Yonden Lhatoo
SCMP Columnist
Just Saying
by Yonden Lhatoo
Just Saying
by Yonden Lhatoo

Criminal Minds and smearing Singapore: why can’t Hollywood ever get Asia right?

Yonden Lhatoo says the recent uproar over the depiction of the city state in Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders reflects Hollywood’s old disrespect for Asians

Can everyone get this right once and for all, please: you are allowed to chew gum in Singapore; you just can’t import the stuff or sell it, although bringing in a small amount for personal consumption will not get you caned or summarily executed.

This crucial difference is ignored in an episode of the US television series Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders that has so many Singaporeans up in arms over the way their beloved city state has been portrayed.

Watch: How Singapore is portrayed in “Cinderella and the Dragon”

I don’t follow the show but ended up watching offending clips from the Cinderella and the Dragon episode, inspired by a hilarious online rant by local blogger “mrbrown”. He airs a litany of complaints about inaccuracies depicting Singapore as more of a stereotypical Chinatown than a respectable global metropolis.

Watch: Blogger ‘mrbrown’ on inaccuracies depicting Singapore in Criminal Minds

FBI investigators on the case of two American flight attendants missing in Singapore suggest the city’s judges are harsh on foreigners who commit crimes “like, chewing gum”. They describe one of the local districts as an “overcrowded slum with a thriving underworld”. They also say a whole bunch of other things that have left most Singaporeans shaking their heads in dismay at the level of ignorance in Hollywood about their city state.

The Singaporeans have a point. Hollywood really needs to get with the times. But who’s listening? We’re asking studios and writers to be sympathetic to Asian cultural and geopolitical sensitivities when they can’t even get basic ethnicity right in casting actors.

Scarlett Johansson as Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell. Hollywood needs to get with the times. Photo: Paramount Pictures

Asian American group slams Scarlett Johansson’s ‘whitewashed’ Ghost in the Shell

“Whitewashing” is the name of the game, with Asian roles being filled by more bankable Caucasian talent. That’s why Scarlett Johansson is cast as Japanese cyborg Motoko Kusanagi in Hollywood’s film adaptation of the classic manga, Ghost in the Shell. As you can see, we haven’t come far since the days when John Wayne put on his yellow face for the role of Genghis Khan in The Conqueror.

It would be nice if ... such roles did not feel like they were written, almost contemptuously, on the back of a napkin as an afterthought

Unlike Johansson, Matt Damon could get away with the argument that he didn’t deprive any Asian actor of a key role when he was cast as the hero of Zhang Yimou’s box office flop, The Great Wall. That’s because he was playing the ever-reliable blockbuster trope – you know, great white saviour comes to the rescue of hapless natives.

Speaking of which, I couldn’t help noticing the totally meaningless role they gave The Great Wall actress Jing Tian in Kong: Skull Island. Talk about hua ping, or vases in Chinese, the derogatory term for actresses whose roles amount to little more than product placement or set decor. She had pretty much nothing to do or say throughout the movie and was generally an annoyance in between epic monster battles. I kind of kept wishing she would do us all a favour and die in some horrific way. In the story, of course.

Indeed, this is a reflection of the times in that Chinese actors are getting more supporting roles these days as the big studios localise the appeal of their products in a gigantic market and Chinese investors plough their money into Hollywood. But it would be nice if there was a little more respect in that reflection, and such roles did not feel like they were written, almost contemptuously, on the back of a napkin as an afterthought.

London storm turns spotlight on ‘whitewashing’ in film and theatre

By the way, there’s also an issue with veteran Hong Kong-American actor Tzi Ma cast as a Singaporean police officer in Criminal Minds. His Singaporean accent is a failure, according to everyone. People are also incredulous at the use of Mandarin, as “mrbrown” elucidates: “Eh, how come this police officer talk to his colleague in Chinese, ah? Singapore police officer speak in English one, leh, we are not China, you know?”

Hollywood, you’ll never get any of this. It’s just too subtle for you.

Yonden Lhatoo is a senior editor at the Post

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Smearing Singapore: why can’t Hollywood ever get Asia right?