Friday 20 August 2010

Racism for fun: Fu Manchu producer pleads irony on the BBC

Well, call me Kafka.

My contribution to today's Feedback programme on BBC R4 ended up as a cutting-room floor job in favour of a letter from another listener making similar points, which was good. At least it shows someone else could be bothered to write in about the god-awful throwback Fu Manchu In Edinburgh programme I wrote about the other week.

The Feedback producer had phoned me to record 45 seconds of my response for today's programme (13 minutes in — which I'm posting below) but didn't use the salient arguments. I KNEW the producers were going to plead "irony". Now, the word "irony" actually means something, and is not an all-purpose get-out-of-jail-free card. It means saying something literal but meaning its opposite.

There was no such device used on the Fu Manchu programme. Miles Jupp and his producer obviously thought it would be a great wheeze to play it straight, tapping into something dark lurking beneath the skin of a civilisation in decline (ours) and indulging it. Only, context is everything and there are real human beings — as opposed to the simian subhumans luridly gloated over in the programme — who are affected by this relentless poisonous drip. (And I don't just mean Jupp.)

Feedback presenter Roger Bolton introduced the item as being about "a factional documentary about a fictional character", which is fine in a vacuum. But the Yellow Peril scare never did operate in a vacuum. While the yellow press were vilifying the yellow man in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, contemporary voices were pointing out the racist nature of Sax Rohmer's writing which even his widow and biographer described as "obsessive".

Jupp naturalised these hateful representations while the producer used the lamest jargon on Feedback in an attempt to blind with science. They said, "The programme was deliberately ironic in tone." Oh, right. That old chestnut. Irony meaning, " The use of words to express something different from and often opposite to their literal meaning"? (Free Dictionary) Where in the programme were Jupp's expressions or utterances "marked by a deliberate contrast between apparent and intended meaning"?

In yet more slipperiness with the verité, they said the programme was "used to explore the cultural effects of the opium wars, the pattern of Chinese immigration in the 1870s, and the history of the Chinese students who studied at British universities." All subjects comprehensively covered in my Chinese In Britain series for Radio 4, but here turned on their head and exploited to "orientalise" and make "other" a group of people in dehumanising terms that went unchallenged. And today, it emerges, they want to have their cake and eat it: to have their fun with a racial group but plead that it was actually a social service.

Only a bit of fun? Yes, that's fine for a bunch of white males to say.

In the end, I was relieved they hadn't used my contribution. The producer's patronising last word appeared designed to make the correspondent, Tia Yang, sound under-educated and ignorant (which she is not) of the workings of such artistic endeavours, through the use of a barrage of buzzwords and critical theory terms such as "deconstruction", and questionable claims of "rigorous analysis".

May I say, this is the sheet of the bull? Ms Yang's instincts were right on the money.

How is restating the stereotypes the same as "deconstructing" them? Got in himmel, is the BBC seriously going to let them get away with a dissembling that relies, IMHO, on the hoped-for ignorance of the Radio 4 audience? Talk about dumbing down! A GSCE media studies student could deconstruct this flummery.

To cap it all, the producer claimed, "The programme takes racist stereotypes apart." And it was at this point, dear reader, that this little corner of the BBC transformed into the Ministry of Truth, where truth is lies and lies are truth. Where they state the opposite of what is real ... with no discernible irony whatsoever.

A Big Fat Fail.

Here's the text of my contribution. I'm going for a walk!
Fu Manchu In Edinburgh gleefully revived racist stereotypes of the Chinese I'd hoped were long-buried, and could have been subtitled, Racism For Fun.

Why present a Yellow Peril figure as if he was a real person complete with lurid wallowing in the very worst racism, dehumanising the Chinese as a race, linking us with filth, and presenting us as Bin Laden-like Western-civilisation-hating sub-humans?

There was no irony. No attempt to subject these prejudices and stereotypes of a bygone era to any kind of modern interrogation. Instead, they were re-imported, intact, into the present day. I can't imagine the BBC vilifying any other minority group like this.

The author Sax Rohmer had never met a Chinese person and was writing from malice and ignorance — the "experts" on this programme only have one of those excuses.

