Why am I not feeling the Liberté, égalité, fraternité for British East Asians

At the moment social media, blogs, forums, round tables, press releases and sound-bites all seem to be about diversity and how we just aren’t cutting it in our popularist media in the year 2014.

Having attend the Ed Vaizey round-table at the beginning of this week over at BAFTA and heard very encouraging noises from the likes of Sky, Channel 4 and yes even Aunty (The BBC) herself I’m still doubtful. Not of the desire for change or perhaps even the willingness, but the lack of where-with-all. That the momentum will be scuppered because the requisite tools, knowledge and understanding of required behaviours just aren’t there in the boardrooms, commissioning suites and programming offices. The diversity that is perceived through these windows, is at odds with actuality, with the reality of modern-day multicultural Britain.
We all know that we cannot discriminate, we cannot use a persons’ age, gender, sexuality, religion, race, ethnicity or disability to disadvantage or prevent that person from having access to opportunities. But discrimination still occurs.

Why is it that in 2014 we have yet to see any significant British East Asian characters on TV or film? By British I mean someone who talks English, not with a broken foreign accent. But English, with a regional accent, Liverpudlian, Welsh, Scottish, Bristolian or Sarfth-London? Yes we have had Katie Leung Cho, in Harry Potter a feature film series.  But on British TV? Why haven’t we seen, why can’t we see an East Asian booted and suited estate manager with Etonian tones. A down to earth black cabbie, more Chingford  than Changsha.  A female East Asian hedge fund trader? We have seen the development and acceptance (hard-fought and won) of British Asian and British Black, African, Caribbean in popular and mainstream TV. But not British East Asians. Yes we pop up every now and then. But nine times out of ten, as the saying goes, we’ve got an accent. We’re seldom positioned or located firmly in this country. We are somehow always the outsiders, even if we live here. We’re always on the fringes of British society even if we’re slap bang in the middle. The drama and characterisations inexorably pointing to the differences, seldom the commonalities.
ITV did recently gave us Prey (2014) with Benedict Wong playing DC Ash Chan, a British East Asian, with no foreign accent.
If I had my way I wouldn’t have to write about any of this. Equality, diversity, issues of perception on who is or who is not British. In my world we’d all be working. Why?  Colour, race or ethnicity, would not pre-determine whether I, or anyone else, could be seen for a part. If I had my way the only factors that would determine whether you were right to be seen for a role, would be playing age range and gender. Then it’s down purely to acting ability and whether you are the actor best suited for the part in a British drama.

Back to reality, well at least for the British East Asians. At the moment we are still not seen as British. We’re East Asians in Britain and that’s a very different state of being. We, have yet to earn the right to put out feet fully under the table. In spite of our historical contributions to this country in both The Great War (1914-1918) and World War II (1939-1945) we are still not accepted.


Some of our ancestors fought and died for this country. Our countrymen and women were allies during both world conflicts, is there a greater commitment, contribution or testament that one can offer?
Is this lack of recognition, this unwillingness, this silent, subtle, subconscious attitude one of the driving reasons that East Asians continue to be so appalling represented in popular media?
Is it that this particular institutionalised and structural racism is so deeply entrenched, entangled and interlocked into the British psyche?  Is this why East Asians are very rarely afford the luxury of just being a person who happens to be East Asian?
The Aliens act 1905, was passed and amended several times (1919, 1920, 1948) and only repealed in 1974! This act forced the wives of East Asians to report to local police stations, in effect imposing a curfew on them and their families. These women who were married to Aliens also lost their right to vote.
Now why don’t I see this in historical dramas?  Where are the historical mixed race East Asian families?
Oh and if there is anyone out there who’s thinking possibilities, three things.

  1. You heard it here first
  2. Contact me so we can talk
  3. Not every East Asian needs to have a foreign accent.

How’s about that for taking a risk, how about casting faces that haven’t been seen on the TV before (or very seldom) how about looking across the age range of British East Asian talent – now that’s what I would call taking risks. Risks that will bring rewards.

The recent uncovering of the radicalisaiton of British Asians isn’t all down to the pop-up mosque or radical Imams preaching extreme fundamentalist views. What do these young men, culturally, as British Asians and Muslims have to tie themselves into British society? Not much as far as I can see. Depictions of terrorists, radical extremists, people who hate the west? Even though much of the wider society accepts now that British Asians exist and are part of British society. There is still always a danger that exterior influences will exploit any weakness that can be found. That weakness is the lack of cultural inclusion. Britain’s inability to artistically integrate and accept the diversity of modern-day Britain into the culture. What we see on TV isn’t a realistic artistic, dramatised view of Britain. It remains in large pockets still stereotypical and caricatured.

2001 Business slumped at Wing Wai Chan's restaurant
2001 Foot & Mouth outbreak & allegations towards Chinese restaurateurs, business slumped at Wing Wai Chan’s restaurant

Until the British East Asians are fully embraced, included and recognised for their past and present achievements and contributions to this country, their country I don’t think that the changes that should occur, will occur quick enough. Why? We will remain as the exception to the rule, strangers in the home.
We will remain the legitimate scapegoat, stereotype and racial trope from which to hang social and cultural angst and fears, because historically the British East Asian community has not protested and has not made a fuss.

With all that  is now occurring regarding the ongoing debates on diversity and how the British media is reflecting this, The Henry paper, Act For Change, TV Collective let’s not forget that there is still one section of the British Asian Minority Ethnic community, The British East Asians that continue to be overlooked, to be ignored and side-barred.
In the gathering momentum, the impetus and need to embrace greater diversity, I worry that we, the British East Asians might be trampled on in the rush to reach that goal. Just as our colleagues of Asian and Black heritage fought to be recognised so must we.
It is imperative that The British East Asian Artists Group continues to lobby, continues to be represented at any and ALL talks concerning diversity, the media and the arts as a whole. That we continue to shout and raise uncomfortable questions about racism and prejudice and continue to be angry.
That we ensure that The British East Asians rightfully take a place in the BAME collective and are recognised as being both Asian (East Asian) and British. I hope that the recognition that the British East Asian Artists Group has received from colleagues within the BAME sector and from professionals in the creative industry, will now extend to those who gate-keep, produce, programme and commission the content that is broadcast across the British media.


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