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?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Sherlock: The Blind Banker

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?
My Complaints:
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!

21 comments:

  1. Re: 6. The Code!
    The numbers, written in "Suzhou" are not "mistakenly" called "Hangzhou" by Sherlock. The writers did at least a bit more research than that little bit of a rant must have. The Unicode were originally {incorrectly} named Hangzhou style numerals by those who name such things. Suzhou numerals, special numberic forms used by traders to display the prices of goods, made Hangzhou a misnomer. All references to Hangzhou in Unicode standard were corrected to Suzhou EXCEPT the character names themselves; these can NOT be changed once assigned, which is according to the Unicode Stability Policy allowing software to use the names as unique identifiers. Therefore, those characters while originally misidentified are still {by character names} called Hangzhou.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Well, you gave a better explanation than another blog did. I thought the Hangzhou part was wrong so I looked it up and there were others who agreed with me. Did some more research and found the exact same thing. Thanks for clearing it up...

    ReplyDelete
  3. Would you get over yourself? Just because paint is yellow doesn't mean it is racist!!! Also, would you have preferred that the lady in the Lucky Cat Emporium had spoken with a perfect British accent?
    AND SINCE WHEN DOES SOO LIN NOT HAVE A BACKBONE???? Is it me, or did she face down her brother, who was about to murder her, without even flinching? You are obviously just looking for excuses to pick on a wonderful creation by wonderful people who are not racist in the slightest. This, for other readers, is an example of political correctness gone wild.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Allow me to make a Sherlockian deduction: this person is not a person of color, probably white. How did I know? The post reeked of racial privilege. It's simplicity itself.

      Delete
  4. Ok, I'm barely 40 minutes into this episode, and I was wondering if it was just me. I just started watching Sherlock... people tell me it's good, but, well... it's nice to see the internet largely agrees with me on this episode at least. Even though I'm not even halfway through this episode, you did not spoil it at all for me. I predicted every plot twist you mention here, except for some reason I thought she'd survive; silly me.

    One thing I've always thought was weird is, compared to the US, British TV is really good at portraying black British, often of African or Caribbean ancestry, as well-rounded, non-stereotypical people. But often, when they portray Asians, especially East Asians, it's like they're running a competition to find the most racist portrayal in primetime. The women are always precious lotuses or dragon ladies -- except sometimes they appear to be one and turn out to be the other, for a twist. And the men are 'honor bound' samurai, except their sense of honor is always "twisted" according to our good and true western values (sarcasm, folks).

    ReplyDelete
  5. LMAO @ no one in the comments section addressing anything except for the Hangzhou/Suzhou thing.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Allow me to make a Sherlockian deduction: this person is not a person of color, probably white. How did I know? The post reeked of racial privilege. It's simplicity itself.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This post was a reply to "Anonymous: November 2, 2011 2:00 PM"

      Delete
  7. Why has no one mentioned Soo Lin's apartment? There is no flat in the world that is filled with so much Chinese-style furniture and decorations. She's a young girl in London who isn't fabulously wealthy. I'm sure she would have some pretty basic stuff.

    ReplyDelete
  8. A thousand times yes to everything, except the yellow paint: I think the color choice was probably made for design purposes rather than Orientalist ones--the ciphers had to appear striking on both light and dark backgrounds (library shelf vs. brick wall) and visually the yellow's so much more vivid than any other color would have been. I very much doubt the color was chosen for any other purpose than aesthetics.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree because at the end of the episode, they started using blue paint? That's not racist... and it was a noticeable shade of blue which stood out as you mentioned!

      Delete
  9. Wow. Now I've got more reasons to dislike this ep than before. I just thought it was kinda dull. :P

    BUT I really think that the paint color being yellow is just a coincidence that you latched on to due to the rest of the racism/stereotypes that were in there. I doubt the creators would go THAT far; to me, all the stuff that you pointed out as racist weren't meant to be intentionally degrading. I guess. Hopefully.

