Ab-Fab. Yellowface and Comedy.

I am pleased that Margaret Cho has taken the heat on this Yellowface thing with AbFab the film. I like her and she has brought the term to a wider audience in UK, who have never heard or thought of such things. Raising the idea that this kind of casting is out of order in a big publicity wave is a great warning shot across the bows for others contemplating it.

Margaret Cho
The brilliant Margaret Cho – I hired her brother Hahn in his first acting job after drama school!

I do, however, think that the role needs to be seen in context before people kick off. Jennifer Saunders (with Dawn French) has been consistently the funniest woman in Britain for 3 decades and never at the expense of minority groups. It would be incredible if she were to slip up now – especially at the expense of East Asians, the most historically under-represented ethnic minority group in Britain.

I went up for Mrs Brown’s Boys-D’ Movie and it was for a Chinese role that was so racist, that I had to mention it at the audition. The dialogue was all, “me no likee” etc.  The casting director told me that it wasn’t meant to be racist, and that it must have only come across like that when reading it because Brendan the writer was dyslexic! We were talking at cross purposes, and my speaking up scuppered my chances of being seen again by this woman … but my warnings must have been heeded because they re-wrote the part to become a white guy who thought he was Chinese for some reason; a clever device, which avoided criticism of racism (and one fewer part for a Chinese actor! Doh!).  It would be incredible that Mrs Brown’s Boys would take steps to avoid being insulting to East Asians and yet Jennifer Saunders would not.

Ab Fab
Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley

I believe it is possible, given Margaret Cho and anyone else complaining has not read the script nor seen the scenes, that Ab Fab’s casting may be similar to that which Mrs Brown’s Boys eventually settled upon.   Or it may be Sacha Baron Cohen-like, which would be 1. funny and 2. not racist, but satirising racism and racism towards East-Asians itself. It could be, for example, that Krankie’s character is not Japanese at all, but that people think she is because she has a stupid fake name.  It then would be a joke on Patsy and Edina for falling for faux-orientalism from an obvious fraudster.

The point is: that casting blackface or yellowface in comedy in itself is not racist, which is what Margaret Cho assumes here.  The best recent example of where it is not is Robert Downey Jr in Tropic Thunder.   This is not racist because the joke is on Downey Jr’s character, who is so up himself that he doesn’t realise how offensive he is being by blacking up.

This is why I have advised Equity to wait before wading in, taking a stance on this film and embarrassing itself.  Equity is now waiting to hear from the film’s producers, which response will be enlightening.

If anyone has earned our comedy trust, it is Jennifer Saunders.  If she lets us down, then it is another matter and I will be at the forefront of giving it both barrels here and via Equity.  Let us wait and see and let Margaret take it in the meantime.

The Missing Chink

I just re-watched this.  It is still pertinent now, amazingly.  I am proud of it. All 4 episodes are embedded here. This was pre Gok Wan!

picture of Gok wan, leading UK Chinese celebrity
Gok was nowhere to be seen in 2004 when this came out. Hasn’t he done well since?

One day I will write about the aftermath of this show and how the UK’s Chinese community lost its mind, complaining to OfCom in record numbers / phoning me up with death threats – resulting in me doing a gig with an armed police guard / an early day motion in The House of Commons being among the highlights – but for now, you can watch each episode with a brief deconstruction, written in 2015, of what is going on:

The Chinese (and other East Asians) were all but invisible in UK culture. Arguably they still are.  Gok notwithstanding. 

This satire was originally conceived by me as a 60 minute mockumentary but instead I was offered 5 x 3 minute slots to make my points. Thinking this was just a cunning ploy by Channel 4. which I could outwit, I held out for the original pitch, only to be soon informed that I had lost one of my 3 minute slots! So I accepted the 4 remaining slots, which were written in 2003, filmed around the corner from my house and broadcast Mon-Thu on the week of Chinese New Year in 2004 on C4, UK.

The two protagonists, who are called Jerry and George in a homage to Seinfeld (though we never learn their names), are as far from a Chinese stereotype as you can get. They speak in regional accents and show themselves to be stupid, ignorant and lecherous in the course of the series.

Ep 1. Plays with the fact that in the UK, Japanese and Chinese (and in fact East Asia in its entirely) are totally interchangeable and no one (not even the two protagonists) seem to make or care about the distinction. This confusion is played out when discussing the career of the one well-known East Asian actor, Burt Kwouk (who appears at the end), who is famous for playing Japanese characters even though he is Chinese. The fact that the BBC’s “The Chinese Detective” was so named is ridiculed and the point is made that this was so long ago (1980) that no one remembers it or David Yip the actor, who gamely also makes an appearance.

