A call for better representation for British East and Southeast Asians

A call for better representation for British East and Southeast Asians

Posted on Feb 26th, 2022

Trigger warning: the interview tells of Lucy’s personal experiences of trauma, but also includes potential triggers such as experiences of racism and graphic references to racist language. 

Lucy Sheen is an actor, playwright, poet, a transracial adoptee, and mother. She is one of the founding members of BEATS, which is an organisation that advocates for better representation for British East and South East Asians (BESEAS). In her interview this week, Lucy tells us about her personal experiences and struggles with stigma and discrimination throughout her career. 

Can you tell us about BEATS and what led you to create an advocacy organisation for British East and South East Asians?

 BEATS want to change British East and South East Asians (BESEAS) representation in Theatre and on-screen (film and TV). The organisation advocates and challenges in order to change the current and historical narratives that have dictated who and how BESEAS are portrayed in our (UK) culture, by increasing the representation of BESEAS onscreen, backstage, and behind the camera. To achieve this representational and narrative change BEATS helps to amplify, promote and nurture BESEA talent. At the same time, BEATS encourages, cajoles, and sometimes “badgers” those who are not quite there yet. BEATS tries to get people to rethink and check their own biases when it comes to BESEA representation and engagement. BEATS lobbies those who have the power to be proactive and action-led. To cast produce and commission BESEA talent, especially the talent that has established itself but has not yet been able to catch the breaks that others have. We want to see narratives that centre the British East and South East Asian life experience, contemporary and historical. BESEAS don’t have that cultural experience, yet. We see storylines, themes, content based on East Asian and South East Asian works. Dramas set against an East Asian backdrop featuring UK BESEA talent. But more often than not, they’re not portraying BESEAS, but East and South East Asians (ESEAS) some representations are better than others. But the norm is very much still a stereotype or a story told through a western lens. Those representations don’t relate to any lived experience that I and many other BESEAS have. Let's be clear I’m not saying we shouldn’t have stories of migration, immigration or Colonialism. That’s where I come from. But as a British person of East and South East Asian heritage (Hong Kong Chinese, Colonial era, and also of Dai heritage) we need to see and hear those narratives as well. And all of this unseen, unheard content needs to be curated and authored by BESEAS. That’s why BEATS came about. Why BEATS continues. Why the work that BEATS has done since it started in 2019 has been so extraordinarily effective. Probably why it has been criticised by some. No one likes having the spotlight turned upon themselves. Especially those who have been marginalised and discriminated against because of their ethnicity. But just because you’re from a marginalised community, have experienced prejudice or racism; doesn’t mean that you don’t have your own racism, prejudices, and unconscious biases. The BESEA community is like any other. There is good bad and indifferent. We are diverse and we are not perfect. BEATS has never been afraid to challenge inequality, internal racism, prejudice, colourism, antiBlackness, nepotism, hypocrisy, or cronyism. That has painted a huge target on BEATS’ back. BEATS has received negative criticism especially regarding The BEATS Test, launched in January of this year at an industry event hosted by The BFI and supported by ITV.  

You are a published poet, playwright, and writer - what inspired you to get into writing?

Frustration, the fact that I spent eighteen years (1992-2010) exiled from theatre through no fault of my own. No one was casting me until I caught a break in 2010 (Hungry Ghosts at The Orange Tree Theatre, starring alongside Benedict Wong). The roles that I had been seen for as an actor, the roles that I was being seen for and cast in, the lack of control I had as an artist of colour, was even less than the minimal hold that say an equivalent white actor might have. No agency or investment in these narratives, how these narratives were being curated and represented. 

I’m also from a very unique demographic I’m a minority that’s in a minority. I’m of BESEA (Hong-Kong Chinese-Colonial era and part Dai) heritage. I'm also a transracial adoptee. In terms of identity, perception, and representation. It’s a double/triple whammy. Marginalised, discriminated against, the prejudice, racism and hatred are something else. I found growing up that no-one, not the country that I had been exported and adopted into or my birth culture wanted me. I was a nobody, culturally dislocated, isolated, linguistically disenfranchised, existing in a no-man's land. To this day I don’t see myself or people similar to myself represented on stage or on screen. Though since the Orphan of Zhao protest (I was involved) in 2013, 

 in theatre things have changed and that is heartening. But we’re still not where we should be. How much longer do we have to wait before things really change? And not just for BESEA I might add. TV/Film change is glacial, in spite of the many public protestations, diversity is key. BESEAS still aren’t represented or even included as they should be. It’s all talk and talk is cheap. 

Taking up the pen, getting my writing seen, it’s been an uphill struggle. The overall mindset of those who have the power (commissioners, producers, production companies, some literary agents too) has to radically change. BESEA work, well mine, many people “love my writing” but not enough to invest in it or produce it. It’s too niche, not commercial, they want something more relatable for the overall audience demographic. They want BESEA characters that are recognisable. In other words, subtle stereotypes and tropes.

Original Article: https://www.cinemamas.co.uk/blog/7xx1e3uxinf794a1tb443c8ik7jzul

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