Sherlock: Does “The Blind Banker” have stereotypical Chinese characters? Sound off!

I’ve been reading quite a few comments and posts about Sherlock‘s episode two, “The Blind Banker”, and the consensus seems to be that this is the weakest of the three episodes. I’d quite agree with that, but  quite a few others criticize the episode as having stereotypical Chinese characters. I’ve seen the episode, but I’ll have to watch it again in order to give my full reading of these characters, as I was still in the afterglow stages after seeing the first episode and wallowing in Benedict Cumberbatch’s precise, exquisite acting skills. I was also glad just to see Martin Freeman again since the only other time I’d seen him in the States was on The Office episodes uploaded on Youtube (I never watched The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).

So, until I watch the episode again, I thought I’d let you guys sound off. What do you think of the episode “The Blind Banker”? Did you think the Chinese characters were stereotypical? What about the episode in general?

EDIT–I posed this question to the people at SherlockBBC, a livejournal group dedicated to Sherlock, and I got some very interesting and thought-provoking answers.

It would seem that the problem the Chinese characters presented extend far beyond just how Chinese people are represented, but also includes how all minorities are represented thus far. “Pandarus” wrote,

I’m not Chinese, but I was STAGGERED at the othering and fetishisation of oldskool Orientalising cliches that they shoe-horned into the story out of nowhere.

Had it been based on a piece of canon that was rife with this kind of period-appropriate bigotry, I could have better understood it (although I’d have been deeply disappointed they weren’t capable of subverting it and reflecting the reality of London in 2010). But the fact is that this script is derived from a story which has NOTHING to do with Asia in the first place! So it was just egregious, lazy, stupid, reductive, racist codswallop. Which is a damn shame, because in other respects this is probably my favourite episode – but the whole thing is sullied by the racefail…I thought the mafia boss was fairly awesome, and she did a great job with her role, such as it was, and so I could have handwaved that. I like circuses, and so although it was fetishistic I was willing to work with them and handwave the Mysterious Oriental Circus thing. And I was trying to handwave the cliched depiction of the beautiful vulnerable maiden slain by her wicked brother.

But when they put OMINOUS MUSIC behind some normal footage of China Town, as if all the Londoners we were looking at were supposed to suddenly be Evil Scary Suspicious Figures just because they were of Asian extraction?

I wanted to punch someone in the face.

London is very much NOT wall-to-wall white people. London is packed with men, women and children who are not white, and who do not speak just one language. That is a big part of the joy of London, damn it – that it’s a bustling metropolis where you’ll encounter the faces, languages and food of every part of the globe – and they’re largely Londoners, rather than visitors.

I actively hated that they took a part of the city I love and tried to other it.

Pandarus also went on to write that the episode could have still saved itself if the old woman running the Chinese novelty store didn’t have a stereotypical accent and didn’t say stereotypical things. If she had an English accent, then she might have been taken more seriously by the audience and less like a one-note character.

“Xue_lee”, a Chinese person living in Singapore, offered this insight:

Let me state for the record that I rarely have high expectations when it comes to the portrayal of Chinese people in Western media. Having said that, I didn’t really find the episode as offensive as some people. Now, I’m Chinese and I live in Singapore. And the thing is, Singapore is a rather interesting case because we’re really neither here nor there. While most of us are ethnically Asian, we like to think of ourselves as a really modern society, albeit one with so-called “Asian values”. And it’s funny because we end up having really, really awful stereotypes about both Asians and Westerners. For instance, a lot of people do really think that all Westerners are the same, that you can somehow lump Europe and North America into one huge homogeneous group. On the other hand, we’re also not very kind towards people from other parts of Asia. You can probably throw a rock in any random direction on the streets in Singapore and find someone who will rant on and on about how the Chinese people from China are all out to steal our jobs and houses.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that if you’re trying to find out how ethnically Chinese people find TBB, you’re going to get quite different responses depending on where these people live. For example, many young Singaporean Chinese aren’t exactly 100% proud of their Chinese heritage, maybe because we used to be a British colony and, yea, some of that colonial mentality still remains, but more likely because many of us had a really awful experience learning Mandarin in school. And so we find the portrayal not offensive, but so ridiculous it borders on hilarity. Personally I’m more annoyed about the accent that Soo Lin uses (I have never heard anyone speak like that, ever).

Another thing is this. The plot was structured such that it prominently featured the tongs and the triads. And where are British writers going to get their information from? Chinese martial arts films, I suppose. And the portrayal of Chinese people in Chinese martial arts films is like that; it is that camp. It’s incongruous and silly when transported to 21st century London, but not offensive. Because I grew up watching those films and reading martial arts novels. And I really don’t find it racist; I just find it really anachronistic. I’m not sure if people are reading too much into it, but yea, that’s just how I see it.

