Telling us apart

Lotus writers, dramaturge and cast after a very successful performed reading at the National Play Festival in July (Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne). Photo courtesy of Annette Shun Wah.
Lotus writers, dramaturge and cast after a very successful performed reading at the National Play Festival in July (Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne). Photo courtesy of Annette Shun Wah.

At the first Asian Australian Identities Conference held at ANU in 2006, I gave a talk entitled “Mistaken Identity”.

It was about a curious phenomenon for me. As one of very few Asian faces on TV people were constantly confusing me with one of the others, most often asking me if I was the newsreader on SBS, Lee Lin Chin.

Could it be true that we Asians all look alike?

That first conference proved a watershed in many ways. Not only did it give rise to this wonderful AASRN network, but also consequently to its spin offs, Peril Magazine, which has been a significant platform and advocate for Asian Australian writing, and the Asian Australian Film Forum and Network (AAFFN).

Personally, it allowed me to meet and connect with individuals whose imagination, knowledge and support have had a significant influence on my working life.

In the ten years since, I’ve moved away from writing and working in the media, to produce theatre and live performance. This is mostly with the Asian Australian performance group Performance 4a.

The platform may be different, but the issues remain the same.  Australians from culturally diverse backgrounds remain critically underrepresented in our mainstream culture. Is that why people have trouble telling us apart?

For me, it goes beyond a mix of faces on screen or on stage. It’s important to reflect and explore the experience of those who live between cultures, so we can better understand the rich complexity of contemporary Australian society. I’ve developed our theatre company’s work in ways that allow us to delve in to people’s lived experiences – their life stories – and that has revealed a treasure trove of material from which to make exciting work for the stage. These are the hidden stories, concealed from the so-called mainstream, and they are far more surprising and entertaining than the formulaic and clichéd narratives that are all too common in Australian dramatic works.

Ien Ang was on that first panel with me in 2006, and I later asked her to be one of our storytellers in a theatrical storytelling show that William Yang and I co-directed, Stories Then & Now that played at Carriageworks, Casula Powerhouse and OzAsia Festival in Adelaide. With good grace, she allowed us a sneak peek into her personal life, and revealed the fascinating story of her family, peranakan Chinese from Indonesia who fled the anti-Chinese sentiment in the country of their birth, never to return. Her academic work is well known to many members of the AASRN, but by taking part in our show, she told her compelling story to a broad and appreciative audience. Ien and I have become firm friends since, and recently she joined the managing committee of Performance 4a, so I can continue to benefit from her magnificent brain.

I also met photographer and performance maker Mayu Kanamori through this network and we worked together to develop her show Yasukichi Murakami – Through A Distant Lens, which told the forgotten story of the contribution of Japanese in Australia before the war, particularly in the pearling industry of northern Australia. Combining Mayu’s documentary performance with a more conventional theatrical style, photography, immersive video, sound design and live music performance, we created a complex and unique piece that has toured Darwin, Broome, Adelaide, Sydney and Parramatta. Now, we’re scheming to take it to Japan. She is a remarkable creative spirit, and another great friend.

So, AASRN has been a wonderful resource for me that’s provided great collaborators and rich inspiration. Perhaps more significantly, it has provided a context for the various groups that work in this space of “Asian Australia”, a label no-one is totally convinced by, yet it’s the banner under which many of us agitate and advocate. How do we articulate this straddling of cultures and experiences? What is our place in contemporary Australian society? What is our relationship to “Asia” and, indeed, to other diasporic Asian communities?

These are some of the questions that drive the work I do, and whenever these interrogations intersect with the work of AASRN members, it can only lead to more rigorous and useful explorations. It is so valuable knowing that the work is not being done in isolation.

In fact, if there’s anything I’d wish for in the next ten years of AASRN, it is for a greater cross-fertilisation of ideas, research and discussion between academia and the rest, a more direct channel between the network’s magnificent brains, and real world outcomes – whether that be policy, works of art, or simply provocation.

Some time ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Senator Penny Wong.  About 15 years younger and about as many centimetres taller than me, she confided that she’d sometimes been mistaken for me!  Can you imagine how chuffed I was!

But before I could get carried away, she conceded, “But more usually, people think I’m Lee Lin Chin.”

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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