I’ve recently read this article
It’s great, sobering, slightly depressing, sad and a truthful read. A read that had me nodding my head in recognition, remembering, recalling and thinking, ‘yep, I know what that feels like.’
But it got me thinking specifically about my own circumstances. How things were in the good old U of K. Across the pond, here in the UK, there is no studio system. Getting to make a Brit film always seems to be done in spite of, not because of. Where friends and acquaintances consistently seem to be leaving these shores to work in the US, especially if you’re an artist of colour.
It irks me, well that’s not true. It more than irks me, it really p**ses me off. Talented men and women who’ve gone through the system in the UK. They’ve taken out student loans to study their craft. Or in my case in the golden days, an actual grant. So the UK has invested in them. But once they’ve graduated UK PLC seems to lose interest in their investment. Why is that? Is it simply because in the creative sector, what we create can not be boxed and priced per unit? That what we trade in is non-definable and subjective? If it were that non-definable then we wouldn’t be able to sell tickets to the West end shows at £80 per head. Films wouldn’t generate thousands of pounds in box office takings.
So why do British trained BAME actors feel they have to leave these shores to be appreciated, to get a level of work that can sustain them, so they can earn their living doing what it was that they trained for? Very few BAME professionals in the UK reach the stage where they are making a living 100% from acting. But then according to a recent research just one actor out of every fifty makes more than £20,000 per year in the UK. (New Articles – The Independent http://ow.ly/xmObz.) Pretty grim really isn’t?
As for British East Asian actors, the conditions that East Asian artists have had to contend with here in the UK still falls woefully short in comparison to other BAME artists and the opportunities that they can expect. And that in itself isn’t really saying much. Being a BAME artist and having many friends from a wide variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds, I realise we’re all feeling the lack of inclusion, the lack of opportunities, the subtle restrictions that are almost subliminally and implicitly present at castings. They lurk at the back of the decisions made by gatekeepers as to what new writing or writers they will support, what is considered authentic Chinese/East Asian and how Britishness is still defined.
This is isn’t contest about who feels more discriminated against. Everything is relative. From my personal perspective as a female transracially adopted British East Asian actor, writer and filmmaker things are pretty grim. In my life time on the small screen we’ve had only one positive drama TV series that had mainline characters that were British East Asian. The Chinese Detective. There have been a couple of films about the British Chinese community, but he first, the ground-breaker was PING PONG, which centred on the experience and concerns of the British Chinese community. It was shot twenty-eight years ago. PING PONG should have been for the British Chinese and East Asian community what My Beautiful Laundrette was for the British Asian community.
That was my first professional job. Fresh out of drama school, wide-eyed, hopeful and as green as they could possibly come. It should have been a fairy-tale start to my career. The lead in a feature film. How often does that happen? The Film was received with great warmth and praise at the Venice Film festival. But back home, a part from Time Out and Alexander Walker, the film was basically ignored. Invisible like the section of British society it wove its story around. Recently there has been a surge of re-interest, I guess you could put PING PONG into the category of now being somewhat of bijouette cult film. That is to say a film that not many people have seen, but many have heard off and want to see.
I can be nothing but British and East Asian. Which would be fine if more people accepted that I can be both East Asian and British. The two things do not dilute, lessen or cancel each other out. Contrary to popular belief, I AM A FULLY TRAINED ACTOR. I graduated from a recognised UK drama school. In fact, I was probably one of the first British East Asian females, if not the first to attend a UK drama school and graduate, back in the mid 1980s.
I’m blowing my own trumpet (as apparently no one else will) which is all very UN-British of me.
I’ve worked with some of the best that Britain has to offer in acting, film, TV and radio, including but not limited to:
Sir Ian Holm, Dame Helen Mirren, Roger Rees, David Threlfall, Pam Ferris, Kathryn Hunter, Eamonn Walker, Alexander Siddig and even an Oscar winner George Chakiris. I’ve been directed by the best, including but not limited to Richard Olivier and Thea Sharrock. But it might all as well have been for nought. A very good and dear actor friend of mine made this rather sober and depressing point, when he said to me.
