Anonymous Review of Beijing Cake

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#BeijingCake anonymous audience member review-Four reasons why “Beijing Cake” is offensive
For the uninitiated: Beijing Cake is a Northern American play which explores the racial stereotyping of Chinese people and the issues surrounding immigration and culture. In Beijing cake this is presented to us as a world where roles are reversed and American people desperately want to live in China. Produced by Year of the Horse, a virgin theatre company, the play casts African Americans as the Chinese, who dress in full 18th century Chinese dress, speak in “chinky-chonky” Chinese accents and talk gobbildy gook in lieu of any Chinese dialect. The play aims to lampoon such stereotypes, using its own absurdity to highlight the absurdity of racial stereotypes.
Many people in the East Asian community have taken offense at the play, and the responses to their outrage from the producers and others involved in the production has been apathetic and dismissive.
Here are four reasons why the play has failed to lampoon racism, and has unfortunately embraced it instead.
1. Universality.
At first glance it would seem offensive to stick a black man in a Chinese costume and have him perform a “Chinese dance” which was as inaccurate as it was offensive. After all, I’m guessing the black community probably wouldn’t take kindly to a white bloke donning a grass skirt, smearing himself in grease paint and running around in a field with a spear making clicking noises with his mouth. This is, in effect, why “blacking up” is considered offensive and taboo. However, when questioned as to why they had cast yellow face (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portrayal_of_East_Asians_in_Hollywood) African Americans in East Asian parts instead of East Asians, a producer told us that it was to “emphasize the universality of the characters”.
This makes no sense.
Firstly; it is fairly hard to argue that the portrayal of Chinese people in this play was in anyway “universal”. By sticking the actors in traditional Chinese garb (a point I’ll get to in a minute), making them speak in Chinese accents and setting the play in Beijing, it is made explicitly clear to us that these characters are very Chinese; or at least a perverse distortion of the Chinese. If these characters were not Chinese, then the “hilaaarious” cultural misunderstandings between the two peoples would not work.
However, it is paradoxical to simultaneously lampoon a stereotype, whilst trying to illustrate the universality of that stereotype. By its very definition a stereotype embraces an exclusive, semi-fictional, construct of an ethnic, or cultural group. Therefore, surely it is impossible for a stereotype to be universal?
I think perhaps what the producer failed to express was that the play was trying to illustrate the universality of being stereotyped, as opposed to the universality of this particular stereotype. If this is the case, however, then why are most of the laughs aimed at the Chinese characters, instead of at the misinterpretations of our white protagonists? Sure, the play revels in taking the piss out of WASP Americans, but it is worth noting that these are American stereotypes of American people. The writer, Rachel Kauder Nalebuff lived in China for years, so why were White stereotypes which are embraced by the Chinese not explored? I can assure you, there are plenty, and the Chinese will make them very known, if given half the chance! Surely something can only be universally mocked, if it is universally applied?
2. The costumes.
Playwright Rachel Kauder Nalebuff lived in Beijing for a number of years. Therefore, she will know that Asian cities are, by our standards, literally like the future. Wandering around any modern Chinese city is like stumbling into a Star Trek fan’s wet dream, but without all the gratuitous alien sex. Walking around Hong Kong’s Times Square, you would not blink an eye if a hover car zoomed past and I’m fairly sure the vending machines on the underground have more processing power than C-3PO. In fact, in many aspects (human rights and not spitting everywhere duly omitted) the urban Chinese are arguably more advanced than us here in the West. Of course, there are parts of China which are still very backwards and primitive, but there are limits to how fast a country can take its populous from “famine stricken” to “global superpower” in Kevin Bacon’s lifetime.
So why, I have to wonder, did Nalebuff decide to stick her modern Chinese Beijingers in 18th Century traditional Chinese costumes?
I can only assume that, once again, this was meant to illustrate “racial stereotypes held by Westerners”.
So satire, then.
