Opening The Door : East Asians in British Theatre

The Racial Purity Pecking Order & Never Being Chinese Enough/Where do the mixed race East Asians fit in? (Especially those of us who happen to look less East Asian!)

Daniel York - 13 February 2013




Sara Houghton and I combined our two sessions.

I called mine because it’s been the case for some years now that the only roles I audition for are specifically “Chinese” ones. By most peoples’ reckoning I don’t look stereotypically “Chinese” enough to land those (despite the fact I speak Chinese and can do better accents and have spent more time in Asia than most). My last few castings have been incredibly frustrating. After initial meetings strong “interest” was expressed before recalls (one that was arranged specifically for me) during which everyone looks very pleased before they inevitably cast people who look far more “Chinese” than me. In the current case it appears that production dates have been shifted to accommodate an actor who has done literally loads of film & TV and who again, by most people’s reckoning (and with no disrespect), looks far more “Chinese” than me. Although my theatre pedigree is very good I can’t do TV because they won’t consider me for anything other “Chinese” roles.

Sara concurred with this and mentioned the fact that in the States the Eurasian “look”, as opposed to the glossed over problem it appears to be here, is seen as an “interesting” look and as an illustration used as an example a Hollywood action film we both appeared in some years ago which featured not just she and I but another male actor to make up three mixed race British East Asians in one film! The point was made that in the UK we are “bogged down” with more specific ethnic casting. In America they have a much more “pan” Asian sensibility. Agents have actually been told on occasion that the production doesn’t want any Eurasians!

Sara suggested that properly “blind” casting was the only way mixed race East Asians could possibly prosper in the British industry but conceded that this was unlikely.

Tony from the Arts Council asked what the definition of “blind” casting was? There was some debate about this with me responding that when I’ve had meetings with industry decision makers they will maintain they cast “colour blind” but that usually means that most actors are Caucasian because that’s the naturally assumed “neutral zone”.

Helen Russell Clark talked of us being a “minority within a minority”. While I agree with this I also argued that a large percentage of the “East Asian acting community” is probably mixed race.

Sara then talked of the fact that whilst she is very comfortable with all manner of regional British accents (I can vouch for this!) she feels she can’t even do a very good Chinese accent (though I would argue that many of the “Chinese” actors who are constantly employed playing “Chinese” characters do appalling Chinese accents as well!).

It was also mentioned (I can’t remember by who) that being mixed race is very much the probable future of humanity.

We also talked of how archaic and ill defining the current Spotlight categories are (literally “Oriental, Chinese, Thai” etc.) and this is something I will definitely be taking to the next Equity MEM Committee.

A few of us then argued that it’s generally a white person’s view of what a “Chinese” person should look and sound like with Jennifer Lim pointing out that China is the size of a continent with ethnic minority groups and indeed in Xinjiang they even have red hair!

Sara, Helen & myself agreed the industry doesn’t know how to place us. We have no “category” in an overcrowded market that completely relies on “categories”.

Tony then asked, “What can we practically do?” How can we open the minds of the industry to recognise the true diversity of East Asians and how versatile we can be?

At this point the conversation became a little confused as the subject briefly became about needing to “do our own work”. I can only reiterate what I said (quite passionately!) at the time. Yes, we do. And many of us are actively engaged in that process as we speak. But this session was about a specific issue and not about that.

Charlotte from ITC then suggested that she thought the whole idea of policies on integrated casting needed to be flagged up and even contended that there was breaches in the Equality Act at present with regards to “occupation qualification”. Charlotte, Tony and Max from Equity talked about themselves as industry bodies having a concerted initiative to remind employers of their responsibilities around integrated casting.

This was greatly welcomed by all.

Tony talked of what a powerful voice we had been recently and how much more powerful we could be in the future. If individuals complain they can be isolated and excluded too easily (I can vouch for this!).

We also talked about the lack of accountability in the arts and how decision makers uniquely to this industry seem to have a divine right to not explain any of their decisions.

Someone suggested “naming and shaming”. I believe someone has been working on a “Wikiwatch” site for this purpose.

A difficult and sometime contentious session finished very positively I think but it’s definitely a discussion that needs to keep evolving. In an “equal opportunities” environment surely actors of Eurasian backgrounds have a place.



Daniel York

13 February 2013

Sorry, I should add that we all agreed that none of us would be bothered if we could go and audition for The Three Sisters or Major Barbara or whatever but that ain't happening!

Peace, darlings.
Paul Hyu

13 February 2013

All very interesting. I wish I had been there to take part - its a shame there was so much happening at the same time!

I believe the trial “naming and shaming” “wiki-watch” site, mentioned at this discussion, can be found here

Please tell your friends to visit and use the site, add entries yourself and test it till it breaks - if thats possible - to let the owners of the site trial it before a mooted launch date in May 2013.

Daniel York

13 February 2013

Yes, there was SO much going it was impossible to be everywhere.

I will get on the site soon, I promise!


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