Asian Australian Film Forum keynote address by Annette Shun Wah

 

I feel honoured to be giving this keynote to the very first Asian Australian Film Forum, and I’m looking forward to a weekend of discussion, debate, screenings, and an opportunity to focus on Asian Australian stories told on screen.

I’ve been asked over the last few days how I got into television, and whether I was the first Asian Australian to have her own show on national TV.

A former colleague of mine, George Donikian, rang me one day to suggest I audition for SBS-TV.  I was working on Triple J radio at the time, with my own show, and for a music fan, it was pretty much the ideal job.  If he’d rung me a few weeks earlier, I wouldn’t have given the audition a thought.  But it so happened, that the very day he called, I’d had one of several nasty racist incidents occur – people spitting abuse at me for no reason, other than my Asian face.  The vehemence of it astonished me.  When George rang, I just poured my heart out.  He persuaded me that by being on TV, I may be able to counteract the ignorant attitudes that fuel racism.

The audition was for a newsreader.  Now, I’m not a news journalist and had no interest in being a newsreader, but I went along for the experience.   Fortuitously, a producer who was putting together a music program, saw the audition and thought I’d be ideal for his show.  In true SBS tradition, it was a cheap program – introducing clips from an old 1960s German show called Beat Club, which featured some of the biggest rock bands in the world, playing in a TV studio.  I co-hosted the show with Glenn A Baker, “Rock Brain of the Universe”, and we completed two series.  Then in June 1986, I fronted my own new music show, The Noise.

But I wasn’t the first Asian Australian to have her own show.  In the early 80s, Helene Chung, a journalist at the ABC hosted the nightly current affairs show, This Day Tonight.  To this day, she claims to be “the first non-white reporter on Australian TV”.  I met Helene in Beijing in 1984, when she was posted there as the ABC’s first female foreign correspondent.

Helene wasn’t the first Asian Australian TV presenter either.  That honour goes to a yoga teacher – Swami Sarasvati – who had her own show on commercial TV, no less, on weekday mornings.  Her first show was televised in January 1968.

What a pioneer!  And yet – all these years later – it remains rare to see Asian Australians on our screens.

A foreigner, trying to learn about us through film and television, could be forgiven for thinking that Australia is mono-cultural.  The few exceptions being drug runners, prostitutes, people smugglers – oh and absolutely amazing cooks.

The lack of cultural diversity on our screens concerns me on a number of levels.

  • As a practitioner, because I believe there are discriminatory attitudes that restrict opportunities for performers of Asian background.
  • As an audience member, because so much mainstream Australian drama is clichéd and predictable, despite a wealth of interesting culturally diverse material being right under our noses.
  • And it concerns me as a person who believes in the ideals of a harmonious, inclusive society.  Our screen culture remains exclusive to some sectors of our community, none more so than those of Asian descent.

It’s difficult to nail down an accurate measure of the degree of diversity on our screens.  The Communications Law Centre conducted a survey into actors from culturally diverse backgrounds in on-going roles in commercial television drama in 1992.  A follow up survey in 1999, conducted by the Queensland University of Technology’s School of Media and Journalism, found that overall, things had improved markedly since the first, with an increase in the number of on-going roles for actors of non-English speaking background, including indigenous actors.  But – there was no improvement for Asian actors, who were not to be seen in any regular roles.  The report noted that the television drama industry was aware of, and made attempts to improve the portrayal of cultural diversity, but they were hampered by “internal and external constraints” – and an alleged dearth of actors from some cultural backgrounds.

That report was published in 2000.  Despite its recommendations that the casting survey be repeated every three years, and that research be conducted into the responsibilities of commercial television broadcasters, in the context of cultural diversity and Australian society, I’m not aware of this being done.

Also in 2000 the Australia Council released its report into the extent and nature of the artistic representation of non-English speaking background people in theatre, film and television.   This report found that – in proportion to their representation in the general Australian workforce and population – NESB artists were under represented in all three sectors.  Further, that NESB artists are largely restricted to minor, tokenistic or stereotyped roles, which fail to offer a broad spectrum of performing opportunities.  Stereotyped roles?  The name of this report was: “The Taxidriver, the Cook and the Greengrocer”.

