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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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.

Racism? What racism . . .

10523870_10154381233780524_7740154292405053486_n2014 – London Chinatown, European tourists stop to take a picture as a memento of their time in London. Without embarrassment, without thought, without so much as a battering of the eyelids; oh sorry no they can’t, because they’re pulling their eyelids back in order to pretend to be East Asian.

There are some people out there who would try and tell me that this is some kind of affectionate mimicry. That this action is not racist. It’s just  gentle, mickey taking and no harm is meant.
As a British East Asian, I do not find this funny. It does not elicit even a wry smile. I find this type of behaviour insulting, demeaning and totally unacceptable. Why in this modern age of diversity and growing global multiculturalism do people think that this type of behaviour is in any way acceptable? What is it, particularly about the West and its relationship to East Asia, which facilitates the persistence of  racial stereotypes and caricatures of East Asians?

It’s been said before and no doubt it will be said again, until real change occurs. It would not occur to most “normal people” to wear an afro-style wig and apply black make up to their faces and pose in the middle of London for photographs. This is the same mindset that makes most people stop themselves (usually) from publicly uttering racist or derogatory remarks referring to Black, African, Caribbean or South Asians, their skin colour or physical features. Yet when it comes to East Asians there seems to be no such limiter – even if it’s only a public one. What people think in private, what they truly feel, but don’t express openly we will never know. However, when it comes to East Asians it is deemed perfectly ok to utter abuse in pubic. To broadcast racist and prejudicial content. For small children to go around shouting Chink. If they were to do that with the N-word all hell would probably break loose.
The  seemingly casual way in which racism is on display in this snapshot feeds into to my profession. Everyone says yes to diversity, but no one was really doing anything. That’s why I became one of the founding members of The British East Asian Artists Group, why I support The Act For Change Project, the TV Collective and The Henry Paper. We need change, not hand outs and not lip service. An acceptance that British East Asians are people and are valuable members of this society.

If as a society we can agree that Blacking up is an unacceptable practise then, surely we can agree that Yellowface in all of its forms is equally unacceptable?  If we cannot agree on this, then what does this say about us, about Britain and the society that we ALL live in?