The following is the transcript and visuals of a short presentation that I gave on Saturday 29th at a cinematic arts event in Birmingham – IN CONVERSATION – A Snapshot of Chinese Cinema Today
Hello, I’m Lucy Sheen. I’m an actor, published writer, filmmaker and transracial adoptee advocate and I suspect many of you have never heard of me in spite of the fact that I’ve been a professional actor for over twenty-five years. As you can see I’m also East Asian. British Hong-Kong Chinese to be exact. I was flown over to the UK in the late fifties early sixties having been adopted by an English family that had never seen me until they picked me up from the airport. I grew up in Britain during the swinging 60s.
Britain at that time was a very different place to what it is today. It was not the diverse and multicultural society that we now have. The region I grew up in was exclusively white and middle to upper class. The only other foreign presence was an Indian take-away (so not even a Chinese take-away!)
As you can probably imagine now with our differing social, cultural and political sensibilities, growing up in such an environment was complicated and not without its challenges. Culturally I found myself in a vacuum. Three television channels only and the radio, which at the time was still a popular entertainment platform, even for the younger generations. I recall listening to such radio shows as The men from the Ministry. Around The Horn, Just a Minute and The Goon Show. Even aurally my early influences were all Caucasian.
The on screen and stage representations of East Asians that I saw, were few and far between. What I remember, were the following:
Broken Blossoms, 1919 a D. W. Griffith film. Chen Huan, The Chinese missionary was played by Richard Barthelmass, a white actor, in relative terms and for the period this was actually a positive representation of a Chinese person. The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu 1929, Warner Oland plays the East Asian villain in the first of two films made by the same team.
The Hatchet Man, A 1932 film about Wong Low Get. Played by Edward G Robinson. In spite of all the main characters in the film being East Asian, they were all played by white actors.
The Mask of Fu Manchu 1932, Boris Karloff takes on the mantle of the East Asian super villain.
Shanghai Express 1932, With Warner Oland as the Warlord Chang.
The Bitter Tea of General Yen, 1933 Nils Asther played General Yen. This is an early Frank Capra film before he went onto create such iconic American classics such as It’s A Wonderful life. Nils Asther actually sustained prolonged damage to his eyes under the fierce lights, due to pulling his eyelids back in order to get Asian looking eyes.
The Painted Veil 1934, Warner Oland plays General Yu.
The Moto film series 1937 to 1939. Peter Lorre playing the main character, Mr. Kentaro Moto. Again another famous Hollywood actor taking on an East Asian character.
Charlie Chan Movies 1935, Warner Oland (again) takes on the investigative East Asian in the first of six films.
The Good Earth 1937, an adaptation of Pearl Buck’s bestselling novel. The only role offered to leading East Asian actress, Anna May Wong, was that of the Villa, she turned it down, saying, “you’re asking me-with Chinese blood-to do the only un sympathetic role in the picture featuring an all-American cast portraying Chinese characters.”
The Adventures of Marco Polo 1938, starring Gary Cooper as Polo. Again the film cast no actual East Asian actors.
The Drums of Fu Manchu 1940, this time actor Henry Brandon takes on the role of Fu Manchu.
Dragon Seed 1944.Starring Katherine Hepburn and Agnes Moorehead. Both playing Chinese characters in another Hollywood film. For those of you who, like me grew up in the 60s, I’d say in the UK that Agnes Moorehead is better known as Endora in the US TV series Bewitched.
Agnes Moorehead and Kathrine Hepuburn as they appeared in Dragon Seed
Love is a Many Splendid-Thing in 1955
saw Jennifer Jones cast as Dr. Han Suyin. Probably the most recognised film in the genre of “Caucasian man finds love in the Far East” a subject matter that found great popularity in the post World War II era. Holden an American war correspondent in Hong Kong during the final days of the Chinese Civil War. He falls in love with Jones, a Eurasian doctor. Predictably cultural differences contrive to keep the lovers apart. Difficult as it is in this “modern age” to accept, but in 1955 this story was revolutionary, “exotic” and new. William Holden, also starred in the similar, World of Suzy Wong film.
