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.

There’s no business like publicly funded…

Last week, I read the part of the Father in a rehearsed reading of new Vietnamese talent, Tuyen Do’s,  play in development, Summer Rolls, as mentioned in a previous post.

The evening was part of Tamasha theatre company’s development programme for new writers, which they call “Scratch Night” and the excerpts we read were followed by a panel discussion and audience debate around the topic, ““Creating from where we are” which pondered the notion that ethnic artists are under pressure to represent their ethnicity.

One conclusion was that in order to get anywhere (at least commercially) the answer is “Yes, you have to accept your pigeon hole in the short term and maybe once you are successful, you can transcend your race”.

This doesn’t sound so good when you flip it around.   What this message means, to many up and coming ethnic minorities is, “We know what you should be writing about.  Your community.  Whether you like it or not.”  This is not as far fetched an extrapolation as it might seem.

A  BBC Film Executive once said to me at a high-powered film meeting about a romantic comedy script I had written (about a Chinese Elvis), “Can you rewrite it to be more “A Big Fat Chinese Wedding”?!  The fact that the theme of my film was identity,(the Elvis in the film was West Indian Chinese and felt he belonged neither to the Chinese community nor the English one, hence his being drawn to being Elvis) was either totally lost on him or he didn’t give a shit.  This guy wanted something totally different!  Needless to say my film is still available to be picked up/developed and this guy is now a massively successful film producer.

On a fateful day in 2002, I had a conversation with an “officer” of the London Arts Board about why I had chosen to produce a play about being Chinese mixed race, Sun in Shining.  It wasn’t so much the play itself they had a problem with, from what I could gather, but they could not comprehend why I had produced this play with their money, when I was developing East Asian writers.  Sun is Shining was written by Matt Wilkinson, a white writer who is one of my closest friends, and even though he had undertaken extensive research under my direction with the company, and I am mixed race Chinese myself, the Arts Board had decided this was not acceptable.

Not only was my choice incomprehensible to them, it was, I was about to learn, grounds to cut the company from their revenue funding portfolio.  It was incredible to hear their reasoning, especially as it happened to be also the very day that the production of Sun is Shining I had mounted at The King’s Head in Islington, just up the road from London Arts Board’s offices, had made its way into Time Out Critic’s Choice  (where it subsequently remained for the rest of its sold-out run, before returning the following year at the ‘Best of Critic’s Choice season’ at Battersea Arts Centre, from where it appeared at 59E59 Theatre in New York – it became arguably the most successful British East Asian play ever produced in UK ).  It was an incredible conversation because, here was a well meaning white guy, telling me that his panel of well meaning white guys were disappointed that I had decided to go with a good play, rather than a much worse play by an “ethnic in development”.  The fact that I am myself mixed race and judged it a good play (correctly, it seems) was not pertinent and, well, that was that.

As it turns out, the East Asian theatre company that the Arts Council did continue to fund for the next 6 years failed to produce a show with anything like the artistic success of Sun is Shining.   The Arts Council then withdrew funding from them too, primarily (it is understood and accepted) for failing to be of high enough standard, leaving British East Asians totally unrepresented in the national portfolio and in a vastly worse position than ten years previously.   And confused!  I wish they would make their minds up!  Does the arts council want a good show or does it prefer well intentioned gestures approximately in the right middle-classed direction, and to hell with artistic excellence?  By not knowing, then changing its mind, the Arts Council put the entire East Asian performing arts community back a decade.  We East Asians still have not a single revenue funded company, incidentally.

With all the East Asian shows being suddenly produced this year, none of them by an established East Asian theatre company, the following question can legitimately be asked: What is the relevance of a specifically “ethnic” theatre company and does any such company, defined by its ethnicity, such as Tamasha, Tara, Yellow Earth only marginalise the very people they claim to represent even more?

Interestingly, Summer Rolls, the  Vietnamese play, is not being developed by an East Asian theatre company  but by Tamasha, predominantly known for its (south) Asian output.   I think its possible that Tamasha is like that fictional successful ethnic, mentioned at the beginning of this post in the post show discussion, who has transcended their own ethnic identity and is now using its success and expertise to produce and develop material that is not confined to their ethnicity.   Or is it?  Is this such a big jump?  Its about another ethnic minority’s ethnicity!  It would be much more bold if they were to attempt to produce a play written by, say, an Irishman about, say,  motor cars.  But then they would stand accused, like I did that time, of not serving the ethnics they receive money to represent.  Being ethnic really does define what you can and can’t do in this business.

Where does this current predicament leave us East Asians?  Still no theatre company revenue funded.  Yellow Earth, the last to hold such status, is not really looking relevant at all.  Ad hoc groups are having to scrabble around, independently and in competition with one another, which is extremely difficult.  Is it too much to ask for an organisation, funded by the Arts Council, which could provide help to produce the shows that are currently being produced, and develop the plays that are currently being developed outside of our community?  This would add the skills and talent within the community.  Just please, this time, Mr “Officer” don’t assume that you know what’s best for us.  Leave us alone to find out for ourselves.

My Chinese Elvis film is still unproduced (and mostly unread).  If there is an Asian producer, who has ‘transcended’ Bollywood and wants to use his skills to produce something different and is interested in a clever idea for a (probably TV) film, do get in contact.  In the meantime I will be working on trying to transcend myself…