Whilst a great many “good causes” have been lost in the recent round of Arts Council cuts, there has been a double blow to British Chinese culture. Though from the post-cuts discussions, you’d be forgiven for not noticing.
Yellow Earth, established in 1995, is the most visible theatre company for showcasing British East Asian theatre, and is an important source for new generations of British East Asian actors. It has just received a 100% cut in Arts Council funding, placing its future in jeopardy. The Asian Music Circuit, a promoter of Asian music in the UK since 1989, has also received a 100% cut. Although much of the latter’s work is South Asian focussed, it remains a significant means of enabling British Chinese musicians to perform, and more importantly, to educate.
The Arts Council would no doubt argue that it has a justifiable rationale in cutting financial support to these companies, but it is a testament to the relative invisibility of British Chinese communities that the likely impact of these cuts in terms of ethnic representation in the arts has barely been registered. Had flagship Black British companies been cut, wouldn’t this have been pointed out already?
Of course, there were always going to be winners and losers, and no doubt many other worthy causes have similarly suffered. But it has been a hard-won battle to get the British Chinese any kind of decent cultural visibility, and Yellow Earth and Asian Music Circuit have played an important part in this fight. One only has to look beyond the work of these companies to see what they are up against.
In contemporary mainstream media, the British Chinese are virtually absent. In soaps like Eastenders, where at least some kind of attempt is made to reflect the cultural diversity of Britain, an obvious absence is a British Chinese family. Where are they? The programme makers clearly think that the Chinese influence does not extend beyond the borders of Chinatown, placed as it is in that oft-mentioned but rarely seen district known, quite camply, as “up West”.
But just as you wonder what British Chinese actors have to do to get on television, along comes BBC’s Sherlock with a horde of Chinese gangsters whose command of English is, to the say the least, basic. Sherlock may have updated some of the Victorian themes from the time of Conan Doyle, but the producers obviously felt comfortable with portraying ‘Chinese’ characters in a way that Dickens would probably have found clichéd.
The appearance of student Xin in Coronation Street at least demonstrates that Chinese characters are exclusive neither to violent crime nor to London, and she can even speak English like everyone else. Well, maybe not like everyone else in Corrie – her accent is rooted to the South, even if she isn’t. But if her accent marks her as an “outsider”, this is reinforced by the mispronunciation of her name, which, oddly, she never deigns to correct. Xin is pronounced as “shin” in Mandarin, “sam” in Cantonese, though the locals comically mispronounce her name as “Sheen”, making her sound like a well-known brand of furniture polish.
The dramatic interest centres on the fact that Xin is not ‘British’, and as her student visa expires she has no alternative but to collude with the gormless Graeme to marry her way to a British passport. Yet more criminal activity. Though quite why she wants to stay in the UK is an enigma. With China still experiencing 8% growth, I doubt it is because she might not get a job; the best job she has managed on Corrie is in – yes, you guessed it – a Chinese restaurant.
Perhaps Corrie is making a veiled statement about the Human Rights situation in China? For the inhabitants of Coronation Street at least, the East is some deplorable, undemocratic, uninhabitable place; somewhere beyond the viaduct – itself the scene of recent carnage – and Xin must be saved from this certain, though unspecified, doom. But with the inevitable arm of soap-land law waiting around the corner, it is only a matter of time before the marriage is revealed as a sham and she is sent packing. It’s sad but true: characters with R.P. accents can rarely cut it on the cobbles.
British East Asian actors have complained that they feel like they are living in the Britain of the 1950s, and from contemporary mainstream media, it is not difficult to see why. The ‘British Chinese’ are invisible, stereotyped or transient.
This makes the work of Yellow Earth and the Asian Music Circuit all the more important in asserting an on-going British Chinese presence, and they have done so for decades. But in acknowledging the part these companies have played in trying to counter reductive stereotypes, they also have their weaknesses. Yellow Earth has come up with some great work, but its track record is by no means consistent. Similarly, Asian Music Circuit may promote performers who play ‘traditional’ instruments, but is this at the expense of supporting British Chinese musicians whose preference is to explore alternative musical styles? After all, for some British Chinese artists, their ethnic heritage is an irrelevance. These companies can’t please everyone. This is especially the case when they are creating both the work and the political platform for its representation – and without the support of major institutions, like the BBC, who could and should be doing more.
So, with their funding cut, what is the future? It’s certainly not the end of the battle. Should Yellow Earth and Asian Music Circuit be forced to close, Chinatown Arts Space, based in London, will remain an important force in commissioning British Chinese performance, and the Chinese Arts Centre in Manchester will continue to support the work of Chinese artists, including those from British Chinese communities. Yet, opportunities for visibility will be scarcer, and the battle for fairer representation harder to fight. Either there needs to be a concerted effort to save these institutions, or a reconsideration of how British Chinese communities seek to express themselves through the performing arts. One thing is for sure: the mainstream media won’t do it for them, and as it stands, the Arts Council isn’t helping.