Ep 2. Addresses the idea that East Asian men are non sexually threatening or desirable, whereas East Asian women are considered a desirable conquest. How do these two contrasting stereotypes square the circle? The story of Miss Saigon is argued to be racist by one of the protagonists, and both meekly accept the stereotype that East Asian men have small penises. Bruce Lee gets a mention!

Ep 3. Addresses the UK’s (at that time) total ignorance that China are a world beating sporting nation and the irony that they are known only for (the non-masculine sport of) table tennis. Even though England’s record breaking rugby union try-scorer, Rory Underwood OBE (the customer who the protagonists ridicule and are surly towards) is half Chinese, this fact is almost unknown to the general public.  Even amongst hard core sports fans, it is almost as if Rory’s Chineseness is whitewashed from his UK public image. He is still the record holder to this day, Dec 2015, yet I suspect the same response if you go out on the streets of UK and ask the question, “name a British Chinese sports star”. Bruce Lee gets another mention!

Ep 4. Examines the lack of relative power the Chinese (and by extension the entire East Asian) community has in relation to the UK’s other ethnic minority groups. A list of notorious instances of white actors blacking-up – in actual fact “Yellowing Up” – is named. Again, the point is made that the South Asian and black lobbies in the UK are so much more powerful than the Chinese lobby (if it even really exists) that recent racist portrayals of Chinese culture on TV would never have happened to any other culture. The series takes its satirical homage to Seinfeld to the max by stealing the idea that there is “a deal” which exists between the UK’s Chinese community and the UK itself, which is beneficial for everybody – but results in “The Chinese” being invisible. This idea lays the blame for the state of being invisible (or “missing”) on the Chinese community itself.  Jerry & George are shown ripping off a white customer at the end and are happy with the status quo.

Chinese Elvis’ Great Wall (of shame)

“If you haven’t got anything nice to say, don’t say anything”, said some idiot.

I disagree.  Especially when it comes in the context of 2015 Britain, where increasing numbers of customers and consumers are being ripped off by companies, who worry more about their public image and less on service and quality.

It makes sense, when everything else fails, to hit them where they like it least – in a public forum, and if you can do this in a mocking way it is even more satisfactory.

I learned this with the company, AA Warranties, a car warranty firm who failed to actually pay up when I made a claim.  It was only after an intervention by Paul Gosling’s newspaper column, A Question of Cash in  The Independent, that I got what was rightfully owed – my claim for repairs paid.  It took a full page headline in a national newspaper for them to call me up and honour what was already paid and agreed for.

I was happy with the outcome but I realised it had come to something when one has to rely on a consumer column, (or BBC’s Watchdog) to get what you deserve – and that many other people would be in a similar if not worse position, especially many elderly people.

It is for this reason, that I am resurrecting an item from my 2008 Chinese Elvis Edinburgh Festival show.  This item had to be abandoned without proper road testing in 2008, because my venue, Surgeon’s Hall, could not provide full internet access, despite it being on the venue spec sheet.  This item was to go hand in hand with the Chinese Elvis Great Wall of Fame, which was reserved for glorifying British Beijing Olympic heroics, and was called:


This Wall is to be a whole page on the main website, where ChineseElvis simply openly mocks companies who have given him or his friends/ fans bad service.  It could be popular.  It may just sit there in a corner of the internet, unvisited.  But it will at least be satisfying and a blow for the little person.  Not to mention, you will be surprised how many hits my website gets.

If you have a candidate for the Great Wall of Shame, please send me details and supporting evidence.  A list will be compiled.  It will be posted on the wall.  The Wall of Shame.   Shame on those on it.

First up, is potentially going to be a boiler company, who installed a brand new boiler in my partner’s house exactly three years ago, and which has broken down 5 times already.  Not only did she pay for the installation, but she has had to pay for all the repairs in the form of a service contract, payable monthly!  Now that is the kind of thing the Great Wall of Shame is designed for.  If you have anything similar, let me know by emailing me at wallofshame@chineseelvis.com

Who is the Chinese Elvis in Ruislip?

Some people seem to think I may be the Chinese Elvis from Ruislip – BUT I AM NOT!  I am happy to post this link to that place and give them free referrals, simply because if you want him, you certainly don’t want me  http://www.taopeking.co.uk/ and there is no competition between us!

