‘Carnival Row’ Forgets East Asia’s Role in Victorian Times

“Carnival Row” is a neo-noir fantasy that takes place in an alternative Victorian era universe, but it is a Victorian era that is more liberal in its treatment of black–both African and Indian, but totally devoid of East Asians. Asia was of particular importance to building the British empire, with the plunder coming China.

The Victorian era marks the reign of Queen Victoria, a period that lasted from 20 June 1837 to 22 January 1901. During that time, a lot of fashion whims came and went. Queen Victoria married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburge-Saalfield in 1840, during the First Opium War (1839-1842).

While India was the so-called “jewel” of the British Imperial crown, it was also where opium was grown to sell in China. India was the supplier and the British were the distributors.

According to Britannica:

Early in the 18th century the Portuguese found that they could import opium from India and sell it in China at a considerable profit. By 1773 the British had discovered the trade, and that year they became the leading suppliers of the Chinese market. The British East India Company established a monopoly on opium cultivation in the Indian province of Bengal, where they developed a method of growing opium poppies cheaply and abundantly. Other Western countries also joined in the trade, including the United States, which dealt in Turkish as well as Indian opium.

The first Opium War ended with the Treaty of Nanking, the first of what the Chinese and later the Koreans and Japanese would call the unequal treaties. The Qing government was required to pay six million silver dollars for opium that the Qing government had confiscated. The Qing government also ceded Hong Kong to Queen Victoria for “in perpetuity.”

The second Opium War was 1856 to 1860. With the defeat of the Qing dynasty in 1860, Kowloon was ceded and added to the British Hong Kong. The opium trade was legalized and more Chinese ports were opened to foreign trade. Not everyone was in favor of the wars, MP William E. Gladstone said of the first Opium War, it is “a war more unjust in its origin, a war more calculated in its progress to cover this country with permanent disgrace.”

Asian Indians were able to rise politically in Great Britain. During the Victorian era, the first Indian MP served from 1892–1895, Sir Dadabhai Naoroji Dordi, who was born in Bombay and would die there in 1917. He was from a Gujarati-speaking Parsi family. The second Indian-born MP was Sir Mancherjee Merwanjee Bhownaggree who served from 1895 to 1906. The first black MPs wouldn’t served until the late 1980s (Bernie Grant, 1987-2000; Paul Boateng, 1987-2005; Diane Abbott, 1987-present) and the first British Chinese MP would be Alan May (2015 to present) with Anna Lo, the first Chinese member of the Legislative Assembly of Northern Ireland.

The East Indian Company brought sailors from China, predominately Cantonese who would eventually form a Chinatown in places like the Limehouse Causeway in London from the 1880s.  A Shanghai community was established around Pennyfield and Ming. During the Victorian era, Chinatown became a literary device used in Charles Dickens’ 1870 unfinished novel, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” and Oscar Wilde’s “The Portrait of Dorian Gray” (1891).

In the portrayal of “Carnival Row” we see the trapping of Chinoiserie–the fabrics and the chinaware, but not the Chinese themselves. There’s no mention of opium, but there is of addiction, an elixir of some sort.

While the characters don’t talk about being “swamped” it is hard to forget Margaret Thatcher’s complaints that came at a time when the Hong Kong Chinese were thinking of their future before the 1997 handover. The exodus of the white population from what was then Rhodesia was one thing (as well as the Poles and Hungarians), but the Vietnamese and by extension the Hong Kong Chinese was a different matter. Great Britain was concerned about the white families born in its empire and until 1983 had patrilineal laws of citizenship. Your father could pass on your citizenship rights, but not your mother. If your paternal grandfather was born in the UK, you could claim citizenship. The UK was not concerned about the fate of the Hong Kong Chinese.

During the secret negotiations between Thatcher and the Chinese Premiere Zhao Ziyang, “The people of Hong Kong were not party to the discussions, nor were they consulted about the final decision,which had a profound effect on their futures” according to CNN. How different was this from the negotiations between the UK and Argentina over the Falkland Islands?  Given the current situation in Hong Kong, one would find it hard to forget this residual business of the British empire and its costly Opium Wars.  In 1997, the population of Hong Kong was about 6,492,000. The population of the Falkland Islands in 2019 is about 3,300.

Ritter Longerbane (Ronan Vibert)

In “Carnival Row,” there is talk of “swarming.”  At Balefire Hall, a governmental building of The Republic of the Burgue, the leader of the minority, Ritter Longerbane (Ronan Vibert),  declares:

The critch are swarming our city. They’re changing the very fabric of our society, and not for the better. They bring vices, wanton,  scourge of elixir addiction, worship of strange gods. Our streets are safe no more. Whole boroughs have become off-limits to decent citizens.

For American unfamiliar with the British discussions over immigration,  in 2015, then-Prime Minister David Cameron (210-2016) was criticized by addressing the Calais crisis by saying “a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean, seeking a better life, wanting to come to Britain.”  Harriet Harman commented, “he should remember he is talking about people and not insects.”

Yet charges and stereotypes of vice, drug addiction and wanton behavior were part of the characterization of the Chinese that survived well into modern times. Not long out of the Victorian era, British author Sax Rohmer capitalized on Yellow Perilism with his 1923 creation, Dr. Fu Manchu. Let’s not forget that Hong Kong and British business practices there inspired Richard Mason’s 1957 novel, “The World of Suzie Wong” and that became a play and then a movie.

Agreus Astrayon (David Gyasi) and Imogen Spurnrose (Tamzin Merchant).

“Carnival Row” sees the fairy or pix as less substantial, slight people. They are both black and white.  There are fauns or the pucks and they are both black and white. They are not East Asian or yellow. There are the Trow, which I guess are trolls, but for now those are only background characters. There are the humans who are both black and white.  In Episode 5, “Grieve No More,” when the financially desperate Imogen and Ezra Spurnrose (Tamzin Merchant and Andrew Gower, respectively) introduce the new neighbor and first puck/faun in the high-rent district, Agreus Astrayon (David Gyasi). Agreus (who is black) gets introduced to humans who are both black and white.

Piety and Absalom Breakspear.

The wife of Chancellor Absalom Breakspear (Jared Harris), Piety Breakspear is played by Indira Varma who is half Asian Indian. Arty Froushan, the actor playing her son Jonah Breakspear,  is of Middle Eastern descent (Persian). The actress (spoiler alert) playing his sister Sophie Longerbane, Caroline Ford,  is part Chinese (as well as Trinidadian, Scottish and English).

Sophie Longerbane.

Yellow Perilism (a term coined in the 1897 essay “Le Péril Jaune”) in conjunction with the 18th century Chinoiserie and the 19th century Japonisme (“The Mikado” premiered in 1885 and the 1904 “Madame Butterfly” which started with an 1887 French novel and a 1898 American short story) were very much a part of the Victorian era. “Miss Saigon,” which premiered on the London West End in 1989, was the direct descendant of those Victorian imaginings.

Yet the representation of China (beyond one actress who is part Chinese, but not identifiably so) and East Asia are lacking in “Carnival Rose.  The real component of Yellow Peril that haunted the Victorians and later the Edwardians and the China that helped finance the British Empire and the opulent fabrics and exquisite ceramics are not part of this Victorian fantasy on racism and immigration even though Amazon wants this to be timely. In 2019, twenty-two years after Hong Kong was handed over to Communist China, and thirty years after the tragic Tiananmen Square protests, the Chinese and East Asians are still not part of the conversation.  In 2019, it is long overdue that the topic of racism and immigration be expanded beyond black and white, even in a Victorian steampunkish noire fantasy.

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