In the above picture, do you recognise any of the characters, actors or TV shows? If you don’t, that is extremely unsurprising but I don’t blame you. They are the first British TV shows that feature either a cast with a number of East Asian characters and actors (L: Strangers, co-starring Harry Potter actress Katie Leung), a predominantly all East Asian cast (M: Benedict Wong – also famous for playing Wong in the MCU – and Jessica Henwick in Spirit Warriors), and the first British TV show to feature an East Asian lead (David Yip in The Chinese Detective).
Unfortunately, while these shows broke casting barriers, they have been far and few between. The Chinese Detective was shown in the 1980s so much of the younger generation – myself included – will not have heard of or seen it. Both Spirit Warriors and Strangers only lasted one series each in 2010 and 2018, respectively, with the former being aimed at children shown on CBBC. Aside from these, the number of shows with even one or more British East Asian actors in more than minor roles are almost non-existent (the latest being Filipino-born actress Kim Adis in the co-starring main role of Kitty Wei in BBC iPlayer series from 2020 Get Even; the first British show with a Southeast Asian lead).
But will this ever change? South Asians got a surge in their amount of on-screen representation in the late 90s and early 00s with TV sitcoms Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars at No.42 as well as films such as East is East and Bend It Like Beckham (all of which won several prestigious awards), but before that they had little prominence bar a few faces. Most soap operas have a number of South Asian actors in roles but the last Chinese character on a soap appeared on Coronation Street for a total of four measly months in 2011 (after the stereotypical sham marriage to gain citizenship storyline, which followed on from the even more stereotypical Chinese character in Eastenders from 2006-2007 who sold fake DVDs). Even Black British TV shows have been uncommon with just a handful in the 70s through to the 90s and a few in the last couple of decades but none that are considered mainstream today.
British Asians make up more than 7% of the UK population, with around 0.7% being Chinese and even less for other East and Southeast Asian minorities, while the Black British population stands at more than 3%. So while it’s understandable there are more actors from these ethnic groups going for roles in need of them, it’s undeniable that their representation is there and growing and the fact roles have been written for them. One could say British Chinese and other East and Southeast Asian actors are rare – and yes, that could be down to our smaller population and because fewer of us go down the acting and showbiz route, but where are the bigger roles and shows for us? The talent exists (there’s a Facebook group with nearly 3,500 members in it) but if there was enough material for them the representation on screen would be greater. Sadly, no-one seems to be actively wanting our stories to be told on screen; Corrie had their first of a few Asian families debut on the soap in the late 90s but it wasn’t until the end of 2019 that the Street got their first Black family, so who knows, maybe 10 years down the line it’ll finally be our turn…
In the U.S. and Canada, East Asian representation is better, but even then it’s still lacking, especially when compared to the vast number of TV shows with all or mostly Black casts in America. The most notable examples are Fresh Off the Boat from 2015-2020 (the first show to feature an all Asian American main cast in 20 years) and Kim’s Convenience from 2016-2020 (the first Canadian show to feature a nearly all Asian Canadian cast). Upon hearing that Kim’s Convenience was being cancelled it intrigued me to watch it on Netflix and compelled me to write this post about why something like it is needed in Britain. Both shows were well received by critics and won several major awards but also drew some criticism. FOTB fans were baffled at why Randall Park, a Korean American, was playing the role of a Taiwanese-American when there are Taiwanese and Chinese-American actors who could’ve had the part, while Chinese-Canadian Simu Liu, who has a main role in Kim’s Convenience, raised eyebrows playing a Korean-Canadian – a prickly subject I have talked about before.
In addition, both shows had people unimpressed with the actors’ accents. Constance Wu and Randall Park’s accents on FOTB flitted between native all-American English and strange half-broken, half-fluent accents, while Korean viewers of Kim’s Convenience blasted main actors Paul Sun-Hyung Lee and Jean Yoon for their allegedly poor and unrealistic broken Korean-English accents. And some comments about the latter felt it was poking too much fun at those who cannot speak English well and opened up the can of worms of whether it was offensive to put it on or made it seem okay to imitate, though this would be an entirely different topic to discuss another time.
Despite these slight misgivings – and Paul from Kim’s Convenience responded to the backlash about accents with a good, detailed explanation – both shows portrayed the lives of Chinese/Taiwanese/Korean people in the U.S. and Canada well and did so with humour and emotion. They combined Eastern cultures with Western sitcom styles and featured comedy and jokes relatable and funny to the whole audience. Other recent shows with mostly East Asian ensemble casts include action dramas Warrior and Wu Assassins which, like Spirit Warriors, retells Chinese history, features martial arts sequences or incorporates Chinese mythological stories and legends. These have helped bring these stories, styles and genres popular throughout Chinese and East Asian cinematic and television history to a Western audience, however both are still flying relatively below the radar.
These are the kind of shows we are in sore, overdue need of in the U.K. I previously listed my top 10 favourite British sitcoms, all of which feature nearly all-White casts but it would be great to see an all East Asian cast reach the impact and popularity some of these and others with more racially diverse casts have. If I was adept at screenplay writing, I’d have definitely already given it a go.
As I previously noted, the Chinese and East Asian acting talent pool is there and there are already a number of prominent faces who have found success besides Yip, Leung, Wong and the late Burt Kwouk. Leung, for example, auditioned for the role of Cho Chang in Harry Potter alongside more than 3,000 other girls; the casting call for this small role but huge opportunity had that many aspiring young East Asian actresses hyped up and hopeful for it. Others include Gemma Chan, Henry Golding and Sonoya Mizuno (who all co-starred together in Crazy Rich Asians and have had roles in other blockbuster films) but the list goes into the 100s. Unfortunately, nearly all of them have only had a few small bit parts and are relatively unknown. Some people will argue why more roles need to be created and filled “just to tick a box” but simply having this view emphasises why they are needed; those who believe they aren’t prove East Asians, ethnic diversity and representation in the media are unseen and unnecessary.
Sadly, with the unsettling rise in anti-Chinese and East Asian racism since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, it may be some time before seeing an all East Asian cast on British TV screens becomes widely accepted. But if other ethnic groups can still enjoy continued and increasing success and representation – and if FOTB and Kim’s Convenience managed it in the U.S. and Canada – there may be still be some hope. However, in promising news, Sue Cheung, author of the book Chinglish has announced that her story will be adapted for the screen (TV) so it certainly will be an exciting next step for East Asian acting talent and representation.