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BBC’s Chinese sitcom stirs up a hornets’ nest soup

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WHEN a minority group admonishes the proudly politically-correct BBC, one plumps up a cushion and fetches the popcorn. Or in this instance, in which the Beeb is accused of ‘perpetuating a UK television Orientalist narrative’, we break open the prawn crackers.

Children’s BBC (CBBC) has commissioned from the production company Twenty Twenty a kids’ sitcom titled Living With The Lams – a fictional Chinese family running a restaurant in Manchester. However, the pressure group British East Asians in Theatre and on Screen (BEATS) has criticised the racial profile of those in the writing team, or ‘writers room’: ‘It is unacceptable that a TV series about the lives of a British East Asian family will not be fully authored by British Asian writers.’

BEATS has expressed its displeasure by sending an open letter view which has the support of well over 100 directors, writers and actors who identify as British East Asian. Despite the series having a producer ‘of East Asian descent’, the group is narked that ‘of the ten commissioned scripts, only two will be authored by British East Asian writers . . . questionable at best, inherently discriminatory at worst’.

This complaint has been exacerbated by a proposal that unsuccessful British East Asian writers might, as a consolation, ‘sign on to “buddy-up” and “be mentored” by the non-East Asian they’re inviting to write the series . . . this “incentive” comes with no writing credit and less payment’. BEATS condemns this as the product of a ‘patronising and colonial mindset that needs to be dismantled’. 

Those irksome imperialists at the BBC and Twenty Twenty further riled the complainants by ‘enlisting a Chinese writer but only in the capacity of a “cultural consultant”. With the Chinese diaspora worldwide numbering in excess of 1.5billion, the idea that a solitary “consultant” could possibly advise on such a diverse group of humanity only reinforces the racialised pigeon-holing at the heart of the show’s concept’.

Crikey. Warming though it is to observe the BBC in the stocks, in this instance the Corporation is being pelted by the rotten fruit of dubious identity politics: BEATS repeatedly refers to the ‘British East Asian community’ as though it is a homogeneous group; whereas, by their own definition, it represents a loose collection of individuals having generational ties to disparate countries within a huge (and imprecisely defined) geographic area.

BEATS could plausibly argue that a writer steeped in Chinese culture might – provided he or she can pen decent gags for a show which is intended to be comedy, not a documentary – be better able to script the fictional Lam family. But if this is their reasoning, it is unclear why simply being, for example, British-born to a Malaysian or Indonesian parent should necessarily be presumed a comparable qualification.

BEATS’s letter view asserts that the writers’ cultural credentials, or lack of them, will ‘end up reinforcing the very “Orientalist and regressively racialised tropes” that have traditionally dogged British East Asian screen portrayal’. Which makes this forthcoming children’s programme sound like a successor to the now forbidden seventies sitcom Mind Your Language.

The synopsis for Living With The Lams apparently describes the Chinese characters as ‘Oriental’ – which according to press coverage is ‘now considered to be an outdated term’. In the UK the O-word does not require asterisks, at least not yet; however, already the Merriam-Webster dictionary warns it is ‘now usually considered offensive’ and in 2016 ‘Oriental’ was removed from US federal law for being ‘outdated and insulting’. 

Other reasons why there should be silence of the Lams are reported to be a ‘mish-mash’ of dialects; insulting name-calling (‘chonger’ being a new one to me); and ‘a grandma who sits around eating fortune cookies’. Oh, and opponents of weak Chinese puns are irked that the father plays in a band named ‘Wok and Roll’.

There even is criticism of the culinary methods employed in the fictional restaurant: one of the pilot episodes seemingly shows – prepare yourself to be shocked – ‘a character pulling dumplings, which traditionally are steamed, out of the oven’.

Shame on the BBC for exposing impressionable young minds to this cultural and culinary crime. It is inexplicable that TV cooks Rachel Khoo and Ching-He Huang have so far failed to protest: their names remain conspicuously absent from the open letter of complaint issued by the British East Asians in Theatre and on Screen.

These outraged signatories, appalled by the Lams’ dumplings being baked instead of steamed, will even more horrified to learn that the recently departed June Whitfield once served Herbert Lom a Chinese banquet which was not conventionally prepared. Mind you, in this ‘television Orientalist narrative’ the ready meals dished up by Mrs Charlie Chan will be the least of their objections.

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Gary Oliver
Gary Oliver
Gary Oliver is an accountant who lives in East Lothian.

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