When I was growing up, the number of times I saw people on television who looked like me was so infrequent that when I did see an Asian face, I automatically memorised the name that belonged to it. I can still recall them: Mai from Heartbreak High, Loc from Head Start, and Bec from Crash Zone.
After a lull in the late 90s to early 2000s – when on-screen Asian faces all but disappeared, except for a few representatives on reality TV – Asian Australians began to fight back in small numbers, appearing as bit players or supportingcharacters.
But from Lawrence Leung’s Maximum Choppage to Remy Hii’s starring role in the mini-series Better Man, Asian Australians are finally taking centre stage on screen – at least on the public broadcasters.
SBS’s latest offering had its network debut last night, The Family Law, based on the bestselling memoir by Benjamin Law. Produced by Matchbox Pictures (the engine behind most recent Asian-Australian content, led by the Asian-Australian director and producer Tony Ayres), the show focuses on the Laws’ escapades and trials over a long, hot Queensland summer.
The Law family lives in the suburbs of Queensland, and includes mum Jenny, dad Danny, and five children: Ben, Candy, Andrew, Michelle and Tammy. While in some ways the Laws are a typical Chinese immigrant family (Danny works too much at the family restaurant, for instance), the family has idiosyncrasies that have nothing to do with race: Ben’s grand dreams of stardom; Michelle’s errant nosebleeds; Jenny’s consistently inappropriate comments.
Played by Fiona Choi, Jenny Law is ‘a refreshing portrayal of the self-sacrificing mother many children of migrants know but never see in the media’. Photograph: Ben King/SBS
The series’ focal point is the estrangement between Danny and Jenny, and the complexities that follow for the family after their marriage breaks down. Heavy topics to be sure, but the show leaps gleefully into comedy. The series is mainly told from the point of view of the 14-year-old Ben (a perfectly cast Trystan Go) who, through his self-absorbed but well-meaning earnestness, achieves some of the best sequences in Australian comedy.
In the first episode, after a terrifically executed scene at a talent show involving Ben, a deaf child and his leg-braced friend Melissa (the excellent Bethany Whitmore), he plays clarinet to his mother to cheer her up, while still dressed as a watermelon slice. It’s the first of several tender scenes between mother and son.
The show takes time to delicately round out the character of the Law matriarch. As Jenny, Fiona Choi is flustered, incredibly Chinese, insensitive, unaware, loving, and proud of her crazy family – a refreshing portrayal of the self-sacrificing mother many children of migrants know but never see in the media. But while the series emphasises the disharmony between her and her husband, it fails to really explore the reasons behind their unhappiness.
Of course, the series invites comparison to the American sitcom Fresh off the Boat. Adapted from the chef Eddie Huang’s memoir of the same name, the show was based on the experience of the Huangs as the only Chinese family in a “lily-white” suburb of Florida. Similar to the Laws, Huang’s parents ran a restaurant – but the portrayal of his family was criticised by Huang himself for its lack of cultural and individual specificity.
Ben (Trystan Go) and his father, Danny (Anthony Wong), share a moment in The Family Law. Photograph: Ben King/SBS
Law and Ayres have filled those gaps, imbuing The Family Law with lashings of specificity; in fact, there’s so much detail, warmth and gentle humour to the script, direction and production design that the characters and settings are relatable for anyone who grew up – or is growing up – in Australia.
But perhaps as a result of this, and of the nature of the source material itself, which comprises episodic vignettes that don’t follow a typical dramatic structure, the series tends to wander between characters and scenes rather than coming to any real conclusions about the social and cultural pressures faced by migrant families in Australia.
Still, Asian Australians will relish the immigrant Asian quirks, such as the leather couches, hoarding, red envelopes and Cantonese-speaking aunties. For everyone else, there are nuanced observations about growing up (shoving socks down your costume for a bum lift; having a crush on the half-Japanese kid next door) and cultural variations on familiar traditions (attempts at catering for Christmas with a turkey instead of a steamboat).
The Family Law will likely be watched mainly by Asian Australians, but it’s enjoyable for all: a gentle, loving and very Australian family comedy, full of humour and affection for its characters. Asian Australians have arrived on our screens. Let’s hope we’ll be able to stay.