode
Examples of the latter can be easily seen in popular series such as BBC’s Sherlock where the series’ Chinese characters were portrayed as gang criminals with stereotypical accents and martial arts training.

Sheen argues that while British blacks and South Asians have gained better representation in the media as more well-rounded individuals, British East Asians continue to be depicted merely as “nerds, math geeks, teachers or accountants.”

York also describes other tropes frequently applied to East Asians where women are portrayed as “sexualized lotus blossoms” and men are “brutish and desexualized.”

While describing British East Asians as Britain’s “fetishized, marginalized, and generalized” minority group, the actor also said this treatment holds serious ramifications for the world outside of media.

York said East Asians have become invisible, insignificant, and even dehumanized by the British public. He recalled an incident where he saw children shouting ‘konichiwa!’ at a Chinese theatre director in Peckham.

“TV teaches them that’s okay because we’re not integrated,” York said.

In an effort to promote British East Asians and challenge such stereotypes, York and Sheen founded the British East Asian Artists Association together. According to the organization’s website, its goals include raising the profile of British East Asian artists in theaters both nationally and in London, promoting cultural exchange and challenging prejudice.

While British East Asians fight for representation in British media, both York and Sheen said East Asian actors in America often fare better.

“(The U.S.) still has its problems … but at least, you can see East Asians cast in roles and portrayals of a person that are not solely defined by race or ethnicity,” Sheen said. “They are seen as part of society, not exterior to or set apart from society as a whole.”


ABC’s new fall comedy, Fresh Off the Boat

In the U.S., a number of different East Asian characters can be found on network and cable television. Nikita, CW’s recently canceled drama, featured a woman of East Asian descent in the lead. ABC will soon be airing its second sitcom about an East Asian American family called Fresh Off the Boat.

A U.S. theatre company, American Conservatory Theater, has just announced its own production of The Orphan of Zhao with Asian American actor B.D. Wong, of “Law and Order SVU” fame, as the star.

The increased presence of East Asians in mainstream American media has even led British East Asians such as York to think of Asian Americans as “bold and confident.”

Representation for ethnic minorities is far from perfect in America, but it looks as if Britain’s media industry could learn a thing or two from the U.S.

Until then, the British East Asian Artists Association demand British broadcasters be more aware of ethnic minorities. The organization even proposes that the media industry institute diversity quotas.

“Maybe we do need to have ‘quotas’ imposed,” Sheen said, “so that dramas, films, TV, have to physically and statistically reflect the proportions of ethnic minorities found on the streets of Britain.”

York agreed, adding that British media broadcasters as well as British minority artists must take charge.

“We need to be outspoken, brave and, yes, a bit militant,” York said. “We need to let them know that ‘Hey, we’re in Britain and we want a presence.’ ”


AN ASIAN AMERICAN LOOKING AT THE UK AND US


I regularly watch a few British television programs and have noticed the lack of East Asian characters. The few British East Asians I’ve seen are from Torchwood, The Fades, Ripper Street, Secret Diary of a Call Girl, and Fresh Meat. There’s Bad Education and of course, Sherlock where I particularly hate the representation of Asians because it’s such blatant racist stereotyping. All of the portrayals I’ve mentioned are of women characters and most of them are sexualized. There’s rarely more than one Asian woman on a show. I can’t recall a single male Chinese character that wasn’t doing martial arts either. I’ve also seen Gemma Chan in multiple roles and would like to see other successful Chinese actresses in the mainstream UK media.

Still, interviewing Daniel York and Lucy Sheen made me realize how terrible representation is for British East Asians because wow, it fucking blows.

During my time in London, I saw East Asians daily but as York pointed out, these British Asians are rarely shown on TV, even on shows like EastEnders which take place in central London. And I agree with York, the lack of East Asians in media has serious ramifications. I’ve had men shouting random gibberish at me in some terrible Chinese accent because they think it’s funny and socially acceptance because I’m part of a “model minority” that doesn’t retaliate. Someone has also hollered ‘konichiwa’ at me in Brooklyn but these instances happened more frequently in London.

