The trailer for ITV’s latest flagship period drama The Singapore Grip was greeted with a predictable chorus of derision on Twitter last week.
In a landscape where our creative industries are decimated, the Black Lives Matter movement has placed this country’s problematic view of its own colonial legacy firmly under the microscope. More than 5000 UK creatives signed an open letter calling for UK TV industry gatekeepers to come to the table on diversity and inclusion issues. In this context, an expensively mounted TV adaptation of J.G. Farrell’s satirical novel, with colonial Singapore as its exotic backdrop, is a kick in the teeth to the UK’s East and South East Asian community. This is especially concerning at a time when anti-East and South East Asian hate crime has dramatically increased during the Coronavirus pandemic.
Farrell’s novel has its place in history. But its attempts to present a satirical critique of the Empire are fatally undermined by its 1970’s race and gender mores. The title references a slang phrase for a sexual technique said to be used by local sex workers; a clear signifier of how the novel positions the Asian aspect of its story-telling.
The television adaptation could have taken a more enlightened perspective in keeping with the progress that has happened in the half century since the novel’s publication. Instead, even the cynical desperation and callous decadence of Farrell’s Caucasian characters is bled out in favour of jauntily-forced, comedic indulgence, presenting this traumatic period of Singapore’s history as little more than breezy and inconsequential.
The Daily Mail rapturously christened The Singapore Grip “Downton Abbey meets Apocalypse Now”, which speaks volumes about the British media’s view of the two worlds the series attempts to capture. Even an opening sequence foregrounding the eventual horrors of war centres the story’s white male protagonist against a mise en scene of anonymous Asian extras.
The series, like the book, features only one Asian character who remotely resembles a protagonist: Vera Chiang, “a mysterious Chinese refugee” (‘Eurasian’, according to the story, although this nuance is seemingly lost on ITV’s publicity department), whose main dramatic function is to cast a “spell” over the story’s white male conscience, “Matthew”. In the first episode her every appearance is announced by keening erhu music while, despite her supposed refugee status, she models impeccable cheongsams and enigmatic smiles.
The other Asian characters are merely heavily accented ciphers, silent chauffeurs, exotic dancers, giggly prostitutes, monosyllabic grunts and half-naked Yogis. Asian womanhood is represented as lurid temptation and subservient availability. Studies have shown that sexualised, submissive stereotyping of East and South East Asian women leads to staggeringly high rates of physical and sexual violence against them.
That a public service broadcaster should so casually engage in this type of harmful (non)representation, with no care for its real world consequences, is deeply upsetting.
BEATS are not censors; our national broadcasters are the only ones with that power. Our TV industry regularly censors British East and South East Asians into a dehumanised, othered background presence, resulting in a lazily foreign, dramatically irrelevant homogeneity. Our writers are censored by a denial of platform to tell our stories, and our actors are censored by generic stereotyping and aggressive tokenism. This censorship is ironically but resolutely colonial.
We see it and we deplore it. And we say enough is enough. We are not your backdrop.