Category Archives: China Ramblings

Yellowface alive and well at the Print Room

In a week where BAFTA announced that, from 2019, films that do not demonstrate diversity and inclusivity will no longer be considered for awards, in theatre land the antics at the Print Room, Notting Hill, show just how far we still have to go. Organisations such as Act for Change have initiated a wider cultural shift towards the promotion of equal opportunities and diversity. However, work by Dave O’Brien on the BBC  and Jami Rogers on the casting of Shakespeare, shows that there is still a white ceiling that needs to be broken in our theatre and entertainment industries. The casting of Howard Barker’s play In the Depths of Dead Love highlights something that has occasionally crossed my mind as more and more high-profile names lend their voices to the diversity cause: to what degree is it all lip service? Now, I know I am relentlessly cynical, and indeed, there have been many many positive strides made in the last few years, but the casting of this production gives me pause.

Barker (one of our great living dramatists) has written a contemporary play, set in China, complete with characters with Chinese names (although those names are obscure at best). And how have these been cast? With entirely white actors. Now, I have nothing against these actors personally, but, I’m sorry, this is yellowface.

In 2012, a group of us stuck our necks out on the line to protest the casting of the RSC’s The Orphan of Zhao, which also used yellowface. In the wake of the international furore that was created, I hoped that this archaic practice was dead and buried. Ashley Thorpe and I put together a special issue of Contemporary Theatre Review to document this moment because we felt it was a turning point. The moment where the entire East Asian community in Britain says NO MORE. Where the academics say NO MORE. Where the wider theatre profession says NO MORE. This has to stop, it is time for this to stop. And here we are again. I am repeating myself so let’s break this down – again. Others have beaten me to it, including the indomintable Erin Quill, a.k.a. The Fairy Princess, Lucy Sheen, Daniel YorkDavid Lee Jones and, today, Equity UK released a statement condemning the Print Room’s casting choices and explanations. There is also some great coverage in The Stage but I feel, as always, that the more voices there are, the more pressure there is, the more theatres have to account for their actions, and then it becomes easier to create a new norm.

Now yellowface is often associated with make-up and costume, with the performance of obscene stereotypes that are designed to denigrate and ridicule. But this is not all, because yellowface is a historic practice whereby those stereotypes were also explicitly designed by Hollywood to allow white actors to play any role, to explicitly exclude East Asian actors, to deny them opportunities. Over time, as the stereotypes and the dress-ups begin to diminish, that legacy of exclusion remains. So when anyone casts a white actor in an East Asian role, it denies East Asian actors a link to their culture and heritage, it erases their presence, it denies the demand for equal opportunities and diversity to be a live and vital force. I have an article that explains this – I am so angry to be writing this again that I am going to try and make it open access on this blog tomorrow (within the publisher guidelines) so that people can read it. What I find even more troubling is that there are so many fantastic East Asian actors out there now that the idea that there aren’t East Asians who can play these roles is a lazy and inaccurate assumption. Get a new casting director.

Not only did the Print Room take 4 days to respond, but when they did, it was like reading something from twenty years ago:

In the Depths of Dead Love is a very simple fable; it is not a play that tells a Chinese story, it is not about Chinese society, culture or perspectives. If it were, the casting would be very different, naturally.”

Here we have the classic trope of  ‘Oriental set dressing’ – China as a pretty backdrop, a foil for all our British anxieties and fears. Yet this is also Orientalist – it highlights our desire to control, to have imaginative and physical power over another place. Yet by being set in China it demands East Asian actors (more on that in a minute for those of you who don’t agree with me).

“Whilst the characters have been given Chinese names, that is to reference the abstract and the folkloric idea of the universal; we could just as easily be in the metaphorical area of Hans Christian Anderson, or, alternatively, the land of the Brothers Grimm.”

The last half century of critical thought has shown that what is ‘universal’ is actually white, male, and Eurocentric. Universalism is linked to the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution where it became easy to ‘abstract’ cultural specificity in the search for general principles or laws. Only a theatre in a position of power, that aims to reflect the dominant world view, could come out with that kind of statement.

“It is, in fact a very ‘English’ play and is derived from thoroughly English mores and simply references the mythic and the ancient. It has therefore been cast accordingly.”

