Sunday, 6 July 2014

Is the media ready to accept East Asians as part of British diversity? by actress Lucy Sheen

Actress Lucy Sheen asks what many of us are wondering.

Is the media ready to accept East Asians as part of British diversity?

So after a hopeful start to last week with the launch of Act For Change campaign, the broad acceptance from ITV and the BBC that quotas for BAME artists and creatives are a good thing, to help ensure the diversity and variety that we experience in reality is reflected back in the media.

That was not what I was expecting to hear, very welcome, but then I’m a cynic. I’ve had over thirty years of watching , being actively involved when I was young enthusiastic and naively optimistic. When I say that I was involved, I was as ‘involved’ as those in power would allow a young East Asian to be involved. Back in the days when I would have been referred to as an Oriental. Yes folks, you read it right. ORIENTAL. Not that such language and terms are being used nowadays …

So when it comes to matters of equality and diversity, especially being an East Asian, where we are a minority within the minorities and still being treated appalling, is it any wonder after thirty years that I have evolved into the cynic that I am now.

Why would now be any different to all the those other initiatives, schemes and past “interventions?”

Well . . .

Since the dreadful Royal Shakespeare controversy back in 2012 with their casting of The Orphan of Zhao things have never quite been the same, in my opinion, within the BAME community. (Sidebar, oh how I wish we could find a better term to use when referring to ourselves. Maybe it’s the dyslexic in me but whenever I see BAME I some how always fleeting see the word BLAME. Anyway that’s a whole separate post on it’s own).

And this is the American production of The Orphan of Zhao. Exact same play produced by the American Conservatory Theater – RSC et el take note

The classical foot in the mouth from the cradle of The Bard was probably the best thing that could have occurred for the British East Asians. It drew together many people from across the cultural and ethnic spectrum which is the reality of Britain. Hell it drew in support from around the world! The Orphan of Zhao wasn’t just seen as an East Asian “problem” and an insult to only British East Asians.

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”

It is a fault within our supposed multicultural, tolerant liberal society. Differing racial and ethnic groups came together and recognised that the British part of being East Asian, in fact Black or Asian was consistently being ignored and conveniently erased. If used, it was only when it was expedient for others to do so and always at our own expense. The British East Asian Artist group, in my personal opinion, has done more, been instrumental in more and has spoken out more, about the deplorable, lamentable and yes one could say ‘criminal’ state of affairs for British East Asian Artists. More movement, realistic engagement, instigation for change and equality has occurred in the short time since the BEAA (British East Asian Artists Group) was founded in 2012 then in all the previous years. Through the efforts and campaigning of the BEAA (British East Asian Artists Group) East Asians now find themselves at the table in vital and essential talks with the very institutions that have hitherto seemingly ignored British East Asians, such as the BBC (British Broadcasting Company) and Politicians. The BEAA actively supports both Act For Change and the TV Collective and has been instrumental in getting involved and achieving representation in talks with Ed Vaizey MP and the BBC.

The Arts Council of England published the findings of an independent report claiming that the arts and culture sector accounts for 0.4% of gross domestic product, with £5.9 billion worth of gross value added to the UK economy in 2011. London theatres enjoyed record ticket attendances and revenues in 2013, generating £97.5m of VAT receipts for the UK Treasury. Attendances for 2013 were up 4% on 2012 to 14,587,276 with gross sales rising by 11% year on year to £585.5m, according to the figures from the Society of London Theatre.

On stage in 2013 was an amazing year for British East Asian Artists:
The Arrest of Ai Weiwei at The Hamsptead Theatre in April. Chimerica in May at the Almeida Theatre then transferring to the Westend The Harold Pinter Theatre. Yellowface at The Park Theatre in May and then the Royal National Theatre at the Shed, The Fu Manchu Complex written by British East Asian actor, writer and activist Daniel York in September, The World of Extreme Happiness at The Royal National Theatre in The Shed in October and Golden Child at The New Diorama. It was an explosion of East Asian talent on stage and off. The productions found audiences. People bought tickets and put their bums on the seats. Audiences the mirrored the variety and diversity of the British population. People went to see shows about East Asians, with East Asian themes. And shock horror performed by British East Asian actors. Two things it can’t now be said there are no East Asian performers – or yes there are but then consistently only concentrating interest a small meagre handful of performers.