Tea House of the August Moon 1956
saw Marlon Brando playing Sakini.
In the biopic of Genghis Khan 1956, the East Asian characters again, are all played by white actors in yellow face. With a toe curlingly awful and embarrassing performance from the usually wonderful and brilliant James Mason, as the Chinese court minister. Curiously though all the Mongol characters were played by white actors, their appearance remaining unaltered.
The New Adventures of Charlie Chan 1957-1958. J. Carol Naish took on the East Asian sleuthing role, Naish yet another white actor cast in the leading role pretending to be an East Asian.
Inn of The Sixth Happiness 1958, Robert Donat plays The Mandarin, Yang Chen and a very young Burt Kwouk one of the few actual East Asians with a speaking part plays Li, who eventually gets shot in the back for helping Gladys
A Majority Of One, 1961. Alec Guinness takes on the role of Koichi Asano the millionaire widower from Tokyo.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s 1961. Mickey Rooney playing the bucked-toothed, myopic Japanese Mr. Yinoshi. Is now one of the all time notorious examples of Yellowface at its worst.
55 Days at Peking. The only Chinese character with any dialogue in the 1963 film was played not by a Caucasian, not by an East Asian, but an actor, who was white neither White or East Asian. But the production found it necessary to hire a large number of East Asian extras, The rationale, that it would provide authenticity as white heroes mowed down the aggressive and vicious East Asians. Flora Robson famously played the Dowager Empress.
7 Faces of Dr. Lao 1964. Dr. Lao is played by Tony Randall, a 7,000 year old wizard who can appear in what ever guise he wants. Again Randall another white actor taking the lead role of the East Asian wizard.
The Vengeance of Dr. Fu Manchu 1967 – 1969 Christopher Lee takes on the guise of the nefarious East Asian in the first of five feature films. Incidentally this one has an un-credited appearance by a young Burt Kwouk.
The Amazing Chan and The Chan Clan in 1972 hit the small screens Finally I saw the character of Chan played by an East Asian actor Keye Luke, but in cartoon form! Interestingly Keye Luke was born in Canton, he ended up in Seattle Washington. Starting out in the entertainment business as a commercial artist and designer of movie posters. But he kept finding himself being hired as an advisor on a variety of movies that had or were of an East Asian topic. He made his on-screen début in The Painted Veil 1934. It appears that Luke was in practically every single US movie that required a Chinese presence non attributed and attributed. But I suspect that he is best known as Master Pao in the US TV series, Kung Fu.
Even though this US series attempted to tackle the subject matter of Asian Americans and their part in US society and history it was marred by the fact that the lead role was given to the white actor David Carridine. I cannot help but wonder what might have been had Warner Bros actually considered and given the part of Kwai Chang Caine to Bruce Lee.
In the UK Mind Your Language hit our television screens it aired 1977 – 1986. imho an appalling TV series that pandered to the base common denominator of crude stereotypical caricatures of people from differing ethnic and cultural backgrounds for cheap laughs. This show was still running a year after I graduated from drama school!
Full cast of Mind Your Language
The Fiendish Plot of Fu Manchu 1980, saw Peter Sellers don the robe and long finger nails of Fu Manchu.
Reilly Ace of Spies 1983 popular TV series saw The Chinese police inspector that Reilly matches wit with, played by David Suchet.
I suppose the most “infamous” case of Yellow face in recent UK entertainment history was that of Jonathan Pryce as the Engineer in Mackintosh’s hit musical Miss Saigon in 1989.
As you can see the cultural mirrors I had were not great. As all of these depictions where cases of Yellow Face, non-Asian actors making themselves up to, literally, appear “East Asian” making physical adjustments to their eyes in order to appear more East Asian in shape, all the better to play the role of an East Asian. Along with the make up there was usually an accompanying stereotypical performance which inevitably involved a heavy East Asian accent. Unlike blackface or blacking up, yellow face in UK cinema and theatre appears not to be as unacceptable.