If a Caucasian actress of the same age, had achieved what you had when you had (first pro job lead in a Feature Film, major Shakespearian role before hitting 25) you would have had at least one major TV series under your belt, stared in at least on other feature film, had a hat full theatre credits including a West end show or two and have worked at the National and RSC at least once
In spite of the CV that I have accrued and the many compliments that I have received from industry professionals, directors, producers and casting director, they all ring hollow now. None of those who professed undying admiration for the way I practice my craft and heaped praise upon my work. have ever deigned to employ me. Twenty-eight years on and I’m still waiting and hoping that my experience, my talent will shine through and I’ll be cast in a major project that might lead to greater mainstream exposure and more prominent paid work. Who knows – it’s a funny old business.
I can only assume that like many, not only in the creative industry sector, but within society as a whole, British East Asians just don’t figure. Why, because British East Asian appears to be an anathema to many. For most people there is no such thing as British East Asian or British-Chinese. Yet if you are of African-Caribbean heritage or South Asian heritage you can refer to yourself as Black British or British Asian if you so wish, and quite rightly so. We East Asians don’t get that option. It is Chinese and if you’re lucky “Other.”
We are still viewed in this society as the “outsider” the “foreigner.” As I was writing this a Twitter and Facebook bounced into life with a superb blog post from Anna Chen aka Madam Miaow Britain East Asian FAQs for BBC, casting directors and media.
The condescension that runs through the BBC response to Elizabeth Chan’s query to the BBC about the lack of BEA representation in the media is jaw droppingly awful.
So what will it take for me and others like me, to be able to call ourselves British East Asian or British-Chinese and not feel as if I’ve said a dirty word out loud in public? Paying my taxes, contributing to the National Health Service by paying not just one type of NI but two if you’re a freelancer, that doesn’t count then? Yet if all the “immigration” and “integration” chatter and rhetoric is to be believed then it should. I’m a passport, tax paying, law-abiding British citizen and as such should be treated with the same considerations and have the same opportunities as every other British citizen has, shouldn’t I?
I’ve lived here in the UK for all but eleven months of my life, how much more integrated into British society can it get? It would seem that being born or raised in Britain is not enough if your skin is a shade or two darker, or your eyes and nose don’t conform to a European ascetic.
I watch TV like the majority of the nation. Soaps, dramas, comedy, docudrama, historical pieces, mysteries, cop dramas. Surely I’m not the only East Asian in Britain who indulges in this type of entertainment behaviour? Yet where are the fully rounded, well-defined characters that represent me? Where are the bus drivers, the taxi drivers, the lawyers, the teachers, the 30 some-things, hell the 40s, 50s and 60s some-things? The other British East Asians that aren’t takeaway or restaurant owners.
You do know don’t you that not every British East Asian in the UK works in the catering industry.
Many of us live useful and productive lives in other industry sectors, such as new-media, publishing, legal, scientific, academic, educational and medical to name but a few. But we never ever see that side of British society. The East Asians who don’t speak with a heavy East Asian accent. There are British East Asians who don’t speak Chinese, isn’t that part of being British East Asian or British Chinese. We grew up in Britain, we went to a normal British school like every other British kid. There are British East Asians in the wider society who don’t keep themselves to themselves and are more at home eating at the Ivy or Jamie Oliver’s Diner than they are at Memories of China. There are British East Asians whose education wasn’t a state school and Chinese Sunday school, but the corridors of Oxford and Cambridge.
Why aren’t I seeing these characters on TV, British funded films and West End theatres? Why is that to have an authentic Chinese or East Asian character in a creative project in the UK, more often than not, they have to speak with an accent? Even if the whole damn thing is set in a far eastern country and the majority of the characters are East Asian, why do the East Asian characters have to have an accent? That isn’t always the case there have been exceptions Hungry Ghosts at The Orange Tree Theatre 2010 and more recently the World of Extreme Happiness at The Royal National Theatre in The Shed.
But for everyone project that breaks the mould there seem to be at least half a dozen that don’t and they merely re-enforce the Victorian stereotype and caricature of what Europeans feared and projected onto the Chinese and East Asia. It is incredible when you think about it. In the twenty-first century this country still sees East Asians through a distorted historical lens.