East Asians as Other

These are my notes/my first draft for the provocation for the Devoted and Disgruntled satellite event earlier this autumn. What ended up being sent out was much shorter, of course, because we didn’t want to be too specific about what we should talk about.

Reports/notes from the actual discussions during the event can be found here. I particularly found the discussion, “How Do I Go About Decolonising My Lifelong Anglicisation Without Erasing Myself Entirely?” led by Jules Orcullo helpful. Read those notes here.

I thought it would be a good thing to share what I was thinking about when I wrote the provocation. FYI I followed the format of previous provocations. Please forgive the paragraph where I qualify who I am! That was one of the first things to go!

What do we do about East Asians trapped as playing the Other?

I’m Vera Chok and I’m an actor, writer and performance maker. I’d like to look at what has changed since the 2013 D&D on East Asians (Opening the Door: what are we going to do – right now – to end the marginalisation of East Asians in British theatre) and argue that while there have been achieved huge successes in the last three years and are more visible, we are still being marginalised and portrayed as Other despite being the third largest ethnic grouping in the UK (1.2m compared to 1.9m Black British, 3m South Asian).

I’ve been an actor in the UK for nine years. Since 2013, I’ve featured in the West End alongside Benedict Wong, Judi Dench and Kenneth Branagh, worked at The National several times, received great press, and workshopped new writing for the Royal Court, the National and RSC. By all accounts, my career in the last three years has been positive but too often the jobs I’m asked to meet for remain roles supporting white leads, and are ones which reinforce racial stereotypes e.g. characters who are subservient, efficient, unloved, unlovable, uptight, or good at science.

Interestingly, many tours, family shows, and some regional theatres cast diversely and without apology. Elsewhere however…

– a person or group of people as intrinsically different from, or opposite to oneself
– not local/British/contemporary/normal
– (verb) alienate

Here are some things I’ve been thinking of and I wonder if you have too?

In a land experiencing post-referendum racism, where actors I’ve spoken to have turned down jobs in regions where they don’t feel safe, where actors are asked to embody the white Western world’s fear of China as a superpower, where an East Asian play is consumed as cultural exotica or an education, what can we do for East Asians to be seen as regular people?

Where have we seen East Asians in the roles of mothers, fathers or romantic leads? What working class contemporary roles have been played by East Asians? Can we imagine an East Asian playing the protagonist in a contemporary British setting, going through a universal human experience?

Who are East Asians, anyway? Someone posited it’s practical meaning in this industry is, “Chinese-looking people”. I’d like us to think honestly about the stereotypes we associate with “Chinese-looking people” and how we use “East Asian” as a shorthand for certain character traits.

How do we spread awareness of the plurality of cultures, ethnicities, and languages of East Asians and what do we do with this information?

How do makers avoid portraying racist stereotypes if the role is non race-specific?

If the Western ideal of beauty puts forth that a roman nose is noble and that eyes are the windows to our soul, how do we insert and value East Asian bodies on stage? Are East Asians doomed in terms of attracting empathy or desire?

A theatre maker suggested that many successful makers and actors of colour are culturally white. Another didn’t understand why a foreign-born actor nor a second generation immigrant of colour didn’t appear working class enough for her British working class production. Discuss.

How do we move away from commissioning or producing plays and “ethnic drag” situations where East Asians are trapped in history or in a foreign land, performing their race with the aid of accents, costume, movement and other design elements?

Why do makers need to explain the presence of an East Asian on stage?

What can we learn from and share with theatre peers who are asian or black? Who are our champions, mentors and allies now and who might be in the near future?

Is increased visibility just a fad and merely linked to Western fears of China, or are Chinese plays increasingly common because we court overseas Chinese investment? How do we adjust so that we do not keep isolating British East Asians?

How do we protect ourselves from race trauma? Because of our profession, the colour of our skin is currently seen as our primary defining characteristic. How do we cultivate joy and creativity and support each other?

With Act for Change uniting causes across the marginalised, and The Good Immigrant book uniting writers across colour, what I’m inspired by is human contact, community, dialogue, and peer to peer social change. Let’s meet up, chat, celebrate the IMMENSE achievements made on and off stage over the last three years, and keep moving forward!

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