So the mix of faces and characters represented on TV, film and theatre did not reflect the mix of faces we see on the street.  And it was rare that ongoing roles in commercial television dramas included actors of Asian background.  I would think that the situation has continued to improve since 2000, but it would certainly be useful if new research were initiated, to inform policy making.

Anecdotally, I’ve noticed more roles going to Asian Australian actors in recent years.  SBS has led the way with several drama series, such as East West 101.  Recently, the ABC series Crownies has taken a much more deliberate approach to colour blind, and culturally diverse casting.

Just as we take two steps forward, comes a juicy casting controversy to set us back.   I refer to The Legend of Billy Sing.  Billy Sing was an Australian war hero – said to be the deadliest sniper at Gallipoli.  His father was Shanghainese, his mother English, and Billy was born in Queensland in 1886 – a time of considerable anti-Chinese sentiment in Australia.

Sing’s biography, written by John Hamilton, formed the basis of a three-part TV miniseries.  However, the director Geoff Davis, claims he could not find an actor to play the Shanghainese father[4], so instead, he cast a non-Asian Australian actor Tony Bonner. Consequently the TV miniseries version of Billy Sing, has no Asian ethnicity at all, giving an added bonus – the director could cast his son in the lead role.

Billy Sing – the war hero – is regarded by members of the community as a leading example of the Chinese contribution to the Australian armed forces, and they were extremely upset by this casting decision.  It was as if they had been robbed of a champion.

To my knowledge the mini-series has not been completed, due to a funding shortfall.

With regard to the apparent “dearth” of AA actors, I lead a not-for-profit organisation called Performance 4a.  Our motto is – “inspiring Asian Australian performance”.

One of the ways in which we attempt to do this, is via a free online casting resource – the Asian Australian Performance Directory.  Any artist interested in exploring Asian Australian themes through performance can register their details, skills and experience, allowing casting agents, directors, producers, and fellow artists to find them.

Recently, we passed 100 artists registered to this service – actors, singers, dancers, musicians, composers, choreographers and directors.  I would think it is the largest grouping of Asian Australian performers in one place.  We have assisted in the casting of many television, film and theatrical projects as well as commercials and live events.  There is no longer a “dearth” of trained and talented actors of Asian Australian background.

Of course it’s not just about the numbers.

In the mid-90s, after the positive response to my performance in Floating Life – I signed up to an actors’ agency.  I was pleasantly surprised to have several auditions come my way pretty quickly – in four very different types of productions.  Yet every role was the same – to play a waitress in a Chinese restaurant.  I naively thought I’d take some kind of stand by refusing to go for stereotypical roles.  Needless to say, it was some time before another audition came my way.

Fast forward to 2009.  I met an Asian-Australian actress in her late early 30s, an attractive, intelligent, vibrant actor who I could easily imagine in a variety of roles: lawyer, gym instructor, academic, mother…  She told me the only roles she ever seemed to be offered were to play prostitutes or the girlfriend of drug dealers – a “gangster’s moll”.  So she decided to do something about it.  She took herself off to NIDA, got into the actors’ course, worked really hard, and graduated.  With a new agent, she put herself out there.  And… the roles came in: to play hookers and gangsters’ molls.

So it’s not only the number of roles, but the types – or stereo types – that limit actors’ opportunities.  I’ll leave it to you to think about what this may say about how Asian Australians are perceived in our society.

There’s another reason why actors of Asian background don’t get a wider range of roles.

By and large, the only time they are offered a chance to audition, is when a character is described as having Asian ethnicity.  In other words, if the role is described simply as doctor or student… we don’t get a look in.  Only when it’s a Pakistani doctor, or Japanese student, would we even be considered.

