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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Chinese children that have no legal right to exist

The recent BBC article

Children denied an identity under China’s

one-child policy

I cannot imagine what it must be like to live in the country of your birth. To be with your parents and yet not exist.
But there is now a generation of children who are exactly that, they do not exist in the country that they were conceived, born and live in.
I may think that I’ve experienced problems as a culturally displaced person – but my challenges, pale into insignificance, compared to what these children face. A non-life, an existence that is not acknowledged by the state.
What is going to happen to this generation of children? Will the younger ones find their way onto the adoption black market? Will increasing numbers of children be abandoned?
How can you live without access to essential services, such as education and healthcare? Can you exist in a society where identity is literally the key to accessing the essentials in life? Those things that I take for granted.

Orphans in a dorm at the Shenzhen Welfare Centre Photo- Gilles Sabrie
Orphans in a dorm at the Shenzhen Welfare Centre Photo: Gilles Sabrie
Chinese-orphans-e1372238509326
Children, and their caretakers, in need of more supervision.

The rise of “unauthorised” orphanages in China is not going to slow down and as this 2013 article explains, receives silent sanction from the Chinese state until things go wrong as they did in June 2013 in Henan province.  A fire at an “illegal orphanage’ took the young lives of six boys.
I may bemoan my upbringing and my lack of a fixed and rooted identity, but this, this is something else entirely different. It truly is living in a no-man’s land. Being East Asian has some many distinctive and deep-rooted markers that, even with someone like me, who was significantly purged of many of the cultural, linguistic and historical DNA markers of identity it could not stop them from eventually taking root and growing.  I could not re-code and re-brand with a different culture, race or ethnic group. I may have had my identity guts torn out. But my chassis remained intact. At least I have an identity, that allows me to be housed, to be able to apply for work, to travel, to live. But these kids can’t even take out a library book.
95% of China’s abandoned and orphaned children live outside of urban China in the rural areas.  In 2009 The Chinese Ministry of Affairs said that the number of orphans on the Chinese mainland had reached 712,000.  That was a 24% increase on figures the Ministry released in 2005.  In 2010 Wang Zhenyao, director of the One Foundation Philanthropy Research Institute at Beijing Normal University said,

Although the government continues to step up aid efforts, one-third of orphans are still living without regular help or are threatened by hunger, disease and insecurity, and many are forced to commit crimes

Wang also estimates that the number of actual orphans and abandoned children is far higher than the official figures released, as many of the rural figures are incomplete. These rural areas seem to be run and controlled with far more restrictions, some might say greater intransigence than Central government might apply. If the families standby their illegal children they have no life. Many of the Mothers are scared as they have also been ordered to be sterilised. This on top of the hefty fines.

china homeless child
According to the Chinese ministry of civil affairs, (2012), four years ago there were an estimated 1-1.5m children living without parental care. Photograph: Arthur Rothstein
Chinese_ID_card
Chinese ID card

It is unclear how many of China’s orphans and abandoned children are actually a second, or illegal child. But the number of orphans, abandoned children or children without adult care seems to increase year on year. What is going to happen now in the light of the relaxation on China’s One Child Policy?
Will Central Government intervene and allow these “illegal children” to be issued with their identity cards?  Or will poorer, more desperate rural families fall prey to the burgeoning black-market for Chinese babies and the West’s continuing appetite for adopting Chinese children?

Authenticity keeping artistic integrity or an excuse to maintain cultural dominance?

I had a very interesting conversation the other day with a friend and fellow actor. Amongst the things that we discussed apart from diversity and equality was authenticity of casting. The use of authenticity to justify a lack of diversity or willingness to diversify.

It is perfectly acceptable for Helen Mirren to have been cast in the role of Cleopatra and the public and critics all accept her as  “Egyptian.”  When in fact we now know that the reality and authenticity of the look for Cleopatra is far from what we readily accept on the UK stage.

