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BBC sitcom about Chinese family slammed over diversity

By Bo Leung in London | | Updated: 2019-02-15 02:58
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Critics say lack of writers from the British East Asian community contributes to racial insensitivity

The BBC and a United Kingdom television production company have been accused of “perpetuating regressive Chinese stereotypes” for developing a children’s sitcom that critics say is being led by a predominately non-Chinese creative team.

In an open letter to the BBC and Twenty Twenty Television, a group claiming to represent the British East Asian creative industry calls for the show to be penned by a team of British East Asian writers, and says failure to ensure that happens would mean the sitcom will “end up reinforcing the very tropes that have traditionally dogged British East Asian screen portrayal”.

Thursday afternoon, more than 200 people had signed the letter, which was coordinated by the lobbying group British East Asians in Theatre and On-Screen, or BEATS. Harry Potter actress Katie Leung and Iron Fist and Game of Thrones star Jessica Henwick are among those who have signed the letter.

The CBBC series, Living with the Lams, centers on a Chinese family running a restaurant in Manchester.

“It is unacceptable that a television series about the day-to-day lives of a British East Asian family will not be fully authored by British East Asian writers,” the letter says.

The critics say the show is likely to be “regressive and perpetuating, rather than challenging racial stereotypes. These protests have been routinely dismissed and ignored”.

BEATS said the program’s repeated use of the word “oriental” was lamentable because it is considered an outdated term. The group said scripts mistakenly use a mish-mash of dialects and languages and have the father character playing in a band called Wok ‘n’ Roll.

Out of the 10 commissioned episodes, only two will be written by British East Asian writers, with producers allegedly claiming they had struggled to find experienced British East Asian writers able to pen a children’s comedy.

“To decide, that all of these writers ‘lack experience’ is questionable at best, inherently discriminatory at worst,” the campaigners said.

Responding to the letter, a BBC representative said: “We’re really proud of our track record in making diverse and culturally relevant output for our young audience … We always seek guidance, advice and expert input for culturally sensitive content … We do not appoint comedy writers or producers based solely on their cultural affiliations or nationality but we’re confident that we’ll create a show that successfully reflects and celebrates this community.”

Daniel York Loh, an actor and writer who is among the letter’s signatories, said it is an unacceptable situation and added that there is plenty of British East Asian talent.

“They (East Asian writers) have all got a level of experience and a level of achievement,” he said. “We’re talking about people who have written and produced their own web series and been nominated for awards and stand-up comedians who sell out tours. We’re talking about people who have written extensively for TV and those for theaters. The producers dismissed all this … enough is enough.”

Loh said the show offers a “golden” opportunity for the BBC and

production companies to put “a  whole different world on the screen” but the people behind the show are using the same “tried and tested” writers, instead of opening the doors and getting “new and exciting people in”.

He also pointed to the success of the United States sitcoms including Fresh off the Boat, which has been praised for providing representation and which “comes from a genuine voice”.

According to BEATS, the people behind Living with the Lams suggested British East Asian writers could buddy-up with, and be mentored by, other writers. The letter said they would not get writing credits and would receive less pay and the idea was dismissed as “patronizing and a colonial mindset that needs to be dismantled”.

The production company reportedly brought on board a Chinese writer as a “cultural consultant” but the show’s critics said a single consultant is unlikely to be able to represent the worldwide Chinese diaspora.

“The idea that a solitary ‘consultant’ could possibly advise on such a vast and diverse group of humanity only reinforces the racialized pigeon-holing at the heart of the show’s concept,” the letter said.

“We do not accept the use of cultural consultants as replacements for British East Asian writers in a show where the raison d’etre pivots on the lives of a British Chinese family.”

The letter went on to say: “British East Asians – our lives, our stories and our voices – are marginalized, suppressed, and all too often even erased in UK arts and culture.”

The production company Twenty Twenty said: “Living with the Lams is still in the development phase of production, bringing the series to this point has taken several years and is ongoing.”

It said there were “factual inaccuracies in the letter distributed which do not reflect key parts of the ongoing development process” and noted the production team will “continue to work to ensure we have the very best team of talented storytellers in place to make sure Living with the Lams is an entertaining and culturally relevant series created by a decidedly strong and principled creative team”.

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