The thing is, satire only works when it is timely and/or relevant. For example it would be ridiculous, unfunny and just generally shit if Ian Hislop randomly starting making jokes about Harold Macmillan on “Have I Got News For You” 60 years after the fact. So too, is it ridiculous, unfunny and generally shit for Beijing Cake to lampoon these dusty, old stereotypes.
Of course, anachronisms can be used by satirists to demonstrate parallels between old and new, however, the tired clichés that Beijing Cake embraces are more worn out than Kerry Katona’s femidom, and as such they don’t really make any impact.
In fact, if anything, they only perpetuate this negative stereotype because, in 2013, NO ONE still thinks Chinese people wander around in traditional garb behaving like savages. 37% of Americans are of Chinese descent (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_American#Statistics_of_the_Chinese_population_in_the_United_States_.281840.E2.80.93present.29) therefore it is ridiculous to think that such a large group of people would remain, to the white majority, unknown and stereotyped.
The most tragic thing is, there are plenty of genuinely funny Chinese idiosyncrasies to mock, and by embracing a more nuanced outsider’s perspective on Chinese culture, the play might then have more accurately reflected the nature of stereotyping that Chinese people have to put up with in the West.
3. Chairman Mao.
I don’t need to waste much time with this one.
Mao was directly responsible for the deaths of an estimated 50 million human beings. It is hard to think of a more significant loss for a country, but arguably the loss of China’s culture and heritage during the Cultural Revolution is just as tragic. Heritage and culture form so much of a person’s identity, being at once a sense of pride, belonging and in some ways a moral compass. After all, progress can only be measured against what has already passed.
Chairman Mao is not a friendly paternal figure, Beijing Cake. This one really is indefensible, on par with writing a play about a man moving to Israel and striking up an imaginary friendship with Adolf Hitler.
I suggest you do some research and grow some sensitivity.
4. The New Chinese Century.
We are at the precipice of a new age. Western Europeans, or their descendants, have been the dominant political, economic and cultural force for around 400 years. People often talk of increasing global “Westernization” but it is fairly hard to argue against the fact that the whole world already is Westernised and has been for centuries.
The times, however, are changing. China is now the world’s foremost superpower, and as the West struggles to remove itself from the economic quagmire of the last half decade, China continues to grow, and continues to amass debts owed to it from the U.S.
After being torn apart by Western imperial interests, after being savaged by warlords and civil unrest, after weathering the Japanese invasion and the communist revolution, now China is finally earning its place as humanity’s Middle Kingdom.
Within our lifetime we will have to adjust as the world becomes more and more Eastern. Your children will learn Mandarin at school. Already legions of young people are flocking to China to learn about the culture and work there. The premise of Beijing Cake isn’t some ludicrous fictional premise; it’s happening right now!
This is perhaps the biggest shortfall for Beijing Cake; that in the midst of an epoch shattering exchange of world power, the best Nalebuff could muster were some black people in yellow face speaking chinky chonk English.I welcome a response from the producers and/or writer, and am looking forward to reading it. This is maybe the only time in my life that I actually hope that I’m too dumb to understand the concept of a play, because the alternative is just too infuriating.

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One thought on “Anonymous Review of Beijing Cake

  1. Scott Masson
    Things I’ve learnt from the recent #BeijingCake #Beijingcake #Edfringe debacle: Racism directed at black people= instant public outrage among middle class twitter hawks.

    Racism against Chinese= ignoring the problem/playing Devil’s advocate/ telling people to stop being so sensitive/intimidation tactics from theater company directors.

    I’d love to pen a play about modern black people eating fried chicken and stealing things. I’d cast blacked up white actors in cow hides and have them perform wildly inaccurate “tribal dances” to see if people also see no problem with that, too. But remember, guys, it’s fine because it’s “lampooning” racism instead of being racist.

    So in other words everyone’s ok with me calling all black people ni**ers ironically then, yeah? Because it’s only a joke to show how, like, racism works and all that? Yeah? Yeah. Yeah?

    No.

    Like

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