The result is the mono-cultural look that dominates most of our dramas.  British and North American productions, have a more diverse mix of faces, adopting the “colourblind” approach to casting.  According to the Screen Actors Guild in the US, around 27% of movie and television roles, are taken by ethnic minority actors.  However, a closer analysis finds that Asian Americans remain under-represented in comparison to their numbers in the general population, and the quality of the roles they get, still suffers from stereotyping and limited characterisations.

Still, some Asian Australian actors assess that there’s more work available overseas and we see a talent drain towards the US, or towards Asia.  It’s not necessarily a bad thing for people to take their skills to where the work is, to gain experience in other countries.  But there remains a problem here at home.  If Asian Australian actors aren’t getting many roles, then it follows that the experiences, perspectives and stories of Asian-Australians aren’t being depicted.

This poses issues for a society that values inclusiveness, and prides itself on its multicultural population.  If you never see yourself, or the lives of people you know reflected in your society’s popular culture, how can you get a sense that you belong?

We could view the issue as a problem, or as a gift – all these stories and characters, yet to be exposed and explored.  It’s a very rich seam, which is gradually being mined.

What are the challenges?  We’ve certainly got the talent, ideas, energy and skills.  What else do we need?  Oh yes – a budget.  People need to be paid.  Facilities cost money – maybe not as much as they used to but still…  Oh, and outlets, somewhere to screen the productions.  The conventional outlets – cinemas, festivals, broadcasters – are the ones with the gatekeepers, I like to think of them as the “door bitches” – the commissioning editors, network executives, and other “arbiters of taste”.  They cast themselves as the experts on “what the audience wants”, but there’s no clear evidence that they truly understand the nature of today’s audiences.

The filmmaker Tony Ayres made the observation to me that the most culturally diverse programs on TV are Masterchef and Australian Idol.  It’s Access All Areas if you can sing for your supper.

So how do we get past the door bitches?

Perhaps we shift our focus away from the usual channels.  The Asian film industry survives in parallel to the American and European industries.  There’s a massive audience for Japanese, Korean, Chinese and Taiwanese films – with other smaller film clusters joining in.  They buy and sell each other’s films, co-fund or co-produce bigger projects, work together in ways that perhaps culturally are not possible, or not as easily facilitated with filmmakers from America or Europe.  In short, they don’t need Hollywood.

Should we be seeking ways in which Asian Australian films and filmmakers can more actively participate in Asian markets?

Pauline Chan’s new film, 33 Postcards, is an official co-production between Australia and China, filmed in the massive Hengdian Film Studios.  It’s said to be the biggest location film base in the world and is also known as “Chinawood”.  There’s a lot of competition to work there, but Asia’s a big place, with many other opportunities for working relationships to be formed.

What about alternative means of funding?  Khoa Do’s feature Motherfish, was financed, not by the usual film funding bodies, but by Parramatta City Council.  How’s that for lateral thinking?  We could cast our net wider to other government, cultural and community organisations, businesses and Asian investors.

Domestic film funding models have evolved over time, but it’s always going to be the case that there’s too little money to go around, so competition is ruthless.  If the gatekeepers – the “door bitches” – have some sort of trouble comprehending cultural diversity, we’re seriously disadvantaged.

Technology has opened up new distribution models.  It’s possible to go directly to an audience via online means such as YouTube.  Even conventional television networks have recognised that multi-platform services are integral to survival, and are crying out for content.  What is becoming apparent is that there are significant sections of the audience that have previously been overlooked.

My recent work has leant towards a more direct approach – avoiding the usual gatekeepers.  I’ve been developing storytelling projects for theatrical events, with Performance 4a, and I also devised a smartphone app and website called, China Heart which came out of a partnership between dLux Media Arts, the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, and the City of Sydney’s Chinese New Year Festival.

China Heart combines video dramatisations with oral history, text, archival photos and locative gaming, to explore family and marriage in Sydney’s Chinese community.  It was an opportunity for me to write and direct a short drama – or more correctly melodrama.  The top level of the game is a love story and mystery, which leads the game player on a physical journey around Chinatown.  As the player gets to significant sites, it triggers stories and historical detail about the location.

