In the dawn of films like ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ I have wondered what the future looks like for the British East Asian actor in the film/television/theatre industry.
I remember the day the film came out - it felt as if a long lost pride in me was reignited. It was special. That feeling of acceptance and being seen gave me high hopes as a graduating drama school student preparing for the industry. It was a sign of moving forwards, combatting my subconscious fear of a lack of representation and thus, a lack of opportunity as an East Asian actor - a fear most minority actors have. A fear derived from my experience of watching the 400th celebration of Shakespeare, which was broadcasted live from the RSC by the BBC. The Swan theatre was graced by a great many actors, from all races. All races apart from one. The show failed to portray a single East Asian actor on stage that could truly represent someone like me. It was that moment that inspired me to be someone who could represent my community.
The industry is becoming more diverse. But not as much as it could be. The term that I believe holds us back the most is ‘BAME’. Made in the late 1970s, BME was meant to signify minorities fighting against racism in the UK. Now, it feels like a non-negotiable term to categorise people, making it easier and more politically-correct than saying ‘non-white’. The term ’asian’ feels equally reductive to me, and it has made me wonder about whether friends of mine feel similarly about being called ‘black’. Not to mention those who are forced to choose the term ‘ethnic minority’ - who is meant to identify with this label?
The term ‘diversity’ seems like the best option when it comes to embracing difference. It is broad enough to include anyone who considers themselves ‘other’ and thus more inclusive. When asked whether he considered himself Chinese or North American, Bruce Lee replied: “I think of myself as a human being...under the sky, under the heaven there is but one family, it just so happens that people are different.” The term ‘multi-cultural’ also appeals to me, and I think would be more appropriate for people to use especially when casting actors. These terms I think are more likely to help create a space that rejects stereotypes and allows us to relate to actors, or indeed people, in a more humane way.
When I started acting, I found myself at various youth theatre workshops and panel talks around identity and race. Inevitably these discussions would focus on black history and black identity, and its participants would primarily be black and white actors. Whilst I felt like I could relate to some of the experiences that my black actor friends expressed, I could only relate to a certain point until I realised that it was a struggle to find my own community who could support me in my struggle to feel heard as an East Asian actor.
I started to use these platforms I found myself in to begin expressing my culture and the stories from where I am from, mostly being the only East Asian. I then soon found myself working alongside Asian directors and meeting other East Asian actors to help with this exploration of our identity. Working alongside British East Asian artists, and discussing these topics openly with a group of actors like me, made me realise how much my community was engaging in socio-political activities whilst making work that tells the story of our people. But it wouldn’t be enough for me as an individual, as an artist, to only be taking part in stories that portray East Asian culture, in East Asian theatre companies, in films like ‘Crazy Rich Asians’. That doesn’t mean these films can’t be catalysts for progress. The East Asian community has dealt with yellow face, misrepresentations on/off screen, censorship and other digressions that have failed to recognise our talents as artists since before the Bruce Lee film era.
Real progress means inclusive collaboration between different cultures to tell a story that truly reflects the society we live, as well as the society we hope to create. If we only seek to make theatre in our separate communities, we will miss the opportunity to create a real conversation around diversity and fail to adapt to the era of globalisation we find ourselves living in.