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On Screen: Three Cheers for the Asian Invasion

It was as if I was being let in on some weird secret. ‘This is it,’ I thought. ‘This is what is feels like… This is how my white friends feel when they watch Sex in the City.’ Strange.

Over recent years in arts, media and entertainment, there has been a rapid-fire explosion of stories validating the existence of Asians who have grown up in western societies. These works include Warner Brothers’ international hit film Crazy Rich Asians, Netflix’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Barking Gecko’s play A Ghost in my Suitcase, The ABC Issue and of course, Facebook’s viral group Subtle Asian Traits. Whether the seismic shift was sparked by capitalism’s crawl for an untapped market or borne from a spirit of cultural celebration (or both), I am for it and ready for the ride.

Crazy Rich Asians 2018

Watching Crazy Rich Asians was a completely foreign feeling. I sat in the back row of the cinema smiling. I sat seeing faces that looked like me, fashion that could suit my golden complexion and women whose “Western” and “Eastern” identities were also at conflict (A quick google and you will see how the historical constructs of “East” and “West” are reductive bullsh!t). I sat comforted and cringing as I listened to both Mandarin and English being spoken in a jarring chorus of unhomogenised accents. I despaired at the fact that even in an all-Asian cast, the romantic comedy’s beautiful ingenues, love rivals and male leads were largely biracial with Caucasian features; and then being even more disappointed at the exclusion of any Indian and Malay actors. At the same time, I was stunned to see a predominantly white Australian audience sitting beside me, taking in this world – a world close to me – and enjoying it. To add, my long-time friend who had never shown much interest toward my Singaporean background, had deemed the film a date-worthy activity. To say the least, I stepped out of Crazy Rich Asians filled with strange pangs and questions.

What am I? I mean, who are we? We Asian-Australians? Are we the docile model minority or Pauline Hansen’s ‘swamping’ foreign threat? Are we progressive or conservative? Are we oppressed or privileged? Am I an exotic fetishized sexual object or an undesirable nerdish prude?  A rebel or a conformist? White and yellow ‘Banana’ or a fresh-off-the-boat ‘FOB?’ Am I a crazy, rich Asian?

Perhaps Youtube’s Wong Fu Productions puts it best: “[Asians] get the sampler platter of racism… [we] get to try on every type of stereotype. We have the whole menu” (Yappie, 2018).

It is easy to see how diverse our experiences as Asians in the western world are. In October of 2019, I was invited to share mine. The ABC Issue, now named Moonrise, is an online collective where people of Asian descent (ABCs or Asians Between Cultures)who have grown up in Western societies have a platform to share their stories. I spoke to Emmelyn Wu, a long-time friend of mine and the collective’s co-creator.

“It was around the time that Crazy Rich Asians came out, and there was a bit of buzz about Asian representation in the media. Monique and I love dreaming up ideas and once we started talking about the movie and how it made us feel, we realised that there wasn’t a space where people of Asian descent who have grown up in western societies – Asians Between Cultures – could share stories, moments, and experiences from their lives and unique upbringings. We wanted to create that platform not to give these individuals a voice, but to amplify the ones that they already have, as well as to celebrate cultivating an understanding of cultural differences.”

Needless to say, I was excited by the creation of this space. It was the first time someone had really asked me about my cultural duality. Upon reading other contributor’s stories, I realised I was not alone. Suddenly there were hundreds of relatable experiences, from school lunch box shame to racism, microaggression and yes, watching Crazy Rich Asians. I asked Emmelyn what the value of platforms like The ABC Issue were. To which she responded so eloquently: “I think there’s value in appreciating the wide spectrum of stories, experiences, talents, and relationships that have formed out of these. As mentioned earlier, I think these platforms are beneficial in providing a space in media where people of our cultural background have not usually played a large role, and by facilitating the presence of ABCs in this area, it allows individuals – both ABCs and not – to learn from one another, appreciate differences, and to engage in important conversations about race, representation and cultural identity.”

The conversation around cultural duality isn’t simple. Many of the entries on The ABC Issue dealt with the pain of feeling somewhat alienated from both the Australian and Asian community. Even in the company of fellow Asian-Australians, amidst the increase of movies and plays featuring ABC actors and characters, the choice seemed to be binary: “East” or “West.” Our stories remain largely untold and I still rarely see Asian performers on-stage and on screen. For a long time, I too had tried to ignore, defend or prove the existence of both my identities respectively. I manipulated my cultural identity, as if it is something to be conquered instead of celebrated.

I think it is time to begin embracing our duality as a privilege and a source of comfort, rather than an impediment. It can be a privilege to relate to both Asian and Australian communities and a comfort to relate entirely to the Asian-Australian community. We have to keep telling our stories. We have to carry them beyond the theatres and cinemas. We need to keep telling our stories.

READ OR CONTRIBUTE TO THE ABC ISSUE: https://www.theabcissue.com/contribute

READ MY CONTRIBUTION TO THE ABC ISSUE: https://www.theabcissue.com/stories/2018/10/duality