Cleopatra was a woman of mixed racial heritage. She was Greek, but was raised in Egypt.

Mirren as Cleopatra NT 1988
Mirren as Cleopatra NT 1988

We don’t bat a collective eyelid when a Caucasian actress treads the boards as the famous queen. The acting maybe criticised, the set, the costumes, the choice of director, even the lighting. But no one says a word about the choice of actress. The authenticity of casting the likes of Mirren as the Queen is never questioned. But this is something that is often queried when BAME artists are cast in Shakespeare or the Classics. Curious is it not? I personally, have no problem with Helen Mirren or anyone else for that matter being cast in that role. By the way below is a forensic reconstruction of what Cleopatra apparently, according to the science available in 2006, would have looked like. I’ll leave that one with you.

article-1095043-02CFBB40000005DC-200_468x378

The problem that I have is when people spout authenticity at me, as the rationale, the prima facie case as it were, as to why ethnicity, colour or racial background precludes one being seen as British. That Britishness can only and should only be portrayed using a single colour. Britishness equates only to White Anglo-Saxon actors and actresses. If, as I am constantly being reminded by industry professionals, that one of the beauties of Shakespeare is, his timelessness, universality and ability to cross cultures and borders, why in 2014 do we not see more BAME actors appearing in British Shakespearian productions on our premier stages?  Especially within our publicly funded national companies such as The Royal Shakespeare Company and The Royal National Theatre?

Equal opportunities, do BAME – British Asian (South Asian and East Asian) Minority Ethnic actors have access to the same level of opportunities that their Caucasian counterparts do? Well if you have been keeping up with the news then you will know the answer to that one is, NO. The industry now concedes and accepts that.  Just read what David Harewood, or Lenny Henry have to say on the subject. The facts of reality, do not bear out the assumed and supposed equality. David Oyelowo made the headlines in the press as the first British Black actor to play an English King on the stage at The Royal Shakespeare Company in 2001. Lord I could fill an entire notebook on this subject and still not have scratched the white veneer that covers the attitude and influences that mould the majority of the classics that are produced and performed on our stages and why BAME artists seldom get a look in. Don’t even get me started on where the British East Asians Artists are in all of this! Unless you have literally been hiding in a bunker on a desert island somewhere unknown and uncharted, the matter of diversity and the lack of opportunities and visibility is being widely discussed (by far more accomplished people than myself) in public and across social media.

The question of authenticity. I suppose one might have to preface this with whose authenticity or authenticity as it is expedient and convenient for the gate-keepers, producers and directors?

Authenticity, is often raised as a reason not to participate in colour blind or diverse casting.  It is also a factor that is raised to try and negate the shaming of the practise of blacking up, in order to portray such characters as Othello. It usually comes hand in hand with other comments such as,  ‘oh well if you’re going to bang on about authenticity, you can only cast Hamlet using a Dane.’ I’m not even going to dignify that obtuse repost with a sentence. What I will say is, the authenticity of Shakespeare, if you’re a proponent of that, by all means go for it. Thus Shakespeare will only be performed on stages similar in design to the Globe i.e. an open air auditorium. Productions will use no artificial lighting, have very little in the way of set or costume and the cast will contain no females whatsoever. Authenticity. I ask again whose authenticity?

There is a continuing duplicity it seems that accompanies all things pertaining to diversity and equality in the arts and I am sure in the wider society. The work flow does not run down the artistic pipeline through a bi-directional valve for BAME artists. The flow of work is controlled by a check valve, meaning work opportunities, particularly in Shakespeare are only allowed to flow freely in one direction and that  direction does not favour diversity, colour blind casting or BAME talent.
Work opportunities for BAMEs, especially Shakespearian and Classical, are far fewer and occur with less frequency, if at all. Audiences and critics don’t bat an eye lid when Caucasian actor, after Caucasian actor performs in classical Greek tragedies, Russian Classics, even taking on Classical works from other continents, or appear as Hamlet and Shylock. And why should we? We are dealing in the currency of the imagination. In the recreation of stories, in fantasy and the art of performance.
Why is it that British Asian Minority Ethnic actors are more likely to be subjected to scrutiny and questions concerning their ethnicity and race in relation to the portrayal of Britishness. Whilst their
British White Anglo-Saxon counterparts can assume the guise of a myriad of races and ethnicities exeunt stage right to rapturous applause? The moment an actor of colour of dual or multiple heritage is classically cast, questions are asked, can someone of such a background be British?

