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No Longer Invisible: The Emergence Of London's East Asian Arts Scene

By Londonist Last edited 21 months ago
No Longer Invisible: The Emergence Of London's East Asian Arts Scene
Photo by fullc0d in the Londonist Flickr pool

Nobody likes to be invisible. Yet that’s how many East Asians here feel about their place in British society.

It’s a justifiable lament. A million or so people of East Asian origin or descent call the UK home, but are still largely absent in public life. They’re barely represented in politics (the House of Commons got its first British East Asian MP only this year) and are by and large, ignored by the media.

But after years of waiting in the wings, British East Asians now want to be seen and heard. And they’ve commandeered the arts to help their cause.

The upshot is a blossoming East Asian cultural scene — buzzy, more diverse, and with a plethora of things to see and do. And London is where it’s at. You can now go from watching a BFI retrospective on Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien one week to a Royal Court play about North Korea the next. And possibly more in between, if you know where to look (and there are no excuses — see below).

Come October, there’ll even be a two-and-a-half month-long festival dedicated to promoting South-east Asian culture. The SEA ArtsFest, now in its third year, will bring in musicians, dancers, writers and multimedia artists from places like Singapore, Malaysia, and Cambodia. Clearly there's a hunger for this kind of thing; last year it chalked up audience figures of more than 29,000.

So what’s driving this? Well for starters, an increasingly vocal generation of British East Asians artists who want to bring their voices into the mainstream by putting out more work. “When they see themselves and their lives reflected in the media, on stage and on screen it gives them a sense that they matter,” says Kumiko Mendl, the artistic director of Yellow Earth theatre company.

“No one’s really going to help us if we don’t help ourselves,” adds Simon Ly, who runs Papergang Theatre, “so we’re increasingly motivated to make our own opportunities — in the arts and beyond.”

Yellow Earth and Papergang are among several arts groups that want to raise the profile of East Asian culture and talent – but in the right way. They’d like to see the back of racial stereotyping — think ‘token Asian’ tropes like geisha, restaurant owner, kung-fu master. So their collective response has been to create, and to drive their own narratives.

Balloon & Needle: The New Korean Avant-garde at Cafe Oto, Photo by Fabio Lugaro in the Londonist Flickr pool

Writer and actor Daniel York from Moongate Productions is developing a new play about the Chinese Labour Corps. He says: “There's a wealth of stories to be told and discovered. What we need to do now is find a way to connect with mainstream British audiences without selling ourselves as exotic curio — in other words to be the protagonists in our own drama without pandering to perceived notions of orientalist obscurity.”

Cross-cultural collaborations between arts groups in the UK and East Asia have also helped. Platform Theatre recently re-imagined the story of Jekyll and Hyde, in partnership with a theatre company from Hong Kong. In late August, Macbeth will be on at the Globe — but staged entirely in Cantonese. All crossover projects that point to East Asia’s — or mostly China’s — growing soft power.

But whether the work is homegrown or imported, it’s building bridges. Between people, and between countries. “It’s about breaking down ignorance and cultural barriers,” says David Tse, creative director of the Chinese Arts Space, another group championing East Asian performing and visual arts. He felt things had to change after seeing his young nieces bullied in local schools; they’d tell him ‘Uncle David, I wish wasn’t Chinese.'

Clearly, there’s some way to go in the community’s battle against invisibility. But the work that’s being done to put a stamp on British culture is surely headed in the right direction. Says Papergang’s Ly: “At the very least it’s helping people realise that they are as Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, Malaysian... as they are British. And that it’s okay to have that identity.”

Upcoming events

Theatre

Macbeth at Shakespeare’s Globe
Shakespeare’s tragedy staged in Cantonese by Hong Kong’s Tang Shu-wing Theatre Studio.
Caught at Arcola Theatre
Christopher Chen’s play about  a Chinese artist who walks the line between truth and fiction.  
No More Lotus Flower at Camden People’s Theatre
Julie Cheung-Inhin’s documentary theatre piece about the drawbacks of being a British East Asian actor in the UK.
You For Me For You at Royal Court Theatre
Mia Chung’s play about North Korean sisters torn apart at the border.

Films

Also Like Life: Hou Hsiao-Hsien at BFI
A month-long retrospective on renowned Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien.
The Silk Road Of Pop at Asia House
A portrait of the explosive pop music scene among the Uyghur community in China’s Xinjiang Province.

Festival

London Korean Film Festival 2015
A two-week long run of films from Korea - from archive classics to new cinema, from box office hits to fringe pieces.
SEA ArtsFest
UK’s only Southeast Asian arts festival, featuring works from and inspired by the region.

By Sandra Leong

Last Updated 14 August 2015