So, you know what, I’m with York and Sheen, if U.K. broadcasters need quotas to realize that East Asians should be represented on TV frequently and without stereotypes then so be it. Implement quotas for minority races. I want to see more than just shows with all white people. Gimme East Asians with British accents!

As York said:
“I’d like to see them being British more often. I’d like the women to be strong, confident and funny and not needing to be saved by a white man all the time. I’d like the older women to be scabrous and amusing as opposed to pseudo-magical fortune-cookie language spouters. I’d like the men to be witty, rugged, charismatic and actually attractive to the opposite (and same) sex and I’d like the older men not to be dull, stern patriarchs all the time. And let’s lose the accents for a while. ”

The comments about Asians on U.S. TV perceiving as “bold and confident” were a little surprising for me to read because I’ve actually never thought about Asian Americans on TV in that way. Don’t get me wrong, I know many confident and kickass Asian American characters on television right now but their numbers are small.  I suppose what we have in the U.S. is better than the U.K. though. And for that, I feel incredibly grateful.

I recognize that America has a slight advantage over the U.K. in terms of minority representation for a number of reasons. Given that the population of East Asians in the U.S. is much larger than the population in the U.K., it makes sense for British media to represent the higher levels of British blacks and South Asians first. But East Asians deserve a place as well. And the American Hollywood media industry is more focused on appealing to a diverse global market so including the occasional POC happens more frequently.

Still, I am now so extremely appreciative of the few Asian Americans we get in mainstream media. I get to watch wonderfully written shows that pay respect to Asian cultures like Avatar: The Last Air Bender. I have attractive Asian men like John Cho and Steve Yeun in sexual roles for me to lust after. Every week, I bow down to strong and beautiful Asian American women like Nikita Mears and Joan Watson, the queen of perfection. There is awful offensive stereotyping of Asians in U.S. media as well but at the very least, I can find solace in the wonderful Lucy Liu.

In the U.K. as well as the U.S. there’s still a very long way to go for East Asians and for all POCs though. Hopefully, over the years we’ll see more and more complex, well written POC characters on TV. For right now, I’m just being slightly optimistic about the upcoming U.S. fall television line up where quite a number of Asian Americans are going to be leading shows.

Things to check out!:
British East Asian Artists Association
Act for Change: Improving Representation in UK Broadcasting

 

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  • Poosh

    The author is deluded, sadly, in regard to US portrayals of east asian males in US. John Cho and Steve Yeun? Yes that’s 2 out of maybe 3? shows in the US with asian males wo are portrayed as normal human beings as well as sexual (something very, very, very rare, and deliberately so). Cho’s show was quickly cancelled btw and Yuen (Walking Dead) is basically one of only 2 shows with positive depictions of asian males. Into the Badlands is the only other show and one of those CSI type shows. That’s it. Off the Boat, which is mentioned above (lol) DIRECTLY address the issue if immigration so that doesn’t get a pass. East Asians make up 1 in 20 Americans btw.

    That’s not to say there aren’t east asian males – or females – in US tv but they’re almost always racist, negative deceptions: it’s very difficult to even get a neutral depiction. As good as Nikita and Agents of Shield may be, the asian women in that are still female asian stereotypes. Asian females do fair better though in the US – asian males are basically treated like scum (2 Broke Girls being the most offensive example).

    When was the last time you saw a sexual asian male.. or a non-sexualised asian female … as the romantic lead in a Hollywood movie? btw.

    • Yes, Asian characters are rarely represented on TV and when they are, they are often stereotypes. 2 Broke Girls, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, The Knick. I can go on.

      But this is better than UK television which is what the post is about. I, myself, admitted that I don’t find the representation of Asians in US that amazing but in relation, the number of UK Asian characters is even smaller and even more limiting. The UK is not even near producing a show with a cast of all East Asians like Fresh off the Boat and Dr. Ken is doing now.

      I don’t classify the women in Nikita or Agents of SHIELD as stereotypes. Characters such as Melinda May, Daisy Johnson, and Joan Watson are all women who are sexual, romantic, emotionally strong, physically strong, smart and much more. What stereotypes do they fall under?

      The relationship between Mako and Raleigh in Pacific Rim is not overtly romantic but the movie featured Mako, as a Japanese woman, who was never sexualized.