When I heard that BBC Three were broadcasting a pilot of a show called Chinese Burn, I was shocked that it would star not just one, but three Chinese women, breaking records for British TV. Growing up in the UK, the only Chinese main characters I saw on TV were the animated family from the Jackie Chan Adventures and Po from the Teletubbies (not many people know she speaks Cantonese, and I don’t blame their ignorance considering her counterparts speak gobbledegook). Needless to say, an anthropomorphised alien-television hybrid and cartoon Kung-Fu artist were not particularly reflective of my own experience as a mixed-race Chinese and British woman.
The importance of representation is very close to the hearts of Chinese Burn’s writers, Yennis Cheung and Shin-Fei Chen. Starring Cheung and Chen themselves, alongside Yuyu Rau, the storyline follows the trials and tribulations of living as three normal, actually human and not animated, Chinese girls in London. Cheung plays Jackie – an aspiring actress who is sick of playing the Asian stereotypes, Chen plays Elizabeth – the failed Chinese daughter who aspires to be a sommelier, and Rau plays FuFu – a rich and out-of-touch childhood friend of Elizabeth’s who comes to visit them in London. Hilarity ensues as the girls navigate life in Britain as East Asian women, a lot of the comedy being based on the writer’s own experiences.
“Around 20 percent of the show is autobiographical”, Cheung explains to me when I eagerly meet her and Chen near the BBC offices in Oxford Circus, “a lot of my character Jackie’s experiences in castings are based on real auditions where I’ve been asked to wear a cheong sam, play an illegal immigrant, speak in a Chinese accent, or asked if I can do martial arts.” Ironically, Cheung actually can do martial arts, but that’s by the by. Having met in the loo at a casting, where Cheung notified Chen that her skirt was tucked into her pants, their shared exhaustion with the same stereotypical roles is what brought actresses Cheung and Chen together.
Before moving to the UK, Cheung was raised in Hong Kong, and Chen grew up in California, so I was interested to know who their on-screen Chinese role models were. “Chow Yun-fat is someone I admire,” says Cheung, “I watched his films growing up and it was a huge encouragement for me to see a Chinese person as the lead in a Western film”. Chen struggles to cite anyone. “I can’t say I had a Chinese role model on TV,” she tells me, “there aren’t many – the only show in the US was Margaret Cho’s All American Girls – but that didn’t take off. It is changing with shows like Fresh Off The Boat though, that’s something we didn’t have 20 years ago”.
With representation of Chinese people on Western screens being so limited, and with Chinese Burn being the first of its kind, the pressure to show as much diversity as possible in their Chinese characters must be high. “We are not the stereotype, we do feel obligated to show people this”, Cheung explains. “In the West all the representation is still stuck in the past, it’s always the triads. We want to show what the modern Chinese girl is like. But the writing was still organic, we still wanted to make it relate to us and to make it funny. We are not just trying to slam stereotypes, we also want to show that we as women can do much more. We want all women to watch this and relate, no matter their race”. Chen adds, “we want to build a bridge, show the positive parts of our culture, and make fun of the negatives.”
One of those negatives was poignant to me when watching the episode, when Cheung’s character Jackie alludes to the emasculating stereotype that all Asian men are not well-endowed in the trouser department. “My character has a white fetish – you can argue that Asian men watching won’t like this”, Cheung explains. “But we are daring enough to make fun of our own race – sometimes if we make fun of it, people get it more. When Jackie jokes about Asian guys having small dicks, we are showing that this stereotype does exist in our culture too, and Jackie gets called out in the show for being racist. I also think it is a good to have flawed Asian women portrayed in the media. In Asian media women are shown to be so perfect, but through this medium we can show that it’s normal and ok to be flawed.”
Using what they describe as “a blend of awkward British comedy and Hong Kong slapstick”, the pilot episode fearlessly jokes about Jackie and Elizabeth’s landlady thinking that they eat dogs, Elizabeth’s pressure from her parents, the quintessentially Chinese bluntness of FuFu, and Elizabeth’s dismay at her ex’s new girlfriend being white. The authenticity of these portrayals, and endearing cringe comedy will leave you wanting more, so the good news is that Chen and Cheung are already underway with writing a full series of Chinese Burn. “We want to let the Western world know that we have so much more.” Cheung tells me. “We have thousands of years of history and loads more festivals than just Chinese New Year, we have so much more to talk about we could go on for twenty more seasons. Don’t mistake us for the quiet bunch, or the model minority, we are so misunderstood.”
With no stereotypical pirate DVD salespersons or triad members in sight, and plenty of laughs, Chinese Burn is the refreshing watch I didn’t know I desperately needed.