There's a woeful absence of Chinese voices in the media, so when the BBC fills the vacuum with degrading Sinophobic depictions such as this one, they do a grave disservice to a significant licence-paying section of the population.

UPDATE: Thursday 26th August 2010 Professor Greg Benton of Cardiff University writes to me on the subject. He wasn't impressed, either:
"Chinese are quite numerous in British society today, but ethnic Chinese are very underrepresented in the BBC and its programmes, which is a disgrace. This was not a very funny programme, and if it was meant to be ironic, the irony didn't work. If you're a young Chinese isolated in an overwhelmingly white school and community, as many if not most young Chinese are, you get a lot of mockery along these lines. Why not commission more work on that? First deal with the racist stereotyping - then we can perhaps afford to be ironic about it."

More sinophobic representations. Review of Sherlock Holmes Episode 2, The Blind Banker.


Denis said...

The true irony is now that China is no longer a civilisation in decline and can take characters like Lord Elgin (who sacked the summer palace) and Francis Younghusband (who massacred Tibetans) and tell us that here is the essence of being British.

Here's to race hate and international war!

Unknown said...

I listened to the broadcast after it had aired. Incandescent with anger is putting it politely. Kudos to you and Ms Yang you have done the British-Chinese proud. Which makes me all the more sad that so few from the obvious echelons of our community seem to have "done" anything. I admire your continued commitment, your eloquence and your fight. Well said - sad that it had to be said.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Gwei Mui, I too admire your continued commitment and political tenacity.

The BBC have the cheek to say that they were "taking racist stereotypes apart"... No, they were capitulating to them so where's the irony in that. I listened to the programme and it was appalling, racist and made me annoyed.

VenerableSage said...

The programme described on Feedback was a much smarter, cooler and more interesting show than the one they actually broadcast. If I hadn't heard the real one for myself I might have been won over by their arguments.

As is ... shaaaaame. An opportunity not so much missed as pissed on.

AVBK said...

I read your column and then listened to the Edinburgh programme on the repeat player. I think that the programme makers got over-enchanted with their own storytelling skills and lost the sense of balance that this material needed. The question is - is this material needed - why revive writing which was racist rubbish when it was written and remains racist rubbish today? Throw it in the bin.
We'll have to keep tabs on the Beeb.
I suggest we prepare some programme ideas - little snapshots of the old British Empire at work and play - stuff like 'Lord Elgin's Travels'. See what the response is from their programme commissioning department. We could have some fun with it.

Madam Miaow said...

Now that is NOT a bad idea ...

Can't find your blogs at your profile. Do you have a link?

AVBK said...

I'm too lazy to keep a blog. I just have a few old Sketchcrawl drawings up on Flickr under AVBK.
I think some research to compare British and Tibetan and Chinese takes on the Younghusband invasion of Tibet would give us some very interesting material.
My email is

Denis said...

Unfortunately, research doesn't get under the skin of the moral outrage perpetrated, especially where that is correlated to race. It's here where BBC guilt is heaviest, choosing to ignore this deep-seated, racialised feeling that Lord Macpherson (Lawrence Inquiry) understood, when to his credit he declared that a crime is racist if the victim perceives it so. It this which is being ignored and which is leading to a head of steam that leads to ministers and business people mocked when they visit India, China and the newly emerging powers, seeking trade which they can no longer enforce by military power.

It is the imperial mindset entering the post-imperial age. The race to catch up for this mindset is not lost, but by applying a dead-weight, the BBC has not done anyone any favours.

dtks888 said...

Well done MM

We must all
Take Action
Fight the fight
Join forces.

Let's get more British Chinese/East Asians on TV, film, theatre & radio:

Join FB grp:

Mellie said...

It's "Gott in Himmel" by the way.

Great that you stand up against the creeping anti-Chinese stuff. The more powerful China gets, the more crap will be churned out by the West to attack it.

Madam Miaow said...

Hi Mellie,

Thanks for your comments, here and on the Morrissey post.

The "Got" spelling that I used is the Hebrew as opposed to the German "Gott", although the German is the one more frequently used.

I agree with you. Fair criticism is one thing, and there's plenty to knock China for, but the increasingly demented tone is leading us into some dark places. A friend of mine reckons the "othering" of entire groups is a feature of a society in a decadent phase as it collapses, and I think she's right.