The scene for Chinese actors in the UK has long been a forgotten niche. Few TV shows feature Chinese actors, even as minor characters, and even fewer British films have had Chinese actors play lead or supporting roles.
The most well known are probably Benedict Wong (Dirty Pretty Things, Marco Polo, Kick-Ass 2, The Martian), Gemma Chan (Secret Diary of a Call Girl, Fresh Meat, Humans), Daphne Cheung (CBBC’s Spirit Warriors), Katie Leung (Cho Chang in Harry Potter) and Burt Kwouk (Goldfinger, Peggy Su!, The Last of the Summer Wine).
With Chinese people being the third biggest ethnic minority in the UK, you’d think they would have a larger representation within the media.
However, there has been a growing demand for Chinese people to gain more recognition and even more so for ones that do not fit stereotypical roles with negative connotations. For example, Xin Proctor – portrayed by Elizabeth Tan – was the first Chinese character to appear in a regular role on Coronation Street in 2011, but one of her storylines involved marrying a British citizen. And in 2006, Elaine Tan played Eastenders’ first Chinese character Li Chong, but her character sold fake DVDs. While praise was given to these soaps for introducing Chinese characters, their storylines were somewhat thinner than others’ and were both short lived on the shows.
On the subject of casting East Asian characters in small and stereotypical roles, we caught up with actor, writer, director and founding member of British East Asian Artists Daniel York Loh. He says it’s not about the ‘what’ but the ‘how’.
They [the character] could be an illegal immigrant or DVD seller, but if they are brilliantly written with nuance and layers and captivates the audience then that’s a hugely positive thing.
Loh says: “In fairness there’s actually a lot of small companies coming through now who are making work by and for East Asians. When I say small, I mean we’re all small because we don’t have vast buildings and resources. There’s Trikhon Theatre, who recently did Dream Of A Bombshell, Red Dragonfly Productions have a regional tour of DiaoChan coming up and Papergang Theatre have a new writing event in November at Tristan Bates Theatre. Our (myself and Jennifer Lim’s) company Moongate Productions is working on a touring production of the old Chinese play Lady Precious Stream, as well as my play about the World War One Chinese Labour Corps, The Forgotten of the Forgotten.
The issue about Chinese and East Asian actors not necessarily having to feature in work that’s purely about Chinese or East Asian history and society is a very real one. We’ve been here in Britain for a long time now and yet we’re still often viewed as foreign. In fairness, many of us still view ourselves in this way too. Certainly in terms of purely being actors (as opposed to writers) I think the situation is definitely starting to improve.
I’ve been in two plays this year (Our American Cousin and We Know Where You Live both at the Finborough Theatre) where I was just playing British characters. That would’ve been much harder even five years ago. It all changed after the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Orphan of Zhao controversy. They basically didn’t want to cast East Asian actors in leading roles so we protested loudly. There’s been a tendency to see diversity in theatre and TV purely in terms of black and Asian, with Asian stopping at the eastern Indian border. We were not even included in that picture. So we had to speak up.”
He added: “In terms of putting on plays, films or TV programmes that feature large numbers of East Asian actors though I think we do still need to tell stories from our culture. If we don’t do this and just write characters called Bob and Dave people will want to cast white actors in those roles because white actors are more visible and easily accessible. You have to give them no choice really. But we have such a rich diverse history and fast changing culture that those stories can and should be utterly compelling.”
Outside of mainstream outlets like TV and film, Chinese actors enjoy a slightly better representation on radio and on stage and Daniel is hoping to continue championing that movement. He has performed at the Royal Court in an award-winning production of Porcelain, starred opposite Alan Rickman in Hamlet at the Royal Shakespeare Company and been in feature films with Leonardo di Caprio and Ewan McGregor to name a few of his achievements. He is also a script writer and director who has had works developed by Film4 and been nominated for awards at the World Music & Film Festival.
Daniel York Loh also wrote the script for The Fu Manchu Complex in 2013, a play based on the fictional character of Fu Manchu, an evil criminal genius created by author Sax Rohmer in the early 20th Century. The comedic murder mystery saw East Asian actors ‘white up’ to play the traditional colonials in a bid to challenge the ‘Yellow Peril’ racist stereotype that was rife during Rohmer’s time.
His next project is The Forgotten of the Forgotten, which focuses on the 140,000 Chinese Labour Corps who assisted Britain during WW1. The help came towards the end of the war to aide behind the Allied lines and allowed more British soldiers to fight on the front line. At the time China was a weakened nation still reeling from their Opium War defeat but still sent labourers over to Britain to help. However, even those who extensively study the war will most probably know little to nothing about their contribution, as accounts about them are few and far apart. The Forgotten of the Forgotten will tell an original story from the point of view of some of the Chinese labourers, rather than from those outside who did not experience firsthand what they did.
Over the decades, some productions that featured Chinese talent were critically lauded but perhaps overlooked by the general media and not given bigger releases. These include Ping Pong, directed by Po-chi Leong in 1986, TV show The Chinese Detective starring David Yip, Kevin Wong’s film Peggy Su! and most recently, Jane Wong’s film Dim Sum in 2002. CBBC’s Spirit Warriors, which was loosely based on Chinese myths and legends featured an almost fully East Asian cast. Jessica Yu Li Henwick was the first East Asian actress to play a lead role in a television series as Bo, nearly 30 years after David Yip became the first East Asian male to achieve this hard-earned feat.
So while some slow progress has been made, there is no denying that more could be done to help integrate even further the third largest ethnic group in Britain with the help of more films, shows and roles that focus on Chinese and to show Britain that this community are just as talented and deserving of recognition.