Diversity still isn’t happening on U.K. stages, TV and film

Ed SkreinSo, Ed Skrein has entered the fray when it comes to the continued wanton whitewashing of roles, characters, history, and fiction regarding the inclusion or should it be the exclusion of East Asians, whether they be people of hyphenated or multiple combined heritages.

On my side of the pond, I recently read three excellent pieces by three great British East Asian artists.

Vera-Chok-393x253 First, actor and writer Vera Chok,

I went in for an interview at a giant news corporation. The make up artist, bless her, should she have been notified in advance? I don’t know. She did not have makeup to match my skin colour. I ended up on national TV a few shades paler than I am. I heard somewhere that privilege is walking into a store and finding a shade of foundation that suits your skin.

A white, working class person wrote to me about their relative being shot in the street in Ireland. We discussed Irishness and being stuck as working class. They felt that I was saying all white people are demons and I said, let’s break that down – what do we mean by “white”? Do we mean the Polish or Albanians, the Swiss or Italian? We categorise and rank people and groups of people. Who is feeding us stories and what can we do about it? Who are we prepared stand up for? Why did this white person come at me combatively with a #NotAllWhitePeople stance?

I am trying very hard not to talk using phrases which might make some people glaze over e.g. “power differential”. I am trying not to feel a bit ground down by being wheeled out as a presentable, ethnic minority representative. I don’t love it when certain disinterested interviewers read out their questions about racial stereotyping. Focus on the good people, the ones who understand that we are nowhere close to being on a level playing field. Focus on the folks who inspire me, who do their best to live the best way they can, which includes self-awareness and self-care. I’ve met such a lot of incredible people in the last day.

Matthew-Xia second, Matthew Xia director

Despite the humorous response I often get – “Count yourself lucky, who wants a thousand flyers to a thousand dreadful shows?” – I don’t count myself lucky. I want the right to be informed, to be included, or rather, not to be excluded – I want the right to refuse. This is a problem the festivals have to deal with. Due to their very nature, from a point of governance and policy this is an impossibility. Therefore the individuals who comprise the festival have to address this issue. If every person of colour who attends reports a similar experience – of isolation, invisibility, and exclusion – then, along with the galvanising and unifying work by artists of colour, it is up to everyone to invite us, to include us, to see us.

Xia hits the nail squarely on the head – I want the right to be informed, to be included, or rather, not be excluded – I want the right to refuse.

And last, but by no means least

Daniel-York-1024x683-1024x683 Daniel York.

Many of us have campaigned long and hard against movie industry “whitewashing.” We’ve recently seen a whole slew of bleached-out castings in films like Aloha (Emma Stone as a Eurasian Hawaiian), Dr. Strange (Tilda Swinton as a Celtic version of a Tibetan martial arts guru) and Ghost In The Shell (Scarlett Johannson as the Japanese manga character Major).

No actor of color is looking for “positive discrimination” or a leg up; we just want a level playing field. And if you take a character written as Asian or black and cast a white actor in that role, you’re effectively saying that there was no Asian or black actor good enough or clever enough or talented enough or capable enough to play that part.

Or that they simply did not exist. There’s a word for that: erasure.

And there is it is.

Between East and West

British East Asians (BEA) period, are not seen, not recognised, we are given no real, artistic quarter. We are invisible, we are forgotten, we are excluded from our own culture, erased from history, side barred in many, if not most of the conversations and debates when it comes to diversity and inclusivity in the arts. We remain still a minor footnote even within the overall British Minority Ethnic “umbrella.”

I and many others, far more qualified and erudite have written and spoken out about this on more than one occasion.

I’ll say it again, now.

BEAs are the only British minority that you can still be openly racist towards in the media. Whether it’s the comedian on day time or prime time TV regaling us with a “chinky joke.” Or an over-the hill, white, middle-class, male petrol-head TV host, engaging in racially derogatory terms. Only to be excused and protected by his superiors (also white, middle-class male and Oxbridge educated) as public-school humour, harmless, affectionate comedic banter. To the London fringe theatre, facilitating and enabling the continuance of that odious practice, of Yellowface. Then telling the many British East Asian artists (BEAA) who raised their concerns, that we should not be offended, as no offense was intended. Just because a play is set in ancient China doesn’t really mean anything, Giving characters, “East Asian” sounding names, does not denote that the character should be of East Asian heritage. Setting the play in ancient China was nothing more than a metaphor.
At that point, I lost the will to live in more ways than one.
My point is this, exchange the word China, the character names from Chinese to, African or South Asian (Indian, Pakistani or Bengali) would a similar situation have arisen? I am pretty confident that neither of these British minorities would have been told, to shut up. Such an equivalent blackface or brown-face production would never have gotten that far. Questions would have been raised in the house of Parliament, any other British minority, apart from East Asian, it just would not have happened – thank goodness.

