A Scandal in Chinatown: Elementary, Sherlock, and Modern-Day Yellow Fever

I’m still working on catching up with Elementary (no spoilers, please!) but I’ve finally gotten to (and a little past) the Season 1 episode where Joan and Sherlock encounter a Chinese gambling ring. At first, this sort of threw me for a loop, because up until then I’d been enjoying Elementary’s inclusivity and non-token-ish diversity. BBC Sherlock’s “The Blind Banker” had about conquered the market on terrible representation of Chinese mafia, right? Well, yes. But fortunately, Elementary’s “You Do It To Yourself” did not encroach on Sherlock’s absolute monopoly on poor representation—rather, the episode did a far better job of handling the trope of the Chinese mafia than did its more famous cousin.

Then again, hard not to be better than this

Then again, hard not to be better than this.

Spoilers and trigger warning for sexual abuse after the jump.

In “The Blind Banker”, Sherlock and John stumble upon an international smuggling ring when two white smugglers, Eddie Van Coon and Brian Lukis, are killed by mysterious Chinese assassins. They find out that the assassins have been leaving messages written in “an ancient Chinese cipher”, and after decoding it, realize that the treasure the white guys stole was worth ninety million pounds. They then defeat the assassins, recover the treasure, and are well paid for their efforts. The assassins’ ringleader, General Shan, is killed by Moriarty at the tail end of the episode.

In “You Do It To Yourself”, Sherlock and Joan are similarly called in to consult when the NYPD finds a dead white man, Trent Annunzio, under a bridge. It’s soon revealed that he was shot in a Chinese gambling parlor, but not by the Chinese folks—he was shot during a robbery by a masked assassin. Upon finding the (Hispanic) assassin, said assassin tells Sherlock that someone hired him to kill Annunzio. Sherlock finally deduces that that someone was Annunzio himself: when Annunzio found out he had terminal melanoma, he engineered his own murder so that his Chinese wife, who had arrived in the States illegally and to whom he was not actually married, would be deported, and his teaching assistant, with whom his wife was having an affair, would be accused of his murder.

Both these stories deal with Chinese mafia, and the first time I saw “The Blind Banker”, to be honest, I didn’t think it was racist at all. The Chinese mafia, of course, do exist, as do  the Italian mafia or any type of nefarious criminal organization. The difference, and this becomes glaringly obvious upon rewatch and especially after seeing “You Do It To Yourself”, is that one Sherlock adaptation has Chinese characters painted in more than just broad strokes of Orientalism, and one does not. That is to say, one Sherlock adaptation has characters, and the other has Chinese Villains and Chinese Victims. “The Blind Banker”‘s Chinese characters are all caricatures of Chinese stereotypes: first, we have the Chinese museum worker who’s “obsessed” with teapots, even to the extent of risking her own safety; then the Chinese “Spider”, an assassin who can scale the walls of the tallest building and break in through your windows; of course this character gets nary a line of dialogue. We can’t forget General Shan, a “Dragon Lady” who still ends up subservient to a white benefactor. (To top it all off, while in London, the characters disguise themselves as a Chinese circus and fold origami flowers as their gang calling card. Yay.)

I don't even know where to start with the script, so why don't we just start with the first page. (x)

I don’t even know where to start with the script, so why don’t we just start with the first page. (x)

But “The Blind Banker” really fails because its narrative is predicated on a fear of Chinese people. There are Chinese assassins after the white people! Scary ninjas who own the night! The camera follows both Lukis and Van Coon as they run, terrified, from whatever pursues them. We get closeups of their fear and their panic; we’re meant to sympathize with them, no matter that as smugglers, they were the ones in the wrong. Sherlock spends the majority of the episode trying to puzzle out Suzhou numerals (incorrectly telling John they are “Hangzhou” numerals); these apparently form a cipher so ancient and mysterious it could only be found and used in China.