    ReplyDelete
  10. (same anon as above)

    OH AND ALSO I'm glad I'm not the only one who cringes whenever an Asian person shows up on TV and the soundtrack is all like, "OK DUDES CUE THE EASTERN VIBES WOO YEAH WE'RE SO RESPECTFUL OF CULTURE LOLOL". I mean, I felt perhaps it was okay for the music to be there when Soo Lin was doing the tea ceremony stuff (since, yanno, THAT bit had to do with culture/tradition), but everywhere else? Ack, no.

    ReplyDelete
  11. i love that you complain that soo lin has no backbone, and so her character is an example of racism. first of all, it's not true that she has no backbone. number one, instead of running away, she continues to try and do her work because it is important to her even though she's being hunted. how is that not incredibly courageous? number two, as somebody else pointed out, she faces down her brother bravely. she doesn't cower, she accepts her fate. i can't believe people are suggesting that she is weak for not trying to fight off her brother. maybe you people don't understand the actuality of the situation, that is, her BROTHER is attempting to murder her. not some random person. her brother. i can't honestly say i'm sure i would try to kill a member of my family to fend them off of me. i'm not even sure i would want them to be caught even if it meant that i would live. anyway, of all the complaints about this episode, complaints about soo lin are the most ridiculous. she is a complex and sympathetic character whose motivations and feelings are her own and not just a plot device.
    my second point on that, though, is that you apparently think that an asian character has to have a backbone, otherwise it's racist. how, exactly, does that even make any kind of sense?
    re: origami. right, cause, you know, asians never borrow each other's traditions for their own purposes. i'm pretty sure that nowhere in the episode does anybody say or imply, "THIS IS WHAT WE CHINESE DO WE FOLD PAPER FLOWERS IT'S OUR TRADITION".
    re: the black lotus. uh, you do know symbolic names for things are pretty common in china, right? and possibly (almost definitely) everywhere else in the world.
    re: the shop lady. i have actually had very similar exchanges with more than one chinese shop lady. so if it's stereotype, they need to stop perpetuating it themselves. especially because it's annoying as hell.
    somebody else already commented on the absurdity of thinking the yellow paint is racist. and as for everything else you talked about, i can't even address it because i don't actually know why you're complaining about it. why is it a problem that a gang uses a code to communicate? what exactly is your complaint about shan? that she's one-dimensional? cause, you know, that only happens with asian villains.
    anyway, i think people are criticizing this episode way too unfairly. all of the arguments about why it's racist have pretty much gone uncontested by some slightly broader thinking. it's incredibly lazy writing, but almost all of sherlock is, and just because they included asian people in that lazy writing does not make it racist. it just makes it shallow. this show relies on a LOT of stereotypes as tropes, because that is what lazy writers do.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Please tell me you are making a parody of racism apologists. No one can be this much of an oblivious douchebag.

      Delete
    2. Really? Because I just enjoyed the show.
      I am Asian, and yes, I agree that there were a few rather racist bits, but people are reading too much into the whole episode! Just because people from different cultures are featured, does not make it completely racist! And I strongly disagree to the fact that Soo Lin is weak, she did what none of us here would have ever dared to do, she risked her life in order to do what she loved, to take care of what was precious to her. Also 'spewing silly aphorisms' about tea? Tea pots and the ceremony are actually a very big part of Chinese culture, and I found that sentence a very racist and unresearched.

