Film

Why It’s Important To See Asian-Australians On Screen In This Racist Country

"I am only going to explain this once because I am so tired of explaining it to privileged, over-represented people time and time again."

So, I have a bone to pick with Asian representation in western media.

While channel surfing a couple of weeks ago, my boyfriend and I landed on a Survivor promo that has since disappeared from TenPlay called ‘Champions v Contenders: Choose Your Steve’.

In the promo, viewers are encouraged to back either Steve, the hardcore Commando Steve from The Biggest Loser (so a typically masc, white Australian man) or Steve, an Asian delivery man edited to look comical and weak in comparison, whose talking head was about his strategy of “being sneaky”.

Afterwards, my boyfriend and I became very quiet, and then we began swearing at the TV like an R-Rated version of Gogglebox.

We were furious because we’re both Asian, and we both work in the performing arts industry, and despite the terms “diversity” and “representation” being bandied about to the point where they’ve become buzzwords, nothing seems to change for Asian-Australian people.

Or, maybe this is a problem that extends to Asian people living in any western country.

Asians At The Party

Despite the success of films like Black Panther, Get Out, Coco and Hidden Figures, there is still so little cultural diversity on our screens.

A recent report from the University of Southern California about diversity in Hollywood, which analysed the top 100 films each year since 2007, found that while the percentage of white characters in these films decreased slightly over time (they still nabbed a whopping 70.7% of all speaking roles last year), the number of non-white characters in 2017’s list was grim: 12.1% Black, 6.2% Hispanic, and 4.8% Asian characters. The behind the camera figures are just as, if not more, depressing.

It’s evident that all the fears online commentators had about diversity “changing the culture” and Hollywood succumbing to the “PC police” was not only discriminatory — it’s also completely unfounded.

In Australia, there are a handful of brilliant initiatives and organisations (such as CAAP, with whom I’ve been lucky to work with) fostering Asian Australian creatives, but Asian people still rarely feature in Australian narrative shows. (We do great on reality cooking shows because apparently cooking and serving people is the only thing audiences are comfortable seeing us doing.)

Which is why there’s such excitement about big blockbuster films featuring Asian representation like Crazy Rich Asians.

Crazy Rich Asians

In the lead up to the US release of Crazy Rich Asians, actors from the film spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about their excitement and what it meant to them as Asian-American artists.

It’s the first major studio film to feature an all-Asian lead cast in 25 years, following The Joy Luck Club in 1993. It’s a big deal.

The actress and rapper Awkwafina spoke about how many Asian American people have an inexplicable urge to cry when they see the movie, and how she empathised with that, having teared up seeing rushes during filming.

“I’ve never seen myself as a character in a movie,” she told director Jon M. Chu at the time. She’d never been allowed to just be as an actor.

I have always known on a political and intellectual level that representation is vital — it validates our experiences, normalises our differences, and humanises people and communities.

But when I saw Crazy Rich Asians, I couldn’t stop sobbing. I cried because the film’s an incredibly well crafted tearjerker. I cried because I was relieved that it was brilliant. (There is so much riding on this film as THE Asian film that will make or break the future successes of Asian stories and actors on screen. And it’s been criticised for not representing more Asian identities, which is understandable, however I’d say that it’s unrealistic and unfair to expect one film to right decades’ worth of Hollywood’s wrongs.)

I cried because I didn’t have to undertake the automatic and unconscious process of having to project myself onto white characters.

But mostly I cried because I felt my world and my future open up to me: as a westernised person from the East Asian diaspora, I finally, profoundly understood that I could have dreams and flaws and relationships and families that are real and not just punch lines.

I understood that in my gut; I didn’t just understand it in my head. It’s one thing to imagine that for yourself through white characters; it’s another thing to be seen.

Dreaming Of Being White

Because I’m Australian and I’ve never even been to China, I have only ever consumed Australian media. And in all of the shows, movies, magazines and advertisements I saw growing up, I rarely saw anyone who looked like me.

And when I did, the person was either a docile or feisty (pick one only) sex worker, cleaner, assistant, mail order bride or international student. They always had foreign accents, and their main purpose was to be a hypersexualised and exotic beauty ripe for consumption by white and therefore powerful men.

My boyfriend and my male Asian friends only ever saw themselves in characters who were weak, unattractive and nerdy — anyone worthy of ridicule. They worked computers, or delivered takeout, or performed surgery, and they always lost out to the perceived natural smarts, athleticism, and good looks of white men. When Asian men weren’t represented, they were forgotten, and when they were, they were made the fool.

As an Australian-born Asian, or as an Asian person who’s spent their formative years in a western country, you learn to internalise the hatred and disdain that others have for you. You start to believe other people’s racism is valid, and so everything bad that people say about you must be true.

So, you deny your culture. You deny your language. You deny your customs. You even start denying people of the same ethnicity who are embarrassing you because they present as “too ethnic”.

You dream of being white.

That immediate self-denial — that you are less than, that you don’t belong — is rife in Asian communities.

And it’s stronger than ever: remember how Kelly Marie Tran was bullied off social media after copping racist abuse from Star Wars fans?