So those were the role models and social mirrors that I had. Yellow Face examples. But very few actual East Asian faces . . .One of the first female East Asian faces I saw on TV was Anna May Wong. But she was American and not British. The many roles that she was seen in were not exactly “positive affirmations of being an East Asian woman.
Anna May Wong
In the UK, it was Burt Kwouk, as he said of himself once in a radio interview “The all purpose Oriental”.
Tsai Chin, sadly no longer resident on these shores.
Lynne Sue Moon (To Sir With Love, 55 Days At Peking)
Eric or Ric Young (Indian Jones, Ping Pong, The Last Emperor, Dragon)
Barbara Yu Ling (Satanic Rites of Dracula, Ping Pong, Peggy Sui)
Robert Lee (Dragon Seed, The World of Suzie Wong, Gangsters, Mind Your Language, Ping Pong).
Does Britain really know or remember any of those actors save Burt Kwouk and Tsai Chin?
The one small screen TV series that many UK people remember with a Chinese lead character sans “Chinese” accent, was The Chinese Detective, starring David Yip. Amazingly this TV series only came onto the scene when I was in the final years of drama school in the early 80s.
Growing up watching how East Asians were represented on stage and screen in the the UK, I soon learnt that East Asians, me, we were viewed as the perpetual foreigners. Or martial arts experts, or members of a minority. But we were a model minority. In other words we were silent, submissive and compliant. We caused no trouble and we didn’t fight back. We were boards to be slapped. We were also nerds and geeks. Even if we made our way into the wider society we were still outcasts. Sexually East Asian males were emasculated or a-sexualised, whilst the females must always be sexually available. We were always inferior and subordinate to Caucasians. However on the “upside” East Asians could be mystics, arch-villains (Dr. Fu Manchu), caricatures (Mr Yinoshi Breakfast At Tiffany’s) or just plain bizarre, unfathomable, or inscrutable.
What I was seeing on the small and big UK screen was essentially the same stereotypical view of East Asia and it’s people that the Victorians had created. On UK TV, Gangsters 1976, Mind Your Language 1977, The Chinese Detective 1981, Tenko 1981 and The Ginger Tree 1989. Of course I couldn’t possibly not mention the beloved Dr.Who
The Talons of Weng-Chiang and John Bennett in Yellow face as Li H’sen Chang
Since then we have had an East Asian doing skin work in the globally popular pre-school kids program Teletubbies – but who would know? The Children’s’ drama Spirit Warriors. And a smattering of “Chinese” characters in Brookside. A student in Coronation Street and I believe a DVD seller in Eastenders. But the one thing that many of these representations have in common is their “foreignness” most of those characters had accents and were not embedded in British society. They were not seen as British citizens, but as outsiders, foreigners.
The social and cultural mirrors that I had as a young infant, child and then teenager were dubious to say the least. Famous white actors pretending to be East Asians. Enter the Dragon didn’t hit the big screens in the UK until July 1973 and was certified as an X rated film.
As amazing and fabulous, the legendary Bruce Lee was and will always be, he’d grown up in Hong Kong and then moved to US an entirely different experience to that of UK East Asians.
What does it matter whether I saw genuine East Asian actors in positive or negative roles on the big or small screen? Surely it’s about the overall quality of the work. The fact that there were even East Asian characters on film or the TV during that period, some might argue should have been enough?
Perhaps I should turn this around. When someone says to you “Chinese” what do you automatically think of? The shape of the eyes? Skin colour? Accent? Physical height and stature? Chopsticks in the hair? Take-aways, sweet and sour, egg-fried rice? Martial arts? Women who are submissive?
For an East Asian child growing up within British culture and society the depictions of grovelling badly spoken and “dubious” people, who were constantly being ridiculed for their accent, for the way that they looked, for being Chinese, doesn’t do anything for a young person’s self-esteem or understanding of their own identity. As a very young child I might not have been able to express fully how these portrayals of East Asian people affected me. But I knew it was bad. I was painfully aware that I was not accepted by many. That the expectations British society had of me were based on a very different footing because I was not Caucasian.
