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Image / Living / Culture

Gemma Chan has addressed her controversial earlier on-screen role


By Holly O'Neill
11th Aug 2021

Read time: 3 minutes

Gemma Chan has addressed her controversial earlier on-screen role

"Would I necessarily make the same choices now? Maybe not."

Gemma Chan has reflected on earlier roles in her career in an interview with British Vogue, including a controversial episode from the BBC series Sherlock.

Gemma Chan says she was warned by her teachers at drama school that she would have difficulty finding roles in Britain but that she chose to stay, rationalizing, “Well, the thing is, if everyone just leaves and goes elsewhere, then what’s going to change?”

Staying meant she had years of trying “every job going – bit parts, one line parts, anything,” including an episode of Sherlock in 2010 in which she played “a witheringly stereotypical damsel in distress,” says British Vogue. In the episode, she speaks with a heavy Chinese accent, wears Chinese traditional dress and plays a Chinese pottery expert working at the invented National Antiquities Museum in London. The episode was accused of “being a racially tone-deaf exercise in orientalism, with Chan cast as the wilting lotus blossom,” says British Vogue.

“Would I necessarily make the same choices now, if given the choice? Maybe not. I think I would speak up more if I felt that a role was leaning into an orientalist trope of some sort,” says Chan. “I’m much more aware. And I think I’m in more of a position where I could say something. With complete respect to everyone involved… I’m not here to throw shade on anyone… but yeah, I totally hear what you’re saying. The industry has really shifted, even in just the time that I’ve been working. Changing the actual culture – changing in practice – takes longer.”

Chan says she hopes her work will open doors for other Asian actors to further change the industry. “There’s a way that you can honour the spirit of your ancestors by actually trying to do something different, which I know is a privilege,” she says. “This is the argument I tried to put to my parents back then, when things were tough: hopefully, you work to make sure the next generation has even more of a chance to do something different and change things for the better for the rest of the community, or the next generation after that. That’s something I feel in my bones. I want a rising tide to lift all boats.”

Photography by @gemma_chan.