Lost in translation?

As a fan of Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher detective novels, I have been awaiting the television adaptation of the novels with bated breath for the emergence of her regular lover, the Chinese silk merchant, Lin Chung. Set in 1920s Melbourne, Australia, the novels revolve around the elegantly bobbed, decadently dressed, and sassy Miss Phryne Fisher: a sharp-witted lady detective with a pearl-handled pistol in one hand (when it is not tucked into her garter, that is) and a G & T in the other, who is happily single (and happy never to marry) & plays seductress to a veritable harem of lovers (there is usually one lover per book). There is one beau though who is a constant: the refined Chinese gentleman, Lin Chung, a silk trader who possesses a helpful dollop of marital arts finesse for hairy situations, and an even bigger dollop of mastery in the bedroom. Lin was educated at Oxford so speaks with a British accent, but in the books, many a line is devoted to his exquisite Chinese beauty.

The book version of Phryne (and for the most part, the TV show version) is the perfect embodiment of the flapper spirit: flouting the conventions of the day, when women were supposed to stay at home and play mother and wife, Phryne knows no bounds — she drives a car, flies a plane, and works in a typically “man’s world” solving crimes without forgoing style and classy dressing, is blissfully unmarried with many a man on hand to enjoy, smoulderingly sexual and, although a white woman in a conservative, predominantly white society, she is amorously entangled with a Chinese man. And despite Lin’s arranged marriage to a young, Chinese woman later in the books, Lin Chung continues to see Phryne as his mistress (in an agreement with Lin’s matriarch grandmother, Phryne agrees that she will only ever be Lin Chung’s lover and will not interfere with his planned marriage, and can never hope to marry him — which she doesn’t want to do anyway) and Phryne continues to see other lovers too. Lin’s Chinese wife knows about Phryne and accepts the situation, she even designs Phryne’s garden for her and there is a fond regard implied between the two women. Polyamory anyone? Obviously, here we have a white, female author who appreciates Asian male beauty, and is not afraid to push boundaries: open relationships and interracial relationships are lapped up by the predominantly female readership. And Lin Chung is very popular with the books’ readers.  So how does all this translate to the tiny screen?

From online peepshows, images and commentary on the series, not so well. Firstly, the actor who plays Lin Chung (Philippe Sung, pictured above left with Essie Davis who plays Phryne, pic from here) looks remarkably un-Chinese. It’s as if the casting agents went out of their way to select the most “non-Asian”-looking Asian to play the role. Although the actor is handsome and from a presumably East Asian background, his appearance is quite European, only slightly Eurasian. Is this an example of Australian television chickening out of portraying an Asian man with a white woman? Really, it’s not that hard to do (look at Glenn and Maggie in The Walking Dead, also a book-to-screen drama). The fact that Phryne dares to woo an Asian man in conservative, homogeneous 1920s Melbourne shows that she doesn’t give a damn about difference or what other people think, but this is somewhat lost when the actor playing Lin doesn’t even look East Asian — a key charm point in the books. Secondly, Lin and Phryne’s open relationship in the book (he is married, she maintains seeing new and varied lovers as well as seeing Lin) is another key part of Phryne’s free spirit and rejection of convention. This is omitted from the television storyline, and their relationship ends because of his impending marriage.

Glenn and Maggie getting close in zombieland in The Walking Dead (image from here)

Asian man-white woman couplings in television dramas are rare, and Asian actors in a leading role are strongly lacking in Western television. Here was a perfect opportunity wasted, and a disappointing portrayal of an Asian character whose distinct Chinese beauty was extremely alluring to women in the books. I feel the TV show has toned down Lin’s Asian appeal by selecting an actor who doesn’t quite fit the bill. Such choices only add to the general stereotype in society taken up in my last post that classic Asian features are perceived as “unattractive” to non-Asian women. Maybe the casting directors for this show thought an Asian man needs to have a “Euro”-looking facial appearance to reel the white ladies in? The show also could have provided a nice depiction of a successful unconventional relationship like Phryne and Lin’s in the books, but it seems that harmonious open relationships could be too risque for mainstream television just yet.