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Citizens of Nowhere? star Siu Hun Li: East Asian actors are overlooked in the UK – we have stories to tell

Jonathan Raggett, Siu Hun Li and Amy Ip in Usagi Yojimbo at Southwark Playhouse (2014). Photo: Richard Davenport Jonathan Raggett, Siu Hun Li and Haruka Kuroda in Usagi Yojimbo at Southwark Playhouse (2014). Photo: Richard Davenport
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While training at RADA and starting his career, Chinese-Scottish actor Siu Hun Li often felt alone as the only East Asian person in a room and while, he says, there have been improvements, there are more stories to be heard

For a Scottish East Asian actor, it is easy to feel isolated. Things are changing for the better in terms of representation and telling our stories, but often for every two steps forward, there is a – very public – step back.

I was born and brought up in Edinburgh to working-class Chinese parents and always tried to be more Scottish than Chinese. At every educational institution I have attended I was pretty much the only East Asian person and subconsciously always had a sense of isolation.

Unlike the typical Chinese whizz-kid stereotype, I was not academic. The only thing that sparked my interest was acting – a hammer blow to my parents – and I did a National Certificate and Higher National Diploma in the subject at college. My inspiration came from a mix of Trainspotting, Braveheart and Hard Boiled, starring Chow Yun-Fat, to Armour of God, Police Story, and Wheels on Meals, all with Jackie Chan.

After leaving college at 19, I worked in some awful jobs, partly to get some life experience, and realised I wanted to become an actor and applied to drama schools. I wanted to go for the top and RADA was among my applications. I was working as a night porter in a hotel from 11pm to 7am, using the time to study classical and contemporary monologues. I took the bus to London for my auditions.

I was offered a place at RADA in 2005. There was talk of more than 2,000 applications and I couldn’t believe my luck. At first it didn’t bother me that yet again I was the only East Asian person in the year as that’s how it had always been. During my second year I was the only East Asian person in the first, second and third years. As my training continued I found it harder to connect – essentially I was a working-class Chinese-Scottish student being trained as a white, classical actor.

One third-year production I was ushering on had two white students playing Chinese characters in a Brecht play. I remember thinking ‘this is a bit weird but it must just be me’.

I was too stubborn to relinquish my Scottish accent at RADA as I felt this was my identity, so I never left sounding like I spoke the Queen’s English. Drama training is crucial to any young actor, but I still feel the schools should embrace different cultures and ways of speaking.

Siu Hun Li in The Sugar-Coated Bullets of the Bourgeoisie at the Arcola (2016). Photo: Tristram Kenton
Siu Hun Li in The Sugar-Coated Bullets of the Bourgeoisie at the Arcola (2016). Photo: Tristram Kenton

For all that, I loved the training at RADA. But since I left in 2008, I have mostly been considered for East Asian parts and a lot of the parts I’ve been up for have not been well-rounded characters.

The way I looked was how I was cast, rather than the range of roles that three years of RADA training had prepared me for. Most of what I was offered was stereotyped. I found myself going up for some parts that required no training at all. I have never really been asked about my training and it’s almost as though I didn’t need to train in the first place.

I was part of one particular rep season that had me cast in roles that offered a derogatory and offensive image of a Japanese character, which was awful. In the other two shows I was in – as part of the same rep season – I had no lines and just moved furniture around the set for seven torturous months. The white actors’ roles were pretty evenly balanced out. Never again.

There have been a lot of negative experiences. I’ve regularly been cast in stereotyped roles and many productions have refused to cast an East Asian actor in a role traditionally given to white actors. During my first job after leaving RADA, I was the only East Asian in the entire cast, and later on I was one of only three East Asians despite it being a play set in China.

Theatremakers hit out at ‘harmful’ stereotyping of British East Asian actors

While there is yet to be a major power shift, things are changing bit by bit. I used my own Scottish accent in shows such as Usagi Yojimbo at the Southwark Playhouse and The Sugar-Coated Bullets of the Bourgeoisie at the Arcola playing a Chinese-Scottish Chairman Mao.

There is a sense of community among British East Asian creatives and it is growing. Through social media, through more work being put on in different venues, we are finding each other. I feel part of a community for the first time, one that understands what I had to go through.

It seems to me that East Asian actors have to work much harder for their careers. There is a lot of East Asian talent that hasn’t been given the opportunities others have. There’s no argument any more saying there isn’t any talent out there, because there is. Some argue that East Asians haven’t really trained but there are plenty of those uplifting stories that make the news of people plucked from obscurity (and without training) to star in films – it’s just that it doesn’t seem to happen to East Asians.

We are getting more recognition, but even as opportunities for casting are improving, there is still a London/US-centric view of East Asians, when in fact we come from all over the UK and the world. People like me have not had their stories told. My time in the industry has taught me a lot about race and class.

We have had a lot of East Asian plays about communism, struggle, poverty, oppression, which is fine, but the narrative should spread further and wider. The interesting thing about my latest role in Citizens of Nowhere?, is it’s so contemporary and up to date.

We need to be seen playing everything from Shakespeare and Arthur Miller to Ken Loach and Richard Curtis

Things are definitely getting better with stronger representation but storytellers and gatekeepers need to change. It still sometimes doesn’t feel as though it’s happening fast enough but we need to keep asking questions and challenging the status quo. Not only do we want to tell our stories but we need to be seen playing everything from Shakespeare and Arthur Miller to Ken Loach and Richard Curtis. And on a personal level, I am getting more optimistic that my race will not prevent me from being offered Scottish parts in the future.

Citizens of Nowhere? is at Duddell’s, London until February 2 as part of Chinese Arts Now festival

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