Wong is right to badger Beijing

A cartoon which lampoons communist China is unfair, biased and one-sided. That, says Tony Barber, is the whole point

Share
Related Topics
Should satire offend? Or should a satirist, like a good chef, serve his product with a sauce that pleases everyone? In short, who likes The World of Lily Wong, Larry Feign's cartoon strip about life in Hong Kong which The Independent recently started to run on its foreign pages, and who thinks it is in poor taste?

Jonathan Fenby, editor of the South China Morning Post, is one of those who has no time for Lily Wong. He thinks the strip's portrayal of Chinese people is at best patronising, at worst racist. Like other commentators, he also contends that Feign is doing the people of Hong Kong no favours by implying that, come July, they will be ruled by a bunch of raving communist dictators.

To be effective, however, doesn't satire have to take sides, exaggerate and avoid balance and neutrality? How can a political humorist score points if his message boils down to: "On the one hand, this... On the other hand, that..."?

The World of Lily Wong may not be the world's greatest cartoon strip, and everyone will have their own opinion about how funny it is. However, beneath its distortions and exaggerations of Hong Kong life, it is trying to make a deadly serious point.

The strip is saying that, once China takes over from Britain, the people of Hong Kong could see their liberties crushed into the dust. That message would surely lose all its force if Feign took care to present the communist point of view - namely, that there is nothing to worry about.

The point is not whether the strip is right or wrong in its grim predictions of what lies in store for Hong Kong. Quite deliberately, the strip is presenting one side of the argument. So it should. Fairness is not the bedfellow of satire.

For an historical example of how disastrous an effect balance can have on political humour, consider the famous cabarets of Weimar Germany. Contrary to the image presented in the 1972 filmed musical Cabaret, Berlin's cabaret halls were not, for the most part, places of searingly effective political satire. Many cabarets left political content out of their shows altogether.

However, even the political cabarets were generally careful to mix anti- Nazi jokes with digs at all other political parties, including those which supported Weimar democracy. As Walter Mehring, a leading satirist of the 1920s, once put it: "I stand neither to the left nor to the right. I have always stood vertically."

Such detachment anaesthetised public opinion to the terrible gravity of the Nazi threat. It tempted Germans, even those who disliked the Nazis, to think that no political party was better than the next. Ultimately, it sapped faith in democratic institutions and blinded Germans to the fact that, however imperfect the Weimar system, it was infinitely preferable to what was to come after it.

No doubt the quality of Berlin's satirical cabarets played only a small part in smoothing the Nazis' rise to power. Yet the anti-Nazi satire could have been sharper. Like The World of Lily Wong, it could have taken aim at a precise target. It could have taken sides.

To be fair, on some occasions, it did. The most effective parody of Nazi anti-Semitism was the following tune, sung to the music of Bizet's Carmen: "If it's raining or if it's hailing/ If there's lightning, if it's wet/ If it's dark or if there's thunder/ If you freeze or if you sweat/ If it's warm or if it's cloudy/ If it thaws, if there's a breeze/ If it drizzles, if it sizzles/ If you cough or if you sneeze/ It's all the fault of all those Jews/ The Jews are all at fault for that!"

That was cabaret satire at its purest and most effective. It used exaggeration, absurdity and risky subject matter to illustrate the fanatical intolerance of the Nazis. Just as The World of Lily Wong does not waste time pondering the strong points of Chinese communism, so this song, sung at the Tingel- Tangel cabaret in 1931, did not debate the merits of the Nazi world-view.

However, it was something of an exception. Far more typical was the view put forward by the cabaret director Kurt Robitschek in 1930. He coined a wonderfully tortuous word, Nichtnachdenkenmussen (the freedom not to have to think seriously about anything), to describe what he thought he should offer his audiences.

But Robitschek, who had to flee Germany after the Nazi takeover, was wrong. Satire should make people think seriously. It cannot be neutral or anodyne. Like it or dislike it, The World of Lily Wong is right to take sides.

'The World of Lily Wong' is on page 14

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst Consultant (Financial Services)

£60000 - £75000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Consultant (Fina...

Systems Administrator - Linux / Unix / Windows / TCP/IP / SAN

£60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A leading provider in investment managemen...

AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer

£600 - £700 per day: Harrington Starr: AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer JVS, ...

E-Commerce Developer

£45000 - £60000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Exciting opp...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The first lesson of today is... don't treat women unequally?  

Yvette Cooper is right: The classroom is the best place to start teaching men about feminism

Chris Maume
Forty per cent of global trades in euros are cleared through London  

The success enjoyed by the City of London owes nothing to the EU

Nigel Farage
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

Hollywood targets Asian audiences

The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child
Autocorrect has its uses but it can go rogue with embarrassing results - so is it time to ditch it?

Is it time to ditch autocorrect?

Matthew J X Malady persuaded friends to message manually instead, but failed to factor in fat fingers and drunk texting
10 best girls' summer dresses

Frock chick: 10 best girls' summer dresses

Get them ready for the holidays with these cool and pretty options 
Westminster’s dark secret: Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together

Westminster’s dark secret

Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Dulce et decorum est - a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Dulce et decorum est: a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality
Google tells popular music website to censor album cover art in 'sexually explicit content' ban

Naked censorship?

The strange case of Google, the music website and the nudity take-down requests
Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

As England take on India at Trent Bridge, here is our pick of the high-performing bats to help you up your run-count this summer 
Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014 comment: David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

Captain appears to give up as shocking 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat threatens ramifications in Brazil