March 2015

The Nation Reviewed

When Asians attack

By Benjamin Law

Behind the scenes of ‘Maximum Choppage’, a new kung-fu comedy

You wouldn’t have seen many Asian faces on Australian television in the late ’80s and early ’90s, despite the fact that by 1990 roughly a third of all new immigrants were Asian. Soap operas had their moments. Episode 220 of Home and Away broke new ground in 1988, when loveable drongo Alf Stewart was outraged to discover that his daughter, Roo, had a Chinese boyfriend named David. The plotline ended quickly. One fan site described a subsequent episode like this: “Roo and David talk. They feel like almost everyone around them are racists due to their relationship. David will leave Summer Bay and go home (emotional music plays).” Five years later, Neighbours introduced its first Asian characters, a family of migrants from Hong Kong. Played by actors with noticeably different accents from one another, the Lims were promptly accused of barbecuing a neighbourhood dog.

“It comes up every few years, how white Australian screens are,” says screenwriter, producer and director Tony Ayres, who is Chinese-Australian. “In all the time I’ve been working, I don’t think it’s really changed.” Nowadays, even though just over 10% of Australians identify as having Asian ancestry, all-white main casts are still common – from dramas like Wonderland (bar Emma Lung, who has a Chinese grandfather) to reality shows like The Block. It’s one reason why Ayres and his production company Matchbox Pictures got involved with Maximum Choppage, the six-part kung-fu comedy currently screening on ABC2. (I should point out that Matchbox Pictures is also producing the screen adaptation of my memoir, The Family Law.) A “sugar-coated pill” is how Ayres describes Maximum Choppage. “The coating of sugar is ‘martial arts comedy’. The pill is ‘Actually, you’re looking at a whole bunch of Asian faces.’”

Still, for Asians in Australia, kung-fu comedy – a genre pioneered by Hong Kong icon Jackie Chan and popularised by Stephen Chow – may be a vexed prospect. Comedies demand caricatures, and caricatures can easily become stereotypes. But Maximum Choppage either spins stereotypes on their head or smashes them. The villainous gang lord has a penchant for Kylie Minogue; the Asian tiger mother is a plucky Segway-riding widow; the real kick-arse martial arts hero of the show is female. “We don’t have any submissive Asian women,” points out Lawrence Leung, who co-wrote and stars in the show. “Often our female characters are the ones rescuing the male characters. There are male characters who are cowardly and can’t actually fight. There’s mixed-race romance. The main thing is, in our TV show, there’s not just one Asian character.”

Leung says that the scripts he has come across while working as an actor usually introduce a new character to the scene with a short description of their age, size and some major physical quality in brackets. “The assumption is always that the person is white. Except when it goes, ‘Fifties, portly Asian man.’ When we were writing Maximum Choppage, for once we’d write, ‘Fifties, middle-aged, grey-haired white man,’” Leung laughs. “That was quite fun.”

In Maximum Choppage, Anthony Brandon Wong, who played Roo’s short-lived love interest on Home and Away, is Le Bok, a tyrannical yet weirdly endearing sweatshop boss with terrible facial hair. In his three-decade career, Wong has featured in Hollywood blockbusters like the Matrix sequels and performed Shakespearean and Jacobean theatre. But like most ethnically Asian actors, Wong’s also done his fair share of roles as martial artists, gang leaders, crime lords, acupuncturists and bit-part Chinese restaurateurs in shows where all the leads are white. He remembers the first table read of Maximum Choppage in February 2014. “It was such a special moment. I’d waited my entire life to be in a show as a series regular, where 90% of the cast were Asian. I was looking around the table seeing so many of my colleagues, and we were all playing the leads, as opposed to incidental, ‘Would you like a beer, sir?’-type characters.” Wong even had a sex scene. (“Asian male characters don’t usually have genitals,” he explains.)

Wong says that the US offers much more opportunity than Australia for non-white performers. (He now holds dual citizenship for work.) When he was recently called in to audition for an NBC pilot, his competition included Cuban-American, Caucasian-American and African-American actors. “They would say on the casting brief, ‘Submit all ethnicities.’ They’re explicit. In Los Angeles you can’t even ask an actor what their ethnic background is. You’re not allowed to do that. In a way, it’s a wonderful thing. They might still not give you the role, but you at least get a look-in.”

Anyone who regularly watches American or British TV set in the modern world knows there’s far more ethnic diversity there than in any production here. In the US, major networks and studios employ diversity officers and run programs to ensure a decent mix among directors, producers and actors. In the UK, the BBC has strict diversity guidelines for scripted programs and Channel 4 recently announced that executives will miss out on bonuses if they fail to meet new targets that ensure a certain proportion of leading roles are given to women and non-white performers. Of the prospect of something similar happening in Australia, Ayres says, “‘Quotas’ is such an ugly word. But something like that actually forces people to be aware of their defaults. I sort of feel nothing’s actually going to change unless something like that happens in Australia. There is that default to white here.”

In the meantime, Ayres is setting his own agenda. When developing the ABC3 children’s TV show Nowhere Boys, Ayres made a point of writing one of the four teenage leads as Asian. He created the role with Joel Lok in mind; the young Chinese-Australian actor won an IF Award in 2007 for his performance in Ayres’ feature film The Home Song Stories. “He suffered the fate of so many promising young Chinese actors, which is there’s never any work for them.” Ayres’ co-executive producer on Maximum Choppage and frequent collaborator at Matchbox Pictures is fellow Chinese-Australian producer Debbie Lee, and he says that they’ll continue to flex their muscle in this department. “There is a Chinese mafia in Australia now. It’s very small, but it’s there.”

Benjamin Law

Benjamin Law is the author of The Family Law and the Quarterly Essay Moral Panic 101: Equality, Acceptance and the Safe Schools Scandal. He also co-hosts Stop Everything on ABC RN.

@mrbenjaminlaw

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