The Chinese Detective (BBC, 1981-82) provided the first lead role for a Chinese actor on British television. Written by Ian Kennedy Martin, creator of The Sweeney (ITV, 1975-78), the series remains the only British television drama to feature a Chinese lead.
The series was influenced by the internationally successful Charlie Chan detective films of the 1930s and '40s, but in line with industry attitudes of the time, that particular Chinese detective was invariably played by a white actor in 'yellow-face'. The BBC's update of the archetype, thankfully, cast the British-born Chinese actor David Yip as Detective Sergeant John Ho. Instead of the barely intelligable English typically spoken by Chinese actors in British drama, Yip's accent has a strong Cockney influence. Ho fits the pattern of the maverick detective, prepared to use unorthodox methods to solve his cases, which emerged in series like Z Cars (BBC, 1962-78) and further developed in The Sweeney.
The Chinese Detective successfully represents Chinese culture without resorting to racial stereotypes. When asked where he is from, Ho replies simply, "I'm Cockney". However, Chinese issues are neither forgotten nor sidelined: the programmes offer glimpses of Chinese culture and tradition. Ho is seen in a traditional Chinese restaurant, talking to his father amidst steaming boiled rice and Chinese tea. The nature of the conversation and the respect for elders reflects Chinese customs, particularly that of the young coming to the wise for advice.
Unfortunately, The Chinese Detective did not exactly pave the way for more Chinese actors to appear on mainstream television, but it did at least prove that a Chinese actor could carry a television series.