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Time for nuanced Asian representation



Growing up I cringed at Asian representation in film and television. More often than not we were cast as nerds, martial artists or second to the plot. We had little depth to our characters, which continuously perpetuated racial stereotypes — stereotypes that still exist today.

Lucy Liu in Charlie's Angels (Photo by Darren Michaels/Getty) I recently binged through new drama series, The Ghost Bride, and as someone with Malaysian–Chinese roots, boy did I become overjoyed with excitement.

The Netflix Original, the first of three original series for the streaming service to be filmed entirely in Mandarin and yet another reason to be excited, is based on the New York Times best-selling novel by the same name, penned by Malaysian writer Yangsze Choo.

The series is also filmed entirely in Malaysia, by two award-winning Malaysian directors, Quek Shio-Chuan and Ho Yuhang, celebrating the country’s diverse landscape as well as its home-grown talents.

The Ghost Bride, set in 1890s Colonial Melaka, follows the story of Li Lan who is offered a proposal to become the ‘ghost bride’ to the deceased son of the wealthy Lim family. Li Lan’s position is financially lucrative, and if she agrees to the marriage, her family will be saved from a lifetime of debt. The catch is however, she will forever be haunted. 

Finally, a series I can relate to, starring complex characters, showcasing food I am familiar with and based on a story of historical Chinese culture. Not only that, but it is set and filmed in Malaysia, a country that I have a strong and personal connection to.

The filming locations of The Ghost Bride include Butterworth, which lies along the Perai River estuary, where my mother’s family is from, where my parents met and my second home, and Penang Island, otherwise known as the pearl of the orient, where my sister was born and where my parents had their first apartment before moving to Australia together.


'I still remember the symbolic annihilation I felt growing up and struggling to understand why. I could mildly relate to characters such as Disney’s Mulan and Lucy Liu’s character from Charlie’s Angels simply because they were the only strong female leads of Asian descent on screen – but that was the extent of it.'


I often watch movies and shows filmed in places that I’ve been to only a few times or never at all, and it is harder to connect to, or get excited about those narratives. They’re often set in cities like New York, showcasing tourist spots such as Times Square or Central Park, and audiences have the chance to see how beautiful those places are. 

I feel a sense of honour and pride that now the world can see how picturesque and diverse Malaysia is as a country, and that I can use it as a reference point when I tell people where my family is from. 

Having a female protagonist in The Ghost Bride is another aspect of series I was thrilled about, as a new study released by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University revealed that although female leads rose from 31 per cent to 40 per cent in the top grossing films of 2019, Asian female characters with speaking roles reverted back to 7 per cent, dropping 3 per cent from the year prior. Female main characters of Asian descent continue to be underrepresented at 5 per cent. 

And those figures don’t surprise me. I still remember the symbolic annihilation I felt growing up and struggling to understand why. I could mildly relate to characters such as Disney’s Mulan and Lucy Liu’s character from Charlie’s Angels (pictured) simply because they were the only strong female leads of Asian descent on screen – but that was the extent of it.

It’s still apparent today that there is a lack of Asian representation in film and TV, as I predict many people would struggle to name more than ten actors of Asian descent off the top of their heads.

And if you think about Australian screens specifically, then that number reduces dramatically, despite 10 per cent of Australians having Asian ancestry. Apart from The Family Law, and more recently the web-series Girl, Interpreted there is a severe lack of Asian representation on Australian screens that fails to represent the beauty of our multicultural society.

Where are the Asian families on Home and Away or Neighbours? Should I dare ask where the Indigenous families are? We need these stories to shape the nature of our culture, normalise our differences, and validate our experiences.

I’m glad the times are finally changing on a global scale however, and we’re slowly but surely seeing more Asian representation on screen. And there’s no denying that people love it. Take a look at Parasite (Korean), The Farewell (Chinese) and Crazy Rich Asians (Singaporean) all released within the past couple of years, and all of which were nominated for Golden Globes.

Having this very personal experience firsthand has makes me understand more than ever before how important representation is in the cultural landscape of film and TV, how much we need new narratives in the media, and what it truly means to minority groups. There are so many voices that are yet to be heard, and so many stories still left untold that could be a storyline for the next blockbuster hit.



Carolyn Cage is a freelance journalist from Melbourne, Australia. Her work has been published by SBS, The Age, Sydney Morning Herald and VICE Australia, and her heroes include Disney's Mulan and Alex Munday. You can follow her work on Twitter via @carolynanncage.

The Ghost Bride out now on Netflix. Image credit: Lucy Liu in Charlie's Angels (Photo by Darren Michaels/Getty)

Topic tags: Carolyn Cage, The Ghost Bride, Malaysia, Asian representation



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Existing comments

You mean Chinese representation?

Tina | 07 February 2020  

Well argued Carolyn. My thought, for what it is worth, as to why Neighbours and the like don't have Asian families in their dramas, is because racism is still alive and well in Australia. It might be worth asking the producers of these programs what is behind their thinking but I suspect it is because they believe it would affect their bottom line. Unfortunately the fact that One Nation hangs around and that the federal government is still allowed to torture asylum seekers by imprisoning them overseas, reflects this racism.