However, I am quite jealous of my reputation and I feel it may be being tarnished by this association.

The acts are different, the experience is different and the costs are different.   Even when I sing at a restaurant (which is Chinese Elvis Ruislip’s area of expertise) the gigs are different.   Come to one of mine at Phoenix Palace and get an idea of what I do.  It is different to what Ruislip does, even though you might have thought that being both Chinese and Elvis, these fundamentals would have made the two acts likely to be similar.  There is no similarity after that.

Publicity Flyer, Dec 2015
Details of the Xmas gig at the Phoenix Palace Restaurant

To be clear – Ruislip is nothing to do with me and I have NEVER been anywhere near Ruislip nor have I ever sung at this Tao Peking Restaurant!

To clarify:

  • I am ChineseElvis, who has played at Latitude Festival, appeared  on TV / radio worldwide,  performed in three continents including a big gig for Coca Cola in Atlanta (Coke’s home) and won the Elvis Weakest Link Special.  I have sang for Sir Bob, Kylie, Sting, and a host of other celebrities who actually have surnames; I was the Elvis, who fronted an AOL advertising campaign for 2 years on TV, posters, newspapers and internet; I am the one who has performed at over 100 wedding receptions in front of wild animals at Twycross Zoo, turned down Elton John’s party and have sang at countless corporate parties (including the world record biggest ever one day event – Vodafone’s staff event at Newbury Racecourse);  I fronted the 2015 Chinatown Family Day celebrations in London’s Chinatown.
  • He is the one, who has performed at the Tao Peking Restaurant in Ruislip.

The Chinese Elvis at Tao Peking in Ruislip probably has not wilfully misled unsuspecting members of the public into thinking he is me.  It is all probably a gross misunderstanding  / a language issue or a genuine confusion on the part of the audience members who believe that is what he has said – but to clarify:


Xmas meal and party, Central London

If you like the idea of Chinese food in a very nice Chinese restaurant, 1 minute’s walk from Baker St tube  – and to have that food served with loads of booze while being entertained by Chinese Elvis, with the options of 1. dancing and 2.singing (aka shouting) – then you are at the right place!

What I need to spell out here is that the £34.80 Set Menu is not compulsory.  It is a nice set menu, but as long as you spend a certain amount of money (they might tell you how much when you book) which can be on booze, then you can order from the a la carte and probably get away with the cheapskate option of prawn crackers and a chicken fried rice for two and a half bottle of Moutai!

Publicity Flyer, Dec 2015
Details of the Xmas gig at the Phoenix Palace Restaurant.

The restaurant and all its plushness can be examined at www.phoenixpalace.co.uk  Owners Raymond and Angela and the top staff, headed by Jimmy will ensure that your evening will be memorable and the food and hospitality top notch.  I will make sure you have a laugh and a good singalong.  It sounds easy – which it isn’t – but it is a simple idea and works every time!  Looking forward to seeing you there.



Best to stay quiet sometimes

As a fearless supporter of equal rights for East Asian actors and an advocate of positive representation, I was presented with a dilemma the other day:  I turned up to provide the entertainment at a 20th wedding anniversary affair for a lovely (white) couple somewhere in a rural location.

It transpired that I had been hired because the 20th anniversary is “china” – as in the material (cf: gold, silver etc..) and the hosts had decided that the theme would be China – the country – hence Chinese Elvis!  The place, a social club hired privately for this event, had been decorated with chinoiserie and guests had been encouraged to wear costumes in keeping with the theme, most of whom did so very enthusiastically.  And the topper was that the local Chinese takeaway had been given a humungous order to cater the event, which when it arrived filled two trestle tables.

The party went extremely well and the host even texted me the next day to tell me he “could not have been happier”.

I was happy to get this text and was not surprised.  I had been in quite good voice (the teenage audio technician made me sound, to my surprise, more or less OK) and the guests had all been dancing and singing along, eating and drinking happily –  and it seemed like a jolly great party.

Job done!

However, if any photos emerge of this event, they might cause some brow-furrowing.   People might ask themselves,  “Who are those white women wearing cheongsams?  Why is that guy wearing a Fu-Manchu moustache ? Why is Chinese Elvis posing with a white guy in a sumo suit?  And isn’t a samurai sword Japanese?.”

