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Where are the Asians on Australian screens?



Seeing yourself and your community represented in the everyday culture that surrounds you is important to feeling like you belong.

Publicity shot from Crazy Rich AsiansWhile I always want to see a higher number of culturally diverse roles and representations on Australian television and film screens, I also want to see more diversity in these representations. Don't give me a 200 per cent jump in Asian Australian representation on Neighbours, for example, and have those roles be the serving staff at the Waterhole.

These kinds of representations and stories are important, and we need to move past the usual stereotypes that have been served up. To give you an idea of how underrepresented non-Anglo characters are on Australian television, Screen Australia's 2016 report states: '32 per cent of Australians have a first or second-generation background other than Anglo-Celtic, compared to only 18 per cent of main characters in TV dramas from the last five years' (Australian screen diversity).

Similarly, the Australia Council of the Arts' Making Art Work research reports that only ten per cent of those working in this sector are of from NESB (non-English speaking background) groups. The Australia Council research in this sector includes those who are working the screen industries.

In response to this dearth of opportunity for those of diverse cultural backgrounds, Diversity Arts Australia formed to promote cultural diversity in the arts. Their priority is to 'create the conditions for people from a multitude of cultural backgrounds to participate in our creative sector'. They 'want to see an arts and screen sector that is built on diversity from the ground up, spotlighting the structures, content, conventions and cultural assumptions that are holding us back'.

For an Asian Australian whose childhood spanned the late 1970s-1980s, my television and film diet was heavily weighted towards Hollywood blockbusters, UK comedy series and crime dramas, and the occasional Australian soapie.

Pre-media streaming and the internet, our family watched bootlegged Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee movies from Hong Kong, and many of my older relatives watched long, long Cantonese soap operas. We had a magpie approach to trying to find the media we wanted to watch, and jerry-rigged what I thought was a unique cluster of experiences. It was only later, when I met more Asian Australians of my generation, that I realised those experiences weren't quite as unique as I had thought!


"It's the Asian Dynasty that I've always wanted, but even better."


And in 2018? We are spoilt for choice in terms of finding media that looks and sounds a bit like us, but it's mostly not made in Australia. As the statistics I mention earlier show, we have a long way to go to achieve representative parity on our screens and in the industry.

Right now, I can't wait to watch the movie Crazy Rich Asians with my mother, due for release in August this year. The movie, based on Kevin Kwan's successful novel of the same name, promises to be a highly entertaining, quality bubble-gum film. The book, and this movie, present a completely over-the-top slice of society, a story of uber-rich families rife with internal politics and international gossip. It's the Asian Dynasty that I've always wanted, but even better.

The narrative is set in a range of international locales, chief among them being Singapore. It's a rare thing to have Singapore feature as the key shooting location and contextual star of a major Hollywood movie, especially with an all-Asian cast (Australia's Chris Pang among them).

Does watching this somewhat ridiculously premised film that's full of obnoxious characters, complete with smatterings of Singlish, make me feel culturally represented? In a strange way, yes. There are threads of cultural recognition in the narrative's Southeast Asian locations and through the Chinese customs that resonate, as well as the cultural mobility of various characters. Would I like to see more of this kind of thing with an Australian sensibility? Absolutely.



Tseen KhooTseen Khoo is a lecturer at La Trobe University and founder/convenor of the Asian Australian Studies Research Network (AASRN), anetwork for academics, community researchers, and cultural workers who are interested in the area of Asian Australian Studies. She tweets as @tseenster.

Main image: Publicity shot from Crazy Rich Asians.

Topic tags: Tseen Khoo, Asian Australians, Crazy Rich Asians



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Existing comments

It's clear where the Asians are: in TV commercials, East Asian often, South Asian increasingly. Seems the advertising industry is way ahead of the "creatives".

Robin Ryan | 09 February 2018  

What does Asian mean? Is it a racial, cultural or geographical term? Surely our first priority should be worrying about Austral-asians - since we live in Astral-asia. So ATSI people are obviously the first to claim an stake in our TV territory - then the next stage in claim to be Austral-asian is what that Austtalia Day debate is all about and we can't settle that until Aboriginal Australians have a reason to celebrate on January 26 - which is why I still think we shouldn't bury our heads in the sand by changing the date - but change our policies so that inidgenous and non-indigenous can celebrate together. (And this includes East Asians, South Asians, Middle-easteners ets who all variablly regard themselves as "Asian")

AURELIUS | 09 February 2018  

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