Chinese Jews more commonly referred to as the lost Jews or the Jews of Kaifeng
Chinese Jews more commonly referred to as the lost Jews or the Jews of Kaifeng

Here’s a thought for you. Often an actor’s choice on how they portray Shylock raises eyebrows. Inferences and intimations on whether characterisation which dons the iconic hair locks are perhaps anti-Semitic? There was a little of this when Dustin Hoffman took on the role in London’s Westend in 1989. Above you can see a picture of some Chinese Jews. yes there is such a thing. So if we’re talking authenticity then there is no reason not to cast an East Asian as Shylock. After all it was a Venetian, Marco Polo, who opened up the trade routes to China.
If opportunities existed for ALL BAME actors to be seen, or at least be seriously considered for major Shakespearian or classical roles I would walk away. It is a non argument, there would be no debate. But there are just not the same opportunities for BAME actors. If there were, we would be seeing far more Black, South Asian and East Asian faces at the RSC, RNT and on our Westend Stages participating in the classics. So much so that we would no longer need to pass comment. The sight of a Black, Brown or non-white face would not be cause for comment. It would not raise the question, ‘what political point is being made in this production?’It goes back to a point that I have raised in recent posts BRITISHNESS. The colour and concept of BRITISHNESS needs to be redefined and brought into the 21st century.

Popular media and culture can do this, by simply casting more BAME artists. By not sticking with the handful of BAME artists that the establishment feels comfortable with. By taking real risks and using the talent that already exists, but is seldom given the chance to shine.  Lets put a halt to the perception of us as “other.” Stop defining us as “other” in the productions that BAMEs are cast in, by insisting on giving us accents. Foreign accents, that specifically denote our lack of comprehension of the English language and therefore our lack of, or inability to be included in the state of being British.

The media falls into the trap of using visual and aural shorthand so a British Muslim is this:-

m2

But could just as easily be this:-
islam02-d9d774cd8ee61fd3ea4be9797e5f5182d83bf449

 

In reality these are the faces of Britain
diversity-006

 

If you want to cite authenticity then look around first. Look at the real world and start using what you see. Start reflecting what’s actually there. Put aside all the old, hackneyed views about religious, ethnic and racial groupings, collected and given to us when we were kids in schools over twenty, thirty years ago.
Whether we like it or not things have changed. The authenticity that is often talked about and applied to theatre and the arts, is merely a means to conserve a view of life that is fast diminishing. I pass no judgement on what this means or how individuals in Britain may feel about such change.
But it is happening, it has happened. The moment that Britain became an Empire, was the moment that the exclusivity and singularity of Britain remaining a white Anglo-Saxon island, that was the moment that, that status was condemned.

I hear theatre practitioners going on about the authenticity of a role and the problems that cross casting can raise if they cast BAMEs. Not long ago this was raised by the RSC as an excuse as to why more East Asians hadn’t been cast. One of the other plays in that RSC season was Boris Godunov. Rewind, Boris Godunov, a Russian leader of Tartar origin.
Here are the faces of a few Tartars.
Crimea Tatars-2