In their zeal to go to town on the theme, everyone had been to their fancy dress place and ordered a “Chinese” costume.  These included in some cases, Fu-Manchu moustaches, goatee beards, queues, robes with big sleeves, not to mention Emperor hats, long fingernails, and kamikaze headbands.  The “Chinese” costumes on show also extended to Samurai swordsmen, Sumo wrestlers and Karate outfits, as a tribute to the Chinese occupation of Manchuria, I imagine.  Though it is possible it was because the shop had run out of Chinese costumes and Japanese was close enough!

As the only one with a mic, I could have easily mocked them for this casual racism and taught them a lesson using the tools of wit and humour.   Made the whole thing awkward.  They would think twice before doing that again.  A lesson learned.  Racial & cultural ignorance lessened by a small degree.

I reasoned, though, that it would be the wrong way to go.  Crucially, perhaps, no one had worn make-up or done anything to their eyes.

It was not meant disrespectfully to Chinese people or culture.  In fact they could not have been more respectful to me personally.  They were just doing their best to have a good time.

It reminded me of a time when I was in Leeds in the early 90s returning from the bar with a round of drinks clasped in my hands.  I was gently pushing my way through to my group’s table when the guy I was pushing past, moved out of the way, saying, “Sorry mate!  I don’t want you to give me a kung-fu chop”.   My friends, sat at the table, were outraged and said they would say something to this guy on my behalf – they  kind of knew him from drinking here, as it was their local I was visiting.  I said to not worry about it, because I knew: 1. It was not meant maliciously 2. Now was not the time. 3. There was no offence taken. 4. The only possible outcome by calling them on their inadvertent racism is to make things worse with no one learning anything positive.

The same applied to this anniversary party.

Not that I advocate this in the majority of cases.  In fact, I can’t think of another case in the 25 years between these incidents, in which I have remained silent.

Sometimes it is better to pick your battles.

The problem for Equity and minority ethnic actors

Actors, like any other profession, benefit from a Trade Union, which represents them in matters relating to work.   Equity has been this body, representing actors for a long time.  An Equity Card formerly stood as a status symbol –  a badge of honour.

I became a member in 1989.  I did a tour in a smoky van for 6 months doing TIE in schools to become eligible and get my card.  Today it is not as difficult as it was then to become a member and membership numbers are flourishing, with over £4 million of income from subscriptions alone in 2013.  According to the latest statement available, 2013, Equity are doing pretty well with over £9 million in cash.

I have been working with actors for approaching 30 years and they are not in the least bit racist.  The acting profession is one of the most inclusive, it seems.  The people are nice and reasonable and it’s a pleasure to be one of them.

The year I joined Equity, 1989, was the year that Miss Saigon opened in the West End.  I ended up in that show in 1992.  I was cast in 1989 instead in the German language premiere of David Henry Hwang’s Tony-award winning play, M. Butterfly, in Hamburg.  I left the UK to do that and was pretty much out of it, being as I was in Germany before the Berlin Wall even had come down.

I did not think of it at that time, but Equity did not make any noise whatsoever about the fact that Jonathan Pryce was playing an East Asian part, complete with make up.  It was a different time, with Michael Gambon yet to play a blacked up Othello (as an Arab) and the theme tune of It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum was still well known.  I only started to think about the issue when, a year later in 1990, US Actor’s Equity kicked up an enormous fuss – in the US the protests were fronted by the playwright, whose play I had been working on, David Henry Hwang.

We all know what happened.  Actor’s Equity backed down.  Miss Saigon was a big hit.  Everyone seemed to forget about it.

But who was right?  What is the right side of the argument?  As time passes, do the choices seem more or less acceptable?

No one said much (to my recollection) at the time about Gambon’s Othello, but which white actor has plans to play him as a black man today?

25 years is a long time.  A generation.  A different time.  It couldn’t happen today.  But are arguments about black representation equally applied to East Asians?

Last year, 2014, very much in the now, Miss Saigon reopened with an East Asian actor, Jon Jon Briones in Pryce’s controversial part.  Jon Jon was the actor I replaced in 1992, as it goes.  Jon Jon has won awards for his work in the reboot.  He does it very well.

In 2013, Cameron Mackintosh’s casting department was unable to rule out again casting a white actor in this role.  It seems ridiculous now the point has been tipped, but it’s the truth.  I even invited head of casting Trevor Jackson to speak to Equity’s BAME members to tell us about his dilemma, which he gamely accepted.  Standing in front of 50+ Equity members, Trevor told us he wanted to do the right thing but could not promise anything.  The talent just wasn’t there, or he could not find it.   He knew it was the right thing to do but what if he couldn’t?   Trevor simply could not make promises.

