Opening The Door : East Asians in British Theatre

In The 21st Century Why are British East Asians still portrayed using prejudist, racist Victorian views?

Lucy Sheen - 11 February 2013




I deliberately chose this rather unwieldy, dense but complex and compound issue as I was curious to see whether others shared the same concerns that I did about racism and prejudicial preconceptions and characterisations of East Asians.

The group started small myself and one other. Are these perceptions (Triad moll, takeaway owner, restauranteur, martial artists, “me no speakie English) just lazy, based on lack of knowledge or is there something deeper to this shortcuts that seem to satisfy some in the creative arts as being an easy to recognise shorthand for East Asians?
We as a community do not comment, do not engage - or until recently and the protest organised by the British East Asian Artists we haven't really commented. Fundamentally do the East Asians lack a sense of humour? Are we in capable of taking the micky out of ourselves? Has society done anything to make the community care? To give them reason to engage and no. However The Chinese community also have their own preconceptions, their own negative attitudes towards people of other ethnic minorities - it cuts both ways.

The discussion then broadened out as more people trickled into the discussion. The narrow band that East Asian actors often find themselves confined to - how much of this is down to a lack of East Asian writer, directors. Not that these artists should confine themselves to East Asian subject matters but that they in and of themselves because they are who they are, i.e. East Asian will bring to their work a different view point. There are many schemes that target BAME or BME artists but there is no longevity or progression to these schemes or so it would appear. Is this just box ticking? Do the providers of such scheme have a responsibility to at least enable or assist the participants to progress beyond the scheme?

Part of the perception, characterisation challenges are that in the UK there is no such thing as hyphenated nationality as in the US. In the US you are first and foremost American but also Irish, American but also Asian this is accepted but in the UK this is something that is not really recognised

The discussion further broadened in terms of letting people know that we are not happy with the depictions that occur - we are not vocal enough the British East Asian Artists have proved that what can be achieved by being proactively vocal and putting your head above the parapet (The RSC Orphan of Zhao casting controversy) But at the same time we have Privates On Parade which many felt was an anarchistic production as well as being offensive even though Grandage had tried to change the nature of the two silent Chinese - never the less they remain two silent Chinese who are spoken at in pigeon english. If he (Grandage) had wanted to do thins differently then why not have cast some of the Soldiers as Black or South Asian and do it that way?

The discussion then took another turn
”Better Chinese writers, why? Aren't I speaking English at the moment?" There are preconceptions, assumptions going on underneath the surface, people probably aren't aware that they are making these assumptions. Your facial features are East Asian therefore you must speak Chinese. You are East Asian therefore you must know everything there is to know about the Far east.

Are we then perhaps looking at this the wrong way round and instead of highlighting the differences should we not be looking to the commonalties and celebrating the diversity of our ethnic background that enriches society as a whole making the UK the multicultural and diverse nation that is?

However we break this cycle of misconceptions and assumptions about what an Eat Asian is both creatives, casting, directors and theatres need to work with and alongside each other. It is a compound and complex set of interlocking challenges that requires action from all parties

Today is the first step in that process, I hope.




Lucy Sheen

12 February 2013

One thing I forgot and I'm not quite sure how
But we touched on the internal racism towards other East Asians from East Asians. That too has an impact on perception both internal and external. For some from certain sections of the community I am neither Chinese of East Asian because I can't speak Chinese and I wasn't brought up in a Chinese home. Other people have suffered the same prejudicial treatment because their background if of mixed heritage and in some cases mixed or dual heritage people have expressed extreme negative views towards people like me who don't speak Chinese and who were not brought up in Chinese surroundings
There is prejudice and racism within the community unpleasant to contemplate but it's there racism isn't just white on black or white on brown.
Daniel York

12 February 2013

This was an invigorating discussion. I would absolutely concur we haven't been vocal enough and we're too easily pleased by archaic portrayal.
Paul Hyu

13 February 2013

It is not widely enough known or easily accepted that the East Asian community is itself extremely diverse. I believe we need to unify under the umbrella term “East Asian” to collectively make gains, rather than keep focussing on any narrower definition, which by dividing the community, makes it much less strong and progress as a whole much slower. The only group that seems to have a good handle on this at this current point is the British East Asian Artists - BEAA - group, who were the people behind making this event happen.


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