Asians feel trapped in ‘colonial prism’ of Western literature

Bidisha with Niven Govinden in the background at the More or less Asian? A debate on stereotypes in literature event held at Asia House

Broadcaster, author and journalist Bidisha will be speaking at Asia House on Tuesday, 27 January when her latest book Asylum and Exile: The Hidden Voices of London will be launched

Asians feel trapped in ‘colonial prism’ of Western literature

25 November 2014

By Naomi Canton

Books, plays and TV dramas in the UK still stereotype Asia and Asian people while Asian actors get typecast in stereotypes of their ethnic race. That was the focus of the discussion More or less Asian? A debate on stereotypes in literaturewhich was held at Asia House.

Daniel York, actor, director and writer of The Fu Manchu Complex, a hilarious satirical play challenging racist stereotypes of Chinese people, said Chinese men were usually stereotyped in Western literature and films as “conniving, untrustworthy sly villains who double-crossed everyone.” By contrast, he said, the white guy was always stereotyped as “the good-looking charismatic one.”

“I am convinced that TV drama writers in the UK lose the plot when they get East of Turkey as it becomes nonsense. Yet it is presented as intelligent drama, even though the writers see themselves as incredibly liberal,” he said.

York, whose film credits include The Beach and Rogue Trader, said that the way East Asians were presented in British drama and literature was “stuck somewhere in the 19th century – a view from a prism of Victorian Orientalism, stuck in the colonial period. The UK is very uncomfortable about discussing race. It’s not the same in the USA,” he added.

All panellists at the event, which was chaired by broadcaster and journalist Bidisha, who had just returned from Beijing, agreed that many western books peddled 19th century stereotypes about bout China – now the largest economy in the world – as though Britain was still living in its colonial past.

“The word community is deeply problematic – but you can’t get away from it, it’s farcical. If you talk about the East Asian community, even China is so varied. It’s ridiculous and yet whether you like it or not you are their representative,” York said.

He added that actors like him, who looked Chinese [York is half Singaporean Chinese and half British], were always typecast in stereotypes of their race, rather than other roles. “I am mixed race and I have an English surname and then I became an actor and I get thought of as a Chinese actor. The roles we get are always the nasty monosyllabic Oriental male – we have to keep challenging this as the establishment is generally quite happy with the established state of affairs,” he said.

He added the audience would be perfectly happy with ethnic Chinese playing a range of roles and it was producers that underestimated the audience. “The longer we are here, the louder we will get,” he added.

Yasmeen Khan, left, Daniel York, centre and Bidisha, right at the More or less Asian? A debate on stereotypes in literature event held at Asia House

Yasmeen Khan, left, Daniel York, centre and Bidisha, right, at the More or less Asian? A debate on stereotypes in literature event

Many South Asian and East Asian actors had moved to the USA as there were better roles for them there, said Yasmeen Khan, writer and broadcaster who acts as cultural advisor on TV soap opera Eastenders and specifically advises on the Masood family storylines.

“The gatekeepers of theatre, plays and soaps” in the UK were “all of the same ilk and had a lack of awareness,” she said. “It’s still hugely white middle-class. I sat in a meeting once when someone said, ‘I don’t know how to interface with your community.’ Even I don’t know how to do! It’s like we are all locked up somewhere!” she added.

She recalled how a producer once said to her: ‘It’s great that you bring these stories about your community but don’t feel you can’t bring us other stuff.’ “There is no homogenous community,” she said. “Even within a community people behave in different ways. I grew up in places where there were no Asian faces yet you feel like sometimes there are particular stories they will expect,” she added.

Like York, she was unhappy with being seen as representative of a particular community.

The panellists felt that women in a veil were often represented as though they were silent or suffering terribly. Khan thinks writers like her should be activists through their work. “That is why I created the ‘gobby hijabi’ (headscarf-wearing woman who is loud, blunt and opinionated),” she said.

Anna Chen, writer, poet, blogger, broadcaster and the first British Chinese comic to take a show to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, said: “I have realised that you can be a different colour as long as you are created in the image of an author that is of white descent. Sometimes you get pressure from people to be more Chinese because they do not think you are Chinese enough.”

Bidisha, left, Anna Chen, centre and Niven Govinden, right at the debate More or less Asian? A debate on stereotypes in literature

Bidisha, left, Anna Chen, centre and Niven Govinden, right, at the debate More or less Asian? A debate on stereotypes in literature

Chen cited as example an occasion when a group of East Asian actors were putting on Beautiful Thing and she played Sandra and she was asked why Sandra did not eat from a bowl and use soya sauce. “I was like you can’t create the whole Chinese diaspora in your own image,” she said, adding that teapots were stereotypical symbols that often appeared in Western narratives on China. “There is a sense of being sold someone else’s images of China and the gatekeepers are the ones who choose which images get through,” she said. “You don’t get interesting stereotypes,” she complained. “You rarely see a Chinese woman with power. I would have liked to be a hard-nosed woman on Absolutely Fabulous.

She blames the negative stereotyping on envy in the West about the fact that Asia was the new emerging superpower.

Author Niven Govinden, whose fourth novel All The Days and Nights was recently shortlisted for The Green Carnation Prize, said books about Asia were typically littered with references to the monsoon, geishas, unhappy arranged marriages and terrorists. But he said he was very singular about what he did and had “never been nudged in a particular direction.”

“I think if you are far more singular about what you want to do creatively you won’t have to have these discussions,” he said. He pointed out more diversity was needed behind the scenes and there were “hardly any BMEs [people from black and minority ethnic groups] in publishing houses” which did not help, but said that was also because people from BME communities did not consider creative industries as legitimate careers.

“It is our own responsibility to try and work our way out of the colonial prism we are in – you can be more subversive or just write about what you want to. We have the choice to write about what we want to,” he said.


However, it was not all negative stereotyping. There is also positive stereotyping about Asia. Govinden spoke about the “strange love affair” between Western readers and writers of Indian/Pakistani origin writing about Asia. “It’s like a comforting milky drink,” Govinden said. “The problem with these stories is you don’t nurture writers that write outside of that. A narrative about a tea plantation might be beautifully written but it’s not challenging to do. The readers should put the same amount of attention on reading different pieces of work by Asian-origin authors,” he said. Indeed All The Days and Nights has no reference to tea plantations, or indeed to South Asia. Rather it is about a dying artist in America in 1980 working on her final portrait, abandoned by her husband who has left her on a quest to find the paintings of him.

Bidisha summed up the lively debate saying: “There is a frustration in being seen merely as a skin colour. Our identity is more than just race. We don’t live in a post-colonial world anymore – it’s weighted in a different sphere altogether. This is about Britain coming to terms with the fact it is no longer a world power.”

Looking to add to your Asian literature collection? Asia House is your destination! Throughout December Asia House is opening its doors to accept donations of books either about Asia or by Asian authors. Simply drop off old books at the Asia House Reception and we’ll sell them on. All books will then be sold at a bargain price and half the proceeds will go to Room to Read, a charity with literacy projects in Asia. This is an excellent way to get rid of old books, acquire new ones and give to charity in the process.