“The Singapore Grip,” a new drama from ITV, is facing intense scrutiny over its depiction of colonialism, with British East and Southeast Asian media advocacy group BEATS calling the series “harmful (non)representation” and “deeply upsetting.”
Adapted from Booker Prize-winning author J.G. Farrell’s 1978 novel by Oscar winner Christopher Hampton (“Dangerous Liaisons”), “The Singapore Grip” is set during World War 2, and focuses on a British family living in Singapore at the time of the Japanese invasion. It stars Luke Treadaway, David Morrissey, Jane Horrocks, Colm Meaney, Charles Dance, Elizabeth Tan and Georgia Blizzard.
The six-part series, produced by Mammoth Screen, has drawn considerable criticism on social media in the last week after ITV released a trailer. In response, Canadian actor Simu Liu, who plays Marvel’s first Asian superhero, Shang-Chi, in Marvel’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” tweeted in response: “No… just…no.”
No… just…no. https://t.co/NRC4ysnEtR
— Simu Liu (@SimuLiu) September 5, 2020
BEATS, a not-for-profit advocacy org founded by British East and Southeast Asians working in the theater and screen industries, has released a statement regarding the show, shared exclusively with Variety.
“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,” BEATS said. “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 U.K.’s East and Southeast Asian community. This is especially concerning at a time when anti-East and Southeast Asian hate crime has dramatically increased during the coronavirus pandemic.”
“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,” stated BEATS. “Instead, even the cynical desperation and callous decadence of Farrell’s Caucasian characters is bled out in favor of jauntily-forced, comedic indulgence, presenting this traumatic period of Singapore’s history as little more than breezy and inconsequential.”
In response, screenwriter Christopher Hampton shared a statement with Variety, noting that “any fair-minded viewer will easily understand that [‘The Singapore Grip’] is an attack on colonialism — and is indeed based on the last of a trio of books known as the ‘Empire Trilogy,’ which constitute perhaps the most celebrated attack on colonialism by a British novelist in the 20th century.”
“Its very subject is possibly the greatest catastrophe to befall the British Empire during its decline, a disaster the colonists were themselves squarely responsible for,” added Hampton.
Responding to criticism of the show’s Asian characters, the writer said, “The most sympathetic and resourceful of the central characters is a Chinese woman, a member of the Resistance against the Japanese, who is able to educate our hero and open his eyes to what he is already becoming aware of, namely the corrupt practices and casual racism of the ruling British elite.”
Regarding the portrayal of Asian characters in the show, BEATS countered that 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 sexualized, submissive stereotyping of East/Southeast Asian women leads to staggeringly high rates of physical and sexual violence against them,” said BEATS.
“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,” added the org.
The historic underpinning behind the show, which will debut on ITV on Sept. 13, has its share of supporters online. For example, the book is described by historian and screenwriter Alex von Tunzelmann (“Medici,” “Churchill”) as “a sophisticated, merciless and stinging satire on the British Empire and the Brits who ran it.”
Agreed. The book The Singapore Grip by JG Farrell is a terrific read: a sophisticated, merciless and stinging satire on the British Empire and the Brits who ran it. I hope the TV adaptation does it justice! https://t.co/p9KHJ16C8x
— Alex von Tunzelmann (@alexvtunzelmann) September 4, 2020
However, while allowing that Farrell’s novel has its place in history, BEATS notes that the show’s “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.”
Other online commentators have also taken umbrage. Daniel York Loh, who is a part of BEATS, posted on Twitter: “The book’s critique of colonialism is fatally undone by its erasure/objectification of Asian bodies and its casual toxic sexism. It ends up replicating what if [sic] attempts to lambast #BoycottTheSingaporeGrip #DecoloniseUKTV #thesingaporegrip.”
The book’s critique of colonialism is fatally undone by its erasure/objectification of Asian bodies and its casual toxic sexism. It ends up replicating what if attempts to lambast #BoycottTheSingaporeGrip #DecoloniseUKTV #thesingaporegrip https://t.co/tcysycBdFL
— Daniel York Loh 😷 (@danielfyork) September 5, 2020
In response, director Mingyu Lin posted: “For those that have defended the show because the book is meant to be a takedown of colonialism – personally I don’t think culturally colonising Singapore for your tv show is a good way to do that. This basically does the modern day equivalent of what it purports to denounce.”
For those that have defended the show because the book is meant to be a takedown of colonialism – personally I don’t think culturally colonising Singapore for your tv show is a good way to do that. This basically does the modern day equivalent of what it purports to denounce.
— Mingyu Lin (@MingyuLin) September 5, 2020
Actor Siu-see Hung posted: “How can you justify doing this kind of colonial s**t in this day and age @ITV? Focus is still completely on white bodies while I’ve yet to see British East Asians represented at all on our screens. #singaporegrip”
How can you justify doing this kind of colonial shit in this day and age @ITV? Focus is still completely on white bodies while I've yet to see British East Asians represented at all on our screens. #singaporegrip https://t.co/oXcszyXo66
— Siu-see Hung (@SiuseeHung) September 7, 2020