A fulfilling career in creativity and the arts is not easy to achieve, and sometimes being a “different” ethnicity can be a barrier – especially in a small city like Brisbane.
Now in its second year, Yum Chat offers the opportunity to meet and hear from creative Asian-Australians in Brisbane in a rotating café-style setting. “It’s like speed dating,” a Brisbane City Council staffer explained to me as I signed up to three sessions throughout the evening.
The first table I visited featured Anna Yen and Athalia Foo. Anna is a performer and theatre director; Athalia is a creative marketer, performer and runs the Spool Creative Collective. The two Asian women have spent almost their entire lives in Australia – Anna is Australian-born Chinese and Athalia came to Australia from Singapore when she was 2 years old. But despite being Australian, the women are aware that their ethnicity and culture is perceived in ways beyond their control . The women wanted to ask the table how their cultural identity impacts arts practice.
It came about from a discussion Anna and Athalia had about being typecast throughout their careers.
“I played an exchange student and a tourist,” Athalia says.
Athalia is caught somewhere in the “cultural divide” between her Singaporean parents’ traditional customs and her sister’s strong Australian identity. “She’s like, ‘they’ve brought us here, we’ve grown up here, I’m not going to take on those customs as my own because I’m Australian’,” Athalia explains.
Anna had varied experiences. “Funnily, in the circus world, I never get culturally typecast,” Anna says.
“It’s only when I’ve got a performance agent and I get sent for roles such as doctor, lawyer, drug dealer, victim of drugs, etcetera.”
But being an Asian performer also allows for the opportunity to tell Asian stories. The idea came to Anna during the Pauline Hanson “anti-Asian” era in Australia.
“I deliberately created work that was to tell the human face and human stories of Chinese in Australia,” Anna says.
“It was in order to make a personal story very universal.”
Anna produced her own one-woman stage show, Chinese Takeaway, which was later made into a movie. She played all the characters in her family, telling their history starting in China up to migrating to Australia. She also recently starred in a production in Sydney, The Serpent’s Table, which featured all Asian-Australian performers. But beyond the Asian faces were stories about family that Anna says are “universal”.
“The audience connected to us – ‘I relate to that, your story about your father connects with me and my father’ – from all cultural heritages,” she says.
Cultural identity and the perceptions of others seemed to resonate with the Asian-Australian diners at the table.
Yan, a Chinese photographer who migrated to Australia 7 years ago, talks about his strange feelings when Australians greet him with “ni hao!”
“That’s how the local people try to understand you,” he explains. “But I wish they could talk to me as person, and not as a Chinese.”
Sitting next to Yan is Jo from Malaysia, a psychotherapist who has lived in Australia for 11 years. Despite her accent’s Aussie twang, she noticed that people react differently when she says she’s from Malaysia.
“They’re like ‘I just want to hear you talk because you sound funny’,” she laughs. “Then they go, ‘you don’t sound like one of them!’ And I’m like ‘well, sorry to disappoint you!’”
The session ends abruptly during this cathartic discussion and it’s time to move on to the next table.
Table 2 features Indian-Australians Rachael Jacobs and Asha Shah, who teach Bollywood dancing in Brisbane. Beyond the glamour and popularity of Bollywood are the women’s ties with culture and family.
Rachael grew up in a traditional Indian migrant family in Australia.
“There’s certain professions that are on the list of acceptable things you’re allowed to do,” she laughs. “We still have this running joke in my family that there must be babies switched at birth – and somewhere in the world, there are these artist parents with an accountant daughter wondering ‘where did we go wrong?’”
Rachael pursued her dreams of creativity “sneakily” through a career in teaching music, drama and dance, and ultimately achieved what she wanted while keeping her parents happy. “They wanted me to be self-sustaining, they want me to be prosperous, they want me to be educated. And that’s not a bad thing for a parent to want.”
I think back to Anna talking about the universal themes of family across cultures.