As well as being an internal outcast amongst the society and the home, I was also a cultural outcast. So it might appear odd to say the least, that I ended up as an actor writer and filmmaker. I suppose it gave me license or at least a partial licence to be who I was. Though when I first graduated from drama school I was often left wondering exactly what that might be! And even at drama school I did not escape cultural and racial bias. An environment where you should be able to gain experience, and “fail” securely, I soon learnt that the professional expectations for me were maids, prostitutes, waitresses and shady under world characters. Apparently those would be the only types of roles that I would ever be cast in.
For me the influence or lack there of, of actual East Asians and the biased attitude towards East Asians made me even more determined to try and find my way in the business of acting.
My first professional role was the lead in the Channel 4 film Ping Pong directed by Po Chi’h Leong in 1986.
The first British feature film to look at a section of British society that until then had been stereotyped, caricatured, side-barred or orientalised. For the first time on the big screen came a view of the British Chinese without exaggerated funny accents, a look beyond the chopsticks, lanterns and kung fu slippers, an insight into the British Chinese community, their fears and a glimpse into some of their back stories, the history, the loves, the passion, the disappointments. I played Elaine Choi a British Chinese trainee lawyer, very British, in fact so British that even her dad calls her a gwei mui, a foreign devil. Elaine is what some Chinese might call, yellow on the outside and white on the inside. Elaine is feisty, untraditional and very, very British. She knew next to nothing about Chinese culture and didn’t care that other Chinese people might think her odd. Not unlike me. Here on the big screen for the first time were representations of the British Chinese as people. Not cultural-cyphers or stereotypical tropes.
David Yip and Lucy Sheen
But people, with lives, history and context. Sadly it’s in my personal opinion, it’s taken over twenty years for PING PONG to finally start receiving the attention and acclaim that it should have been afforded when it was originally released in 1986. I was the first British Chinese actress to have been given the lead role in a British feature film.
Lucy Sheen as The Woman Warrior in Ping Pong
But instead of assisting my career I think it actually hindered it. I was cast as an East Asian but not the “me no speakie” english type of Chinese, the popularly accepted representation of the time. No I was an English speaking, cigarette smoking, stand up and speak for myself British East Asian. A character that UK audiences were unaccustomed to – and one could say still are today.
I have been very fortunate in my career to have worked with many of the best in British Theatre, TV and Films: Glenda Jackson, Dame Helen Mirren, Sir Ian Holm, David Threlfall, Pam Ferris, Kathryn Hunter, Zoe Wannermaker, Eamonn Walker, Roger Rees, Stephen Dillane, David Yip, Burt Kwouk, more recently Julia Davis, Mark Gattis and Hattie Morahan.
Why am I reeling of who I have worked with? As I said at the start, I doubt if many people have ever heard of me let alone the work that I have done. I’ve been working as a professional actor for over twenty-five years. I was the first female British Chinese to be accepted onto a recognised UK (adult) drama school and to graduate with a BA (Hons) in Theatre Arts. In spite of being the first British East Asian actress to have be cast in a major Shakespearian role (Portia in Julius Caesar ) in the early nineties. I am also the first British Chinese actress to have been nominated for a major
UK theatre award in 1990 and again in 2010. It is important, as a colleague pointed out to me, to make people aware of these achievements. And obviously I starred in the first British made feature film about the British Chinese community, Ping Pong 1986. As another friend a fellow actor pointed out long ago; an equivalent Caucasian actress with the same CV yours, would already have had at least one lead role in a TV series if not more.
I think that says quite a lot about the attitude that the arts and the wider society has towards East Asians in the UK and as a whole. As has been written about recently by Daniel York British East Asian actor, writer and filmmaker, there is a pecking order of race and ethnicity “acceptability” in the UK which comes through in the lack of realistic representations in the media even in the 21st century, when it comes to East Asians.
