So on Sunday 5th I’ll be on the small screen playing Oilen Chen alongside Alice Conner who plays my daughter-in-law and Christopher Lew Kum Hoi as my son.
Here’s a peek at what’s in store in episode 3 http://bbc.in/2jKGDMq
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.
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.
Since Lenny Henry gave the BAFTA Television lecture and he presented the model for diversity in the media, now referred to as the Henry Paper; diversity once again has become a hot topic for discussion in offices and corridors of the gate keepers in their media ivory-towers.
I get the sense that the large institutions once undisputed bastions of media production and broadcasting, are worried. Diversity is a “problem” that just keeps on giving, it keeps on coming back. Biting its masters initially on the ankles now it’s gotten a firmer hold and has wrapped its jaws around a more vulnerable and sensitive part of the industry’s anatomy. This time we are striving hard with all of our collective might not to let go.
September is the month when all these initiatives about diversity and how the BBC, ITV, SKY and Channel 4 plan to implement measures that will address the cultural imbalance on our screens. The content that British broadcasters create is not reflective of modern-day 2014 Britain. But being the cynic that I am, the British East Asian that I am and long in the tooth – I cannot help but think in spite of all the PR and statements emanating from the broadcasters mouths – those that hold the power to decided what programmes are made, how, the nature of the content and even how it is cast and with whom, they really aren’t that keen to loosen their grip on the reigns of power.
If we are going to change the face of British broadcasting and start producing content that retains the same high production values we already have, we are going to need a bit more than just seeing more BAME (Black Asian Minority Ethnic) faces on TV or in British films. We need to start seeing BAMEs being cast in central roles. Driving the dramas being integral to the plot and doing it all without the need for accents. We’ll need to start seeing productions, writing, producers and casting directors accepting the authenticity of BAMEs as British as well as their historic heritage. We need writers with BAME backgrounds. Not just writers that broadcasters feel safe with. How is this to be achieved?
We need writers that reflect and portray the diversity and complexity of multicultural and ploy ethnic Britain. We need BAME writers that are willing to challenge the old historic ideas of country, culture and politics. Writers that are not afraid to expose the soft underbelly of today’s society. We need Broadcasters that can see beyond, that see the potential of a costume drama which doesn’t have to be cast entirely with white actors. We need to have facial, age and gender variety. In short more opportunities for ALL. As good as the current handful of head-liners are, appearing in practically all media content on British TV and film for that matter, one can hardly say it is diverse, varied or bringing on unrecognised talent whether that be discovering and championing new BAME talent or finding more experienced BAME artists who have never had the opportunities that seem to come so much more readily to their Caucasian counterparts.
For diversity really to be accepted and made part of the foundations and bedrock of our culture and media, the stewards and gatekeepers either have to change their outlook radically and accept the reality of things as they are in 2014; or we have to change those stewards and gatekeepers to ones that can accept and are willing to portray the realities of British BAMEs on TV.
No one relinquish power without a fight. Abdication from such positions of media and creative power will not happen without a struggle. With all these supposed announcements stating what the broadcasters intentions and actions will be to achieve greater diversity in the media. Are we being herded in to a diversity cul-de-sac? When the announcements and PR dust has settled, will we find that what’s on offer, actually isn’t an offer? That any notion of “ring-fenced” funds to specifically encourage, bring on and nurture BAME talent, ideas and artists, once again is just smoke and financial mirrors? Will quotas ever be introduced to ensure that the playing field is properly levelled and even for all? If broadcasters fail to staff their productions with BAME creatives and talent, what real sanctions will there be? Will there be anything to force unwilling or recalcitrant media companies from just continuing as they are now? What of Section 29 of the Equality Act? Will UK broadcasters continue to be able to opt out and therefore continue not to make it illegal to broadcast racist material?
Will we find that diversity is just a hash-tag, a label and box that can be ticked but that is never filled?
Until the major players on the media stages start talking openly and honestly about the BAME elephant in the room – everything that they propose is just superficial dressing. Until we have hard cold cash and investment in the BAME talent pool it’s all cultural sensitivity elastoplast. Until broadcasters start using the existing pool of talented actors in their long-established weekly dramatic serials, one-off dramas and series there will be no real change. If BAMEs are just “popping” up more regularly but still as migrants, outsiders or ” the other” with accompanying foreign accents. Then we’re still not being seen, accepted and incorporated into our own “British” culture. Culturally we’re still being extrapolated from being British. We’re being corralled away from being included in a British artistic interpretation of our own landscape.