Those of us present were seeing for ourselves whether society had indeed moved on in 25 years; whether we were indeed living in another time and as this episode unfurled, we looked on, mouth agape.   Could it actually be possible that a white actor could play this part?  And could Cameron Mackintosh really come to Equity and say it is so without Equity saying a word?

Yes!  That is exactly the situation!   It appeared as though Equity could and would make no statement about this – even though US Actors Equity did exactly that 23 years previously.  As far as Equity was concerned there was no generation gap.  It was not a different time at all.  Equity was still rooted in the 80s.

In 2012, the RSC decided to produce the play, The Orphan of Zhao, sometimes known as the “Chinese Hamlet”.  When casting was announced, of a cast of 17 (yes, seventeen) only 3 (yes, three – minor) roles were actually filled with East Asian actors, the other 14 (fourteen – 82%!) were not.  A quick check of the history of the RSC revealed that the last Chinese actor they had ever cast at all was in 1992, 20 years previously!  No actor with Chinese heritage at Stratford for 20 years.

It came as a surprise to us all.  We know that actors and people who work in acting are not racist.  They are in fact very much for inclusivity.  Yet somehow here were statistics and proof that Chinese actors had been excluded.   Somehow.  And to compound the matter, two of the three East Asian actors cast in this production were playing a dog – paying little heed to the long established and well known historic racist conflation of “dogs and Chinamen”.   It seemed incredible to East Asian actors, Chinese or not, and to broader members of the theatre community.

So where did these actors turn to make these points on their behalf?  Their trade union,  of course.  Equity.   Equity is comprised of these very inclusive and non-racist people.   Could Equity speak for them in this matter?


What I discovered shocked me again.  I was at that time a member of Equity’s “Minority Ethnic Members” committee – an anachronistic term in itself.   The only other East Asian on that committee at that time was Daniel York and we both asked why Equity would not say anything on our behalf.  Make a statement.  Do something – anything – for the right side of the argument.

What was wrong with Equity?  We could not believe they were twiddling their thumbs.  We were long standing members and yet, looking back, they had done very little on the behalf of BAME members that we could recall.  In fact, Equity’s record on this was not very good.  Anthony Hopkins played a blacked-up Othello for the 1981 BBC film, after Equity had refused to allow James Earl Jones in to play the role.   Mike Newell has also stated recently that when he was casting Sour Sweet,  he had a meeting with Equity, which actually advised him to cast white actors and make them up.

It often seems as though Equity has a legacy of favouring white actors over BAME actors.

So it was in keeping with this legacy that in 2013 Equity would not make a statement backing the BAME actors, who felt so discriminated against.   Equity could not support them.

To make matters worse, the BAME actors were told that it was actually their own fault.

You see, Equity follows a Policy, for which we, the BAME members, are apparently responsible.  If that Policy doesn’t translate into Equity being able to act in a way to support and protect us from being excluded, then we, the “Minority Ethnic Members Committee”, have to change it.   We shouldn’t expect non-BAME or majority ethnic (aka white) actors to do it for us.  But here is the rub:  it’s not easy to do.

We can propose what we like, but the other Equity members need to vote for it – and the membership is 98% non-BAME.  These 98% are the same people who I have worked with for decades, am friends with and like.  They are not racist.  If they understood how we have been discriminated against  (20 years without a single Chinese actor working at the RSC has affected me personally, for instance), they would surely listen, sympathise and be willing to help.   In theory  we thought it would be easy enough to get the changes through and approved.  Sadly it hasn’t been.

It is now nearly three years since that meeting and that original ineffective Policy is still in place.  Equity appears still unable to say anything in any matters of casting controversy to do with race.   And these controversies are still happening.  The film, Exodus has had its share, with one of the actors actually apologising for it.  We don’t blame Joel Edgerton, he’s one of us.  An actor.  But we do blame whoever thought it was a good idea to cast him and make him up dark-skinned – as do a lot of people all around the world.

Equity should be able to make these statements on our behalf, so we don’t jeopardise our careers, which may or may not have already happened in the case of Daniel and me.  Equity in actual fact, however, said precisely nothing at all: leaving us in effect isolated by making public protestations such as this.  http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2012/oct/19/royal-shakespeare-company-asian-actors  How could a trade union, supposedly set up to protect actors’ work rights, who supposedly agrees with casting inclusivity not do anything to protect its BAME members?  How could it stand by and say nothing as their two East Asian “Minority Ethnic Committee” members denounced the decision as individuals?

