A few years ago, while moonlighting as a bartender at a Korean restaurant in Soho, a British-East Asian actor happened to come in and order a drink from me. We got to talking and I learned that he was about to play Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s on the West End. I was intrigued by the decision to cast a tall, handsome Asian man as the photographer who lives upstairs from Holly Golightly. Needless to say, he’s a very far cry from Mickey Rooney made up like a slanty-eyed beaver.
We kept in touch through facebook and I just looked him up, partly because it’s my first Lunar New Year NOT in New York City, and I thought it would be a good idea to find out where to dim sum from someone who is Chinese. What I didn’t expect (but perhaps should have) is an interesting crash course on the struggles of Asian actors in the UK.
Apparently, at the moment, there aren’t really any British-East Asian theatre companies in London. Yellow Earth Theatre, which started in the 1990s and seems to be the one British-East Asian theatre of note, lost their government funding and is trying to reorganize. Nicholas said that even with West End credits, he’s struggled to find parts. I encouraged him to produce his own plays, even though that path has led me to pain and poverty. But I was surprised to learn from him that there doesn’t seem to be much precedent in the UK for Asian theatre companies. Few get funding and (according to him) the community is extremely small.
It’s been interesting learning about the insularity of the British, since they’re so very cultured. It’s different from the way that Americans are insular. (I’m generalizing very greatly, of course.) I think maybe Nicholas is right when he says that there is a leftover colonial mentality. The Italian girl whom I’m staying with has also remarked that she was part of a theatre piece where the British people involved treated her as if she were mentally impaired because she speaks with a slight accent. It seems the difference is that foreigners are regarded with suspicion and hostility in the US, while in the UK, there is more of an attitude of superiority.
I went and saw a play last night with Nicholas. A friend of his is in it. She’s a terrific actress, but unfortunately she's saddled with a character that is little more than a racist stereotype. Well, everything about the play is sort of an old man’s fantasy. It’s a gentle comedy of deception, wherein a former television repairman in Bayside (which in this play is a Long Island working-class neighborhood) hatches a plan to marry his Japanese nurse in order to set things right with his family before he passes on. Of course, his grown children band together against this impending disaster, worried that the nurse is a gold digger out to fleece them of their inheritance.
When I sketched the outline of this plot to a friend, his immediate response was, “A Japanese gold digger?” Yes, that does sound a bit like an oxymoron. But the conceit of an inscrutable Japanese possible dragon-lady isn’t the only thing in the play that raises question marks and exclamation points. The old man calls his nurse “little geisha” and “lotus flower” and instead of stabbing him with a fork, she responds by cooing in a Japanese accent, “My big samurai.” Naturally, she performs a tea ceremony and speaks in wise Japanese proverbs about family values. I’m surprised she didn’t take a hot bath, dress in a kimono, paint her face white, and perform a full-on kabuki dance with a koto while singing Sakura. The designer even found it fit to put the actress (who has short wavy hair) in a wig of waist-long straight black hair with bangs. And to add to the un-reality, she waxes on about what a considerate man her father was. Bollocks, as they say in London. Everyone who is Asian knows that the real stereotype of an Asian father is a cold and demanding authoritarian, who perhaps gets drunk every so often and weeps over his difficulty expressing love. The actress says that, being the only Asian person in the cast on a condensed rehearsal period, she never found the moment to bring up the fact that she was rather uncomfortable with all this.
The play wasn’t unbearable. It had a light enough touch so everything went down nicely like a candy-coated pill. Lovely, as long as you washed it all down quickly and didn’t bite into that nasty dusty interior. And I wasn't really offended, I suppose because it was obvious that we were all waiting for the other shoe to drop. The thing was that the shoe didn't drop. It just kind of dangled on an electric wire, looking rather grey and forlorn, and everyone wondered why it was there.
Afterwards, while the actress worriedly grilled Nicholas and I over whether we were offended, several people came over to compliment her on how delightful she was. That was the word that nearly everyone used. It actually seemed a bit like they were congratulating her for playing up to their exotic fantasies. Ah, what a nice Oriental girl! How delightful!
Yes, she was delightful – gorgeous to look at, sweet and charming, especially with a cute Japanese accent. But really? This is a play that can get funding and support? Excuse me while I go turn on the oven and put my head in it.
The writer also came over to reiterate how delightful she was. I looked him over like an anthropological specimen, hmm, so that’s what a racist looks like. Small, balding, late 50s lumpy-faced guy with wire-rimmed glasses. He’s probably a nice enough fellow. He looks reasonably well educated. He probably would be shocked to be called a racist. I can hear him now, “I have friends who are Oriental!” Well, ignorance may be bliss, but is it an excuse? Tellingly, he had not one iota of curiosity about Nicholas or me. Even when I introduced myself as a fellow American and a New Yorker. (He's from Oakland and has a house up in the Catskills.) Okay, to be fair, maybe he was distracted with other people, since it was opening night. But if I wrote a play set in Brixton or Tottenham, and a Londoner came to opening night, well I think I’d be at least slightly interested in what she or he thought.
It’s a little depressing. I woke up this morning thinking about 12 Years a Slave. What I found most devastating about the film is the message that’s drilled in about being as average as possible in order to survive. Solomon Northup, the main character, is even told at one point something like, “You’re an extraordinary Negro, but I’m afraid that won’t do you any good.” He learns through his captivity to keep his talents hidden, to pretend that he’s not literate or even sentient, to duck and shuffle and say “Master.” He finally comes to a moment when he destroys his violin, the thing that really sets him apart from everyone else. Patsey has an even harder time since she is unable to hide her beauty, which is one of the things that makes her so extraordinary, so she is constantly getting it from all sides.
The film triggered all these memories of being discouraged by my parents, who were indoctrinated with that same mindset of not sticking out, both because of their Confucian upbringing and the totalitarian system that they grew up in. It’s just not safe to stick out. And if you’re going to stick out, then you have to do it in a way that’s accepted. Especially if you are a woman. Every school we moved to, I was enrolled in the average class, while my brother was enrolled in the top class. Within a month, I was always transferred to the upper class, while my poor brother was demoted to the bottom class. My whole life I've struggled against their dismay and consternation at having a daughter who was bright, who thought differently, who was talented and ambitious. These are the shackles of the mind that will absolutely choke the life out of you.
So I’ve always felt it, this limit to my ambitions because of social constructs of gender, money, race, but it’s even more heartbreaking to see my frustrations mirrored in two smart and talented people, who should really find no impediments in rising to their full power. I’m feeling it very keenly at the moment, all the insidious, degrading, poisonous things we submit to: being called “little geisha” and being told (as Nicholas was) to drop the RP accent because he can’t possibly speak so well.
I came to London hoping that there would be a place for me to plant my talents where they might not just wither and die on the vine from the utter lack of nutrients in the teensy cement crack that I’m forced to exist in. It’s interesting to discover that there seems to be a need for a visionary producer, at least among a few British-East Asian actors. But I'm again wondering if I will ever find a place where I might be allowed to grow as big and thorny and wild as I want, instead of always meeting with gardeners who would prefer me to be pruned into a decorous topiary. Or better yet, a delightful bonsai tree.