“You Do It To Yourself”, on the other hand, isn’t framed around a scary, abstract Other. When Detective Bell rather curtly tells the Chinese parlor owner, “I take it we have you and your people to thank for dumping [Annunzio’s body] under the Manhattan bridge”, the old man replies, “Hey, we were victims [of the robbery] too.” Elementary’s Sherlock doesn’t waste his time with “ancient Chinese ciphers”—when Bell tells Sherlock and Joan that no one at the parlor speaks English, Sherlock says, “No, Detective Bell, I don’t believe that’s true.” To the “janitor”, he says,

We both know that you understand me, just as we both know that you are not the janitor. You may have put that apron on, but you’re still wearing bespoke Italian shoes. I think you own this place, and if you do, you need to communicate with suppliers, vendorsyou speak English.
—Elementary 1×09, “You Do It To Yourself”

Sherlock is, of course, right. The so-called janitor is the owner, and under Sherlock’s questioning, he produces a video which leads the NYPD to the hired assassin. What’s important here is not that Sherlock is right but that he refuses to see the parlor owner as an Other, most likely because he doesn’t let social prejudices get in the way of an accurate deduction. When one is an Asian person in a Western society, one becomes accustomed to boorish questions such as “Do you speak English?”, “Wow, you speak really good English!”, “How long have you been here?”, and mangled greetings in various Asian languages as an attempt to be “welcoming” to the “foreigner”. Sherlock may not have the social graces to realize that Bell’s dismissal of the Chinese gamblers is unprofessional, but he’s smart enough to realize that it’s unnecessary. Indeed, one might even say that the BBC’s Sherlock sees but does not observe, while Elementary’s Sherlock succeeds at both. I certainly hope that the BBC’s Sherlock could have made this deduction, too, but unfortunately for him, whenever BBC Sherlock came face-to-face with a Chinese man it was because they were fighting, not talking.

Sherlock and co. look at Mysterious Oriental Objects.

Sherlock and co. look at Mysterious Oriental Artefacts.

So “You Do It To Yourself” isn’t framed around terrifying Oriental people. What it is framed around is Asian fetishization; specifically, Asian fetishization and subjugation by Westerners. Annunzio is a department chair of East Asian studies who believes so strongly in Asian customs that he picked the cramped office number 13 for himself, rather than the more spacious office 14. His apartment is also number 13 and his cell phone ends in 1313, showing that he subscribes to Asian tetraphobia; that is to say, the belief that the numbers 4 and 14 are unlucky. His hobby is gambling through mahjong, a Chinese game. Most importantly, he sexually, physically, and emotionally abuses his Chinese wife, whom he lured to the States under false pretenses. (He’s basically a sex trafficker with one victim.)

And what happens to this white guy who fetishizes Asian culture? He. Gets. His. At the end of the episode, he’s dead, his T.A.’s name is cleared, and his wife gets to marry her true love, the T.A., and escape deportation. None of Annunzio’s plans come to fruition. Sherlock’s Moriarty is still out there gallivanting about, having directly and indirectly caused the deaths of at least three Chinese people; Annunzio is on a slab in the morgue without even a posthumous achievement to his name.

He did research on the tea, too.

He did research on the tea, too.

But what about Annunzio’s victim-slash-wife, Jun? Normally an Asian woman victimized by a white man and rescued by another white man would be BBC Sherlock’s idea of a good show—that is to say, poor representation. However, Elementary is saved by one thing: the existence of Joan Watson. By making an Asian woman the co-protagonist of its show, Elementary largely escapes accusations of one-dimensional people of color. Even Sherlock shows a respect for Asian culture and Asian people that the BBC’s Sherlock never will—Elementary’s Sherlock is fighting a cold throughout most of the episode, and near the end of the episode he admits that it was Joan’s Chinese herbal tea that helped him recover, even though it “wasn’t British tea”.

Throughout the show, and throughout this episode especially, Joan gets plotlines that have nothing to do with Sherlock and everything to do with who she is as a character. She is allowed to have a backstory and to develop her own deduction skills, and, in fact, it’s her deduction skills that turn Sherlock onto the assassin and the key proof that Annunzio, not his T.A., had organized his own murder. One could even say that in “You Do It To Yourself”, one Asian woman was saved by another Asian woman. That’s something that BBC Sherlock, with its well-documented woman problem and race problem, will likely never be able to accomplish.

sherlock and joan


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3 thoughts on “A Scandal in Chinatown: Elementary, Sherlock, and Modern-Day Yellow Fever

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