Of course, East Asians aren’t part of contemporary Britain are they? And our British East Asian actors couldn’t possibly play these roles because they aren’t English are they? What an insult. I’ve been writing and campaigning for years, along with so many BEA theatre makers, to highlight the discrimination that exists for this group in theatre. But my bigger point here is that we are not yet in the situation where everyone has equal opportunities to every role. I want BEA actors to be employed in roles far beyond the confines of these racially and ethnically specific ones, but racial preferences are deeply ingrained in us all by society, and those in power like to promote in their own image: which, for now, is largely white and male. Things are shifting, but until we reach that point where anyone of any race can play any role – and equal opportunities, and the diversity that results from that, really exists on stage/screen – then it is not ok for white actors to play East Asian roles. It reinforces all those historic practices and exclusions.

“We acknowledge that some publicity materials seem to have permitted the possibility of a misapprehension arising. Print Room remains committed to diversity and inclusiveness in all we do, as our history shows.”

Diversity and inclusiveness – this is lip service. This statement is woefully inadequate. It fails utterly to engage with diversity, to grapple with the challenges it poses to the status quo, and to understand what it really means for all our theatres.

Andrew Keates (who is directing Chinglish at the Park Theatre) has called for a protest on January 19th outside the theatre. Get your placards ready.




Let’s See What Happens…..

Artists from Swansea try to collaborate with artists from China. Over many years and several (failed) attempts. Dealing with bureaucracy. Trying to find Chinese artists to collaborate with. How do you even meet artists in China, when you are sat in a boardroom with gallery owners? These are some of the problems that beset the Glynn Vivian’s attempts to facilitate Welsh-Chinese art relations. The result was 3 artists from China (especially Xiamen) and 4 artists from Wales not collaborating overtly on work, but living together, talking to one another, visiting each other’s countries to create their own work, or cross cultural engagement. This was a wonderful exhibition that was, I think, aided by the fact that the Glynn Vivian is closed and the exhibition venues were dispersed off-site across multiple sites, in buildings that gave greater resonance to many of the works presented.

I hope to write about this exhibition because rarely have I come out of an exhibition feeling that it was so incredibly geographical. I don’t usually wax lyrical about such things, but every piece was just rich and complex spatially. Just a few images and examples:

IMG_1536 IMG_1442 IMG_1456 IMG_1465 IMG_1466 IMG_1494 IMG_1499 IMG_1540

Contemporary Imaginations of China

Last week, folk I know such as Anna Chen, Daniel York and Dr Anne Witchard were on this BRILLIANT program by Philip Dodd on BBC Radio 4 called ‘Overwhelming China’. Listen here.

Finally, a program that was balanced in terms of recognising the fear of the Yellow Peril, the contemporary manifestations of this fear as well as its historical legacies. It was a relief to have a nuanced discourse and proper debate, to just have Sinophobia discussed. As this programme highlighted, if you amazon search for books on contemporary China the titles are pretty horrific. Our cultural sphere is permeated with uncritical imagery about ‘the Chinese’ in ways that suggest swarms, threat and fear, and interestingly, in theatre, the left seems plagued by a superficial engagement or understanding of China itself. To my mind, this says a lot more about Britain’s postcolonial malaise than it does about contemporary China. More worryingly, the threat of China seems to increasingly come from within as British Chinese get bound up in Chinese yellow peril imaginations. Manifestations of yellow peril imagery are, surprisingly, the most persistent of any racial-ethnic group, the most unacknowledged socially, and thus the most powerful.

During a recent event linked to The Fu Manchu Complex on contemporary representations of East Asians in the arts and media, a range of academics and researchers discussed the imagery of Fu Manchu with Sir Christopher Frayling arguing (in his forthcoming book on the Yellow Peril) that Fu Manchu is rooted in Vaudeville music halls. What was so striking, and what we discussed extensively was that very little has changed in the representation of Chinese and East Asian groups over the course of a century. You could trace Dr Fu Manchu from that Victorian tradition and he would still appear (in a slightly different guise) on the stage of 21st Century Britain.