As model minorities, we’re either afraid to speak out against racism (because people are more upset about being called racists than with racism, which makes the POC look like a troublemaker) or too tired to call it out (because making others more comfortable is less exhausting than having to justify our own discomfort to privileged people).

Acting Asian In A Racist Country

I’ve always wanted to be an actor, but I chose to become a writer because I wanted more agency and control in a racist country.

I wanted to create leading roles for myself and other people of colour, like Hsiao-Ling Tang, who plays the mother character in my play, Single Asian Female. Tang was 19 when she graduated from drama school, fully trained and ready to be a working actor in Sydney. But there were no meaty roles for someone like her.

“I had a 100% strike rate, which was unheard of, but that’s only because every role I went for was a bit part ethnic character,” Tang tells me. “You let a lot of things slide when you’re young and wanting to work; my older self is pretty ashamed at the way I allowed myself to be treated.”

Hsiao-Ling Tang and Alex Lee in ‘Single Asian Female’.

Again, this comes back to those feelings of self-denial embodied by so many Asian-Australians. Tang had a long acting hiatus where her opportunities dried up and she left the industry.

“[I thought] I’m just not going to be an actor anymore.”

However after starring in Single Asian Female, and then Rice by Michele Lee, Tang was suddenly flooded with acting opportunities:

“It was insane, like nothing I’d ever experienced before. I think they saw how many different things I can do and now I’m being cast in roles that aren’t necessarily written for ethnic people.”

An Idiot’s Guide To Representation

“Stop complaining,” some readers are probably saying to themselves right now. “What about in China? What about Bollywood? You don’t see white people in Asian productions, but you don’t call that racist!”

I am only going to explain this once because I am so tired of explaining it to privileged, over-represented people time and time again.

1) Asian films are not normally about the experiences of people who are part of the Asian diaspora. They are about Asian people in Asian countries doing Asian things with other Asian people.

TL;DR? Not all Asian people are from Asia so they cannot relate to “Asian” stories. NEXXXXXT.

2) When Caucasian people feature in Asian media they are often idolised. For example, if a white person speaks Cantonese terribly on a TVB show, they’re applauded and revered for being so damn smart.

They’re not stereotyped either; they simply exist as a part of that show’s world. Western and European beauty is also highly prized in East Asian cultures, which is why blepharoplasty (double eyelid surgery) is such a common procedure and skin bleaching products sell bucketloads.

3) Asian people in Asian countries care less about representation because they live in widely mono-ethnic countries; they’re the majority, and so they’re in charge of their stories. (It’s why Crazy Rich Asians may not be released in China, because Chinese people in China cannot empathise with the Asian-American experience.)

Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell was a cool novelty in Japan because there is Japanese representation in the original Ghost in the Shell anime and manga.

Matt Damon in The Great Wall didn’t bother Chinese audiences because he was acting in a fantastical story about a period in Chinese history that has been dramatised in Chinese productions before.

Emma Stone in Aloha didn’t bother Hawaiian-Chinese audiences because nobody saw it because it was a terrible film.

In Western countries, Asian people do not get to tell their own stories (with a few wonderful exceptions, like Fresh off the Boat in America, and The Family Law in Australia). Yellowface and white-washing offends us because there are already so few Asian people in our media with whom we can identify.

You also have Asian Australian actors finally getting a role for which they’re suitable, only to have that opportunity stolen from them by a white actor.

4) For many [racist] people, the solution is simple: if you don’t like being underrepresented or misrepresented, then go back to where you came from.

It’s funny… when a white Australian complains to me about being swamped by non-English speaking migrants I’m inclined to tell them the same thing.

If only centuries of migratory patterns caused by displacement due to war, poverty and colonisation was that simple.

Building My Own Goddamn House

Constance Wu, star of Fresh off the Boat and Crazy Rich Asians wrote on Twitter in the lead up to the Crazy Rich Asians US premiere:

“My friend Ava DuVernay says, ‘I work in an industry that really has no regard for my voice and the voice of people like me and so, what do I do? Keep knocking on that door or build your own house?’ My dear Asian-American friends, we are building our own damn houses. We got the tools, the ability and we definitely got the style. Just because others don’t see it, doesn’t mean we don’t have it. We do. I’ve seen it.”

Wu and DuVernay are right. The talent is there in America: but it’s in Australia too.

I don’t know how we’ll reach the same heights as Crazy Rich Asians in Australia; I’m just one of the powerless creators that Wu is talking about — I’m not a producer, or an executive, and I don’t work for a broadcaster.

But I know that I can’t rely on those people, either, no matter how well intentioned or allied to our cause they may be.

So, I’m going to build my own goddamn house. I’m going to build it on a hill, and I’m going to fight and die on that hill, even if I don’t see outcomes in my lifetime.

White visitors are always welcome round for a cuppa in this house, but Asians and other POCs are invited to come on as co-owners. Why? Because they’ll know to take off their shoes without me having to ask them.

Michelle Law is a writer working across film, theatre and print. Her debut play Single Asian Female was staged at La Boite Theatre Company and Belvoir St Theatre Company to sold out audiences. She has also been a recipient of the Queensland Premier’s Young Publishers and Writers Award. Homecoming Queens, the award-winning web series she co-created, co-wrote and stars in, is currently available on SBS On Demand.