Sherlock, a modern day adaptation of the awesome books by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is a fast-paced, funny series (with three episodes), produced and written by Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat (writers for Doctor Who). It's a BBC program that debuted on PBS' Masterpiece Mystery in October and many wonderful blurbs have been written about it. I really really enjoy this show (understatement - I'm ever so slightly addicted to it) except for this episode, entitled The Blind Banker.
Adapted from the original stories of The Valley of Fear and The Adventure of the Dancing Men, this story involves a Chinese smuggling gang, a China Doll/Lotus Blossom, a Dragon Lady, an ancient form of Chinese writing, Chinese acrobatics and a tea ceremony. Oh yeah, and two white people get murdered.
Is it any wonder that I was more than slightly offended while watching this?
1. Soo Lin Yao (played by Gemma Chan) - The China Doll. She's pretty and innocent-looking, all wide-eyed and silky black hair and a non-whore-y, British Suzie Wong. She works at some museum in London where she performs a tea ceremony for tourists, spewing silly aphorisms about tea and shiny teapots. She escaped from China after being orphaned and joining a gang (called The Black Lotus - cringe) and smuggling drugs. Off she goes to London to a new life where she can do cute little tea ceremonies and have dorky little English boys try to ask her out. But alas! She is not safe! The Black Lotus catches up to her and BANG! She's shot dead by her own brother. Soo Lin Yao is pathetic and lacking in a backbone.
2. The Black Lotus Gang - Also referred to as a tong*. The gang, posing as a Chinese circus troupe, threatens their victims by spray painting yellow characters as part of a mysterious cipher onto a surface close to their victims. Then they track down their targets, kill them, and then plant a black origami (which is Japanese, people...) lotus somewhere on their body. The yellow paint is a clear indicator of the sickening racism embedded in the fetishized "Oriental" aspects of the story. Yellow? Can you get any more obvious? The origami lotuses are another indicator of ignorance and dismissiveness. Origami is Japanese. While there were forms of paper folding arts in other places in the world (even China), the art of origami remains a specifically Japanese art form. It is this sort of mixing of the two cultures without research that is increasingly annoying and offensive. The fetishization of the lotus flower doesn't help either.
3. "The One They Call 'Shan!'" (not even listed in the Casting Credits - the indignity!) - The Dragon Lady. She controls The Black Lotus. She tortures John Watson. She wields a gun. She speaks with an awful, exaggerated accent, with her l's and her r's getting mixed up all over the place. She is ruthless. She dons a traditional-looking Chinese opera outfit and facilitates "death-defying acts from the Yangtze River!" She doesn't seduce anybody (Thank goodness) but she does watch Sherlock and John Watson do their mystery-solving from behind shady (pun intended) black glasses with an evil warlord-esque smirk on her face. She's the female Fu Manchu, with Sherlock playing the role of the great good white knight out to save the day and prevent "The One They Call 'Shan!'"
4. The Villain of Indeterminate Race But is Obviously Not White - This character makes a brief appearance in the very beginning of the show as a samurai-sword-brandishing, turbaned, long-robed assassin enters 221B and attacks Sherlock! But, with Sherlock being the great white knight, this Assassin of Indeterminate Race is no match for our white-as-white-can-be hero (no slights on Benedict Cumberbatch intended), who easily defeats him with no weapons at all. For starters, the samurai sword being wielded by the man dressed in Berber-esque clothing? Mishmash of cultures, even a culture that deserves its very own independent study. Uncool, making that mishmash of cultures into the villain. And even worse, the bits of Sherlock versus Villain of Color and interspersed with John trying and failing to do the self-checkout line at the grocery store, so that the entire opening sequence really comes off as slapstick. All in all, it's a slapstick Unnamed Villain of Color versus White Knight Sherlock. Come on, we can do better than that, BBC!
5. The Dangerous Mystique of London's Chinatown - I don't think there was a single shot that was located in this setting that didn't scream, "This is a creepy, shadowy, mysterious place full of shady people who may or may not be assassins, and who knows? Maybe you'll find an opium den if you look hard enough!" Not only that, but Sherlock and John decide to go into the "Lucky Cat Emporium" to look for clues, where an old lady tells them, "You buy Rucky Cat? Onry ten pound! Your wife, she will rike!" In the "Lucky Cat Emporium," an old Chinese lady tries to sell a "Rucky Cat" to John, which he politely refuses. I am not joking. Do I even need to explain the incredibly blatant racism in that one little bit of a scene?
6. The Code! - There's a cipher code thing used to communicate with other members of the Black Lotus, and the code starts with a series of numbers that refer to page numbers in a certain book and then the first word on that page. The numbers are written in Suzhou (mistakenly called "Hangzhou" by Sherlock - tsk, tsk, writer of the script, do some research!), which then refer to the book "London A to Z." Again, more mysteriousness for shading dealings of drugs and other goods... Sneaky sneaky.
7. The Music - The Sherlock theme and the usual background suspenseful music is stellar. But whenever Soo Lin Yao or The One They Call Shan showed up on screen, there was a sudden bout of Zen-like flute and some atmospheric zithers to accompany it (Thankfully, no obscenely loud gongs a la Long Duk Dong). I'm getting sick of zithers. And when Unnamed Indeterminate Race Villain of Color made his dastardly appearance there was - you guessed it - some funky funky sitar sounds. It was painful.
It's really frightening that this slipped under the noses, maybe even was applauded, by the producers of the show. But is it because it was made in Britain? Is being Asian different over there? Would all the things I found offensive be considered offensive in the UK, or all over the world? Should I just start lowering my expectations for media that features either a token Asian or some sort of Asian-themed thing? Who knows?
Predictable and degrading stereotypes aside, the most frustrating this is that the original plot of The Dancing Men does not involve a Chinese gang at all, nor does The Valley of Fear. The Dancing Men has an American criminal chasing down an old flame and the Valley of Fear has no foreign criminal involvement at all. So why incorporate a Chinese crime ring involved in smuggling drugs and other goods around the world? That decision seemed to come completely out of left field with no real reason for it other than the fact that it would provide cheap entertainment and mystique to a story that would have been just as exciting as if it didn't have that "Oriental" vibe going on.
I can only hope that next season doesn't feature stuff like this again.
*The word "tong" has come to have unfortunate connotations because of its association with the term "tong war," referring to armed conflicts between rival Chinese groups seeking to control illegal activities such as gambling, opium smoking, and prostitution. "Tong" actually means "hall" or "parlor," in the sense of a society or association, and most Chinese tongs were men's fraternal or social organizations that existed to provide benevolent services to their members. (From http://www.uiweb.uidaho.edu/LS/AACC/SENSITIV.HTM)
A super great review of the Blind Banker, please read for more insight on the topics above!
Keep on Wondering...
What are the connections between social and historical forces and the representations we see?
Why is yellowface still acceptable? When and how did yellowface turn into whitewashing?
How do these representations create and/or perpetuate stereotypes that are present in our world? What is the impact?