I’ve been contemplating this because I was interested recently to do a little experiment. I wondered how Frances Cowhig’s The World of Extreme Happiness at the National Theatre would be received compared to Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica. They are, of course, very different plays, the former about China’s rapid industrialisation, rural-urban migration, the desperate consequences of ‘the system’ of capitalism on society and individuals, and the difficulty of always looking and moving forward without addressing the past. The latter similarly seeks the truth about a particular historical, landmark moment, about trying to address the past, but is also about the West’s geopolitical imagination of China. When I first read both plays, the former was the more powerful. The performance shifted the ending to address the human cost of capitalism, rather than conveying the idea that Chinese capitalism will consume everything and everyone in an ever-repeating cycle. However, the bleakness of life depicted and the contradictions around this rapidly shifting society were more complexly portrayed. This was contemporary China and it was ruthless – and depressing. As I suspected, critics and the general public seem to have preferred Chimerica – maybe its (comparatively) lighter tone makes it more digestible. But it was also a China that we in the West are familiar with, an event and an image, that we already know, rather than something more challenging. By having the white American journalist as the protagonist, the ills and evils of Chinese society could be left behind rather than confronted head on. Chimerica has its hit home points, but as I have discussed before, it relied upon hackneyed images: China is evil, oppressive, controlling bad, but also conveyed these in a way that I, personally found unsubtle, even a form of ‘bashing’. And so, this play, for me (and I know many many people will disagree) seemed to reinforce our sense of self in a classic Orientalist fashion, it seemed to reflect Britain, rather than China. The World of Extreme Happiness is by no means positive, it is critical of contemporary China, but it was more nuanced, more ambiguous, raised more questions about what would I do in that situation, about the plight of migrant workers in China and their entrapment in an economic and political system of oppression.

I met Frances whilst she was in London and she asked me if I objected to negative portrayals of China. I don’t, but it is the type and mode of representation that is important. Unfavourable, yes, critical, yes, complex yes, but not what I expect, not the constant recycling of hackneyed tropes where Sinophobia is implicitly, almost carefully constructed: so hidden that it is almost invisible. On the one hand, contemporary discourses of the Yellow Peril overshadow some of the real human rights abuses and problems in China (e.g. whole towns being decimated by AIDS owing to how the government implemented blood transfusion programs) and on the other, that China is constantly demonised when it is the biggest investor and innovator in certain fields. It’s a fascinating set of dynamics that speaks to how ‘the West’ is trying to grapple with a 21st Century superpower.

China on my Mind

I haven’t blogged much recently, as it’s marking term. However, I have seen a number of ‘China plays’ (as I like to call them) in London but I have wanted to think about the connections between them, or rather, to wait and see if there were any connections between them.

I write, in part, about British East Asian theatre and its transnational dynamics. Now, what is British East Asian theatre? I would generally say something written, produced, staged by or involving, British East Asian practitioners. Hampstead Theatre has just staged #aiww: The arrest of Ai Weiwei by Howard Brenton with an all male East Asian cast, and now the Almeida is trying its hand with Chimerica. But to my mind these are not really part of British East Asian theatre, because although they involve BEA actors, the production, the staging, the direction and most importantly, the perspective – especially the writing – is not.

The first thing to say is that the actors in both of these productions do a stellar job and so I always hate to criticise a play when there is talent on display. But I think that the British stage is really struggling to come to grips with China. It is like they are rushing along head first to jump on the bandwagon but in the process haven’t really thought through what they are doing – or in fact – saying.

Firstly, Brenton’s #aiww. Well it does what it says on the tin – it is a play about the 81 day detention of Ai Weiwei by Chinese officials in April 2011 based on the account he gave to the writer Barnaby Martin in his book Hanging Man. The play consists of a series of interrogations which by turns are humiliating, scary and funny. Gradually Ai Weiwei’s captors warm to him as they discuss ‘what is art?’ and they see the folly of the state’s attempts to detain him. Benedict Wong stood out in the title role and captured all the nuances of this modern artist-come-activist hero, his situation and the different ways in which he is perceived.