What is it then, about being Chinese, being East Asian in the UK, being a citizen of Britain, with East Asian heritage,? That excludes us from full participation and consideration in our own the country?  We grow up, we are educated, we graduate, we work and pay our taxes, we constitute 1.6% (according to 2001 UK census figures) of the UK population. Some statisticians, however, project that people of East Asian heritage will be the fastest growing British minority in the UK.  Our numbers are predicted to overtake those of British Black, African, Caribbean and South Asians. Whether this proves to be the case or not the overall BAME percentage of the British population is expected to rise to 20%  by 2051.

chinese-tourists-UK

If that is the case, why do we BEAs, in the 21st century, still find ourselves being excluded, ignored and by and large “rejected” from participation in our own culture?  It is still a rarity to see an East Asian in a leading role on a British made TV program or film. Not for a lack of projects that have, do employ East Asian themes.
Yet many of those in charge of commissioning, programming, casting, being the de facto arbiters of our modern culture, deciding what is good art or popular art, rarely engage substantively with East Asian artists, in front or behind the camera, on stage or backstage. Yet these very same professionals continually declaring that diversity is definitely something that is lacking, and that something needs to be done.  Instead of nurturing and cherishing the existing, home-grown BEA talent, their preference is to look overseas. Because “true ethnic authenticity” can only be achieved by casting overseas East Asians. Commissioning overseas East Asian writers. More worryingly, it’s not just some of the predominantly white, male oriented UK production channels that are guilty of this behavioral bias, there are also a few BEA arts professionals sharing the same blinkered (and frankly racist) views.

Until these producers in their ivory towers start supporting the home-grown BEA talent very little is going to change. Until BEA writers (and there are many of us) start getting true breaks in Theatre, TV, and film, progressing from the endless round of unfunded R&D/scratch nights, having to pay for development weeks on supposedly BAME centred initiatives to “discover” talent in “underrepresented” communities in the UK nothing will really change. Where will the next tranche of new British writers, filmmakers, producers, and directors come from? Where will the next British equivalents of Hiroshi Kashiwagi Frank Chin David Henry Hwang Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig where, how will these writers emerge?

As much as I love seeing these playwright’s work and in some cases actually having had the good fortune to perform in their plays in the UK, I’d like to see work that actually reflects our stories, our lives, tales that relate directly to our experiences and histories.
It really isn’t rocket science, it won’t happen no matter how many initiatives are instigated unless there is buy- in, substantive investment (time, resources and cold hard cash), real work opportunities and roll out from the top down.

As we all know diversity sells, it’s a financial success, it creates and grows audiences and puts bums on seats –  or maybe that’s it, maybe “British” art and culture don’t want us East Asians sitting in theatre’s, cinemas and tuning into, mainstream, popular TV programs, because the default setting is white, western and European?  And, us colonial types don’t figure in that UK cultural landscape?  If that’s the case then chew on this . . .

Call The Midwife S6, Ep3
Alice Connor (Lucy) Lucy Sheen Oilen Chen

Call The Midwife, a popular British TV series aired an episode earlier this year (episode 3) it included a storyline of a British-Chinese family, it netted  9.6 million viewers (it might have been more) and this is a “period” drama – just saying…

 

 

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Saying goodbye to 2016

It is at this time, most people reflect on the events of the year, whilst also looking towards to the future.

As a female, as a British East Asian what does 2017 hold in store? With everything that has gone on recently across the globe and the shift in not just national and international politics. Where do I stand? Where do I place myself in a new Britain that is now seemingly blindly shuffling its way towards – towards what we don’t quite know do we?

America a country that I have always loved, will this country now allow me to enter it freely?

 Central Europe is in the grip of its own doubt, grappling with the ideal, but having to face some of the grim realities that free unfettered movement can enable.

And Britain, 
“…this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.
Richard II, Act 2 (Shakespeare)

Has shown itself to be less than a paradise .and not as blessed a refuge as perhaps was once thought. Brexit has scratched the country’s surface and our collective mindset and what we have uncovered is that the dark, unsavoury and toxic ideals of the extreme right have never really left us. 
Britain is not alone in this “discovery.” 

