In many ways, there’s never been a better time to be a British Chinese/East Asian actor. More productions want to reflect the diversity around us and many want to feature Chinese characters, because China is a country on the rise. But we’re still fighting the same battles for integration and equality that we’ve fought for generations, in a profession where characters are often depicted with racist tropes.
While there have been positive roles on British television, these are usually not regular enough to make a long-lasting cultural impact. The exception is the superb Sandra Oh in the sublime Killing Eve, where no reference is made to her ethnicity; her character is “normalised”. Contrast this with another US series, Warrior, again showing tired stereotypes of Chinese gangsters and female prostitutes.
The offensive Fu Manchu trope has been around since the early 20th century. While there’s room for Chinese antagonists in drama, I’d like to see more balance. Don’t make the villain the only Chinese character in your production. With anti-immigration sentiment gaining traction across the globe, I feel responsible as an actor not to perpetuate negative stereotypes and prejudices, because it leads to more walls being built, rather than bridges. I’ve turned down some lucrative TV roles because they were so offensive, while recently, I amended a German TV script (a process, fortunately, welcomed by both the writer and director).
British theatre has been trying to redress the under-representation, but while we may not always be villains, we are rarely asked to play characters whose ethnicity is incidental to the role (unlike black or South Asian actors). Whenever there’s a majority of Chinese/East Asian actors in a play, it’s nearly always a political story, in which the liberal west can feel better about itself than the authoritarian east.
Happily, there are signs of progress. Yellow Earth Theatre develops and commissions British East Asian writers, as does Chinese Arts Now for other art forms. The Bi’an network has been established for Chinese heritage writers across the UK. The touring play From Shore to Shore used interviews with the British Chinese community in Yorkshire to create a powerful story about notions of motherland. And the RSC learned from the Orphan of Zhao debacle to cast all East Asian actors in Snow in Midsummer.
In 2013, I was cast in Chimerica, Lucy Kirkwood’s play about a photojournalist searching for his most famous subject, the Tank Man of Tiananmen Square. This was a gripping tale that treated its Chinese characters as human beings, with a variety of voices and viewpoints. I’m proud to star in her TV adaptation of the play, which features additional Chinese characters, including a new love story for the lead character, Zhang Lin, played brilliantly by Terry Chen. The play has been updated, drawing parallels with the direction that Trump’s America is taking. It is a breath of fresh air, and a rare gift for an actor of Chinese heritage.
But problems persist. While it’s now unthinkable to have “blackface” casting, “yellowface” is a continuing issue. Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton and Emma Stone have all been cast as East Asian characters on screen in recent years. In the theatre, In the Depths of Dead Love at the Print Room in 2017 saw Caucasian actors playing Chinese characters. And I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard white actors playing Chinese/East Asian roles in radio drama. Yet we are rarely given corresponding British roles, even though the majority of us sound 100% British – radio should be the one area where what you look like is less important than what you sound like.
Despite all of this, I am optimistic. Things are starting to change. The success of Crazy Rich Asians, Sandra Oh winning the Golden Globe for Killing Eve, and John Cho headlining Searching have all been hugely encouraging. Gemma Chan in the recent film Mary Queen of Scots is a rare example of a British Chinese actress in a historical drama.
I hope that Chimerica might be the UK’s Crazy Rich Asians moment – an outstanding mainstream production that will open the door for all actors of British Chinese/East Asian descent, and that the industry will become more adventurous in casting. I look forward to the day when we have colourblind casting, when people are cast more on the basis of talent.
We’re probably the most culturally diverse country in the world. Now, more than ever, we need to see that diverse richness. Let’s have a multiplicity of voices, so that we can show the world that we can co-exist.