Yet as I sat there watching, I got the creeping sense that I was being preached to. I quite liked the thematic discussion about ‘what is art?’, but the whole production became more propagandistic, unsurprising given its source material. It appealed to the left by celebrating, and reinforcing, Ai Weiwei’s iconic status as an artist but also as the thorn in the side of the Chinese government. He has become almost better known for his stance against the Chinese state, its censorship and its human rights issues than his art. And I felt that this production showed me very little about him, his motivations or his artistic work (ok, a brief mention of all art is open to interpretation, but that’s it). It was almost as if Brenton had played into Ai Weiwei’s hands to create his greatest work yet. None of the criticisms of the Chinese state are to be denied, nor the injustice of Ai’s continued house arrest, but it was a one-dimensional view. David Tse did a great job as a smarmy politician fencing with Ai Weiwei’s status in Europe, censorship in a twitter age, and his stitch up over tax evasion. Yet the ‘Chinese state’ appeared puppet like, in the background, directing (and indeed surveilling) everything that happened in a evasive way. Whilst this is the reality of everyday China, the subtle ways people work within it were glossed over, as were the contradictory moments where the state’s presence comes to the fore. Ai Weiwei’s interrogators appeared constantly on the back foot, ignorant of art and society, or were there to be laughed at which always makes me feel shifty. In short, ‘the Chinese’ were almost stereotyped in a way appealing to, and understood by the West but authored by one of their own – with a bit of Brenton thrown in. It is unclear how much of Ai’s account is true, how much of the script he authored or changed, and how much is Brenton. Therein lies the dilemma: do you present a one-sided account, or do you open that account up to present a more complex world view? I know from experience that activism works best when you have a clear argument, but this was agit prop theatre for middle class liberals such as yours truly. And I felt uncomfortable with it. I’d have preferred a more subtle sense of things – so much of Chinese art deals with censorship as part of its aesthetic, as a constraint like money or materials, and is oblique in its critique of the state. This production simply didn’t have that dynamic yet was about the artist who excels by working in the grey areas.

Which brings me to Chimerica, the latest offering from Lucy Kirkwood at the Almeida. Well, at 3 hours 10 minutes, it needed a dramaturg and an edit. It was beautifully and slickly staged with a revolving white cube and impressive projections. The play starts from an interesting premise, with an American journalist taking one of the most famous photographs from the Tiananmen Square massacre of a man standing in front of a tank, and heading off on a search to uncover his identity. So far so good, but for me, the play didn’t really run anywhere interesting with it. It could have been a really great play about obsession. It kind of was, but the implications of that were very thin. It could have made a really great thriller on this search for the man with the bag, another vein it tried to pursue. It could have been a great play about US-China relations – but it had no real message in that regard.

For me, the title didn’t really reflect the play. ‘Chimerica’ was coined by Niall Ferguson, a way to think about the relationship between the two superpowers of the 20th and 21st Centuries, but the play only lightly touched upon US-China relations and misunderstandings. As the American journalist follows leads in his search for ‘tank man’ he finds the brother of the man driving the tank, this brother views the tank driver as the hero in the picture, not the man stood in front of it. We also see a critique of the economic band wagon hopping and of the lack of cultural understandings arising from ‘doing business in China’ but it was presented as a powerpoint lecture. Not the most subtle device for banging home a political message and a bit too reminiscent of David Hare. All of these were side lines and none of these themes were explored in any depth.

It WAS about identifying with a stranger, and so in that sense was about ‘universal truth and humanity’ but I never felt it even ran with the ethics or dilemmas of that fully either. Chimerica ended up being a story about a ‘white man in China’ – which I don’t automatically object to if the play has a real punch home message. It wasn’t a bad play and everyone was good in it, but the links between China and America never quite worked, it was like there was an American story and a Chinese story but the two didn’t fully cohere or connect. Critics have called it expansive and breathtaking, but to me all the threads ended up in a tangle.

Which brings me to David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face at the Park Theatre and my own academic activities a few days before. I’m not just saying this because I did the Q&A, but this play delves where these other productions didn’t. In part Yellow Face is about issues of race and our inability to move towards a post-racial society. Yet it also goes into uncomfortable territory, where Chinese American citizens are suddenly detained or indicted (such as the Chinese American scientist Wen Ho Lee and Hwang’s own banker father) because they are perceived as foreigners working for the Chinese state. Here there was a probing, a delving into Chinese-American relations using humour and drama.

Last Friday I also attended the final Translating China event held at Westminster University  organised by Anne Witchard and Diana Yeh. I watched academics such as Duncan Hewitt and Jeffrey Wasserman, and curators Pamela Kember and Rachel Marsden all talk about the subtleties in translating Chinese cultural influences, whether in novels, art or the internet. See Rachel’s brilliant account here. They were thinking through how to mediate and understand, how to engage, how to account for cross-cultural currents. This nuance and depth is not quite what I see on stage in productions such as Chimerica or #aiww. We all want to engage with China more than ever, but I feel that very few are managing it on stage in a complex and thought provoking way.