Friday, April 03, 2009

Ho Ho, Very Satirical

Spike today has a piece about the current row over an allegedly racist article by local commentator Chip Tsao in HK Magazine. For those who haven't kept up, the Philippines government took exception to a sentence in which Tsao described Filipinos as "a nation of servants", and banned him from entry to the Philippines. Local domestic helpers have become equally overwrought about it and plan a demonstration to condemn him, even though he has already apologised.

As Spike says, the article was clearly satirical, and the magazine's editor should have defended its columnist instead of caving in to pressure by publishing an apology. However, while this may be correct in principle, I think it over-simplifies the matter.

Both Mr Tsao and HK magazine have a considerably larger, and probably more diverse, readership than the small coterie of Hong Kong expat bloggers like ourselves, Fumier, and Ulaca who trade in-jokes online. While it is clear that Tsao intended his piece as satire, the subtleties of saying one thing and implying another are often lost on those for whom English is a second language. For this reason, writers and editors need to take particular care to ensure their intentions are not misunderstood in a multicultural community such as Hong Kong.

I remember some years ago submitting a satirical article on how not to get a job to a local recruitment magazine, based on my years of experience in recruiting IT staff for a major bank. The article - which contained such valuable advice as "leave unexplained gaps in your CV" and "remember not to sign your cover letter" - was accepted, but only after the editor turned it around into a straight article on how to get a job, on the basis that the humour would be lost on the intended audience.

Even if HK's editor believed the intent was clear, there is another problem - once someone influential misinterprets such an article, most of those who subsequently get heated up about it have never read the original piece, only someone else's distorted version of it. Once matters reach this stage, there is little anyone can do except wait for the fuss to blow over - and in Mr Tsao's case, plan to take his next beach holiday in Thailand!

10 comments:

fumier said...

It's a good thing no one reads my blog, apart from those you mention plus the Chinese government, as otherwise I would be banned from almost everywhere, including the UK, Holland, Australia, the Philippines, Germany, the US and Canada, to name but a few. On the other hand, I probably wouldn't notice if I _was_ banned. Actually,I would be quite chuffed to be banned from the Philippines (and, no, I'm not being satirical).

Private Beach said...

Not all the UK, Fumie, only Wales.

ulaca said...

The article wasn't funny and I'm not sure I would call it satirical. Tsao then issued an apology in Spanish - a language hardly anyone in the Phillipines speaks - which like the article itself was designed to draw attention to him and his wit, language skills etc. Unless, that was meant as satire too?

And who really beleives he was being satirical when he said he was a Chinese patriot and felt the Spratlys belonged to China?

Spike said...

See, that's why I believe that the editors are to blame as much or even more than Tsao. Just want to highlight these two lines from my blog on this:

"The editors should have known in advance that the column might be misread by some. They should have either rejected the column or worked with the writer to shape it into the clearest possible form."

What I should have added to that blog piece was that a year or so ago, I received a lot of flak for a column I wrote in BC making fun of white guys in Wanchai but it was perceived by some to be making fun of the Asian women there. I felt at the time that my editor stood behind me by publishing one of the letters from someone who took offense and also allowing me to reply to that letter in print. And I also figured I'd better be more aware of how likely my humor is to be misinterpreted by some. Which doesn't stop me from writing half the crap I write on my blog.

Regardless of what one thinks of Tsao (and I'm not willing to go on the record with my opinion), I feel his editors treated him poorly in this instance.

And I completely agree with your final paragraph!

Private Beach said...

Just one thing I would add here - I'm not saying that one should never publish satire in Hong Kong, or anywhere else, in case it is misunderstood. Indeed, Hong Kong - especially its government - needs to be satirised more than many other places - and some people deserve to be offended! But I agree with Spike that it's part of an an editor's job to know his readership and have a feeling for what they will or won't understand.

gweipo said...

Of course the real irony is that there was a time when the Philipines imported Chinese people to be their servants ...

fumier said...

Ulie, do you remember (you may need to refer to your diary)whether, when Napoleon called the English a "nation of shopkeepers" ("une nation de boutiquiers"), the perfidious English got as upset about it as the Flippers are getting now? And if not, why not?

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