As an Australian crime writer of mixed Chinese, Indonesian and European heritage, I am interested in the portrayal of Asian characters in crime fiction. I am currently working on a crime fiction series that ‘re-imagines’ or ‘re-tells’ the life of a Eurasian woman in London in the 1860s. My work is neo-Victorian, in that I try to combine historical authenticity with a contemporary consciousness. In order to develop her character, I researched both the Asian community of Victorian London and crime fiction that features Asian characters, Chinese in particular. One thing that became clear during my research was that the ‘sinister Asian’ trope, which has a long history in crime fiction, remains prevalent, especially in crime fiction with ties to the Victorian period.
An example of this enduring trope can be found in the neo-Victorian novel, Kitty Peck and the Music Hall Murders, by Kate Griffin (2013). Griffin’s portrayal of Chinese characters as sinister, inscrutable and violent is as clichéd as Sax Rohmer’s Dr Fu Manchu novels of the early 20th century. In Griffin’s crime novel, Lady Ginger, the ‘Baron’ of London’s Limehouse, is actually a British woman in disguise. Her Chinese costume and exotic household reinforce her menacing, mysterious power (pp. 9, 17, 24). Lady Ginger’s Chinese henchmen have scars on their faces with plaits snaking down their backs. They keep Lady Ginger doped on opium and they actually scalp two girls with their long blades in front of a horrified audience (pp. 7, 97, 159).
This caricature of the ‘sinister Asian’ also continues to be prevalent in contemporary crime narratives, such as in the BBC program Sherlock (2010-), a modern interpretation of the original Arthur Conan Doyle stories of the late 1800s. Despite a modern setting and clever neo-Victorian updating of situations and props, the themes found in each Sherlock episode are not always consciously representative of current concerns. The Sherlock episode, ‘The Blind Banker’ (2010), is loosely based upon the Sherlock Holmes short stories The Valley of Fear (1914) and The Adventure of the Dancing Men (Arthur Conan Doyle, 1903), neither of which, interestingly, features Chinese characters. In ‘The Blind Banker’, Sherlock has to decipher symbols, which turn out to be Chinese Hangzhou numerals. In pursuing the murderer, he learns that the code and murders are linked to the deadly Black Lotus Tong, a criminal gang that smuggles antiquities. Sherlock arranges for John Watson and his girlfriend to watch a travelling Chinese circus. When Watson and his companion are subsequently kidnapped by the criminal circus troupe, Sherlock rescues them and realises that the ‘treasure’ the murderer is searching for is a jade hairpin that belongs to the Chinese royal family.
Of course, triads and gangs are often a feature of contemporary crime narratives. In Australian fiction, writers such as John Dale, Shane Maloney and Peter Temple have based plots upon Asian gangsters and drug crime. However, I would argue that despite having the modern touchstone of Asian organised crime, ‘The Blind Banker’, being a Sherlock Holmes narrative, has borrowed from ‘sinister Asian’ themes made popular in its time, just as Griffin has done for Kitty Peck and the Music Hall Murders.
These fictional representations of the Chinese in London are indicative of
an ‘imagined’, Orientalised population according to John Seed (2006). Works by writers such as Sax Rohmer and Thomas Burke fed this misconception of an area that was actually quite under-populated with Chinese in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century: “In exploring the ideological construction of Chinatown we are dealing with an imaginary cartography, which projects onto the real cityscape its own shadowy ideological antagonisms and fears” (p. 15). In his work, Seed explores the reasons for this exaggeration of Chinese ‘ills’, such as the Victorian opium den as a space for the interplay of sexuality, and anxieties about inter-racial sex, while a number of scholars have explored the increased racism of this period and the attendant anxieties of economic hardship (Gregor Benton and Edmund Gomez, 2008; Shannon Case, 2002; J.P. May, 1978). The tension that existed due to the general understanding that the Chinese – the ‘yellow peril’ – offered cheap labour, a potential threat to local labour, was not unlike the tensions that led to the Lambing Flat Riots in Australia in the early 1860s.
However, the lives of actual Chinese residents in Victorian London is under-researched, simply because their numbers were so few (Case, p. 17; May, p.122) and, according to Ng Kwee Choo (1968), because they were largely inoffensive as a community.
Ng reports that by 1851 a census of London revealed that 110 residents were born in China, which increased to 665 by 1881 (p.5). Yet there remained sufficient unease regarding the Chinese for a burgeoning portrayal of Oriental danger and criminality.
The West’s relationship to China might also explain the popularity of the ‘sinister Asian’ perspective. In a literary context, Ross Forman (2013) writes that in the late nineteenth century British commentators looked to China as a slumbering giant, ready to join the ranks of the modern, prosperous nations, although this optimism ran in tandem with a counter-discourse, which revealed anxieties regarding East Asia’s power to threaten the West in both economic and military terms (p. 131, 133, 159). Of course, this same plight, or counter-discourse, continues today, possibly accounting for the enduring depiction of the ‘sinister Asian’.
I feel it is natural for me, as a Eurasian writer, to endeavour to shift this perception. As my interests lie in historical crime fiction, I have attempted this via a re-imagining of a Eurasian character in a neo-Victorian crime fiction. Sarah Waters writes fleetingly of a Chinese bakery in the neo-Victorian novel Tipping the Velvet (2000, p. 185) while a crime series written in the 1860s refers to the foreigners who live in Soho (Forrester, 2012, p.123). I want to read about the Chinese who worked in that bakery, or the immigrants who lived in Soho: why were they in London? What did they do? Eat? How did they socialise? In my own novel I have tried to imagine a possible history for a Eurasian maid in London by relating her upbringing in Makassar, while in my second novel I will explore how she made her way to London. I hope that in revisiting Limehouse in a literary sense, I can give voice to possibilities that are distinct from those of the ‘sinister Asian’.
- Benton, Gregor and Gomez, Edmund. (2008). The Chinese in Britain, 1800-Present: Economy, Transnationalism, Identity. England: Palgrave Macmillan.
- Case, Shannon. (2002). Lilied Tongues and Yellow Claws: The Invention of London’s Chinatown, 1915-45. In Deen, Stella. (Ed.). Challenging Modernism: New readings in literature and culture, 1914-45 (pp. 17-34). Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Limited.
- Doyle, Arthur Conan (2005). The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes. New York: W.W. Norton.
- Forman, Ross. (2013). China and the Victorian Imagination. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Forrester, Andrew. (2012). The Female Detective. London: The British Library.
- Griffin, Kate. (2013). Kitty Peck and the Music Hall Murders. London: Faber and Faber. Retrieved from https://itunes.apple.com/au/app/ibooks
- May, J.P. (1978). The Chinese in Britain, 1860-1914. In Holmes, Colin. (Ed.). Immigrants and Minorities in British Society (pp. 111-124). London: George Allen and Unwin.
- Ng, Kwee Choo. (1968). The Chinese in London. London: Oxford University Press.
- Seed, John. (2006). Limehouse Blues: Looking for Chinatown in the London Docks, 1900-1945. History Workshop Journal, 62(1): 58-85. Oxford University Press.
- Waters, Sarah. (2000). Tipping the Velvet. New York: Riverhead Books.