In response to a letter written by the BBC to an East Asian student asking why there was such a lack of representation of BEAs on our screens, BEAA has released the following press release and open letter this morning. You can read the original letter from the BBC here, and Anna Chen’s FAQ U BBC response here.
From: BRITISH EAST ASIAN ARTISTS
Monday 16th June 2014
British East Asian Artists (BEAA) write a stinging response to a BBC letter excusing discrimination against East Asian actors.
Shocking BBC email to student Bess (AKA Katherine) Chan cites the Equality Act 2010 to reject diversity and justify exclusion of East Asian actors from BBC programmes.
The British East Asian Artists group (BEAA) have written a stinging rebuke to a letter sent by the BBC Complaints Department this week to student Bess (AKA Katherine) Chan, who had asked why there were so few actors of East Asian origin in BBC programmes.
Despite being Britain’s third largest ethnic minority with an estimated 500,000 people identifying as of Chinese or East Asian origin, British East Asians (BEAs) are still not seen by the BBC as part of the fabric of British society.
Even though London is 40 per cent Black Asian Mixed Ethnic (BAME), and East London was the home of one of the great Chinatowns — Limehouse — the BBC wrote: “For something like EastEnders, producers would consider the reality of the east end of London upon which depictions are based, thus questions would be is there a sizeable British East Asian population/presence/culture in the type of area Walford is meant to reflect.”
The BBC effectively says that British East Asians may only play characters that are crudely East Asian, and not ordinary everyday roles that are open to actors of other races: “… the actors hired are employed on the basis of their judged suitability for the role which has been written. You’ll understand that the actor does have to reflect the character they portray and, yes, this includes things like ethnicity as well as wider considerations of age, gender, physical appearance and so on.”
Writer Anna Chen, who blogs as Madam Miaow, asked, “Is this what made Laurence Olivier such a good Othello?”
A BEAA spokesperson said: “This would seem to imply that East Asian actors can only appear when the writer has specifically written their surnames as ‘Wong’ or ‘Chen’ and portrays them in characteristically recognisable ‘East Asian’ scenarios. … It would seem to discount the notion that we are all part of modern Britain. … certain minority groups cannot be included unless their perceived community’s activities are seen as ‘relevant’.”
“British East Asian Artists would welcome meeting the BBC in proactive dialogue that develops positive action to rectify a serious corporation-wide problem leading to the continual marginalisation of East Asians in Britain.”
Bess Chan said, ” I couldn’t believe their message to me. They should replace Asian with Black and then they’d see how racist they are. It’s obvious that the BBC’s claim that there isn’t any trained BEA talent is complete and utter nonsense”.
The BEAA letter, can be found in full at (read below also) http://britisheastaa.wix.com/beaactors#!stop-press/c9i8 and is signed by Anna Chen: Hi Ching: Dr. Broderick Chow: Kathryn Golding: Paul Hyu: Michelle Lee: Chowee Leow: Jennifer Lim: Dr. Amanda Rogers: Lucy Sheen: Dr. Ashley Thorpe: Dr. Diana Yeh: Daniel York
15th June 2014
Open letter from British East Asian Artists (BEAA) in response to a BBC letter to a student which appears to excuse discrimination against East Asian actors
As a group of actors, writers and academics who campaign for the rights of East Asians in British media, the British East Asian Artists group felt compelled to write in response to a recent reply to a complaint made by East Asian student Bess (AKA Katherine) Chan about the lack of East Asian presence in BBC programmes (see: http://madammiaow.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/british-east-asian-faq-bbc–casting.html ). Firstly, we commend Bess for having the courage to do what East Asians traditionally are not supposed to do: speak up. The response Bess received from the BBC, whilst of admirable length, is riddled with contradictions and, if it is truly representative of the BBC’s views on East Asians (and minority groups in general), is deeply troubling and problematic.
In the response, the BBC spokesperson appears to strive extremely hard to convince that there is no discrimination at the BBC even going so far as to quote the Equality Act in defence of the corporation’s non-use of quotas. However the following bombshell is then dropped-
“You’ll understand that the actor does have to reflect the character they portray and, yes, this includes things like ethnicity as well as wider considerations of age, gender, physical appearance and so on.”
This would seem to imply that East Asian actors can only appear when the writer has specifically written their surnames as “Wong” or “Chen” and portrays them in characteristically recognisable “East Asian” scenarios. In other words it would appear to directly imply that East Asians would be of the wrong ethnicity to portray regular “British” characters with no “foreign” trappings. It would seem to discount the notion that we are all part of modern Britain. Why else would anyone cite “ethnicity” as qualification for an acting role unless the role is specifically written that way?
The BBC, according to the response, decries the idea of “positive discrimination” based on “quotas” as inherently unfair to “everyone”. Yet by the same token they maintain-
“For something like EastEnders, producers would consider the reality of the east end of London upon which depictions are based, thus questions would be is there a sizeable British East Asian population/presence/culture in the type of area Walford is meant to reflect.”
Are we to assume then that in order for East Asian characters and/or actors (it’s important to separate the last two) to appear on Eastenders the British East Asian population/presence in the very diverse area that Walford is supposed to represent must reach a certain “quota” in order to “qualify”? So it is possible to discriminate negatively on the basis of “quotas” it would appear.