There has been a a lot of public debate recently with articles in the national press from prominent Black Actors Edris Elba and David Harewood and at BAFTA from Lenny Henry about the lack of Black and Ethnic minorities in the arts and the talent drain seeing many British Black Minority and Ethnic actors going over to the states.
It comes back to how we as society represent and portray our now diverse and mixed society.
Why cannot an East Asian been seen as a journalist, secretary or fruit and veg seller? Why are there no head-liners in British soaps that are British East Asian? The East Asians that have appeared in soaps are usually immigrants with accents. Where are the British East Asians school teachers, barristers, mechanics, entrepreneurs, cab drivers, surgeons, pub landlords, lecturers and bus drivers? Only by providing realistic and fully rounded representations of British East Asians will the wider society be able to fully appreciate the contribution that East Asians in this country make whether that be as restaurateurs, 3D animators or solicitors.
In 2009 on a UK theatre stage Yellow Face was alive and well in the production of More Light at the Arcola Theatre in London.
2011 Dolce & Gabana’s Story on Japan, filmed, staged and cat walked their models with taped eyes, proudly presenting this as some form of designer “chic”. To me this was Yellow Face pure and simple. If they had wanted to present the chic East Asian angle why not hire a group of East Asian models?
In 2012 the controversy surrounding the Royal Shakespeare’s production of The Orphan of Zhao went viral it surged through the social media platforms in the US, Canada, Australia, Europe and of course in the UK. Sparked by a group of eleven British East Asian actors, (of which I was one) academics and other creatives who felt that this was just one step too far. A publicly funded company of global renown staging The Chinese Hamlet but casting only three British East Asians in a commonly of seventeen and in minor non protagonistic roles.
Sadly even now in the 21st century artistic representations of East Asians are limited and still subject to the stereotypical, caricature and blinkered portrayals of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. If this is happening on UK stages then is it any wonder, that what is reflected in UK TV and Film is no better?
Lilting 2013 Cheng Pei Pei and Ben Whishaw
There are films, directors and creatives that are fighting against this trend such as Hong Khaou and his beautiful film Lilting, (2013) But this is happing in spite of, not because of the attitudes of the gatekeepers, funders and the culturally dominant in the UK. Until everyone buys into true diversity and realistic representation of British East Asians we will always be one film away, one TV series, one stage play away from Yellow face representations of British East Asians. We have to start investing and properly supporting British East Asian talent, both in front of and behind the camera, on stage and backstage. Or we will we never see changes in British culture or societal attitudes. If we as a nation do not validated and support all of our artists as human beings Then British East Asians will never be allowed to find a place on the UK cultural landscape. We will never be able to work fully or be cast as Caucasian actors and other ethnic minorities sometimes are both specifically and non-specifically. Why does this matter? Well it matters because as a tax paying British East Asian I’d like to feel fully included in the society to which I contribute. I think that fully including East Asians in British cultural society will enrich us all. We will learn more of our own history, by becoming acquainted with the many hidden and as yet untold stories that make up British culture, society and politics both past and present. Which brings us back to how British society represents East Asians on stage and screen. Are you seriously telling me that the creative industries, the wider society truly see East Asians like me as nothing more than heavily accented, martial artists that work in restaurants and take-aways? That the best we can hope for is to be tragic illegal immigrants found dead in refrigerated lorries or drowned whelk pickers?
That the only accents we can have are “Chinese” that there are no Welsh, Scottish, or Yorkshire East Asians? Let’s hope it doesn’t take another twenty-five years before we start seeing British East Asians in our Films, TV and on the stage. Lets hope that we are not omitted from allowing to participate in the making and telling our own stories or recreating our own histories that we will finally make our way into the cultural landscape of this country as other British ethnic minorities have done so. Again it comes back to representation and also giving the opportunities to the indigenous talent of British East Asian Artists that exist in this country, has done so for over twenty odd years.