“Swedish public service broadcaster SVT continues to broadcast and celebrate Swedish ‘gook humour’, with degrading, racist representations of East Asians,” wrote Tobias Hübinette and Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom in Swedish newspaper Expressen last week (2nd June). Below is a translation of their article, adapted for an international audience, together with some details of the reactions that their piece elicited.
Enough with the “gook humour”, SVT
As has become tradition, 29th May saw the annual celebration of one of the most popular sketches in Swedish modern history, “My Singing Korean Adoptive Parents/Pears”. It was aired to much acclaim on a prime time family TV show.
In the sketch a white boy, played by Robert Gustafsson, one of Sweden’s best-loved comedians, is adopted by two Koreans (played by white Swedes, Johan Rheborg and Henrik Schyffert). The Korean adoptive parents are depicted as pears: the joke being that the Swedish word for pears “päron” is also an informal word for “parents”. But these Korean parents aren’t “pärons” – but “pä-l-ons”, playing on the racist stereotype of Asians being unable to distinguish between “R” and “L”.
The sketch involves the adoptive pä-l-ons singing Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side in a heavy “Asian” accent – “Take a walk on the Whasssa”. Hilariously, their “R”s become “L”s, they squint elaborately, and they appear to have buckteeth.
The comedic aspect stems from a tradition of Swedish gook humour, as well as a kind of transphobic transracial humour, where the joke is the absurdity of racial roles in international adoption being reversed: what would happen if a white Swede was adopted by two Korean parents?
The sketch has a special place in the nation’s heart, having first been performed by the comedy group “Killinggänget” in SVT’s comedy series Nilecity in 1995. It is now celebrated annually: indeed, this year SVT tweeted a clip from the sketch, with the text, “Happy 29th May! #Nilecity”, and Henrik Schyffert, now known as an antiracist, shared the SVT clip on his Facebook page. And then there the sketch was again, proudly aired, uncritically, on prime time family entertainment show Roliga timmen.
The Adoptive Pear sketch is nothing but a mockery of this country’s 55,000 international adoptees and 180,000 Asians. What is actually so funny about adoptees and the idea of the reversed racial roles of adoptive families? And, above all, what is so funny about Asians?
The sketch is part of a much wider tradition of Swedish gook humour, where performances with false buck teeth, “R” and “L” jokes, crazy hysterics and squinting eyes are uncritically presented to willing audiences, and sure to raise a laugh. Let us be clear: we are not talking about illicit racist jokes shared in a shady corner of the Internet or in third rate comedy nights in the back rooms of pubs. No, Swedish gook humour is very much mainstream, presented as wholesome family entertainment. For example, in 2008, family favourite and Swedish institution, “Allsång på skansen”, an annual summer series of live broadcasts of sing-a-longs, featured Sissela Kyle (another popular white comedian and “antiracist” as well), performing dressed as a “communist”, waving tiny red flags in jolting, hysterical movements, and screaming nonsense in fake Mandarin, with the show’s white host joining in the fun in a “rice hat”, leading the audience in a synchronized rowing dance. Shamefully, this came in a show that also featured a performance by the famous Chinese singer Wei Wei.
What broadcasters like SVT fail to consider is that sketches and acts like these haunt us Swedish Asians who have to endure humiliating racist abuse in our everyday lives. Unfortunately, the sheer sight of us can propel both white and non-white Swedes to start grinning and screaming degrading names, on the most unexpected of occasions. Swedish gook humour legitimizes anti-Asian racism, and those acceptable slurs projected in the Adoptive Pears sketch are the very same slurs that plague us.
Gook humour has clear parallels with the anti-Semitic humour that was normalized during the first half of the 1900’s, built on grotesque caricatures of Jewish bodies. But unlike anti-Semitic humour, jokes ridiculing and demeaning Asian bodies appear over and over again on radio and in television, in newspapers and magazines, in advertising and films, in digital media and on the internet and in shows and stage performances to this very day. The fact that gook humour is so beloved by the public in Sweden in particular is curious given that proportionally no other Western nation has adopted and married such a high number of Asians.
The problem for us Swedish Asians is that this type of comedy is the only accessible representation that we are given to mirror ourselves in. Think about it for a moment, how many Asians have you seen in a Swedish television series, play or film? And how many Asian actors, musicians, artists or comedians in Sweden can you count? Sadly it is a fact that over the last 20 to 30 years there have been far more white Swedes performing as Asians in yellowface (such as, Jarl Borssén, Mi Ridell, Johannes Brost, Anders Lundin, Sissela Kyle and Henrik Schyffert and many more Swedish celebrities), than Asian actors themselves.
SVT’s celebratory broadcast of the Adoptive Pears sketch on 29th May this year continues to fan the flames of everyday racism against all Swedish Asians, and jars awkwardly with the antiracist vision of diversity recently trumpeted by SVT, which was even criticized for being too radical.
Tobias Hübinette (Associate Professor in Critical Race- and Whiteness Studies, adopted from Korea) and Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom (illustrator and comic book artist, adopted from Korea)
Translated and adapted by Richey Wyver, Researcher in International Migration and Ethnic Relations (IMER)
“You Ungrateful Fucker”: Reactions and Responses
The publication of Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom’s and Tobias Hübinette’s Expressen article criticizing SVT’s celebratory broadcast of the Adoptive Pears sketch brought forth a torrent of abuse online and through personal emails. This ranged from accusations of having no sense of humour, to extreme racist outbursts:
You come to Sweden and whine about us Swedes!
You are an ungrateful fucker!
You should be put on the first boat back to Korea.
It’s simple. If you don’t like it here in Sweden you can go home.
(Anonymous email received by both authors)
Please, stop being so critical of what you call “gook humour” and “racial stereotypes” of Asians – it’s actually just humour that Swedish people enjoy, it’s all about that and nothing else you rice field-treading, slit-eyed, dog-eating gook.
(Email received by Tobias Hübinette)
Even Nazi Sweden was stirred into action, clearly concerned by the raising of Asian voices. Hübinette returned home on Thursday 4th June to find a grotesque racist image of a Chinese face stuck to his front door by stickers advertising a well known Nazi organization, and a bag of pears hung on his door handle.
Perhaps almost as disturbing, if not as physically threatening, as the Nazi reaction is the reaction of white antiracist groups and spokespeople. Prominent figures self-identifying as “antiracists” have refused to back Sjöblom and Hübinette, while the nation’s politicians, who this time last year were triumphantly campaigning for the general election on antiracist tickets, have remained universally silent.
As for SVT, Head of Entertainment Thomas Hall said he was sad to hear that anyone had taken offence, but defended his decision to re-air the sketch. When asked how it complies with SVT’s diversity policy, he declined to answer, but turned the focus to the importance of the freedom of comedic expression.
In 2015, in a country that identifies itself as being tolerant, diverse and above racism, it is utterly disgraceful that “gook humour” is an acceptable, established form of mainstream family entertainment. It is disgusting that Nazis should threaten a leading academic for criticizing such racist humour. Above all it is totally unacceptable for a nation of self-proclaimed antiracists to stand by and allow such blatantly racist performances to pass without reflection or criticism. It is time for racism against Asians to be taken seriously in Sweden.
Richey Wyver, Researcher in International Migration and Ethnic Relations (IMER)
Illustration by Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom