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TV sector accused of ‘ignoring’ East Asian actors

Graham Turner with Chris Lew Kum Hoi in The Orphan of Zhao. Photo: Kwame Lestrade
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British East Asian actors have criticised broadcasters for failing to provide them with opportunities in television dramas, claiming any parts that do come their way are stereotypical and “devoid of any individualistic character”.

In an open letter to broadcasters and culture minister Ed Vaizey, a group of East Asian performers has claimed that, despite being the third largest minority ethnic group in Britain, East Asians are not “reflected on our stages and screens”.

In particular, the signatories have argued that long-running soaps such as EastEnders and Coronation Street have failed to represent the UK’s East Asian community or provide roles for its actors.

British East Asian Artists – a campaign group comprising actors, performers and writers – states in its letter: “In 30 years, except for one Chinese DVD seller who lasted barely three months, the popular soap opera EastEnders has never featured any recurring East Asian characters whatsoever. The hospital dramas, Casualty and Holby City, have featured only three young East Asian regular characters each despite the high number of (diverse) East Asians working in our health service. Coronation Street, set around Manchester with its long-established Chinatown, has featured only one East Asian character (a female Chinese immigrant) in its entire history.”

It adds: “When East Asians are featured they are nearly always heavily accented, the women passive and submissive, the men brutish, asexual and devoid of any individualistic character. East Asians are, more than any other ethnic minority, rarely seen as indigenous.”

A spokeswoman for the BBC responded to the criticisms by claiming that the Corporation “always strives to reflect the diversity of modern Britain through our output and across our workforce so that they better reflect our audiences”.

She added: “We know more needs to be done to ensure more people from ethnic minorities are better represented both on and off screen throughout the broadcast industry which is why we listen to our audiences and staff, using that feedback to help inform our decisions. This is ongoing but we are making progress.”

A spokeswoman for ITV said the broadcaster wanted its soap “to have broad representation and be relevant to its audience, so diversity continues to be important to us, both on and off screen”.

British East Asian Artists’ letter was penned following comments made by Vaizey at a recent diversity summit, during which he indicated broadcasters could be made more accountable over the number of black and Asian people they employ. The same summit saw Lenny Henry call on broadcasters to ringfence money to increase the number of black, Asian and minority ethnic people both on screen and behind the scenes.

The group’s letter, which includes signatories such as actor Daniel York, states: “We hope these concerns and efforts will include all minority ethnic groups, not just the catch-all ‘black and Asian’.”

In 2012, there were protests by the same group over the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of The Orphan of Zhao, often referred to as the Chinese Hamlet, which only included three actors of East Asian heritage in its 17-strong cast.

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