A word on the Equality Act: It is absolutely true that positive discrimination is illegal. Yet sections 158 and 159 of the Equality Act 2010 do actually allow for positive action if people of protected characteristics are suffering disadvantages which East Asians and other minority groups clearly are in this instance. Does the BBC take positive action? It is also true to say that in adherence to the Equality Act best practice would surely be to publish transparent monitoring data of onscreen employment which at present the BBC does not. It is difficult to see how, without this transparency, the BBC is able to defend their record on casting and it would appear more than a little disingenuous to use the Equality Act to justify inequality.
Even more troubling is this-
“There is absolutely no discrimination by writers and producers against any section of society when considering such things, it’s simply about characters, relevance, what can be brought to the wider context of the show and the series as a whole…The answer might be that whilst there may be a presence, it perhaps doesn’t specifically equate to something that could necessarily be part of storylines.”
Surely the contradiction here is obvious. There is no discrimination but certain minority groups cannot be included unless their perceived community’s activities are seen as “relevant”. Are we to understand then that East Asians in East London are “irrelevant” to a programme such as Eastenders (since that is what we are referring to here)? That East Asians are somehow separate or apart and do not “specifically equate” to the rest of East London? Elsewhere in the BBC’s response there is great play made on the idea of “talent” coming first but it would appear that all the “talent” in the world will be of little use if the “presence” of East Asians in the area the programme is set in is deemed “irrelevant” by the BBC.
This theme is continued in the next paragraph which re-emphasises commitment to a “level-playing field”-
“…we want the best and most suitable person for the requirements of the role but whilst no-one is excluded or discriminated against, as mentioned a medium like television does have to allow programme makers the ability to have a very wide choice based on the dramatic and artistic requirements upon them.”
East Asians clearly are being discriminated against if their presence is deemed “irrelevant” to a programme set in modern Britain and the programme-makers are clearly limiting their choices if their “dramatic and artistic requirements” are led by said notions of monolithic “relevance”. Let us be clear here: it cannot be often that the “relevance” of including Caucasian characters and/or actors in BBC dramas is questioned. If the “relevance” of East Asian (or other minority groups) is an issue then that is a clearly discriminatory set of circumstances.
“What the BBC cannot possibly do, of course, is be responsible for the talent pool of actors out there.”
There does seem to be an implication here that there aren’t enough “good” East Asian actors. Whilst there may not be vast numbers there are, nevertheless, plenty of East Asian actors who have acted extensively in theatre and films. However, they simply cannot garner TV auditions outside stereotypical and one-dimensional “take-away owner” roles where the major requirement for the role would appear to be fulfilling the programme-makers’ idea of cliché. The currently-in-production One Child, described by BBC Head Of Series Kate Harwood as a “huge opportunity” for the “British East Asian acting community”, required actors to convince the BBC they could portray Mainland China nationals (in other words to not be “British”) and in many cases the casting process required the actors to speak a foreign language (Mandarin) which they often had to translate themselves for the auditions. It’s also true that members of the “British East Asian acting community” with extensive theatre and film credits have often felt compelled to decline offers to appear in clichéd and minor roles which, to artists of their professional standing, were considered somewhat desultory. It might well be that the BBC should get their own house in order before casting aspersions on the professional abilities of minority ethnic actors.
“So, British East Asian actors can compete against any other actor, but the key word is compete because this is one of the most – indeed, perhaps the most, competitive industries there is thus there is huge competition for every role and every position with countless people being left disappointed of course, but that’s the reality of the performing arts.”
Virtually every British East Asian actor we know desires only to able to “compete” on a level playing field but surely you can see that in an arena when some are deemed “not relevant” on the basis of their ethnic background and it seems can most often only be considered in “foreign” roles this is no “competition” at all. At one point the BBC response even talks of the corporation being unable to-
“simply shoehorn a British East Asian family of characters in for no reason or relevance”
This is a simply staggering assertion. There is no question whatsoever of Caucasian characters being “shoe-horned” in but unless there is some sort of special relevance East Asians would be seen as being so. This is a clear statement of discrimination. One is considered the “norm”. One isn’t and requires “special” circumstances.
Finally, it has to be said that the list at the end of East Asian actors whose careers the BBC has supposedly “championed” is itself fairly damning including, as it does, someone who was so unimpressed by the opportunities on offer to them that they left the acting profession aged barely 30. Many of those on that list share Bess’, and our, concerns and are indeed on record to that effect.
The response concludes that the BBC “shares” Bess’ “ambition for more British East Asians to appear on BBC programmes and be part of our workforce”.
It doesn’t appear terribly “ambitious” when we still seem to have advanced no further than being tokenistic foreigners who require special “relevance” to justify our presence in British TV dramas. Citing The Chinese Detective only reinforces these concerns as it last aired in 1982.
This response is deeply disappointing, hurtful and even shocking. We support the BBC as a publicly funded broadcaster and would wish to work with them. But the corporation’s attitude on this appears to be stuck somewhere in the last century. The wider British East Asian population wishes to be recognised as a part of modern Britain and for their lives and experiences as such to be reflected in the media. All British East Asian artists whom we know are dedicated and work extremely hard . We would like to contribute and be included. We would like to “compete”.
We do not wish to be “shoe-horned” in.
British East Asian Artists would of course welcome meeting with the BBC in proactive dialogue that develops positive action to modify a situation which we believe is a serious corporation-wide problem leading to the continual marginalisation of East Asians in Britain.