Tom Kingston | 07 February 2020  

Thanks for your insights. Carolyn, don't feel too alone in your beliefs that there's racial stereotypes throughout the industry. Put yourself in an Australian Caucasian's shoes and feel the dismay while such "quality" content like Barry McKenzie, Neighbors, Kangaroo Jack, or a host of cringe-worthy productions go international and perpetuate some Australiana ethos; must we forever be uncultured, uninspired yobbos finding drama in a beer glass? The recent tourism advert "fake remake" of Crocodile Dundee enthused millions that there was more kitsch coming to the screen...and (perhaps unfortunately) that's what sells so the genre and stereotypes live on. I think it's important for both young and old to see themselves and their culture reflected in the screen; nice if they can be heroic role models but that comes back to script and casting... Much as I like the occasional Bollywood style escape I doubt that Asian experience is what you'd be advocating; the blockbusters you've cited are generally written by Asian-descent authors, perhaps the nuanced representation starts with their cultural creativity and a willingness of the audience to engage.

Ray | 07 February 2020  

Very interesting article. I was , I believe, one of the first Australians to be allowed to live with local people in Shanghai. ( I first went to China not long after the Cultural Revolution) Subsequently I made many, many trips, not only to Shanghai but to other cities as well in my role as a Foreign Educational Consultant. Wherever I went I watched Chinese TV (with much enjoyment) I remember a Chinese soap "A Family in Shanghai" which I used to watch every night. It featured family life under the Japanese occupation ......probably in the Pingliang Road area . Brave "actors" took huge risks ( and faced death by firing squad) to steal grain from Japanese organized warehouses. I watched Chinese news programmes and was fascinated always by Australian news content. Australian Cyclones/ Fires/floods/Disrespect to China were recurring themes across the years. Local TV stations regularly reported major events across China.....floods, famines , earthquakes, and all major disasters in such a way that Major Institutions (Like the People's Liberation Army) were greatly revered by local people everywhere. Shanghai schools and universities are great places to work in . Chinese TV is hugely entertaining even when it it at its most self serving and ambivalent! Watching TV with Chinese friends in their homes is something I will always remember.

Ken | 07 February 2020  

I disagree with the inclusion of "Crazy Rich Asians" as positive. It instead reinforces the sorts of negative stereotyping of rich Asians as good-for-nothing, vacuous, materialistic narcissists. That film is not a positive one bit and frankly I was stunned at its vacuity when I saw it. There are many examples of Asians viewed as positive in film, even going back as far as "Crouching Tiger..." with Michelle Yeoh (SNG) & further. I even wondered at the inclusion of Disney's "Mulan" as being a positive, given the reputation of the House of Mouse founder and subsequent cultural (mis-)appropriations! There are now far more films coming out of Asia, notwithstanding the martial arts movies of decades ago which had heroines as well as heroes. Having followed the genre for well on 40 years, I can just about name 'em! Anyway, yes, things are getting better with publicity. It's just people in the West didn't know the positive things were already there, just not accepted by whites.

Anthony Leong | 08 February 2020  

I'm one of those 'whites' Anthony is talking about and I also could not name 10 actors of Asian decent. I struggle with any move or tv show that has sub-titles, for some reason I end up not seeing the movie and only staring at subtitles! Thats my problem not theirs. I know what I like though, strong complex character driven roles, female leads, strong acting and really complex story lines. At 55 I have been well and truly washed through the Hollywood system but more recently I'm bored with the whole Hollywood thing. I think for this 'white' it's complicated, I am not into just one thing or one style. I watch a movie or a tv show because I identify with something in it and I end up watching it over and over until I get it, there is a kind of gestalt that happens and I'm ready to move on to the next show. Thanks for the article.

David Hammond | 10 February 2020  

No Tina, Asian.

Ginger Meggs | 10 February 2020  

This charming and fascinating article reminds me of the episode of 'Who do you think you are' which featured Dr Charlie Teo, who, like you Carolyn, has Malaysian Chinese roots. In the Middle Ages, when most people stayed very close to the place where they were born, although there were exceptions, our ancestors tended to marry locally and had a fairly clear idea of who they were. The rise of the modern empires, such as the British Empire, in whose shadow so many of the world's people now live, changed that. In Australia we are still living in that shadow. To me that is not a bad thing given all the benefits we enjoy such as democracy; free elections; the rule of Law; an excellent educational system, which does need a tune up and a generally decent standard of living, which probably does need to concern itself more with the disadvantaged, but that is not insuperable. Australia's face is no longer monochrome nor is its culture sport, surf and sheilas, the latter a dreadful parody of a country which produces gems like Les Murray, Clive James and Barry Humphries. The mythical Summer Bay probably does need more diversity but you certainly get that if you watch the ABC or SBS. You could even take a peek at NTIV.

Edward Fido | 11 February 2020  

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