      Delete
  12. I think you're reading too much into this episode. The reason the lady in the chinese shop talks like she does is because China town, and that shop, are tourist traps. They play up to stereotypes of the "mysterious east" because it helps sales. The girl working in "some museum" is a curator of Chinese antiquities in the British Museum. She's in her twenties. That's pretty amazing, and shows she is intelligent and well educated, hardly a shrinking secondary character. The tea ceremony thing may be just a bit of artistic license- hardly meant as a representation of contemporary Chinese culture, but supposed add some (possibly erroneous) historical detail to flesh out the character- she is shown caring deeply about the tea pots, as this is her area of expertise. The "assassin of colour" is there as a joke- he's fighting sherlock while watson is buying food, when watson returns he accuses Sherlock of having not moved since he left, when clearly he's been engaged in a life or death battle. The assassin is not wielding a samurai sword, it's a scimitar. It's implied that Sherlock has got into some weird shit that Watson doesn't know about to make his chaacter more interesting and suggest some mysterious reason someone unconnected with the rest of the story ants him dead. He is frequently attacked by white people too- he's supposed to be an antagonizing prat. I will concede that the origami thing is incorrect and offensive- it's ridiculous to suppose that in attempting to represent Chinese people as realistic someone would ever suggest that they may have picked up something from a country right next to them. I mean, that would be like showing an Englishman drinking whisky or am American listening to Neil Young. Such things would never happen in real life. But the yellow paint thing was really a stretch.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Wow this is the first time i've seen anyway claim that this was RACIST. I do agree with some points on what you have said. I know this is an old post, but alas, I can't help but comment -

    1. Soo Lin Yao - tha character- the black lotus, okay fair enough they could have tried a bit harder to get a better name that worked. She works in a museum doing tea things thats fine- Oh no shes shot by her brother, just because you find her lacking in backbone, this is not an excuse to call this character racist. What, did you want her to brake out her kung fu and take down her brother who has a gun? Be realistic, this is a young girl, she has the guts to run from the company. Okay she went back to her tea set, but it was a few hundred years old and no one else would look after it (to be honest I could see me doing that, i mean it was a few hundred years old). Although it's true, she should have asked the boy too look after the tea set, then perhaps the boy give away her location. But this characters not racist, just a smudge bad writing.

    2. The black lotus gang- Okay okay, the name was shitty. The bad accent- well this is just a bit of bad acting. I don't know what a real Chinese accent sounds like, but if you say it's wrong okay. Thats not my job as a viewer, the actor should have researched this. I personally quite liked this character, the villain seemed really quite strong. A personal opinion though.
    THE YELLOW PAINT- okay as a graphic designer i can stop you there and tell you thats bullshit- Black paint would not have worked so well, it would have been to dark, contrasted with the walls, it would stand out far too much. White? You can't see that. Red? Too much like blood, you don't want the viewers to straight away to associate this gang with murder, they are mainly doing smuggling anyway so this would not be the right hints to give to the viewers. Blue is a calm colour, defiant no no. Orange- bright colours? Are you kiddin this ain't no child game. The easiest way to choose a colour would be to go to the primary colours. Red-(no not murder) Blue-(not calming!) Yellow- yellow, its a bright stab in the face colour, and is not associated with murder. Perhaps gold money associations could go with it, and these would be good. I don't see how you could think this was racist, and to think of this in such a way leads me to think your racist, lets just go with no.

    the assassin- okay you don't like his clothes, I'll have to watch this episode again, however i'll go with you there saying the outdated - I just fucking hope you know your shit.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. White-as-white-can-be hero can't be defeated by the assassin- okay one i find you saying white as white can be fucking racist. what the fuck. people are white you little shit, he can't help he wasn't born black or Asian. Hes white because its fucking London and this was written back in the time when the majority were white- and HE COULD STILL BE WHITE IN TODAYS LONDON. god, what the fuck is wrong with you.
      Have you read the sherlock books? Sherlock was not a sit around person, although he would do for days, he was a fighter, he uses his Extraordinary Brain Powers, that defeat all those other dumb white people. He does not defeat the assassin because he white. he defeats him because HES THE FUCKING MAIN CHARACTER THERE WOULDN'T BE A STORY IF HE DIED HERE AND JOHN CAME BACK AND WAS OH LIKE NO SHERLOCKS BEEN KILLED. get over your self. True it was a little slap stick, but the idea was to show, john is not aware of ALL the shit sherlock does. and it was to be a little funny. This guy could have been any race and still had the same out come. The beginning of many episode are a little funny as they usually have something around the lines of john going- What the fuck Sherlock? Not to mention John, is us. Hes the normal one, in these situations (well as normal as a person who lives with sherlock can be) John is more normal than sherlock like the viewers. Theres sherlock about to be murdered and john is just doing ordinary people stuff. Shopping and stuff. Getting pissed off at the machines. Seriously those checkout machines are so annoying.

