Written by Flair Donglai Shi
As a Taiwanese director based in London, Jenny Lu (Lu Jinming) decided to make her first feature-length film about a group of sex workers in an illegal massage parlour on the outskirts of the city after she found out, with shock, that one of her Chinese friends had had similar experiences and committed suicide. As the title makes clear, The Receptionist does not dive into the world of the illegal massage parlour directly. Instead, audiences are led into it at a slow and reluctant pace by the protagonist Tina, an international student from Taiwan. Hit by the financial crisis of 2008, Tina found her literature degree useless in her regular job hunt and took up the receptionist position at the massage parlour so that she could pay her rent and stay in London.
Lu has obviously been aware of the inevitable voyeurism that comes with the focus of her story. On the one hand, making Tina the outsider offers a clear object of identification for the film’s audiences to enter the world of these sex workers, a world that is rarely discussed without prejudice. On the other hand, this setup nevertheless creates boundaries between Tina/the audiences and the sex workers: Tina gradually makes friends with the women in the massage parlour but never really becomes one of them. As such, this moral boundary safeguards the audiences’ ethnographic gaze towards the Other throughout the film and consolidates its fundamental conservative tone. It calls for sympathy but stops short of real affirmation for what these women do.
As a British-Taiwanese co-production, The Receptionist contains short dialogues in English, Mandarin, and Taiwanese, and its representation of women can be examined in both the context of British visual culture and that of Taiwanese cinema. The representation of China in British popular culture has not really improved since the 1980s, in terms of either the level of visibility afforded to the Chinese living in Britain or the ways in which Chineseness as a generic ethnic marker is featured. Even with the end of the Fu Manchu film series in 1980, entrenched ideas about the Chinese threat have persisted into the 2010s. For example, in the episode “The Blind Banker” of the hugely popular TV series Sherlock (2010), we see the heroic protagonist uncover and defeat a Chinese crime syndicate called Black Lotus lurking in the tunnels beneath London’s Chinatown—a less-than-subtle mutation of the evil yellow gangs imagined by Fu Manchu’s inventor Sax Rohmer a hundred years ago. Similarly, in the thriller series One Child (2014) produced by BBC, old tropes of Oriental despotism plus Cold-War style red scare find an updated mix in an adopted Chinese-British kid’s journey back to her racial motherland, only to have her dreams crushed by the oppressive, authoritarian regime. Or if these haunting reappearances of the Yellow Peril are not entertaining enough, we can also find no shortage of ironic self-racism in the pilot episode of the comedy Chinese Burn (2017, read my article about it here). Against this background, The Receptionist is perhaps a better fit in the series of feature films about the Chinese diaspora in Britain made in the 1980s and 1990s: Ping Pong (1986), Soursweet (1988), and Foreign Moon (1996). Like Lu’s story, these films carry many characteristics of the bildungsroman and illustrate Chinese women’s struggles in juggling tasks of survival and demands from different cultural expectations. However, what sets The Receptionist apart is Lu’s focus on the relations between women, which are to do with neither familial ties nor heterosexual romance.
Dim and hidden, the illegal massage parlour run from an ordinary suburban English house is a space of homosocial bonding that doubles as the main site of Tina’s journey of bildungsroman. Here she meets a diverse range of Chinese-speaking sex workers, including the money-oriented mamasan Lily, the Taiwanese single mother Sasa, funny Chinese Malaysian student Mei, and Anna, the obedient and reserved newcomer. From keeping her distance with a holier-than-thou attitude during meals to moving in with the girls after being kicked out by her puritanical white British boyfriend, Tina becomes more and more integrated in the world of the sex workers and forges meaningful connections with them. In contrast to the sympathetic and humanistic portrayal of these women, the film’s depiction of men is almost always negative and does not afford them much complexity of character.