So next time anyone thinks about using authenticity as a screen or excuse as to why BAMEs can’t be cast in a production perhaps your own idea of what you perceive that community or race to be, should be scrutinised first. When we talk of being Jewish let us not confine or restrict ourselves just to the Ashkenazi Jew, but consider also the Sephardic Jew and the Kaifeng Jew.
When we talk of Muslim let us not forget that there are many countries whose citizens are of the Muslim faith, including China. When we talk of the Muslim terrorist let us not forget that one of the most wanted terrorist is Samantha Lewthwaite, a twenty-nine year old White English woman who converted to Islam when she was 17. By all accounts she was a bright student who the teachers all loved.

white terrorist

Authentic, but perhaps an authenticity and reality that some would rather not face and prefer not to see this reflection mirrored in our art and culture?
Authenticity as driver of artistic integrity. Such a politicised phrase, artistic integrity. If one takes the phrase as it stands and applies standard logic to the words and their meaning. Any unpaid artists who works has integrity, has freedom to writer, paint, perform and portray whatever they see fit to do. The artists that sells their work to whomever will buy their work also has integrity. Once an artist is subsidised, the art is inherently compromised it looses its integrity. The financial crutch, the middleman so to speak has a vested interest on the artists work and can therefore influence the path and nature of the art itself. They don’t necessarily have to lift a finger to exert influence to reassert a preferential structural point of view.
So let’s be honest with each other shall we. When we apply integrity to art what do we actually mean. That we’d prefer to see plays produced that reflect times past and that reaffirm a state of being which is no longer a reality. Or are we looking to produce art that truly reflects modern society using the vehicle of classic drama to pass comment on modern times. Shakespeare will still be Shakespeare no matter where you set it, or how you cast it. Unless of course you bowdlerize it. Using modern-day diversity in Shakespeare can enhance the view of Britishness. It can open modern parallels as was done by casting Adrian Lester and Jude Akuwudike as Pistol. In the exchange between the incognito Henry, Pistol ask his name and Henry answers ‘Harry le roi’ pronounced as has become common place and accepted ‘le roy.’ Jude Akuwudike played Pistol, with a strong Jamaican accent, allowing this heritage to imbue and inhabit Pistol’s nuances and characteristics. Pistol exclaims ‘LEROY!’ delighted by the name. The audience’s reaction was laughter, because both actors were black. Using the black stereotype of Leroy, with a Pistol that has Jamaican vocal tones, shifts us from colour to confronting class not race or ethnicity, as both Henry and Pistol are black.
Maybe I’m reading too much into a past production but it’s an interesting thought isn’t it?

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.

 

Is the media ready to accept East Asians as part of British diversity?

So after a hopeful start to last week with the launch of Act For Change campaign, the broad acceptance from ITV and the BBC that quotas for BAME artists and creatives are a good thing, to help ensure the diversity and variety that we experience in reality is reflected back in the media.
That was not what I was expecting to hear, very welcome, but then I’m a cynic. I’ve had over thirty years of watching , being actively involved when I was young enthusiastic and naively optimistic.  When I say that I was involved, I was as ‘involved’ as those in power would allow a young East Asian to be involved. Back in the days when I would have been referred to as an Oriental. Yes folks, you read it right. ORIENTAL. Not that such language and terms are being used nowadays …

a recent Spotlight casting
a recent Spotlight casting

So when it comes to matters of equality and diversity, especially being an East Asian, where we are a minority within the minorities and still being treated appalling, is it any wonder after thirty years that I have evolved into the cynic that I am now.

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Jake Fairbrother – Cheng Bo Joe Dixon – Tu’an Gu

Why would now be any different to all the those other initiatives, schemes and past “interventions?”  Well . . .
Since the dreadful Royal Shakespeare controversy back in 2012 with their casting of The Orphan of Zhao  things have never quite been the same, in my opinion,
within the BAME community. (Sidebar, oh how I wish we could find a better term to use when referring to ourselves. Maybe it’s the dyslexic in me but whenever I see BAME I some how always fleeting see the word BLAME . Anyway that’s a whole separate post on it’s own).
And this is the American production of The Orphan of Zhao. Exact same play produced by the American Conservatory Theater – RSC et el take note

 

The classical foot in the mouth from the cradle of The Bard was probably the best thing that could have occurred for the British East Asians.  It drew together many people from across the cultural and ethnic spectrum which is the reality of Britain. Hell it drew in support from around the world! The Orphan of Zhao wasn’t just seen as an East Asian “problem” and an insult to only British East Asians.

