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.
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.