Unlike the generic way many British cultural products depict Chinese people living in Britain, The Receptionist takes a very Sinophone approach towards its Chinese-speaking female characters and foregrounds the linguistic diversity among the different accents and dialects used in the parlour. While Mei’s Malaysian accent often delivers comic effects to temporarily relieve the desperate atmosphere of their working environment, Lily’s harsh northern Chinese tones coupled with an unapologetic materialism make her the most unlikeable person in the house. Although these features enable the audiences to see Chineseness as larger and more complex than the nation state of China, the Sinophone as employed in this film does not confine itself to Shu-mei Shih’s paradigm against Chinese hegemony. Together the women encounter racist glances from their white neighbours and endure precarity and hardships in an unfriendly Britain paved with frustration and hostility rather than gold and opportunities. As the director admits, these women’s marginality in relation to white middle-class Britain in effect unites their diverse Sinophone backgrounds, and thus “huaren” as an ethnic and cultural identity in this context becomes an inclusive and yet place-based force against white racism and economic precarity, rather than the kind of exclusive critique against Chinese hegemony advocated by Shih and other scholars.
Moreover, rather than depicting a hegemonic China oppressing Taiwan and the other communities in the diaspora, The Receptionist brings in more complex social dynamics among its Sinophone subjects and provides subtle criticisms against Taiwanese nationalism or cronyism instead. In the middle of the film, Tina steals money from Sasa and then frames the mainland Chinese girl Anna (Lu’s fictionalization of her real-life friend). Anna is then forced to take more sex work upon herself as punishment, which eventually leads to her suicide. Later, during a conversation about missing Taiwan as home after Anna’s death, Sasa reveals to Tina that she actually helped Tina cover up her theft even though she knew all along that Anna did not take the money. The bond between Tina and Sasa is therefore partially built on this shared Taiwanese identity, which propelled them to treat the mainland Chinese girl Anna unfairly and left them with strong senses of guilt.
At the end of the film, Tina returns to her hometown in the Taiwanese countryside to help rebuild her family’s farms after a devastating typhoon. She finds peace at home and tells Sasa in a letter that if she ever decides to come back as well, she must let her know. In many ways this homecoming call is reminiscent of the nativist/xiangtu tradition in Taiwanese literature and film. For example, the famous novella “A Flower in The Raining Night” (Kan hai de rizi) by Huang Chun-ming also centres on the tough journey of a female sex worker, who returns to her native village with a son and is finally accepted by a community with warmth and kindness (the story was made into a film in 1983). This nativist message is brought up in The Receptionist more than once with the metaphor of the earthworm, and the sentence “If the earthworm leaves the soil for too long, it will die” is repeated in Tina’s letter to Sasa as the last line of the film. Admittedly, “just go back to where you come from” is a rather escapist, if not outright essentialist, solution to the diasporic condition no matter how dire it is. As a result, the film’s critique of racism and sexism indeed stops at the level of ethnographic empathy and redemptive homecoming. Just minutes before Tina reads these lines in her letter, we see Sasa and her son wander in a London park and receive flyers about a church event. When asked about where she lives, Sasa is unable to respond. What the film seems to suggest with this ending for Sasa is that the only way for the diasporic sex worker to make peace with herself is to get rid of her professional identity and diasporic condition altogether. Namely, she should become a “good and normal” mother in Taiwan. As such, the persistence of a strong conservatism against the transgressive power of both cultural displacement and sex work becomes the most limiting aspect of the film, a film that is otherwise interesting and refreshing in its representation of a diverse range of Chinese-speaking women getting by in the unseen corners of British society.
Flair Donglai Shi is a final year PhD researcher in English and Comparative Literature at the University of Oxford. From 2018, he has also worked as Associate Tutor for the MA program in Translation and Cultures at Warwick University. His thesis focuses on the Yellow Peril as a traveling discourse in modern Anglophone and Sinophone literatures. His articles have been published in many academic journals, including Women: A Cultural Review, CLEAR, and Critical Comparative Studies. His edited book, World Literature in Motion: Institution, Recognition, Location, is coming out with Ibidem and Columbia University Press in 2020. Inspiration for this short article is drawn from a screening of the film with Director Jenny Lu he hosted at Oxford in 2018 as well as the summer course “Chinese British History through Literature and Film” he taught at Exeter College, 2019. All of his works can be accessed here on his academic webpage.
Image shows scene from towards end of the film where Tina and Sasa have a moment of bonding on the Thames River. Image Source: IMBD)