Growing up as part of the Chinese majority in Singapore, I was once blind to minority issues – not because I wasn’t interested, but because it was hard to see outside my bubble. I’ve always been sensitive to create roles for minorities in my plays and short stories but, in the past, some of these roles might have been stereotypical and racist, such as an Indian chauffeur.
However “real” those characters might have been, I now know it is critical to portray them as all types of individuals. This new understanding came about after I moved to the United States and found myself pigeon-holed into specific real-life “roles”. So, to make amends, I now often feature minority protagonists who are heroic and successful in my works.
In the past, it was a real vicious cycle. When there are no roles for minority actors, they don’t get the experience they need. Then because they’re not visible, they’re not cast. Which is also why my recent play, The Emperor’s Nightingale, was conceptualised as an all-Asian play in terms of characters and story setting. It allowed me to put together an almost all-Asian production, from the cast to the set designers and composer.
It’s not just an altruistic thing, because I’m also speaking out for myself and letting the rest of the world know that great Asian actors, directors, writers and set designers do exist – you just have to look.
As a member of a minority who is working in the creative industry, sometimes you might feel there’s a responsibility to speak or preach on behalf of your entire community. But when you start imposing this kind of pressure on all of your works, you’re likely to go astray. It’s better to let the story evolve organically in a way that is truthful to the characters.
“I believe we’re now in a little golden age for minority representation”
I also think a non-Chinese director could direct a Chinese production. Just think of Cary Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre or Ang Lee helming The Ice Storm. The human condition is pretty universal – but you need to devote time and effort to research and understand the various cultural backgrounds at play.
I believe we’re now in a little golden age for minority representation – people of different stripes, ethnicities and gender – in the media. The musical Hamilton by Lin Manuel-Miranda, for instance, is about white people but is acted and sung by minorities. In an ideal world, we would have more movies like Searching, which stars John Cho as the protagonist without using his Asian-American identity as narrative device. That the leading role could have been performed by any proficient actor, and went to an Asian-American man, was like a light in the dark.
Over the last 10 or 20 years, charitable foundations – an important source of funding – have also become more receptive towards supporting diverse theatre programmes. We still have a long way to go, but I think it’s great that the powers that be – producers, investors, gatekeepers – are beginning to see that stories that deal with minority issues, or stories that are written by minorities, have a place at the table, especially in the United States.
This article was originally published in the February 2019 issue of SilverKris magazine