Many viewers have called for the show's producers and commissioners to be held responsible for green-lighting this project
When BBC’s Chinese Burn was announced in July, it promised to challenge East Asian stereotypes by following “the escapades of three ‘normal’ Chinese girls in London.” More than a fortnight after the release of the show’s pilot on 27 November 2017, the verdict is out–Chinese Burn is not progressive, with much criticism directed at the show’s content and portrayal, overshadowing any positive responses towards it.
Furthermore, given the situations these ‘Chinese girls’ find themselves in–kicking a camera while at an audition, getting into bar fights and dressing as a rabbi–it is rather hard to believe that the show has delivered on the ‘normal’ part.
Twitter users have expressed their dissatisfaction with the episode, in particular for its perpetuation of negative stereotypes. Multiple articles and reviews, including those from Shanghaiist, the Hong Kong Free Press and YOMYOMF have popped up, explaining why Chinese Burn remains problematic and does not counter any pre-conceived attitudes towards Chinese women, let alone Chinese men.
Chinese Burn fails to empower women of asian descent, and instead exacerbates the true struggles many asian women face to fight against white male patriarchy @ChineseBurnTV #chineseburn @bbcthree #racism https://t.co/uz6nIzBZdc
— Hapa Feminism (@hapa_feminism) December 12, 2017
— Sally Lin •林樾• ⛔️ SITE C (@sallyyuelin) December 12, 2017
— Ming Chows 林明巧 (@mingcheau) December 1, 2017
Barry Ryan, Managing and Creative Director of London-based production company Free @ Last TV, is not surprised that a TV show featuring three Chinese leads but with contentious portrayals would be commissioned by the BBC. “Channels always seek to find programmes and ideas that will get attention … and use all the buzzwords,” he says.
Chinese Burn attracted significant media attention earlier this year with the quotable statement, “This show’s stories are straight-from-the-dragon’s-mouth, no-MSG, authentic. 6 billion Chinese can’t all be Wongs. We are more than the stereotypes. We are varied. We are different. But our stories are universal, so Brits can relate… mate.” With diversity being a huge topic this year, in particular for the visibility of East Asians and their narratives, Chinese Burn easily ticks the box.
Many viewers have called for the show’s producers and commissioners to be held responsible for green-lighting this project, let alone with a budget of £165,000–public money spent on reinforcing harmful stereotypes. And perhaps rightly so; Ryan says, “all producers that don’t like what is happening to their idea as it is produced have the ability to say no or resist the influence or changes but equally commissioners can refuse to produce the idea or fund it if the changes aren’t made.”
Yet, the question remains: “Diversity” aside, why and how would such a show with offensive, regressive content get commissioned or even produced in the first place?
Considering that Chinese Burn would have been discussed by both the BBC and Roughtcut, I wrote to the women in the middle of all this–Yennis Cheung and Shin-Fei Chen, who also play Jackie and Elizabeth in the show respectively. Both writers and their characters share the similarity of coming from outside the UK and eventually moving to London.
Cheung was raised in Hong Kong and trained in classical opera at the Hong Kong Academy of performing arts. She eventually moved to the UK, which she reckons “the simple case of finding agents, and making contacts” in order to explore the opportunities there.
Chen was born in Taiwan and raised in California. While working in marketing in China, she stumbled upon an amateur drama group, which sparked her love for acting. She eventually attended the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama.
When contacted, Cheung initially directed us to Ellen Hughes and Imogen Reid, BBC’s Entertainment and Comedy publicists. After further correspondence, we got Cheung and Chen’s answers to some of our questions beyond what we already know of events behind the scenes:
How did Chinese Burn get picked up by the BBC?
YENNIS: Fei and I have worked many times together, the BBC liked our chemistry, and saw our potential as writers. Roughcut and the BBC have been incredibly supportive throughout this journey.
FEI: With Roughcut’s track record of producing BAFTA-nominated (and now winning!) shows and working with BBC, we were in good hands. We worked closely with Roughcut’s producers, to pump out a solid new show that’d get BBC’s go-ahead – and it worked.
Cheung believes that there is a long way to go in representing East Asian men and women in the British media. “A lot of the time the roles have been race-specific, meaning the storyline demands the characters be Chinese because this episode… is about triad gangs or illegal migrants”, she says. “Perhaps this hints at the roles some writers see us in? It would be nice to see more roles where the actors playing them just happen to be of East Asian descent, where their ethnicity is incidental, where no race was specified on the casting brief and the best person for the job got it, colourblind.”
That being said, the Chinese Burn pilot begins with various images of Chinese women, with the voiceover, “Chinese girls. Sweet, innocent, submissive Chinese girls”, already setting the context for the rest of the episode as a commentary on ethnicity and its themes surrounding the conversations about race.
When asked about what the biggest challenges were in getting the show made, Cheung mentioned adhering to the budget or schedule given, while Chen was concerned whether the jokes will land or get lost in translation. Judging from the online criticism the show has received, it seems that the jokes have not received the laughs they hoped to get. Chen also hinted at having “people to answer to–producers, the broadcasters”. While it is not easy to determine who is responsible for this fiasco given the sheer amount of voices involved in this project, the issue of selling out or compromising a community’s identity for the sake of humour and entertainment persists.
Seeing as the show is broadcast to a largely British/UK-based audience, did this in any way affect the decision to create three characters who had moved to London instead of being born there?
YENNIS: They say “know your audience”, but they also say “write from experience”. Fei and I moved to London. Yuyu, who plays Fufu also moved to London. We wanted to offer our experience as three Chinese girls out of water. I think there’s a lot in the situations which people may find relatable, regardless of their race background – most of us experience being outsiders at some times – and if not relatable, at least interesting or funny.
The show received a mixed reception, particularly from the British East Asian community, who feel that Chinese Burn perpetuates stereotypes, especially about East Asian men, and hence is rather regressive in its representation. What are your thoughts on such criticism?
FEI: We’re not trying to make people believe that’s how East Asians actually behave. It’s very much akin to Stephen Chow’s male and female characters – all of them are super-flawed, but with room for development in the future.
YENNIS: Firstly, we are listening. We hear those voices and we care. We see comedy as being a vehicle with which you can look at awkward subjects, at controversial issues. Some people may find that challenging, some offensive, and some regressive. A lot of “Chinese Burn” – the scenarios and things said came from real experiences. Things which some people have zoned in on as “offensive” I actually experienced.
What’s next for you and the team?
Neither BBC nor Roughcut have yet to confirm if Chinese Burn will be commissioned for the rest of the season. At this point, given the tight-lipped responses to questions specifically about this project, one can only guess if the BBC unknowingly funded a program with racist content, or if they funded it nonetheless, or worse–if they had suggested such content to be included in the show.
Chinese Burn has raised more questions than answers–and not necessarily in a positive way. For decades, the East Asian community has seen the harmful effects of these depictions on their culture and social status in the UK and worldwide. With such content reproduced in 2017, does this hint at the kind of programs that the BBC are looking to commission in response to increasing diversity and representation, and if so, what would East Asian content-makers have to sacrifice in order to appeal to a ‘western’ audience?
At the end of the day, it seems likely that someone will have to take responsibility to troubleshoot the public outcry, but whether the core content of this series will be examined to address its self-inflicted issues of regressive representation remains a question yet to be answered. Regardless of outcome, the East Asian community has been shortchanged once again for the sake of entertainment.