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in

our stars, but in ourselves.”

It is a fault within our supposed multicultural, tolerant liberal society. Differing racial and ethnic groups came together and recognised that the British part of being East Asian, in fact Black or Asian was consistently being ignored and conveniently erased. If used, it was only when it was expedient for others to do so and always at our own expense. The British East Asian Artist group, in my personal opinion, has done more, been instrumental in more and has spoken out more, about the deplorable, lamentable and yes one could say ‘criminal’ state of affairs for British East Asian Artists. More movement, realistic engagement, instigation for change and equality has occurred in the short time since the BEAA (British East Asian Artists Group) was founded in 2012 then in all the previous years. Through the efforts and campaigning of the BEAA (British East Asian Artists Group) East Asians now find themselves at the table in vital and essential talks with the very institutions that have hitherto seemingly ignored British East Asians, such as the BBC (British Broadcasting Company) and Politicians. The BEAA actively supports both Act For Change and the TV Collective and has been instrumental in getting involved and achieving representation in talks with Ed Vaizey MP and the BBC.

The Arts Council of England published the findings of an independent report claiming that the arts and culture sector accounts for 0.4% of gross domestic product, with £5.9 billion worth of gross value added to the UK economy in 2011. London theatres enjoyed record ticket attendances and revenues in 2013, generating £97.5m of VAT receipts for the UK Treasury. Attendances for 2013 were up 4% on 2012 to 14,587,276 with gross sales rising by 11% year on year to £585.5m, according to the figures from the Society of London Theatre.

On stage in 2013 was an amazing year for British East Asian Artists:
The Arrest of Ai Weiwei at The Hamsptead Theatre in April.  Chimerica in May at the Almeida Theatre then transferring to the Westend The Harold Pinter Theatre. Yellowface at The Park Theatre in May and then the Royal National Theatre at the Shed, The Fu Manchu Complex written by British East Asian actor, writer and activist Daniel York in September, The World of Extreme Happiness at The Royal National Theatre in The Shed in October and Golden Child at The New Diorama. It was an explosion of East Asian talent on stage and off. The productions found audiences. People bought tickets and put their bums on the seats. Audiences the mirrored the variety and diversity of the British population. People went to see shows about East Asians, with East Asian themes. And shock horror performed by British East Asian actors. Two things it can’t now be said there are no East Asian performers – or yes there are but then consistently only concentrating interest a small meagre handful of performers.
Secondly, no longer can it be said, “oh there isn’t an audience for such plays.”

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Britain is a diverse and mixed country in terms of the people who now inhabit these shores.
In London, the 2011 Census, London’s population was 8.17 million, making it the most populous European city. More than 4 out of every ten Londoners (42 per cent) identify themselves as belonging to another group other than Caucasian. What everyone thinks about this state of affairs is an entirely different matter. Britain is not going to suddenly revert back to being a predominantly Caucasian country, sorry (well actually I am not) UKIP et all. The world has moved on, literally and so has its people from country to country, crossing continents and time zones.

