Shortland Street's ethnic cleansing is a relief to us all

© Tze Ming Mok 2006 | First published in the Sunday Star-Times, 7 July 2006

Shortland Street finally lived up to its medical credentials this week, taking responsibility for showing the nation what the real human effects of a pandemic will be.

Key Health Message: Pandemics only kill Asians. Because that's where pandemics come from.

In fact, Asians can only die from pandemics. It is the only way you can get rid of them when you have exhausted all the other crappy ``Asian'' plotlines.

Growing up surrounded by that generational cluster of Commonwealth migrant doctors (Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, India, Sri Lanka), I assumed when I was a child that all doctors were some kind of 'Asian', and that all 'Asian' grown-ups were doctors. That early impression wasn't too far off the mark. In 2001, Chinese people made up about 3% of the population and Indians 2%, a quick scan of the New Zealand Medical Register comes up with 37 Dr Patels, 35 Dr Singhs, 69 Dr Wongs and 44 Dr Lees, compared with 82 Dr Smiths, 38 Dr Joneses and 37 Dr Browns. Oh yes, and 19 Dr Chens but only two Dr Warners. Despite this demographic dominance in medicine, we've only had four core-cast 'Asian' doctors ever in 14 years of our 'national soap opera' (and equally preposterously, no South Africans).

The Shortland Street 'Asian' groundbreaker was Dr Grace Kwan, whose only ethnicity was an Australian accent. Hey, at least her character wasn't a joke at our expense. During the height of the 'Asian Invasion' years, Mac Jeffrey Ong played a convincingly urbane and linguistically realistic ethnic Chinese international student from the Philippines, who taught Rachel McKenna quantum physics, but never got to pash her even though he was a hottie. I missed most of Jacob Rajan as Dr Ashwan Bashar (did he get to pash anyone?) but do remember the astonishingly talented Madeleine Sami being wasted in a New Zealand Indian Doctor role seemingly invented just to showcase an arranged marriage plot.  Then, as Shortland Street's 'conscience of liberal New Zealand' years gave way to high camp, we had hospital CEO Sofia 'I worked my way up from thee slums of Maneela!' Martinez, who was as good as a sexually rapacious Joan Collins-meets-Asian capitalist dragon-lady stereotype could get.

But with the advent of Dr Li-Mei Chen, I lost all hope.

Our Li-Mei was always a surly bitchface -- you would be too if you had suffered the indignities heaped upon her character, shoddily cobbled together as she was out of the most hare-brained and mutually contradictory stereotypes possible. They scripted her lines in broken English, then suddenly switched her to a perfect Kiwi accent, and humiliatingly for everyone involved, had her played by a non-Mandarin speaking actress who was occasionally forced to speak Mandarin really badly. Most nonsensically (there is a difference between reversing stereotypes and having no understanding of reality), they made her harp on about her 'third-world peasant' upbringing and lumbered her with (groan) an arranged marriage, despite this being a virtually impossible class background for one of China's modern-day international student urbanites. Predictably, they made her run a phone-sex hotline and prostitute herself (twice) for money and power, while simultaneously making her an ice-queen obsessed with studying. 'Try not to make me look like a hooker,' Li-Mei said in one of her last sick-bed scenes, her most brilliantly self-referential line. Too late.

At least now she has been put out of her misery.

Li-Mei was invented by a head producer whose first move on the job was to eliminate the show's Maori/cultural adviser, and whose most recent overhauls have been to get rid of Li-Mei and axe an accumulating number of Maori characters to match the disappearance of the only Pacific Islander. It's no wonder Li-Mei has been humiliated since inception. The writers didn't know any actual Chinese people to ask about suitable names for her character, so they just combined the names of the actress who played her, and that of the Chinese doctor from ER. They called her mother Gong after Gong Li, and her fiance Chow after Chow Yun Fat. I wish I was making this up.

Forget transcending stereotypical plotlines -- if writers can't come up with a name for an ethnic minority character without descending into farce, then perhaps it's for the best that they are ethnically cleansing the cast in preparation for never having anyone on Shortland Street again who isn't white. It might be a relief for us as well.

Who needs to be embarrassed within the national imaginary when one can just secede from it? Who cares about Shortland Street's own humiliated Chinese international student anymore when Chinese international students are -- wait for it -- producing their own soap opera? From the preview I've seen of the long-awaited A Brighter Tomorrow, it looks like an impressively professional production, sentimental and romantically tortured in the style of most Chinese soaps. Best of all, it features Chinese international students doing slightly more realistic things in Auckland than Li-Mei: hanging out in pool halls, smoking cigarettes, speaking Mandarin fluently and sleeping with each other rather than with no Chinese people.

RIP Dr Chen -- your time was well and truly up.