      5. The Dangerous Mystique of London's Chinatown- Okay okay the accent, it's wrong, actors bad, although theres no saying those people were even chinese they just owned a chinese shop- but okay bad accent you've made your point.
      Shadowy mystique china town- hello tourist, not to mention that lots of places in london our 'shadowy' and 'mysterious' and oh this place is haunted. China town is a tourist area. The idea with tourist areas is to play up with anything you have.

      6 The code- i don't know. Some comments here say it's right others not. Bad script writing or you? I don't know, so I can't say anything on this ( although I will be quite upset if the made Sherlock make a mistake).

      Delete
    2. 7.the music- well this is used in most films and tv. True it's probably getting a little out dated now, but it's not racist.

      Okay so lets she what points there are here that are racist and not just a bit of bad scipting"


      Bad writing that should have maybe had more research"

      1 -The black lotus name. I mean sure it sounds very common chinesey but, racist? If this is not right maybe they should get there facts right. (I know anime is japanses but I swear sometimes they use names like these, but i'll go with you on this one, im sure there are far cooler names out there, or subtle.)

      2. the bad accent. Okay this is bad acting apparently. It's not racist. I mean sure I can see how you'd be affended by a bad accent- I know jesus I do get a little offended and find it piss ass annoying when americans use fake british accents badly, but it's not racist.

      3. The assains clothes, personally I didn't think this assasin had anythink to do with the black lotus, but maybe I need to rewatch this.

      4. The code. I'm not sure why you mentioned this as being racist. As you mention it's just mistakenly been called something else. If it's true thanks for pointing it out, however it certainly shouldn't be in your argument as to why this episode was racist.
      Origami - i thought that was just a cool thing, are you saying no chinese people do origami because it's japanese? I'm not japanese but I origmai. Could this not just have been a cool idea. They are jumping about london while doing this. But fine i'll let this one go under bad writing, but im not so sure about it.

      Other things"
      Okay, the music is just old and over used. I think your find it's used in plenty, and i mean FUCKING THOUSANDS of shows and movies. I do agree with you though it's getting a bit old, but theres plenty of other things that do this so I think it's a bit bad of you to just call this out on sherlock. If you find this offensive then call out of the tv and movies that do this, it is however a widely used techinique to show viewers that somthing is asian.

      I am however assumeing you are chiese, or asian to be so offended about all these factors, and so do in fact have your facts straight.

      Actual Racist factors include:
      You complaining about the fact that sherlocks a white night whitey white of white land being all white and hero and is only the hero because he is white. Damn those other chinese people would have been able to beat him had he not been so white.
      Thats the most racist shit on this post and it's from you.

      You racist bag of shits, you wanna say somethings racist fine, but don't do it by being racist, it don't matter what colour sherlock is the results would have been the same.

      Go fuck yourself up the ass, or reply and tell me as to why i'm wrong, correct me please, perhaps there is a valid point I have missed..

      Delete
    3. I applaud to you, anonymous, until my hands bleed and break off. I see where the original poster is coming from but I wouldn't go to say that it was completely racist and unbearable to watch. Poor Stephen Thompson. Personally it was my least favourite episode as I didn't really think it was ...Sherlock-y (if that makes sense, I prefer the other episodes that are extremely close to the books) but yeah. The only thing I would agree with in this is the flute/oriental music when Soo Lin Yao appeared. That was slightly stereotypical. Other than that, I wouldn't over-analyse the episode.

      Delete