During the last 3 years, we on the “Minority Ethnic Members Committee” have tried to remedy this (seemingly obvious) contradiction in Equity, and have failed.   Now in 2015 we are still concerned that the same outcome would happen again, were the Zhao situation to repeat itself.  Would Equity say nothing at all and again leave those of its membership brave enough to speak out  (for what most people believe in, lest we forget), hanging out to dry?

However, Equity is now on the cusp of making a change.  The “Minority Ethnic Members Committee” has drafted and sent to Council a rewrite of the unfit-for-purpose Policy, in which Equity now “advocates” good practice.   The council needs to approve it and that is why I am writing this.  To encourage them to vote for it while perhaps feeling a touch guilty that this has not happened years ago.

Getting to this stage, the Committee met with obfuscation, mis-direction, needless arguments and bad temperedness.  It has not been easy.  We were told by Equity staff we would get professional help to word the Policy.  None came.  Daniel York resigned in frustration – a sad end for the most effective member the “Minority Ethnic Members Committee” has ever had.  Equity, it seemed, did not want to change.  I have been close to resigning, also out of frustration at the slow pace and seeming resistance to what I consider to be just the right thing.

At our last meeting, we were warned by an experienced Equity staff member that the new wording , below, would not be accepted by the Equity’s Council.   Look at it, the proposed new “Inclusive Policy Statement”.    It is puzzling to imagine what any of the actors on Equity’s Council could possibly object to and yet we really remain worried that it will be rejected by our friends and colleagues and fellow Trade Unionists.  No one on our side can understand how this can possibly be.

Proposed new wording for Equity's Policy on Inclusive Casting
Proposed new wording for Equity’s Policy on Inclusive Casting – which has taken 3 years to write

But something seems to scare Equity from simply  adopting this.  At the first reading, the Council decided upon a tactic, which an old Equity Council member recalls as “kicking into the long grass” – a tactic, which I have never before in 4 years encountered;  not voting straight away, but first asking other committees to examine it and take a view.

This is OK, but when I asked why we were not told this might happen, so we could have saved time by contacting them first, instead of wasting even more time than the present 3 years and counting, I was openly pilloried by an Equity staff member.

I was used to that by this stage, though.  This is my own trade union, just to remind you!

The situation can be summed up as: Given that actors are not racist, Equity members are not racist and Equity staff are not racist; yet Equity’s BAME members feel that they are discriminated against (as in these two specific examples of Miss Saigon and Orphan of Zhao alone), what is going on?!  Is Equity itself racist?

Equity have, at long last, hired an equalities officer, who I imagine will examine this possibility and determine whether this is the case or not.  I will be interested to see what she comes up with.  http://www.thestage.co.uk/news/2015/equity-hires-first-dedicated-equalities-officer

Equity does not want to commit to the generally accepted correct side in the above inclusive casting arguments.  Equity does not want to commit to making any statement on matters such as the ones outlined.  Why?  Because Equity views that by doing so it would in effect be criticising (albeit on behalf of its BAME members) other members (ie the actors who have been cast ).  I think the staff believes this scenario can’t and won’t work and foresees it eventually becoming a potential ethical nightmare.

Why is Equity scared?

Equity, you understand, does not want to get involved in matters of artistic choice.  Equity believes that the decision to cast a white actor in a BAME part  is an artistic one, so they must not interfere.  This point of view – for an arts organisation – would be acceptable.

However Equity is not an arts organisation.  First and foremost it is a trade union, protecting its members working rights, which includes protection from discrimination.  And the question for Equity is whether artistic rights trump workers’ rights.

What about the BAME member of Equity, whose right to be seen and considered for this part has been harmed by an artistic decision?  Who is speaking up for them? Protecting them?  When the outcome of these artistic decisions always seems to exclude actors of colour, someone needs to speak.  When the artistic decisions all seem to be exactly the same i.e choosing a white actor and excluding an actor of colour even from the casting process, it is not artistic.  It is prejudice, bias and convention.

Equity is compromised and has chosen to hide behind the status quo, which everybody accepts provides poor outcomes for BAME actors.

Equity feels scared because it has placed artistic license extremely high up on their priority list.  Equity needs to look at this and re-set the dial.  Surely when the right of the BAME member to work is in direct opposition to an artistic ideology, at least in cases such as this, then the actor – the member who pays his subscription fees – should be a higher priority to his Trade Union?  In this day and age (after all), which of the two oppositional standpoints do you think should be set as a higher priority for Equity?