I feel fearful. Not of being dragged from my bed in the dead of night but I am fearful that the spread of this below the line extreme right consciousness will  inveigle itself once more into our institutions and national structures. I hope that I am just being paranoid and overly anxious.
I am not a politician or an academic. I’m an actor, a writer, filmmaker and when needs be, a bit mouthy about issues that I feel passionate about. 
As a person of colour, as a disenfranchised culturally dislocated and isolated person I am finding it more and more difficult to see how I fit into Britain.
The social and cultural progressions that have been made since the late 50s early 60s when I first landed in this country as Hong Kong Chinese foundling, have been truly remarkable. The diversity and variety that can be seen, heard and experienced in most major cities and towns across the land is the jewel in Britain’s crown.

 So why do I still feel excluded from British society?
Quite simply because I seldom see myself represented in my own culture – British culture.
And as a professional artist, it is rare that I even get the chance to be considered to represent my own ethnicity, let alone see the Britain that I grew up in, recreated on TV, film or in the theatre.

 In April 2013, I did a presentation on the unrealistic artistic mirrors that I was faced with in the media as I grew up during the 60s. It was part of IN CONVERSATION – A Snapshot of Chinese Cinema Today.

More Light 2009

More Light Arcola Theatre 2009


Whilst there have been great strides forwards for British East Asians (though to be fair we lag far behind colleagues from other British minority ethnic groups). 

We still have not been able to break through the entrenched, almost subliminally embedded Victorian perspective of what an East Asian should be. In spite of several high-profile production since 2013 that have had a majority or completely all British East Asians in the cast.

On the small and big screens in the UK, British East Asians are hardly to be seen at all. 
Now when I say British East Asian, what I mean is roles and story lines that don’t cast East Asians as the outsiders, the immigrants, speaking English with a heavy accent. Roles that see East Asians as British. The girls next door, the cabbie, the Doctor or the local shop owner. 

We are far from being there. The casting controversy that The Print Room, a fringe theatre in West London find itself in, is testament to that. We will see on stage, in 2017, a production being done in Yellowface.

So for those that may have stumbled across this blog and be wondering what on earth I’m on about. Why the hell am I complaining about not being included, I should be grateful that I live where I do – yes I am lucky that I live where I do. 
But that’s part of the “problem” isn’t. Here we are in the 21st Century Britain a group of British citizens has been edited out of British society and culture. To the point that we are not even able to participate in the re-telling of our own story (fictional or factual).

We are neither British nor in some cases East Asian. Relegated to cultural servitude. As coat hangers upon which others, many of whom see themselves as the innovators of art; and are by and large the dominant group in society. They dangle and exhibit their artistry, from our history and cultural lineage, exploiting us, but in the same breath deny us access and any hope of participating in our own culture.

Whether it is ridiculous fancy dress costumes,

img_0410 img_0411
 

 

or stereotypical TV/Film roles being portrayed by white actors

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Janette Tough as Japanese fashion designer Huki Mukin in the Ab Fab movie

Take a moment and think.

Would you be happy constantly being depicted, in the media and on stage as

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or

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No matter what the drama 

Add to this the representation of these White British stereotypes are only portrayed by Black or Asian actors never, or seldom, a white actor, wouldn’t you begin to question your place in British society?
Never seeing an East Asian as a protagonist in any drama. Even when they do appear they are  portrayed as a white person. White people stripped down to a basic racial and cultural cliché. Not once, twice but every single time you turn on your TV or go to the cinema, rent a DVD, stream a new TV drama, or listen to a radio play 

Wouldn’t you begin to feel ever so slightly irked. Imagine how you might feel after thirty or forty years of this – welcome to our world.

So as 2016 draws to a close (many are willing it to end) I turn my thoughts to face whatever will come in 2017.

I hope that it will be a more diverse, more equal and a more inclusive world


.

Wishing you all health, happiness, prosperity and peace

Equity as a Trade Union is the priority representing its entire workforce or safe-guarding artistic licence?

Paul Hyu has just written and extremely thought-provoking (some might say controversial) article regarding Equity and their British East Asian actor members.

You see, Equity follows a Policy, for which we, the BAME members, are apparently responsible.  If that Policy doesn’t translate into Equity being able to act in a way to support and protect us from being excluded, then we, the “Minority Ethnic Members Committee”, have to change it.   We shouldn’t expect non-BAME or majority ethnic (aka white) actors to do it for us.  But here is the rub:  it’s not easy to do.

