Gemma Chan, known for her roles in Crazy Rich Asians and within the MCU, did not always get to play such well-rounded characters at the start of her career. After appearing in another Steven Moffat-led series in 2009—Doctor Who—Chan starred in a particularly controversial episode of Sherlock, the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle-based show starring Benedict Cumberbatch.
Chan guest-stars in the second episode of season 1, titled “The Blind Banker.” She plays Soo Lin Yao, a Chinese pottery expert who works at the fictional National Antiquities Museum in London. The episode received criticism for leaning into racial tropes, with Chan wearing a qipao (Chinese traditional dress) and speaking in a thick Chinese accent, while vaguely Asian-sounding flute music plays in the background. In an interview with Vogue, Chan reflects on the “racially tone-deaf exercise in orientalism,” saying that now she would reconsider her options.
“Would I necessarily make the same choices now, if given the choice? Maybe not,” Chan admits. “I think I would speak up more if I felt that a role was leaning into an orientalist trope of some sort. I’m much more aware. And I think I’m in more of a position where I could say something.”
This was early on in the actor’s career, and years before her breakout as Mia in Humans. Chan makes it clear she understands how it feels to lack power in an industry, and find yourself needing to take on more unseemly roles in order just to get by with little room for input. For her, finding her footing as an actor meant taking on “every job going—bit parts, one line parts, anything.”
“With complete respect to everyone involved… I’m not here to throw shade on anyone… but yeah, I totally hear what you’re saying,” she says. “I don’t look down on anyone doing any position or in any job on set. The industry has really shifted, even in just the time that I’ve been working. Changing the actual culture—changing in practice—takes longer.”
It should not be lost on anyone that Chan did not write the character herself—that was a room full of white men, who bear the responsibility concerning how the character was portrayed. Showrunner Moffat and episode writer Stephen Thompson also penned numerous other inaccuracies in addition to Chan’s character, including the “Suzhou” numerical system being incorrectly identified as “Huangzhou,” and the episode’s assertion that origami is a Chinese art-form rather than a Japanese one, which would have taken a mere Google search to clear up.
The Eternals star also reflects that even with some of the changes in narratives on Asian characters, there’s still plenty of room to improve, especially when it comes to who’s calling the shots and writing the characters. That way, actors of color don’t find themselves needing to take on culturally insensitive roles in order to get anywhere in the industry.
“Individual successes are one thing. But structurally, when you look at who can actually get projects green-lit in the UK, who are in those positions of power, those gatekeeping positions—there aren’t that many Asians,” she says. “There aren’t many people of color in those positions.”
Over ten years out from her Sherlock appearance, Chan sees her current work as a way to honor her culture and continue to open doors for those that follow her. Even as acting tutors told her it would be better if she focused on finding work in the U.S., she did not see that as her path to creating long lasting change back home in London.
“There’s a way that you can honor 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.”