China Heart allowed me to tell some stories that haven’t been widely told.  They are women’s stories about the difficulties of finding marriage partners, and about keeping family together- in short, the stories at the heart of a community. I was able to incorporate video oral histories from so-called “astronauts wives”, from women who’d made their European-style debuts at the annual fundraising Dragon Balls – including one woman who debuted in 1945 – and I also squeezed in a re-enactment of a testimony to the 1890 Royal Commission into Chinese Gambling and Immorality, given by an English woman who co-habited with a Chinese man.

These are not Chinese stories.  Nor are they Asian stories.  They are Australian stories that have been left out of the larger narrative about our past.  If stories help us make sense of our lives, then we, as a society, seem to be working with an incomplete narrative.  That’s why we’re struggling to make complete sense about who we are, why we are, and what we wish to become.

This forum is a wonderful opportunity for us to toss around ideas, find ways to work together, to create meaningful opportunities for collaboration, and to connect with an audience that will appreciate and support our efforts.  In short to inject some energy, freshness, authenticity and diversity into Australian screen culture.

 ____________

 When I started on television back in the dark ages.  People used to get me confused with every other Asian woman on television.  All one of them.  “Aren’t you the newsreader on SBS,” they’d ask?

Fast forward to 2011.   A couple of months back, I was having a chat with Finance Minister Penny Wong, at a function for the OzAsia Festival.  She said that on a number of occasions people had thought she was me!  Pretty cool, huh!  But then she added, that more commonly, they ask her if she’s the newsreader on SBS.

Change comes slowly.  Let’s find ways to put a little pressure on the accelerator.

____________

References for Annette Shun Wah’s keynote speech:

It’s difficult to nail down an accurate measure of the degree of diversity on our screens.  The Communications Law Centre[1] conducted a survey into actors from culturally diverse backgrounds in on-going roles in commercial television drama in 1992.  A follow up survey in 1999[2], conducted by the Queensland University of Technology’s School of Media and Journalism, found that overall, things had improved markedly since the first, with an increase in the number of on-going roles for actors of non-English speaking background, including indigenous actors.  But – there was no improvement for Asian actors, who were not to be seen in any regular roles.  The report noted that the television drama industry was aware of, and made attempts to improve the portrayal of cultural diversity, but they were hampered by “internal and external constraints” – and an alleged dearth of actors from some cultural backgrounds.

That report was published in 2000.  Despite its recommendations that the casting survey be repeated every three years, and that research be conducted into the responsibilities of commercial television broadcasters, in the context of cultural diversity and Australian society, I’m not aware of this being done.

Also in 2000 the Australia Council released its report into the extent and nature of the artistic representation of non-English speaking background people in theatre, film and television.   This report found that – in proportion to their representation in the general Australian workforce and population – NESB artists were under represented in all three sectors.  Further, that NESB artists are largely restricted to minor, tokenistic or stereotyped roles, which fail to offer a broad spectrum of performing opportunities.  Stereotyped roles?  The name of this report was: “The Taxidriver, the Cook and the Greengrocer”[3].



[1] Communications Law Centre, The Representation of non-English Speaking Background People in Australian Television Drama.  Sydney: Communications Law Centre, 1992.

[2] Harvey May, Terry Flew, Christina Spurgeon, Report on Casting in Australian Commercial Television Drama, Centre for Media Policy and Practice, 2000.

[3] Santina Bertone, Clare Keating, Jenny Mullaly, The Taxidriver, the Cook and the Greengrocer: the representation of non-English speaking background people in theatre, film and television, Australia Council, 2000.

[4] “When character is more than just skin deep” by Rowan Callick, The Australian, May 8, 2010.

 

Annette Shun Wah

Author: Annette Shun Wah

Annette Shun Wah is a writer, actor and producer. She currently holds creative roles in two theatre companies: on the artistic directorate of the National Theatre of Parramatta and as Executive Producer of Performance 4a, which aims to engender greater cultural diversity in Australian theatre by producing works that explore the contemporary Asian Australian experience.

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