To reads the full article please click here

 

This is my initial response as an actor, a British actor who happens to be EAST ASIAN

This is a huge problem, which is has now become “historical” much as the cutting of sheet metal to particular size in the 70s, and 80s. It was always cut a particular size because it had always been done that way. In spite of the huge amount of waste and until someone had the courage and common sense to challenge the “it’s done this way because we’ve always done it this way” and asked the question WHY things would never have changed. So it is, I feel with Equity. It’s always been this way, so we’ll continue to do things this way.
Artistic license to me is mounting a production of the Tempest and setting in the Chinese Celestial Court, or casting Adrian Lester as an English King. One could argue that casting a Black actor as an English King allows the production to explore deeper the political and socio-economic themes of this piece in a more modern context. Or is it just about accepting the society and the culture that we live in today in 21st century Britain and getting on with it and casting whomever we like in the productions that we want?
Allowing a theatre, film or TV or radio production to cast a White actor as an East Asian character in the 21st century, does not in my mind enhance any production. An in terms of the modern context of equality and employment legislation – how can this be?
Thirty years ago the situation was very different, when I graduated there were just six East Asian actors registered with Equity as actors and on Spotlight again classified as actors. And I was one of them. There are now plenty of East Asian actors. So the matter of not being able to find an East Asian actor is a moot point. To those who complain that it’s tough to find East Asian actors and that they don’t know where, and that they’ve resorted to having to pull people of the streets; I’d say isn’t that part of your remit to know where and how you source your talent? That relying on Spotlight and the personal managements and agents isn’t enough? Yes everyone is pushed for time, everyone is trying to squeeze out of their budgets as much as they can – but trying to apportion some kind of onus on the artists for not being found in the “usual places” seems a tad odd to me. Perhaps they cannot be found in the usual places because they have not, as yet had the opportunities that will allow them to employ a regular agent or have the credits required for an entry into Spotlight?There are plenty of organisations out there, even a google search could put Casting Directors in touch either directly or indirectly with the wealth of East Asian talent that is now available. Numbers as far as I am concerned is not a valid argument as it was when I first became an actor. Artistic license should not be used as a cover all, a euphemism for racist behaviour – but essential this is what it is, and it’s happening to British East Asian Artists who are, who have been consistently denied the opportunities to participate in the making and representation of their own history and their own stories. In a modern poly ethnic and multicultural society one would think that the casting an East Asian in any non-specified role should be the norm. But it is not. The programs or the productions that do cast East Asian actors seem to, have to have an overt East Asian theme. Usually one that involves characters who are not indigenous to these shore. In other words ‘Overseas East Asians, students, immigrants, usually illegal. I very rarely see British East Asians. The representations we see are victims of crime because of the way that we look and the foreign accents that we have. People fleeing from a terrible past (true this does occur) but I think that I need only count on one hand the instances that I have seen on UK TV a fully rounded representation of a British East Asian (without foreign accent). By the way I do have an accent, just not the one that many casting directors and producers think that I should have!
For those that say (and there are plenty of them out there) that Yellowface/Yellowvoice is nowhere near as repugnant as Blacking up or Brown face, I’ve even had people in person trying to make a case that Yellowface is a form of benign micky-taking and actually comes from a place of fondness; from one who is East Asian I assure you it engenders precisely the same gut wrenching feelings when exposed to this type of ‘behaviour’. To clarify further calling an East Asian a CHINK, CHING-CHONG or any other such derivative is to this East Asian just as abhorrent and insulting as using the “N” word to a person who is Black, African or Caribbean or the “P” word to a South Asian. It carries the negative weight and remembrance of colonial atrocities, indentured labour and suffering and the brutal inhumane treatment that many East Asians were subject to. As well as the more subtle and equally as damaging structural and institutionalised racism many East Asians encountered – still encounter to this day.
Yes times have moved on, but have the hearts and minds of the wider society also moved on at the same pace? It would appear from where I’m standing that a considerable number of hearts and minds need to catch up.As long as those who sit in power on the top table of my union. Yes my union. I pay my subs like a good little member, as long as those people continue to think in the manner that they appear to be doing the union will never be able to advocate and fight for the rights of ALL of its members. A trade Union should be looking after the interests of ALL its members. This is one member that feels as if my interests in the work place are being ignored.Equity should be part of the solution not part of the ongoing and continued cultural and artistic ‘blockade’ that sees East Asian artists and artists of colour, duel or tri-heritage, side barred and essentially squeezed out onto the fringes of mainstream British culture. All this talk of diversity and inclusion is great, but let’s first get our own house in order.

I really shouldn’t be blogging but . . .

bloggingI have so much to do, I really have and blogging shouldn’t be top of the agenda.
With important writing deadlines looming, I find myself dead in the water.

