The Hongcouver
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Crime drama Blood and Water homes in on Vancouver's Chinese identity, sometimes defined by its absence

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 November, 2015, 4:23am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 February, 2016, 11:49am

Vancouverites are used to seeing their city passed off as somewhere else. Anyone with even a vague interest in cinema or TV over the past couple decades, from the X-Files to The Interview, will be familiar with its cityscapes, even if they don’t know it.

So it’s refreshing to see Vancouver playing herself for a change - complete with actual Chinese people. All kinds of them, too.

Blood and Water (watch here) is an eight-part Omni TV crime drama that has Canada’s reviewers all a-titter over its framework – a mostly ethnic Chinese cast, speaking a subtitled mix of English, Cantonese and Putonghua.

WATCH: The trailer for Blood and Water

Yet the show (which I love) does a lot more than simply acknowledge the existence of Vancouver’s Chinese communities, in proper range. It raises questions about whether the very absence of Chinese identity can be an identity in itself.

That resonates with actress Steph Song, who plays the lead role of Detective Jo Bradley.

Referring to her own Vancouver circle, Song said: “I have friends who are deeply entrenched in Chinese tradition, and I have Chinese friends who don’t speak a lick of Mandarin, not a word of Cantonese, who seem to observe zero tradition. So it’s a very broad spectrum. [Blood and Water] has nailed that.”

Song’s Bradley - ethnically Chinese but with that anachronistic Western surname – is investigating the murder of Charles Xie, the formerly drug addicted son of a wealthy Vancouver property developer, Ron  Xie. There’s also Charlie’s flashy sister and preppy brother, and his widow Teresa. The Xies look down on both Bradley and Cantonese-speaking, tattooed Teresa; Charlie’s brittle mother regards Teresa with thin-lipped fury and blames her outright for her son’s downfall and death.

Then there’s Bradley’s grouchy white partner, Detective Gorski, who resents her lead role in the investigation and seems to consider her ethnicity a mask.

“Jo Bradley is pretty much Western,” says Song, speaking from her home in Australia. “She has a grasp of the [Chinese] culture she comes from, but she is always going to be an outsider…The Xies are really rubbing her nose in it, that she’ll never understand family, Chinese tradition.”

The show is peppered with moments big and small that ring true. The mix of confusion and pity that passes over Ron Xie, when he’s told to speak English to Bradley’s flustered non-Chinese-speaking boss Lieutenant Chu, will be familiar to anyone who has similarly interrupted a distant auntie in full flight.

Song moved to Canada as an infant with her Malaysian Chinese parents. In her teens, her parents were on the move again, to sunny Brisbane in Australia. Since then, she has bounced from Los Angeles to Singapore and back to Canada. She still has a home in Vancouver, but lives at Sunshine Beach, north of Brisbane.

She grew up speaking Hokkien and she says her Putonghua lines in Blood and Water “were a challenge”. Bradley doesn’t speak any Chinese until the third episode which adds to her ambiguity. It’s a role that hit home personally.

“The Jo character is written from the point of view of these people who are slightly isolated from a culture that they should own, in terms of physicality, with their face, but they are not quite there. It’s not their core,” Song said.

“How often are we asked ‘where are your origins?’ I got asked all the time, on both sides of the Pacific, but if you ask a white neighbour how often they get asked where their parents came from, I’d bet the answer is never. That question, ‘where are your parents from, what is your culture’, it makes you feel like you belong - but maybe you don’t  belong [in North America]. Then you get asked in Singapore and you think ‘Shit! Maybe I don’t belong here either!’ The Jo Bradley character is that person. Where does she belong? Where is home?”

Bradley’s interactions with Gorski will also be uncomfortably familiar to many, as when Gorski sneers that she should “make sure to use an accent”, as if cultural identity were something to be whipped out when convenient, like a tie at the yacht club.

Justin Tse, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington who spends more time thinking seriously about ethnicity than anyone I know, jokes that the show’s portrayal of white people is particularly authentic.

Tse is a big fan of Blood and Water but has taken issue with the idea that because there are so many Chinese characters, it must be about multiculturalism.

Song agrees: The story is not about multiculturalism, it just happens to contain well fleshed-out Chinese characters.

Interestingly, Bradley isn’t above using cultural identity to get her way, albeit in a manner more subtle than Gorski suggests. It is her absence of identity that she uses to elicit empathy from Charlie’s widow, long since left to fend for herself in Vancouver by parents who have presumably return-migrated to Hong Kong. Is Bradley disingenuously exaggerating this sense of alienation?

Song says Bradley is “a very good liar”, but “some things are hitting home, a lot harder than she expects, ie: the identity issue. Maybe this affects her more than she wants to let on.”

Song says she herself no longer frets over the sense of dislocation felt by so many ethnic Chinese, in Vancouver and elsewhere.

“I’m now comfortable with that aspect of my life – comfortable with the uncomfortableness – and it doesn’t faze me,” she said. “But for Jo, at this juncture in her life, she’s coming face to face with it.”

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The Hongcouver blog is devoted to the hybrid culture of its namesake cities: Hong Kong and Vancouver. All story ideas and comments are welcome. Connect with me by email ian.young@scmp.com or on Twitter, @ianjamesyoung70.