A month ago, CBS announced that it was developing a TV series based on the April Woo novels -- about a female NYPD detective -- written by Leslie Glass. The thought of an Asian Pacific Islander female lead on network television -- currently Nikita’s Maggie Q is the only API to headline a TV series -- was enough to bring cheers by the community. It’s apparent that they didn’t read the books, and those who did were skeptical.
On Glass’s website, the first bit of biographical data the author touts is that she is half-Chinese -- but not by blood. The basis of her cultural claim stems not from her parents' DNA but the fact that she was “raised by a Chinese chef from Hong Kong." Armored with this insider insight, as it were, Glass claims full reign to bastardize and disparage Chinese American culture and people in her books.
April Woo, the character, is not a racist representation. While she is a detective like Charlie Chan, she doesn’t speak in his indecipherable accent, doesn’t rattle off sing-songy aphorisms and doesn’t walk with a mincing gait. But it is the prose, images, and characters around her that are problematic and familiar. In the 4th installment of the series, 1999’s Stealing Time, April Woo investigates an uptown attack and baby snatching that has Chinatown links. Coincidentally the uptown victim is Asian American and a later murder victim is from China, thus according to the prose, Chinese American Woo is investigating her “countrywomen."
The parents of both victim and detective hold onto “the old country” ways even though they’ve been in America over 40 years because “the Chinese could be a solid wall of noncompliance when they wanted to.” Histrionics and familiarity with Chinese voodoo runs in their blood as does a penchant for attaining status and saving face. The only time my parents talked about my face was because of my zits. But of course, as my mother’s family has been in America over 300 years, we had time to garner compliance.
And yet Glass bolsters the idea that Asian Americans are not of this country. In her book, the Chinese eat odorous, disgusting foods that are steeped in mysticism and the philosophy that if they eat it, they overcome the fear of it. So they eat lice, insects, and the ground up penis of a tiger. Glass even leads us to believe that April’s parents cooked her dog for a while.
But it turns out that the mother, nicknamed Skinny Dragon by April, merely poisoned her daughter with a foul-smelling brew that made her nauseous with “Asian flu” (A flu that only attacks Asians. Get it?) and the butt of a running joke about smelling like a dead animal. It was all for good reason, of course, as the intent was to rid April of “possession by a foreigner.” April is dating a Mexican American, also labeled a foreigner by Glass.
New York’s Chinatown is the perfect locale to plop Woo in for Glass as her characters breathe in the sumptuous smells of Little Italy to cure them of the vile Chinese ones. Her boyfriend’s nose twitches, desiring something to eat in Little Italy and desiring for April to take a shower.
I wouldn’t be surprised if CBS execs -- scrambling to appease the coalitions that meet up with the networks biennially as well to quell hostility for the 2 Broke Girls debacle -- entered “Chinese detective” in a search field and selected the one with the most modern setting. Surely, they weren’t going to pursue Detective Dee.
What does this portend for the show? Another overbearing, whacked-out “old style” (Glass’s phrase) Chinese mother who gets a sniffle and chastises her daughter for not speeding home to take care of her instead of stopping a murder? Will CBS use dialogue it greenlit on 2 Broke Girls like, “You can’t tell an Asian he made a mistake. He’ll go in the back and throw himself on a sword”? Or, as Hollywood is prone to do, will April Woo simply be made into “April Wood”?
The previous issue of Hyphen is available in its entirety for your perusing pleasure. Almost as good as having it right in your hands!