Is this the year of the Dragon?

Chinese people have been living in Britain for generations. On TV, they're all but invisible. Paul Courtenay-Hyu is hoping to change that
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The Independent Online

Here's a good game to play with your mates down the pub tonight: the Name-a-Famous-British-Oriental-Person-Who's-Not-Burt- Kwouk-or-Ken-Hom challenge. What about a Chinese actor? Or a Japanese newsreader? Or presenter? OK, try a politician, comedian, DJ, journalist or celebrity chef. No? What about in "reality" TV? Any East Asian contestants? Nope: even in so-called reality, East Asians do not exist in the British media.

Earlier this year I wrote (and appeared in) a television series that changed all that. The Missing Chink on Channel 4 was a mix of comic sketches and vox-pop interviews, screened in five-minute chunks after the Channel 4 News, which I hoped would humorously address the issue of invisibility. But when scores of Chinese people wrote in to complain to the station and the Government watchdog about the title of the show, there was such a fracas that the message was obscured.

I did worry that this backlash might further alienate us in the mass media. I tell you, it's no laughing matter being part of a stereotypically humourless community (I begged my dad not to send that letter of complaint). Ethnic-related comedy is always going to offend someone, but I feel we need to show those who have the power to make us visible (ie non-Chinese people) that we are willing to take a risk.

You may have noticed the varying collective nouns I've already used above to describe "us yellow people". Sorry about that. It's just that we don't even have a name to call our own. The preferred term would be "Asian", as used extensively in the US. However, in this country, "Asian" is already taken. Forget China; lose Vietnam; sayonara Japan. And as for Cambodia, Laos, Tibet, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines... where are they again? "Asia", as far as the UK is concerned, is a much smaller place: India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Basically, if you play Test cricket, you get exclusive rights to the whole continent. Seems a tiny bit imperialistic to me.

Neither are we in a position to use "Oriental". That term, as any person trained in racial-awareness will tell you, is Eurocentric and much frowned upon, especially if you make the mistake of using it in America.

We are so beneath the media radar that not a single significant Chinese hero has appeared on our small screen for more than 20 years, since David Yip last appeared as The Chinese Detective. And just to clarify the unique subject matter of that particular show, it was actually decided to name the series The CHINESE Detective, just in case viewers were worried they were receiving a rogue TV signal from Beijing.

The BBC's powers-that-be have yet to feature a Chinese family in EastEnders, even though the Chinese have been in Limehouse, in the East End of London, for more than a hundred years.

When we finally did get a programme about us it came in the form of Channel 4's Banzai! This show was the subject of protests in the US because it was deemed so demeaning. Were the protesters justified? Well, imagine a similar show here, created for a different ethnic minority, but written by no one from that minority, portraying such insulting stereotypes as a kung-fu kicking character shouting "ah-so". BBC bosses caved in over The Crouches (a BBC1 series about an Afro-Caribbean family living in London that was scripted by a white person) and brought in a black writer. But who cares about us timid, quiet, inscrutable people without a name to call our own?

Meanwhile, in Thoroughly Modern Millie in the West End, a much-loved British actress is currently appearing eight times a week in full Oriental slap - just 500 yards from Chinatown. Now, I have nothing against the actress in question or the play, but you couldn't get away with a white actor blacking-up to play Othello or Gandhi. I feel I missed the meeting when everybody decided that the rules don't apply to us.

The media invisibility of the East Asian community is in part due to our tendency to be quiet. Ask a bunch of us to show up carrying banners with a picture of Bruce Lee's fist chanting "Yellow Power", and it won't happen. But the problems are also partly because the Chinese community can't agree on how we should be portrayed.

The Missing Chink was simply trying to examine some of the very points I am making here. Yet two months later, it's still being raked over by factions of the Chinese community, and this criticism has even spilled over into personal attacks. The use of the "C" word was merely intended to highlight the lack of respect afforded us. I underestimated the power of the Chinese community - they may be invisible, but they're there all right, and getting pissed off.

Thankfully, The Missing Chink wasn't our last chance. Another television show that I have been involved in writing, Sweet'n'Sour Comedy, screens tonight on BBC3, produced by Steve Coogan's Baby Cow production company. To be able to announce on these pages that a Chinese TV sketch-comedy show, written and performed by British Chinese actors, will be broadcast by the BBC is a big deal. Hell, it's a miracle!

Tonight you will be able to see it for yourself. We think it's funny. And we hope you will, too. It's only a pilot, but it heralds the start of something. Perhaps a series. Or a family in EastEnders. Or eventually someone you can name. One thing's for certain: just like a Chinese takeaway, two hours later you'll be wanting some more.

Paul Courtenay-Hyu is the artistic director of Mu-Lan Theatre Company, associate producer of BBC3's 'Sweet'n'Sour Comedy' and performs as The Chinese Elvis