First-generation Chinese-American “Calidreamin08″ wrote:

I’m a first generation American born Chinese and I thought that the whole thing was a bit offensive, cringe worthy and disappointing. It’s pretty bad if you consider the history Britain had with China and how asian people have been portrayed throughout western media. I get that this is based off of something from a time period that didn’t have a very nice view of the Chinese. In the 1800’s you have the Opium Wars, Unequal Treaties, etc so there was a pretty ugly history between Britain and China. This is supposed to be modern and updated yet everything seems like a stereotype or a cliché rooted in the past that shouldn’t be significant or revived in the media nowadays.

*The mysterious ancient group/smuggling ring and evil “empress” type character which stemmed historically from empress dowager who ruled during the late 1800’s (funny how both of their downfall was that in reality they were under western influence/control). *Traditional Chinese like instrumental music in the background. (really now?)
*Soo Lin character being dainty and vulnerable. Oh come on, she was smuggling stuff across the border, escaped from the dangerous gang and survived on her own in a foreign country.
*Soo Lin’s obsession/passion with her work on the tea pots and constant denying her coworker for a date translates to “look at the asian people, all they do is work and don’t have any fun.”

“Frenchcinephile”, also of Chinese heritage, wrote that they didn’t particularly get why there was a lot of fallout surrounding the episode due to the fantastical elements in show itself:

I’m Chinese and I’m not quite understanding the extreme hate for the episode. It’s most likely an inaccurate view of Chinese in London (i’m saying most likely because I don’t live in London) and it’s an outsider perspective of Chinese culture. But it’s a bit extreme to say it’s offensive because “The Blind Banker” doesn’t have the cultural authencity of an Amy Tan novel. Sure, if you’re not part of that culture and don’t live it, you’re gonna rely on some common tropes about Chinese people as a short hand. And judging the content of the short hand, there’s nothing inheriently racist about tea ceremonies and chinese mafias (they do exist at least).

Besides, is anyone foolish enough to expect Sherlock to be a completely accurate portrait of Chinese immigrants in London? Sherlock is in the realm of fantasy anyways, so there’s gonna be implausability and exoticization and hell, at least they made the inaccuracies nicely shot and well acted. If I was watching something like Prime Suspect or Cracker, shows that advertise themselve as a realistic thought-provoking and issue-raising shows and they pulled out these Chinese tropes, I would find that offensive.

The sentiment Pandarus brought up about London being a culturally diverse, culturally exciting place instead of predominately white, as shown in the show, was echoed by Vera S., or “verasteine”:

I’m a white woman, and not a Brit, and I can’t comment on the portrayal of Chinese culture in that particular ep. But what I find telling about that episode is that none of the Chinese people survive. Everyone gets killed off. The only person who survives, is the white man from the museum who tries to date Soo Lin.

This reflects, imho, a broader problem in this show, which seems to forget that London, like most metropolises in Western Europe, is made up of a fairly equal white/non white mix. Yet John works in a surgery presumably not far from his home, which is in Central London, and the staff and most of the patients there are white. Ditto for taxi drivers and other random people they encounter: the majority is white and only occasionally are we introduced to a PoC (like Sally Donovan). I don’t think that the casting quite reflects the demographic.

EDIT #2–Just so everyone knows, Gatiss and Moffat didn’t write the episode of The Blind Banker.

So, I think it’s safe to say that the consensus is that, while Sherlock is a terrific, awesomely-acted show, episode two in particular suffered from not only mediocre writing, but mediocre writing that limited the scope of what London actually is and what its people are actually like. For more on the discussion (which is still going on right now), as well as more opinions on the episode (all of which I couldn’t fit but would have liked to), take a look here. And if you want to leave your two cents, please leave a comment below. Also, if you’d like to learn more about Asian representation and other minority representation in entertaimnent, click on these links below (provided by “calidreamin08″):

Yellowface: A Story in Pictures

White Out in Prime Time Entertainment

Television’s Impact on Foreigners and Children’s View of African Americans

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1 comment for “Sherlock: Does “The Blind Banker” have stereotypical Chinese characters? Sound off!

  1. Len
    October 7, 2013 at 4:37 am

    As Chinese person who live in Asia I don’t understand why so many people think that ‘Blind Banker’ is racist. True, that the storyline was the weakest of six of Sherlock episod but calling it racist was stretching too far. You guys were making problem out of nowhere. I don’t get offended by the show and all my friends (who are Chinese) also don’t get offended when they watched it. In fact, they laughed when I told them about this racism thing.

    I admit that it was stereotypical but it ended there. Chinese mafia? Smuggling ring? Soo Lin’s death? The plot was used over and over and over in Hongkong/Taiwan/China mainland drama. Even Jackie Chan movie has the same plot and the heroine there (the orphan woman equal of Soo Lin) died at the end since Jackie Chan failed to save her. Let’s ask Chinese people what they think of the episode, that will better.

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