Connect with us


State Of British-Chinese Cinema Since 1986



It is a truth quietly known that diversity has been a sore spot in the UK film industry. Whether it is behind or in front of the camera, UK cinema has always leaned towards traditional narratives featuring Caucasian talent while diverse stories are sequestered away to the independent scene, often ignored for distribution in favour of mainstream/Caucasian cinema. The case is even more spectacular when it comes to British-Chinese cinema. Although the Asian diaspora has grown progressively in Western media in recent years, there remains a glaring lack of exposure when it comes to British-born Chinese characters or stories – yet they need a place in the spotlight.

Delphine Lievens and Chi Thai, co-founder of MilkTea – a British community that champions East and South East Asian cinema – recently published The Exclusion Act, which revealed the notable lack of British East and/or South East Asian (BESEA) talent in the UK film industry, with only nine films released between 2011 and 2020 by BESEA directors. These features only account for 0.018% of box office for all British films released during the ten-year period. 

My parents are from Hong Kong but my siblings and I were raised in the UK – I consider myself British-born Chinese. However, my Chinese identity was (and in some rare cases, is) a source of disdain and ridicule, which caused me to suppress it to avoid embarrassment from my White peers. It got to a point where I practically resented that side of my own identity for making me a mockery. This was exacerbated by the offensive stereotypes in film and television, which saw Asian actors (if any) pushed aside for whitewashing or “yellowfaced” actors that saw renowned stars such as Mickey Rooney, Peter Ustinov and Christopher Lee don make-up to look more “Oriental” – at a horrifying cost. Namely, the dignity of East Asians.

But whitewashing is only the tip of the iceberg. If Asian stars were lucky enough to get some screen time, they would be reduced to derogatory stereotypes that fell into a supporting role, which saw Asians portrayed as threats or incomprehensible foreigners, or worse, reduced to sex objects. Therefore, Asian actors don’t have a chance to portray someone “real” and are there to be at the whim of a mostly White industry.

For instance, Anna May Wong may have been the first Asian-American actress to gain international recognition, but was always known for her role as the “Dragon Lady” – a femme fatale of sorts. When it came to lead roles, she found herself at odds with Hollywood; one notable case being the lead role of O-Lan in MGM’s The Good Earth. O-Lan was a character of Chinese descent yet Wong, an established star, was not in consideration – instead, it went to Luise Rainer, whose performance eventually won her the Academy Award for Best Actress. The exclusion reinforced the idea that the film industry would continue to cast aside Chinese stars in Chinese roles, as well as authentic Chinese narratives. In an interview in 1933, Wong commented: “There seems little for me in Hollywood, because, rather than real Chinese, producers prefer Hungarians, Mexicans, American Indians for Chinese roles.” 90 years on, the lack of Chinese identity in cinema still feels underdeveloped.

There is no denying Hollywood has been taking positive steps to highlight Asian representation with films such as The Joy Luck Club, Crazy Rich Asians, The Farewell and Everything Everywhere All at Once. The critical and financial success of these films, along with Academy Award winner Parasite and award-winning director Chloe Zhao, has shown that Hollywood is coming around to the idea of diversity (albeit at a snail’s pace). Even Ke Huy Quan, who had major roles in Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom and The Goonies, was inspired to return to acting after watching Crazy Rich Asians, showing that there is a place for Asians on the big screen.

The UK film industry, however, has yet to recognise the rich diversity among its creatives, especially during awards seasons. Last year, the glaring lack of winners of colour in the 2023 BAFTA Film Awards led to a public outcry online (with #BaftasSoWhite making a return to social media), with media representatives stating that nominees of colour are “overlooked and ignored”. Even more so when Everything Everywhere All at Once was nominated for ten awards while war film All Quiet on the Western Front won ten of its 14 nominated categories, showing that traditionalism is preferred over originality.

This bias has stopped British-Chinese talent from making their mark in the UK, driving them overseas or to roles in independent projects or TV. It’s been only three years since the Marvel Cinematic Universe not only cast an Asian-American, but also a British-Chinese actor in a lead role in their films (Simu Liu for Shang-Chi and the Legend of Ten Rings, Gemma Chan in Eternals, respectively). Although established British-Chinese actors such as Benedict Wong, Katie Leung and Jessica Henwick have held supporting roles in recent high-profile franchises, none of them have yet to be given a lead role that champions British-Chinese narratives that both appeals to modern audiences and celebrates the history of Chinese people in the UK. 

In 1986, Po-Chih Leong directed the first ever British-Chinese feature, Ping Pong, which premiered at that year’s Venice Film Festival but has seemingly been forgotten. Two years later, Four Weddings and a Funeral director Mike Newell and Ian McEwan adapted Timothy Mo’s novel Soursweet, which followed a newlywed Hong Kong couple immigrating to London for a new life while Peggy Su!, a 1998 rom-com written by Anglo-Chinese playwright Kevin Wong that revolves around a Chinese laundrette, was the first film to receive funding from the National Lottery. Although these displayed steps in diverse filmmaking, the lack of films being developed about the Chinese community in the UK are few and far between. In addition, the sparse recognition and cultural reference towards BESEA characters post-release implies a lack of faith from the industry in developing such stories. 

Therefore, there are no opportunities to highlight stories of British-born Chinese, such as being raised in a Chinese takeaway, growing up with “Tiger parents”, or the historical issues of Chinese immigrants assimilating into British society such as “the forced repatriation from the UK of thousands of Chinese sailors in the 1940s”. In addition, there has been a major failure to highlight young and emerging BESEA talent such as Nicola Wong, Leanne Bailham and Paris Zarcilla, so the UK misses out on promoting diverse stories just so it can feel safe.

Diversity has never been so important in the UK film industry as it is now, in 2024. Modern audiences need new and original stories for education and entertainment, yet the creativity of the BESEA community is being sidelined. Only when the industry acknowledges the UK’s multicultural identity will we see change in the films being made and the portrayal of British-Chinese people can improve.

Just For You