I was going great guns and then suddenly my writer’s brain has become becalmed.
Maybe that’s because my mind is flooded with thoughts, ideas, possible plots, themes and endless possibilities. Along with the ever-present and seemingly never-ending reminder of the fact that I’m different. That my difference frightens and in some cases incense people.
I people like me are not considered to be part of UK PLC. That the surge of support for the British sw2431articleright-wing political party UKIP is disturbing to say the least. But then having said that the way that British society views, treats and interacts with its own East Asian citizens is frankly appalling. Attitudes have changed little since the Victorian era.
My “Britishness” in spite of what the Politicians would like to con themselves into thinking is not included in many of the hearts and minds of those in power over the wider society. Being British saying and being called this, I always feel that it’s done as a back-hander or with a slight grudge. There always seems to be confusion, a mental hiatus when anyone says British-Chinese or British East Asian. As if British and Chinese/East Asian shouldn’t really be coupled together.

windowslivewritertheconferenceseasonisalmosthere-13ee4microphone2I was approached late in the day (as it were) to speak at an adoption conference but it just didn’t pan out, timing  being one of the issues. I’ve also been interviewed for an oral history project, archiving the experiences of the working British-Chinese.

Who and what I am right, there in those last two sentences.
Not a British citizen who has an interesting background, or a British artists that’s got an unconventional back-story, but Adopted and Chinese. Society wants to be seen as inclusive, tolerant and poly ethnic so we’ll call you British-Chinese or British East Asian to show we’re being sensitive. But if there is no thought or understanding behind that “label” then it has no meaning. It has no place. It does nothing but allow the culturally dominant to pigeon-hole, separate, tick boxes, forget and move on. This label that I’m given doesn’t sit at the same table as Black British, or British-Asian, we’re still on seated at a minor table at the back.

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Opening The Door at the Young Vic 2012

Whatever I do I am always going to be East Asian. Whatever I do I am always going to be a transracial adoptee. I cannot change the past. I cannot reverse the actions and decisions that adults made in the past. I can not reverse my own history and relive my life in Hong Kong. I cannot prevent myself from being flown from Hong Kong to Great Britain, over half a century ago.

However, what I can do is make sure that my voice, my understanding, my life view is heard.
I will continue to strive and broadcast this British voice. I’m just one of many different British voices and are seldom given a chance to be heard.  British culture at the moment is still viewed through a very narrow lens. It cannot be considered wholly British if it excludes citizens like me.
It cannot be considered to be an inclusive culture and society if  it excludes realistic representations of people like me. If British culture does not embrace, nurture and support artists like me, it is not representative of  Britain in the 21st century, is it?

book_Adversity, adoption and afterwards
British Chinese Adoption Study – BAAF

As a Transracial Adoptee, as a British East Asian as a female, I am subconsciously  driven by those cumulative life experiences. How and why I write, make films, interpret text is driven, shaped and coloured by my experience of life as a person from a marginalised, unheard and under-represented section of British society. Society has held up a mirror to show me and how people like me, are perceived and thought. That perception, both institutional and structural has changed very little since the 1800s. Is it any wonder then, that I am somewhat sceptical and slightly pessimistic about seeing a greater move towards universal inclusivity and diversity?

Lenny-Henry-gives-evidenc-011
Lenny Henry tells MPs ethnic diversity plan of BBC does not go far enough

In spite of  my scepticism, I want the current diversity policies heralded in the media to work.
I’d like to see Britain pushing society and the country as a whole forwards into an era that truly embraces its poly ethnicity, its diverse populous and it multiple mixed heritages and shared histories. I’d like to be able to go to a Theatre and see people like me performing the classics or new works and not to have to enter into a debate about the precise political, cultural or social point the writer or director was trying to make by casting a British East Asian. I’d like to go to the movies and see a British movie that casts East Asians where the characters aren’t linked to martial arts, food, or illegal migrants trafficked to the UK by snake-head gangs. Yes I am being a tad facetious, not all films that have East Asian cultural or heritage themes are superficial. But as a British East Asian actor why do I feel that I have to “qualify” when being considered for an acting role.  And the only way that I can “qualify” to participate in a project is, if that project has some kind of East Asian tie-in or theme.

East Asians still are not widely seen in “normal dramas” as bus drivers, cab-drivers, rail-workers or bog standard business men and women. Even though in real life we are.
In drama and the media we have to come from off shore. Bringing with us our Eastern ways and sensibilities. It’s rare to see an East Asian character that does not have a non-English accent.
But then if within the media British East Asian writers are not getting the chance to have their work produced, there will be no contemporary representations of such people.
It’s a vicious circle, one which I find myself currently being swirled about in.
Will I be able to ride the white water rapids and come out the other side, if my play Conversations With My Unknown Mother goes into full production next year, then the answer is yes.

Watch this space  . . .