Rarely does a newsreader develop a cult following. Lee Lin Chin, however, is exceptional. As a staffer for SBS, Chin provided a vital point of difference – and a literal face of diversity – in Australia, serving as one of the few regular presenters of Asian descent on locally made television. Her look and voice were distinct as well, but more important is her skill: she presented on a vast variety of news and current-affairs programs over her time on air with unwavering professionalism and a calm, measured and empathetic tone. Chin’s final broadcast for SBS World News in July 2018 ended a thirty-year association with the SBS newsroom, a remarkable achievement in broadcasting anywhere. It was such an event that the news broadcast was even screened live on the big screen at Melbourne’s Federation Square.
In recent years, Chin has risen as a social-media cult figure. For example, her fans created tributes via outlets such as the Facebook group ‘Lee Lin Chin’s Asymmetrical Outfits’, a page with over 50,000 likes that started as a loving homage to her wonderfully unusual fashion sense. Her profile also grew following her appearances as Australia’s spokesperson for the SBS Eurovision broadcast in 2015 and as a regular on SBS’s comedy news program The Feed. In the latter, she presented segments like ‘Celebrity Chin-Wag’ and a parody of Jimmy Kimmel’s ‘Celebrities Read Mean Tweets’, in which Chin read out tweets she’d written herself, rather than tweets written to her. Blunt, biting and hilarious.
Perhaps Chin’s best contribution to The Feed was her part in a 2014 sketch called ‘Broadcast Battleground’, in which she fought off a group of Australian news anchors and presenters in a mock underground fight. With a straight face and gorgeous timing, she ‘battled’ with presenters from rival networks Seven, Nine, Ten and the ABC, each wielding fake weapons and spraying terrible puns at one another. Chin emerged victorious, seen swilling a beer and gaining superhuman strength to defeat them all. As the skit’s adjudicator, journalist David Marr, declared with her ascent: ‘She’s not a newsreader – she’s Lee Lin mother-flippin’ Chin!’
In 2016, Chin became the first SBS personality to ever be nominated for a Gold Logie, which earned her the unofficial title of ‘Queen of Australian TV’; although she lost the award itself to The Project’s Waleed Aly, she was the clear winner when it came to style and presentation. Taking the ten-year-old son of an SBS hair and make-up artist to the ceremony as her date and wearing a glorious yellow suit to the event, Chin elicited Twitter commentary during and after the ceremony that was arguably more memorable than much of the night itself. The following year, during the lead-up to the event, she tweeted, ‘Voting for the #TVWEEKLogies has opened but who cares? I didn’t win last year so the ceremony is dead to me.’
While it was revealed in 2015 that Chin’s infamous tweets were actually co-written with comedian Chris Leben, this did little to slow Chin’s fans. Instead of hiding the collaboration, Chin and Leben showed it off and formed a formal partnership with the production company All the Chin’s Men. Together, in 2016, they released the book Iced Beer and Other Tantalising Tips for Life, a parody self-help book that sharply contrasts Chin’s straight newsreading reputation with fantastically loose facts. In his 2017 TED talk explaining their creative partnership, Leben explained the process of ‘creat[ing] the incredibly popular Lee Lin Chin comedy character’: ‘It’s basically just Lee Lin, but more violent and overtly sexual.’
Since Chin’s last SBS appearance, her absence has been felt in the broader broadcast community. ABC talk show Tonightly dealt with her resignation by staging a parody of an Australian Idol audition to find a replacement for her. Called ‘Australia’s Main Asian’, the sketch showed a panel of judges looking for ‘Australia’s next Lee Lin Chin, because there can only be one Asian on Australian TV’. Featuring SBS PopAsia presenter Andy Trieu, comedian Aaron Chen, writer Michelle Law, writer/broadcaster Benjamin Law, Tonightly reporter Nina Oyama and Triple J host Linda Marigliano, the skit ultimately awarded the prize to a ‘Belinda Anderson’, who claimed, ‘They made me come [to the audition]. I’m not Asian at all.’ The point was both to show Chin’s unparalleled appeal and to highlight a TV landscape still starved of diversity on screen.
Meanwhile, while the noise and sketches continued, Chin’s Twitter feed contained bragging posts about her post-newsdesk escapades – including lounging in a Singaporean beer garden, where she casually invited any Twitter users nearby to buy her a beer because ‘I don’t have a job any more, I need my beers bought for me’. Only an hour or so later, an update appeared: indeed a fan had found her and done just this. The queen’s subjects continue to shower her with gifts – and well bloody deserved, too.