I believe that Equity needs to re-prioritise itself.  I also believe Equity is the correct place BAME actors should turn to in cases like this.  Equity should be proud to support its BAME members instead of running scared and saying nothing.

Why is Equity scared?

The fact that Act for Change and British East Asian Artists have formed in the past 3 years to make these arguments, shows that these arguments have a great deal of support among UK’s BAME acting community.  Equity has donated money to Act for Change, supporting their ideology.  Lenny Henry argues the point so very well.  There is a general feeling in society that it is time for a change with regards to depictions of race, portrayal and representation.  Yet Equity itself stays silent, rooted in the ’80s (and arguably before even then).

Equity, I believe, wants to support its BAME members but is scared of being compromised.  I don’t think it should be.  I believe it should be bold and brave and be leading from the front, not playing catch-up from a generation ago.

The rewritten policy document states :

Because African, Caribbean, South Asian, East Asian, Arabic and other minority ethnic artists continue to be the subject of discrimination they should be given preferential consideration in the casting of parts specifically written for these ethnic minority groups.  Equity calls for this to be attempted wherever possible. 

To lead from the front, Equity and its members must try and redress historical imbalances before worrying about any artistic points of principle.  It should not tacitly approve of any productions casting a white actor in a black role or any role of “colour” by making no comment.   This lets down its BAME members and is not the way forward.

The change in Policy does not call on Equity to denounce the actor – but to disapprove of the process of making that choice as not being best practice.  It’s simple, and to us all paying our subs, very important.

If Equity can’t do that then no matter how nice the members are and how non racist they are, if they don’t allow this change to become Equity’s policy, they are supporting an old fashioned status quo, which discriminates against BAME members and puts the white members in a position of privilege, wittingly or not.

By adopting this new policy as best practice, Equity will, for the time being at least, be redressing the historic imbalance that has long seen minority groups be discriminated against in the past.   Equity will become truly a vocal supporter of inclusivity.  It is long overdue and about time too.

The Fu Manchu Complex – less a review, more a commendation

The Fu Manchu Complex is a new play currently playing at the Oval House.  It is written by Daniel York, a colleague of mine, who I have known for over 20 years and who like me, is British born Chinese.  Like me too, he grew up here in UK and trained to be an actor in the 80s, like me not thinking his whole career would be defined by the fact that his father was born in SE Asia.   In fact it is arguable that were it not for the fact that his father is Singaporean and mine Guyanese (not exactly close, geographically – though they do look similar) Daniel and I would never have met, let alone done so many projects together.

Our entire careers have been defined by this one thing.   And guess what?  Given how little significance it had on my (our) lives growing up this is a frustrating thing.   We both dealt with this in similar yet different ways.  At the recommendation of the Chinese detective himself, David Yip, I changed the spelling of my professional name 20 years ago to appear more East Asian.  Daniel recently adopted this cynical approach, adding the name Loh to his actual name.  It is a smart move in this shallow industry.

When I first saw Daniel, he was acting in a production of Chay Yew’s first play, Porcelain.   It was in a tiny fringe venue, the Etcetera, and the house was not even full.  It was a great performance in a great show and this led to him going to the RSC for a season.  When my flatmate, Tony, started in Stratford, around 1993-94, Daniel was already there and we were introduced.   I even went to watch one of the plays he was in, Moby Dick.  We both, 20 years ago, did not realise the significance our being East Asian, albeit only half, would have on our fledgling careers.  Here was he, at the RSC, playing non-ethnic parts and I had just finished playing Hiawatha at the Royal Lyceum, and Lorenzo in The Merchant of Venice at the Sherman and a big tour of Wales.  There was good reason for optimism that our ethnicity would not affect our careers.  It didn’t pan out that way.

Cut to the RSC’s Orphan of Zhao 20 years later in 2012 and it is incredible and saddening to think that Daniel York (Loh)’s 1993 appearance in that season was the last time an East Asian actor had been employed at Stratford before then.  I don’t remember Moby Dick very well, but I do recall Dan having a significant part, which only highlights how retrograde a move the casting of The Orphan of Zhao (where only three East Asians of 17 were cast – in minor parts) actually was.

Daniel and I have dealt with this unforeseen and enforced straitjacketing of our acting careers in similar ways.  We have both become activists for the rights of East Asian representation in the industry, being the two East Asian Equity reps on the committee which got the Opening the Door thing going,  have both been brave enough to speak out about it in an industry where this is mostly feared, and we have both written satires to highlight the relative low status the East Asian has at the Equal opps / diversity table.

