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The backlash against Hong Kong-inspired BBC Three sitcom ‘Chinese Burn’ is well deserved

Hong Kong-inspired BBC Three sitcom Chinese Burn has provoked an extreme backlash from the East Asian community in the UK, and attracted negative reviews on social media

On November 27, BBC Three aired the pilot episode for the new sitcom, which was written by Shin-Fei Chen  – who was born in Taiwan and raised in California – and Yennis Cheung – raised in Hong Kong. They also play the lead roles of Elizabeth and Jackie in the series.

The synopsis reads: “Chinese Burn smashes all the stereotypes with a round-house kick… This show’s stories are straight-from-the-dragon’s-mouth, no-MSG, authentic.”

chinese burn bbc

Chinese Burn. Photo: BBC Press Office.

This is a seminal moment for East Asian representation on British television, which has become notorious for its persistent lack of British East Asian (BEA) stories on screen and on stage, particularly when compared with the US, which has made great strides to address this. The most notable examples include the much celebrated series Fresh Off The Boat and forthcoming feature films Crazy Rich Asians and Disney’s Mulan.

For me, a mixed Chinese playwright, the constant setbacks and struggles come as no surprise.  Like so many others, I hoped that this could change everything for the East Asian presence on mainstream British television. Unfortunately, this means the show would inevitably, and possibly unfairly, be scrutinised to within an inch of its life.

However, in its attempt to “break down stereotypes”, Chinese Burn does nothing more than reinforce them – and at the expense of its female characters. This, in turn, results in a cynical, disparaging and downright miserable portrayal of the foreign experience in London. As Anna Chen states, the episode is “utterly retrograde”.

The sitcom uses the traditional storyline of three young women – Jackie, Elizabeth and Fufu – who must navigate the “big, bad city” with the “twist” being that they are all of East Asian descent – although not British born or raised.

According to the Guardian, their comedic influences include Benny Hill, Mr Bean, Monty Python and Hong Kong’s own Stephen Chow. During the interview the writers declare they were inspired because “Chinese women are never portrayed as ambitious.”

However, as Fortune has reported, “The number of Chinese women in senior management positions has recently doubled, with 51% of those jobs held by females.” Regardless, they opt to depict the millennial stereotype so favoured by modern sitcoms in their attempt to explore the ambitions of Chinese women.

Elizabeth, who aspires to become a sommelier, works in a bubble tea shop in Chinatown. During the episode, in an effort to win her job back she performs a sexual favour for her Chinese boss in a pub toilet. Her roommate Jackie is a frustrated actress, consistently battling the status quo of being only ever cast as a Thai prostitute and “only dates white guys.” But the character Fufu, an affluent Taiwanese fashion student who dresses up as an Orthodox Jewish man (as this is a comedy, we may only assume, “for laughs”) is possibly closer to the truth in conveying the foreign experience in London.

Chinese students in the UK currently number 91, 215 – more than any other non-EU nationality studying in Britain.

A promotional short video by the team “How Not to Date a Chinese Girl” displays the exhausted, archaic image of Western men with ‘yellow fever’.

The backlash has been swift. As reported by NextShark – which also summarises the episode in greater detail – East Asian and non-East Asian audiences took to social media and posted their thoughts on the series’ “extreme racism” and damaging portrayal of Asian men as bigoted and impotent. Many have already posted complaints to the BBC.

Most troublingly, the official Chinese Burn team has responded by removing all negative reviews from Facebook and blocking users on Twitter. As a public broadcaster with an international presence, the BBC must hold an important and open discourse on this troubling non-contemporary representation of the East Asian community.

An upcoming collection of plays I curated by BEA writers contain themes such as the unreliable nature of memory, the politics of aging, censorship, poetic imaginings of a migrant’s journey, conflicts in defining sexuality and humorous cross-cultural tales as told by a Chinese-Mauritian actress. They are the stories that I wished I had read while growing up. These are the stories which change the conversation.

The biggest failure of Chinese Burn is not in its alleged racism, but lies in its limited and unoriginal observation, lack of sharp wit and alternative perspective.

But where a great opportunity has been lost, an important conversation can now be had. The rich and multi-faceted lives of the BEA community all deserve a place on mainstream British television and their story should be told rightly and right now, before it is too late.

The backlash against Hong Kong-inspired BBC Three sitcom ‘Chinese Burn’ is well deserved