Asha was born and grew up in Mumbai, “the city of Bollywood” in India. She started dancing at the age of 4, became a teacher and performed in productions in India. But far from wanting their daughter to become an accountant, Asha’s family was supportive.
“As Rachael said, not all parents think dancing is a good career,” Asha says. “I used to come from concerts at 12 in night. In India, it’s not allowed for a girl to come late, but my parents were always alright with that.”
Asha later moved to Australia with her husband. Bored with her day job in Brisbane, Asha revisited her dancing career. She now runs Bollywood Dhamaka in Sunnybank, teaching classical Indian dance and organising concerts.
The conversation shifts to the location of Asha’s studio. Sunnybank is an ethnically diverse predominantly Asian suburb over half an hour away by bus from the CBD.
“The traditional styles in Brisbane are really interesting, because the artistic hub in terms of traditional style is often outside the city,” Rachael says.
“The ethnic enclaves are kinda pushed out.”
I felt a sharp tug in my chest as Rachael puts into words something that had been personally bothering me for ages – a small niggling feeling that I wasn’t sure was legitimate. Within seconds, I realised I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. The local arts workers at the table exploded in conversation, about how ethnic communities are pushed out of the city, costs, venues, the idea around what is considered “art” or not.”
“Gah! YES!” I blurt out, and rush in a few opinionated sentences on my perception of segregation of arts and “multicultural” arts in Brisbane – just before the MC announces that it’s time to go to the next table.
By the time I get to Table 3, the room is stimulated by creativity, bursting with excited chatter about the things we haven’t had time to say. I hear from an arts administrator, a violinist, an aspiring videographer, telling quite personal stories about the careers to our hosts before they begin. Sumit Panjwani works in community cultural development, particularly with migrants from the Indian sub-continent. Dheeraj Shrestha is a tabla musician from Nepal.
Sumit’s passion comes from his spiritual beliefs with three tenets – service, sharing knowledge, and meditation.
“If you have too much knowledge and you’re not sharing it, then you’re not helping anybody but yourself,” Sumit says. “So I guess that led to community projects.”
Sumit’s goal is to tell stories from ordinary South Asians living in Australia. For five years, Sumit met migrant taxi drivers and shift workers, then later turned their stories into a community project. But he admitted he’s still learning about the sector. Talking to migrants one-on-one was easy. Documenting his conversations for a non-for-profit project caused people to “shut down and become defensive.”
“When my steam and my money ran out, I stopped. But what I found in those conversations leading up to that project… was a hundred more issues than I imagined.”
“I think you feel like when you’re putting in the funding application that you’re still not there. So I think it’s tricky.”
Dheeraj says he came to Australia from Nepal on a music skill migration visa. “Have you ever heard of that?” he asks proudly. “I was very fortunate. What I try to do is collaborate different instruments that come from Nepal and India and being it in together with Australian culture. ”
Eyes shining, Dheeraj breathlessly relives jamming with musicians around the world at a recent concert at Brisbane City Hall.
“There was the Iranian singer, Tibetan, Mongolian, African, myself, William Barton the didgeridoo player. He started on the didge – you know how powerful the didgeridoo sounds. And then I started playing on the tabla – dugga dugga dugga dug dugga dugga dugga dug – and something sparked. The Mongolian singer started throat singing because he was inspired by that. And the African percussion started – and the whole thing was fantastic. We played one song for one hour. No rehearsal. So that’s the beauty of how musicians meet. Wow, your music is so different – how can you play with my tabla? Just feel it. ”
The diners ignore the MC announcing the end of the night as they’re swept up in Dheraaj waxing lyrical about his chosen instrument, which travelled from India hundreds of years ago across to his hands in Nepal.
Nearly everyone stays longer to talk more closely to their new friends and heroes. Many of us rarely get a chance to speak so openly to a group of likeminded strangers about creativity, ethnicity, and culture. It’s generally agreed that the night was far too short. But as myself and plenty others leave with business cards and ideas on how Asian-Australians can tell their stories to Australia and the rest of the world, I think Yum Chat was a roaring success.