I hope that will not be the case. I hope that the existing movements and groups such as Act For Change, TV Collective, Media Diversified and The British East Asian Artists group will help us to secure a richer, more exciting and diverse media both in front and behind the camera.
Just as I was about to publish this came across my news feed.
£1.5m project announced to translate all the Bard’s works into Mandarin and translate key Chinese plays into English.I think that this says it all. The industry is so busy trying to gain a foot hold in overseas markets that they are negating and forgetting the power of the domestic market. There are more innovative ways to create links and artistic connections with China and East Asia which would enable Shakespeare to be produced and shared, other than spending £1.5 million on translation.
How much of that 1.5 mill is from the public purse?
I didn’t stand up and speak, I wasn’t quick enough on raising my hand. Also the points I wanted to raise had already been put to the floor. One of the more important points having been raised by Paul, about the meaning of British Asian Minority Ethnic. And could we please be assured that Asia did not just refer to the cricket playing Asian countries! That Asian would extend beyond the sub-continent.
But as is usual with me I started to re-think on this mornings proceedings as I rode the tube back towards London’s East End the very epitome and in some ways one of the cradles of British diversity throughout history.
The discussion touched on multiple factors, but my focus turned to something that Adrian Lester said. The truth of our history and that is where my focus has remained.
Yes monitoring is incredibly important and it’s a foundation to collecting robust factual data. Of course that’s only as good as the monitoring specificity and protocols set to ensure that the data collected is accurate and robust.
There is a disjunct between the reality of diverse modern Britain and the assumed idea or concept that some people have, of what diversity actually is. I don’t think that anyone in that room would have refuted or denied that diversity is real. Britain is a diverse nation. It is multicultural, poly ethnic, populated by people who have dual and multiple heritages.
But the diversity that is offered via poplar media is something else entirely. It isn’t one that truly reflects the reality of Britain today. It’s an assumed understanding that comes from a position of privilege. It is trying to be inclusive and diverse but without understanding the broad politics and historical context of diversity. I feel we’re being shown the diversity that they think, we the viewing public want to see. We’re being given the programs, the central characters, that it’s assumed we want to see. Diversity is being interpreted by people who have no real reference to the BAME world. Many of the commissioners, producers, top media influencers, casting directors and gatekeepers don’t need a racial or ethnic moniker to fit into society, to be given context or value. If Adrian Lester can stand up and feel dis-included, given the progress that British Black African and Caribbean artists have achieved, then spare a thought for us, the British East Asians.
We don’t even figure in the term BAME unless we remind people that Asia covers a huge continent, not just a sub-continent.
I too would like to stand up and say it’s about truthful historical representation as well as the here and now.
We’re a century on since the Great War. We hearing about the Black-British during first world war. What of the Chinese and the Chinese Labour Corps? In Noyelles-sur-Mer, thirteen kilometres from Abbeville there is a cemetery. It houses 41 unknown graves of members of the Chinese Labours Corps who died on land and at sea for this country.
The base camp for the Chinese Labours Corps was at Noyelles-Sur-Mer. By the time the Armistice came the corps numbers had reached 96,000. About 2,000 perished during the war. In Chinese inscribed around the entrance is the following (in rough translation)
‘This site commemorates the sacrifice paid by 1900 Chinese workers who lost their lives during the 1914-1918 war, these are my friends and colleagues whose merits are incomparable.’ The inscription was chosen by
Shi Zhaoji, the then Chinese Ambassador to Great Britain at the time of The Great War.
Just one piece of British history that we don’t hear much about, if at all.
We need to redefine what is British. Only then will monitoring actually mean anything especially to us, The British East Asians. Otherwise in terms of fulfilling and aiding diversity, production company A could go off to the US and cast an Asian American in a British drama and still think that they are being diversity conscious and responsible. Surely any measures have to encourage, nurture and support British talent front and back of camera, on stage and off and not just the young and “emerging” but the mature and seasoned as well. Lets see real variety and diversity on our screens and stage. Otherwise, for the British East Asians, nothing will change and we’ll still be stuck seeing representations of ourselves as the perennial outsiders.
Don’t get me wrong what’s happening now is great, it’s also long overdue. But if we’re taking diversity then let’s ALL have the same understanding of what diversity is and who this includes. The British East Asians have for far too long been the poor country cousins left out in the cold. This time we need to be included we are after all part of modern British society.
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 …
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.
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.”
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.
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?
It’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.