Secondly, no longer can it be said, “oh there isn’t an audience for such plays.”

Britain is a diverse and mixed country in terms of the people who now inhabit these shores.

In London, the 2011 Census, London’s population was 8.17 million, making it the most populous European city. More than 4 out of every ten Londoners (42 per cent) identify themselves as belonging to another group other than Caucasian. What everyone thinks about this state of affairs is an entirely different matter. Britain is not going to suddenly revert back to being a predominantly Caucasian country, sorry (well actually I am not) UKIP et all. The world has moved on, literally and so has its people from country to country, crossing continents and time zones.

So why hasn’t the British culture, our Theatre, Film and Television moved to reflect the diversity we see on our streets? I can’t believe that in the popular media I don’t regularly see characters the reflect me. I’m not talking about the odd Chinese waiter, tongue tied tourist, or the occasional Doctor or Surgeon or even overseas student.

When I turn on my TV, when I see another East Asian, it’s usually a characterisation from a very narrow perspective. Seldom do I see myself, or people who look like like me, portrayed in an accurate and realistic manner, let alone as being British. I have to make do with the heavily accented, menial and or illegal worker. Occasionally there’ll be a Doctor, a secretary or a nerdy student. Apparently there is no in between. As an East Asian more times than not, you’re isolated, socially separated by language, culture and ingrained biggatory.

As an overseas East Asian character you’re allowed to be intelligent, successful and financially well off, but you can also be ruthless, dodgy and somehow an inherently flawed human being. But on the upside you’ll be seen as authentic.

I’m standing right in front of you, as are many others, with not a “me no spleakie” accent, DVD seller or Machiavellian master of crime to be seen anywhere.

Is this continued white washing, an attempt to keep the British cultural landscape western and Caucasian? Is it an almost subliminal subconscious last stand? The last vestiges of institutional and structural racism? An attempt by the old guard in society to divide and rule and thereby some how keep the colonials in their place?

It’s not as if there aren’t the talented and trained East Asian artists out there. Where we fall down is the inability, or lack of willingness on the part of the British media to embrace East Asians. Unlike their colleagues of Black British and British Asian heritage who have been incorporated (to some degree) into the cultural landscape. Comedy shows and serials have been set around or based on their respective communities. Characters from specific ethnicities that draw the audience into an alternative view of British life.

The Fosters (1976-1977), Black Silk (1985), South of the Border (1988), Goodness Gracious Me (1988-2014), Desmond’s (1989-1994), Prime Suspect 2 (1992), The Kumars at nos. 42 (2001-2006), 55 Degrees North (2004–2005), Luther (2010-2013).

The East Asians have had Johnny Ho in the Chinese Detective (1981 – 1982) and that’s it.

It doesn’t happen often enough across the diverse spectrum of British society. The tragedy is why has this not progressed? The world continues to evolve but British popular media and drama apparently does not or will not? When will I be able to see The Lees from nos.8 or Penny Fields or what about Jean and Enid a black comedy set in an OAP home where the central character, Jean (imaginatively nick-named Chinese Jean by the nursing staff) forms an unlikely friendship with Enid new Staff nurse. If you’re interested in the latter then leave me a message and I’ll happily send over a synopsis or meet with you and talk.

I don’t want to be here in another thirty years still talking about the same issues.

As Anna Chen writer, political blogger, performance poet, stand up comedian and BEAA activist recently wrote: "For someone who’s pretty hard to miss, I’m surprisingly invisible. There’s a whole load of us feeling the same way, and we’re getting behind Act for Change."

Attitudes have to change, in the boardrooms, casting suites and commissioning offices.

Something has got to give, I hope that this is the beginning.

Read Lucy Sheen's full article here

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