What does the history of British Chinese film look like? Answering this question is a troubling task, because the history of British Chinese people on screen is necessarily also a history of British Sinophobia. Do you start in the 1920s, when Harry Agar Lyon’s Fu Manchu embodied the worst of Yellow Peril scaremongering? Do you celebrate the success of Burt Kwouk or Tsai Chin in the ’60s, even though their work was often littered with harmful stereotypes? While bona fide stars like Gemma Chan have emerged in the last decade, lead roles remain scarce and opportunities behind the camera even scarcer.
In this context, 1986’s Ping Pong, the first feature film by a British Chinese director, is a curious outlier. It tells the story not of a single British Chinese character but of 23, representing various backgrounds, generations and languages. At the film’s centre is Sam Wong, an ageing restaurateur who winds up dead in a Soho phone box. As the members of his family contest and compete over the terms of his will, trainee lawyer Elaine Choi (Lucy Sheen) is left to pick up the pieces as she navigates the morass of Chinatown’s fragmented community.
Ping Pong’s poignancy lies not in its willingness to define British Chineseness for a general audience but in how it expresses the elusive nature of such a definition for the diverse community it represents. Choi, for example, barely speaks a word of Cantonese, let alone Mandarin, having immigrated from Macau at the age of seven. When a Chinese embassy staffer suggests “go back to your homeland” to reconnect with her heritage, she quips, “which one?”
The film itself, by extension, defies categorisation, its knotty structure and sprawling cast allowing it to jump from neo-noir to comedy of manners in a matter of moments – director Po-Chih Leong even tosses in a fake wuxia film for good measure. The narrative unravels like an elegant puzzle: as Choi stops by each member of Wong’s family, they reveal new details about the will, each other, and eventually themselves.
As an outsider to the Wong family, Choi serves not only as a surrogate for the audience but as a conduit for the film’s foregrounding of each characters’ neuroses. We meet Wong’s traditionalist son-in-law who quizzes his sons on the four great Chinese inventions; by contrast, Wong’s RP-accented younger son Mike (David Yip) scoffs at his father’s Chinatown business, opting instead to run an upscale Italian bar for a white clientele.
Crucially, no one is shown to be more or less Chinese than anyone else; there is none of the self-indulgent navel-gazing around identity that so often plagues immigrant storytelling. Instead, Ping Pong simply presents British Chinese life as is: gambling addicts, social climbers, undocumented immigrants and doctors are all part of the same rich, messy tapestry.
“The modest success of the ’80s, and the drought that followed, belies a simple narrative of racial progress on British screens.”
Given the numerous firsts Ping Pong represents (it was also the first film to be shot in London’s Chinatown),