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The Omittance of Asian-Australians on Screen

Beyond what we see on publicly funded television broadcasters it would seem that Australia is not a multicultural society at all. For a diverse continent made up of a wealth of nationalities – each bringing to the table their own flavour and sense of national identity – it is shameful that the reality of this is not reflected on screen.

6% of Australian citizens were born abroad in Asia. An even larger proportion of Australian people with Asian heritage identify as Asian-Australian and contribute hugely to the cultural rituals of wider Australian society – Sunday Yum Cha’s anyone? Yet Asian-Australian actors, singers and entertainers are marginalised from appearing on stage and screen.

Hollywood sets the standard for cultural uniformity here, casting caucasian actors in the place of Asian characters

Instead of seeing themselves on screen, Asians are omitted or replaced. Actors and cultural behaviours are white washed, society instead painted with the same blonde haired, blue eyed brush. One glance at the cast of Australian television makes this evident; no Japanese-Australians on Home and Away, no Chinese- Australians on Neighbours, and not a single Asian face on the array of dramas on commercial television.

Speaking to Claudia*, an up and coming Chinese-Australian actress who identifies as Asian-Australian, she believes the situation is dire.

“I’ve been studying for three years now, attending a number of acting schools and I’m one of only two Asian actors in my current program. There aren’t any jobs for people who look like me, so Asians don’t enter the industry at all for fear of never being employed”.  

Jennifer* a Filipino-Australian dreams of acting professionally, but instead pursues a Bachelor of Commerce for fear of failure. “I’m Filipino and I get cast as anything from Samoan to Chinese, I act on the side but there is no longevity in acting for a person with my features. People don’t see these Asian faces commonly on screen and therefore find my look ethnically ambiguous.”

Emma Stone was cast as the quarter-Chinese, quarter- Hawaiian character of Allison Ng in the Hollywood film Aloha
Emma Stone was cast as the quarter-Chinese, quarter-Hawaiian character of Allison Ng in the Hollywood film Aloha

As Australians we live on a constant diet of Hollywood entertainment. Netflix binges and blockbuster films render us comfortable to the increasingly prevalent practice of whitewashing. Hollywood sets the standard for cultural uniformity here, casting Caucasian actors in the place of Asian characters.

The creators behind Marvel’s upcoming blockbuster Doctor Strange have been forced to explain why Tilda Swinton was chosen to play ‘The Ancient One’, an oracle of wisdom whom in the comic book source material is traditionally a Tibetan man. Or we can look at the controversial Aloha – a film set in Hawaii, about Hawaiians – inexplicably featuring an all star, all white cast. Emma Stone was cast as a Chinese-Hawaiian in the film – a perfect opportunity for a young and burgeoning Chinese-Hawaiian to act in mainstream picture. 

The term ‘yellowface’ has been coined to sum up this new form of cultural appropriation, where undercurrents of racism allow Hollywood studios to depict an all white society.

We do have one prominent example of Asian-Australian’s having their stories told on our screens though. Benjamin Law’s The Family Law is based on his own memoir of the same name, and follows the experience of Law’s family growing up as Chinese-Australian’s.  

The commercial networks didn’t have the courage to take on a show which deals with the delicate territory of cultural experience and consequently the series was commissioned by SBS, who allowed the show to stay true to its tone and not be restricted by commercial standards – the opening monologue is Law’s mother describing vividly the ravages of childbirth to her body with hilariously awkward delivery.

“I’m Filipino and I get cast as anything from Samoan to Chinese. People don’t see these Asian faces commonly on screen and therefore find my look ethnically ambiguous.”

The show uses the characters’ experience of casual racism and cultural stereotypes to offer a deeper understanding of Asian culture and the experience of Asian-Australians every day.  Law himself had the childhood dream of appearing on Home and Away growing up, instead turning to writing when the soap story-lines did not account for cultural difference.

Whether tucked in to the couch, immersed in a day long binge watch, or drowning in popcorn with choc top in hand at the cinema, everyone should be able to identify with the characters on screen. Under-representation of cultural minorities and the erasure of Asian experiences on Australian screens doesn’t change the makeup of our diverse society. A wander down any suburban or city street in  Australia now shows us the spices, colours and vibrant differences of our multicultural country.

By eliminating difference on screen, the value of Asian-Australians to celebrate their culture and share it, is maligned. So next time you enjoy dumplings, sushi, chow down on kimchi or swill a sake, think of the wondrous stories behind these gifts of cultural celebration, and help ensure that their stories are told.

*Names have been changed

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