I have been quiet the last 6 months whilst I knuckled down to finish the monograph (more on that later….) but as part of British East Asian Artists, we lobbied the Minister for Culture, Ed Vaizey, as he was setting up diversity initiatives to address the marginalisation of Black actors in mainstream culture. With the success of 12 Years a Slave, a lot of attention was being paid to the spate of Black British – and Asian – artists migrating to America seeking work. Once again, the lack of diversity in British media was the hot topic and it is a timely one for me as my book partly explores how racial-ethnic marginalisation encourages British East Asian theatre-makers to travel looking for work in America, but also China, Hong Kong and Singapore. In reverse, the fact that leading American practitioners cannot establish relationships to British theatres owing to a multicultural landscape that ‘boxes’ individuals illustrates how ideologies and policies designed to be progressive can end up reinforcing inequality.
With the media kicking off on the lack of opportunities for Black British and South Asian artists, we thought it would be useful to highlight that this was also true for East Asian actors. So we wrote the following which was reported in several outlets, including The Stage, The Independent and The Times. Ed Vaizey responded and is going to include East Asians in his attempts to address inequality (see Anna Chen’s report here). Since then, further diversity issues have been aired, including the shocking statistic that you are as likely to see a female alien as you are an Asian woman in Hollywood films (see here). So much still to be achieved.
An open letter to Ed Vaizey and heads of broadcasting from the British East Asian Artists group.
We read with interest that the UK Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, The Right Honourable Mr. Ed Vaizey, has expressed concern about the number of black actors who are abandoning Britain for America because of lack of opportunities here. We welcome the concern that Mr. Vaizey and the media at large have expressed on this issue recently. We also welcome his determination to make meaningful changes in this area. In our opinion such an initiative is long overdue.
However we hope that these concerns and efforts will include all minority ethnic groups and not just the catch-all “Black & Asian”. As a group that fights the cause of British East Asian theatre and screen workers, we would like all parties to keep at the forefront of their mind that Asia continues east of India and that East Asia (particularly the East Asian “diaspora”) is not just “Chinese” and “Japanese”.
East Asians are the third largest minority ethnic group in Britain today. We are also the fastest growing and arguably the most diverse. This is simply not reflected on our stages and screens at present and never has been.
China, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Thailand are among the top ten senders of international students to the UK, which by the government’s own statistics contributed 75% of the UK’s total education export income worth £17.5 billion in 2011. British East Asians contribute much to the economy and general make-up of the modern United Kingdom and to be continually ignored and passed over in this way is surely unacceptable.
As said, we welcome the ministerial and media concern about black actors which is no doubt largely as a result of the recent success of Chiwetel Ejiofor and Idris Elba.
Let us remember though, that, despite the lack of challenging opportunities, both Chiwetel and Idris had successful enough careers here to enable them to start up in the US. No such opportunities (barring literally one or two “tokens”) are afforded East Asians in Britain. Recent successful “China plays” aside, East Asians are not seen in our popular media.
In 30 years, except for one Chinese DVD seller who lasted barely three months, the popular soap opera Eastenders has never featured any recurring East Asian characters whatsoever. The hospital dramas, Casualty and Holby City, have featured only three young East Asian regular characters each despite the high number of (diverse) East Asians working in our health service. Coronation Street, set around Manchester with its long-established Chinatown, has featured only one East Asian character (a female Chinese immigrant) in its entire history. East Asian males are rarely seen on our screens and mixed-race East Asians are particularly rare, not fitting the generic “Chinese/Japanese” stereotype. When East Asians are featured they are nearly always heavily accented, the women passive and submissive, the men brutish, asexual and devoid of any individualistic character. East Asians are, more often than any other minority ethnic group, rarely seen as indigenous.
In discussions around equal opportunities and social inclusion we therefore urge all parties to consider the full extent of Britain’s multicultural make-up. On our part, we feel that East Asians have been seen as the “model minority” for too long. High-achieving, silent and largely invisible. We feel this needs to change now.
Signed: Anna Chen Hi Ching Dr. Broderick Chow Kathryn Golding Paul Hyu Michelle Lee Chowee Leow Jennifer Lim Dr. Amanda Rogers Lucy Sheen Dr. Diana Yeh Daniel York
British East Asian Artists (BEAA) is a pressure group comprising actors, performers, writers, film-makers and academics who came together during the controversy over the Royal Shakespeare Company’s casting of the Chinese classic The Orphan Of Zhao with just three actors of East Asian descent in a cast of seventeen with all three in roles described by critics as “minor”. The social media protest initiated went global and resulted in the Arts Council and Equity sponsoring the Opening The Door To East Asians In The Theatre event last February 11th 2013. BEAA’s objectives are to raise the profile of East Asians working in theatre, film and TV and to enable people of East Asian descent to make, and have access to, performing arts work.