Cast of Broad Church at the BAFTAs
Cast of Broadchurch at the BAFTAs

So why hasn’t the British culture, our Theatre, Film and Television moved to reflect the diversity we see on our streets? I can’t believe that in the popular media I don’t regularly see characters the reflect me. I’m not talking about the odd Chinese waiter, tongue tied tourist, or the occasional Doctor or Surgeon or even overseas student.
When I turn on my TV, when I see another East Asian, it’s usually a characterisation from a very narrow perspective. Seldom do I see myself, or people who look like like me, portrayed in an accurate and realistic manner, let alone as being British. I have to make do with the heavily accented, menial and or illegal worker. Occasionally there’ll be a Doctor, a secretary or a nerdy student. Apparently there is no in between. As an East Asian more times than not, you’re isolated, socially separated by language, culture and ingrained biggatory.
As an overseas East Asian character you’re allowed to be intelligent, successful and financially well off, but you can also be ruthless, dodgy and somehow an inherently flawed human being. But on the upside you’ll be seen as authentic.

I’m standing right in front of you, as are many others, with not a  “me no spleakie” accent, DVD seller or Machiavellian master of crime to be seen anywhere.

Is this continued white washing, an attempt to keep the British cultural landscape western and Caucasian? Is it an almost subliminal subconscious last stand?  The last vestiges of institutional and structural racism? An attempt by the old guard in society to divide and rule and thereby some how keep the colonials in their place?

Cartoon_of_Chinese_Imperialism_After_Opium_WarIt’s not as if there aren’t the talented and trained East Asian artists out there. Where we fall down is the inability, or lack of willingness on the part of the British media to embrace East Asians. Unlike their colleagues of Black British and British Asian heritage who have been incorporated (to some degree) into the cultural landscape. Comedy shows and serials have been set around or based on their respective communities. Characters from specific ethnicities that draw the audience into an alternative view of British life.

The Fosters (1976-1977), Black Silk (1985), South of the Border (1988), Goodness Gracious Me (1988-2014), Desmond’s (1989-1994), Prime Suspect 2 (1992), The Kumars at nos. 42 (2001-2006), 55 Degrees North (2004–2005), Luther (2010-2013).
The East Asians have had Johnny Ho in the Chinese Detective (1981 – 1982) and that’s it.
It doesn’t happen often enough across the diverse spectrum of British society. The tragedy is why has this not progressed? The world continues to evolve but British popular media and drama apparently does not or will not?  When will I be able to see The Lees from nos.8 or Penny Fields or what about Jean and Enid a black comedy set in an OAP home where the central character, Jean (imaginatively nick-named Chinese Jean by the nursing staff) forms an unlikely friendship with Enid  new Staff nurse. If you’re interested in the latter then leave me a message and I’ll happily send over a synopsis or meet with you and talk.

I don’t want to be here in another thirty years still talking about the same issues.

As Anna Chen writer, political blogger, performance poet, stand up comedian and BEAA activist recently wrote:

For someone who’s pretty hard to miss, I’m surprisingly invisible. There’s a whole load of us feeling the same way, and we’re getting behind Act for Change.

For someone who’s pretty hard to miss, I’m surprisingly invisible. There’s a whole load of us feeling the same way, and we’re getting behind Act for Change. – See more at: http://madammiaow.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/chinese-british-comic-anna-chen-wtf.html#sthash.umuBIXeX.dpuf
For someone who’s pretty hard to miss, I’m surprisingly invisible. There’s a whole load of us feeling the same way, and we’re getting behind Act for Change. – See more at: http://madammiaow.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/chinese-british-comic-anna-chen-wtf.html#sthash.umuBIXeX.dpuf
For someone who’s pretty hard to miss, I’m surprisingly invisible. There’s a whole load of us feeling the same way, and we’re getting behind Act for Change. – See more at: http://madammiaow.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/chinese-british-comic-anna-chen-wtf.html#sthash.umuBIXeX.dpuf
For someone who’s pretty hard to miss, I’m surprisingly invisible. There’s a whole load of us feeling the same way, and we’re getting behind Act for Change. – See more at: http://madammiaow.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/chinese-british-comic-anna-chen-wtf.html#sthash.umuBIXeX.dpuf

 

Attitudes have to change, in the boardrooms, casting suites and commissioning offices.
Something has got to give,  I hope that this is the beginning.