The play, The Fu Manchu Complex, is Daniel’s.  I won’t attempt a conventional review here. You can read other bloggers and reviewers, who have done that.  What I will say about it is this.  Go and see it.  I saw it myself on Saturday and laughed out loud on numerous occasions.  It is genuinely funny in places and the entire cast is East Asian in heritage.  Its cheap and its easy to get to and its funny.  And its short.  All the things that I like in a show.

More importantly than all of that, however, and what makes it more significant in my opinion than any of the other wonderful plays that can be seen this month featuring East Asian actors, ( Chimerica, World of Extreme Happiness, Golden Child ) is that this was written by a British East Asian writer.  This is so rare that surely this in itself needs to be supported.  That it aims to turn a spotlight on the whole issue of East Asian stereotyping itself, which Daniel and I know from 1st hand experience all too well, and does so in an at times hilarious way, is the bonus.

The Opening the Door initiative, which is in some quarters being debated as responsible for this current unprecedented showing of East Asian actors is nothing of the sort.  The Fu Manchu Complex is the nearest thing that is of real significance in opening any door whatsoever.  While I am all for China being the flavour of the month and am a great fan of the great American Asian playwright David Henry Hwang, the fact that a new British East Asian playwright is being brave, funny and clever is the one thing that I don’t want to overlook.  I predict in fact that in another 20 years, of all the productions this year, this play will be the one with the most historical interest and significance to the advancement of British East Asians and our struggle to be taken seriously.

Chinese Elvis in The City: prologue

2 years ago, I started working for a company in Britain’s financial sector in the City of London.    Chinese Elvis in the City is to be a series of ad hoc memoirs of that time. Identities will be protected, but every story is true.  

To appreciate the stories, you will need to know the background:  This prologue is designed to set the scene.  Check back for new chapters, which will be released occasionally.

I had been hired by a new startup outfit.  Headed by a woman who I had met for interview in a Starbucks a month previously.  I had been recommended for the post by an old school mate, who I first met aged 11 at my North Yorkshire boarding school.   He was now a senior partner in a City Law Firm and had introduced me to this woman, a client of his.  I shall call her Terri.

This old school friend, I shall call him William, had been top of the class back in the day, but I had been no slouch myself.  I had been 2nd in the class.  Like William I had done well in my O and A levels in the mid ’80s, but unlike him had (somewhat rashly) become an actor instead of the doctor that everyone had expected me to become.  In hindsight, this was the NHS’s gain.  I would have made a terrible doctor, even though I had the most generous offer from Bart’s of 3 grade Bs, a legacy of both my father and grandfather graduating from this venerable London med school (and me being born there).

William and I seemed to get on well when we met each other for the 1st time after 25 years for a meal.  In spite of our never really having much to do with one another at school, and having no contact at all in the intervening time, his work fascinated me, it being so different from anything I knew.   He in turn appreciated being listened to properly.  The macho world of corporate law, meant he had hardly anyone he could talk to in a frank manner.  He told me about his marital and mid-life problems, and I reciprocated.  He needed someone to listen to him and I told him I needed a job because my circumstances were such that I needed to quit theatre for a couple of years, at least.  I was grateful when he introduced me to Terri.

The day of the interview, I looked at my CV.  If you have ever seen an actor’s CV, you will know it looks nothing like any other CV.  I printed mine out; a list of shows I had been in with the names of the parts and the directors.  Hardly anything to get me a job in the notoriously competitive world of finance.  I decided to add a few random things, that might appear interesting.  “Invited to no 10 Downing Street”.  ” Sang at a party with Warren Buffet”.

The interview went well.  It was early and I was on my way to Manchester for an audition for my 3rd stint as a doctor in Coronation Street.  The trip to Granada seemed unnecessary to me, having played a doctor twice already in the soap.  I had just moved to a new agent, who did not seem to see things this way, and I had reluctantly decided to make the trip to demonstrate good will, even though the train fare was not being paid for.  Had it not been my first audition for this new agent, I would have refused to go, it being a complete and total waste of time.  Luckily, Terri seemed impressed with my audition and the idea that I might be in the soap while in her employ.  She also turned her attention to the random additions I had made to my CV.  We discussed my visit to the Prime Minister’s residence as well as how I had met Mr. Buffett .  I naturally made these sound highly entertaining.  

As William had predicted, it went well and I felt confident I would get hired.  I was not surprised.  After all, it is who you know, I thought to myself.

I got the job and I got the doctor’s part in Coronation Street.   

To be continued…