Quiet on set: TV critic moonlights as an extra in Frankie Drake Mysteries
Tony Wong jumped at the chance to be a background actor in a Chinese-themed episode of Frankie Drake.
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I wasn’t sure whether to be flattered or offended. After all, I was being offered a role on the new CBC series Frankie Drake Mysteries.
“You can play a waiter in a Chinese restaurant!” the publicist cheerfully suggested.
After years of interviewing Asian American actors such as John Cho (Star Trek), Eddie Huang (Fresh Off The Boat) and Ken Jeong (Dr. Ken) about the lack of Asian representation in movies and television, playing an ingrained stereotype lacked appeal, to say the least. I had also, in the past, pointedly called out Canadian television producers for making racist comments. So maybe I wasn’t the best candidate.
The correspondence over the next few weeks did nothing to quell fears. If I showed up on a particular Tuesday I could be a chef or even a “King Mah-Jong player!” read an email from another publicist. This did not bode well.
But at some point I realized this wasn’t a slight; it was an opportunity. After all, following in the footsteps of just about every minority actor seemed a great way to start a conversation. I sent my reply: “I’m practising my Chinglish!”
Over the years I’ve been offered plenty of opportunity for background work, usually “dead body No. 1” or “art gallery patron No. 2” in any number of Canadian productions. It’s one way to get a TV critic on set for guaranteed publicity. I turned them all down.
I once asked Ken Jeong whether he thought playing the unhinged gangster Mr. Chow in The Hangover series of films had set back the Asian American image a hundred years. Asian males in particular have been emasculated in mainstream film and television, regulated to a nerdy archetype, people like Mr. Chow who you couldn’t imagine having a penis.
Jeong replied that he was being “meta”: playing it “so hard” that he actually burst through stereotype.
I’m not sure what that means, but I’m pretty sure most people were laughing at him, not with him.
Was I about to fall into the same trap?
Frankie Drake is about Toronto’s first female detective (played by The Listener’s Lauren Lee Smith). It’s brought to you by the same people who make the phenomenally popular Murdoch Mysteries (or The Artful Detective, as it’s inexplicably called in the United States).
It’s set in the 1920s where discrimination was the norm and also the rule of law, which included a head tax on Chinese immigrants, the only such tax of its kind on an ethnic minority.
Chinese-Canadians still had a long way to being seen as full-figured human beings. It seems astonishing to think that we would not be able to vote in Canada until 1947, two decades after the era depicted in Frankie Drake.
Frankie’s favourite hangout is a Chinese restaurant called Quan’s, presided over by “Whiskey Wendy,” played by Grace Lynn Kung.
In the episode I’ll be appearing in (airing Jan. 8), an English teacher is missing and a possible human trafficking ring in Chinatown is suspected. Chinese gangsters? Perfect! I was excited to hang out with the other background “coolies” and learn what life was like among other marginalized extras in the trenches. Except it didn’t quite work out that way.
For one thing, there were no flowing Chinese silk robes. I showed up early for my morning call for a wardrobe fitting at Shaftesbury Films’ Etobicoke studio to be handed a thick three-piece wool suit with a blue suede hat.
My hair is slicked with extra grease, making me look like an Asian Alfalfa from The Little Rascals. I am not toiling in a restaurant or playing mah-jong or performing kung fu. Instead I’m to be a “helper” in a Chinese benevolent society teaching an elderly gentleman how to fill out a form, while the real actors do their thing.
My fellow background actor is William Chong, a retired postal worker who got the call 24 hours earlier to arrive at the studio. Like me, he has no idea what the plot is about.
We both sit at a table, a sheet of paper and a pencil in front of us. The director says “action!” I start to scribble frenetically. I hand the pencil over to William. William starts to silently mouth a conversation. I nod energetically, all bug-eyed, making up for the fact this is a non-speaking role.
We are silently battling over who holds the pencil longer to ensure more screen time. I imagine this will lead to the logical conclusion where we are both on the ground, arm-wrestling over the damn pencil. The director yells “Cut!” We do it again.
Also in the scene are star Smith and veteran actor Russell Yuen. He plays the head of the benevolent society, who may be more than he seems.
Yuen says he auditioned long distance, speaking Cantonese and Mandarin, although the Montreal-born actor’s first languages are English and French.
“In this case, they just allowed me to use my natural voice. I didn’t have to put on an accent,” says Yuen. “The reality is something like this is extremely progressive.”
It’s kind of sad to think that Yuen having a non-accented conversation with Frankie at a benevolent society meeting passes as progress. Although I’m not concentrating on what he’s saying. I’m too busy holding on to my pencil.
The Chinese in downtown Toronto in the 1920s would have spoken in Taishanese, the dialect common to Canada. But given the reality of international marketing, the language spoken in the series is mostly Mandarin.
The 52-year-old Yuen has played more than his share of busboys, Asian gangsters and martial arts roles over the years. The parts have gotten meatier, but the challenges are still there.
“When I started, that’s all that they had,” says Yuen. “I think things have improved. My worry is that when they really improve it’ll be too late in my career.”
Growing up in Montreal, Yuen’s father wouldn’t even let him speak Chinese in public because of fear of discrimination.
“We’ve already come a long way,” he says.
Canada, with all its diversity, has had few Asian showrunners. But there has been progress lately, including Ins Choi’s success at CBC with Kim’s Convenience, and Amanda Joy and Samantha Wan in City’s Second Jen. OMNI also has limited series Blood and Water, which blends Mandarin, Cantonese and English into the fabric of the show — not unlike something you might hear on the streets of downtown Toronto or Vancouver.
Back at the craft service table, William and I are enjoying pulled pork, pasta, fish and all-you-can-eat pastries. I’m on my second plate, because if this really were the 1920s I’d be in the back scraping dishes. Note to self: next time, bring Tupperware.
William says the worst food he ever ate was on the set of Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, shot at Toronto’s Pinewood Studios, his first job as an extra.
This by comparison, he says, is “really quite good.”
As a union member he gets paid $26 per hour for a minimum of eight hours. Non-unionized members get $12.50.
You don’t get rich by being an extra, but William says he enjoys being on set and meeting people.
Television sets are about hierarchy. I get a few more perks than the other extras, but I’m afraid to tell William in case he sees me as a sellout. It includes a prime parking spot with my name on it and my own trailer, courtesy of producers.
A French film crew and magazine writer are also touring the set. Murdoch Mysteries is apparently huge in France where more than 3 million viewers tune in weekly to see Yannick Bisson solve crime in late 19th-century Toronto. And producers are pushing hard for a pickup of Frankie Drake.
I bemoan to the French guests that I didn’t get to wear a Fu Manchu-style outfit, the kind that William wore when he played a general in another show.
“Be careful. In France you would be wearing pigtails. We love the cliché,” says the magazine writer.
It’s time to return for filming. I remember what Ken Jeong told me. “Commit to the whole nine yards and don’t apologize for anything. Play it with conviction.”
I pick up the pencil and start scribbling furiously. Mr. Chow would be proud.