Brother and sister duo Benjamin and Michelle Law divulge real-life experiences and expectations of growing up Chinese in Australia in this conversation with 666ABC local radio's Andrea Ho.
Benjamin Law is the author of two books—The Family Law (2010) and Gaysia: Adventures in the Queer East (2012)—and the co-author of the comedy book Shit Asian Mothers Say (2014) with his sister Michelle and illustrator Oslo Davis. The Family Law has been translated into French and is currently being developed for television. Gaysia was published in India in 2013 and North America in 2014. Both of his books have been nominated for Australian Book Industry Awards, and he is now working on his next.
Michelle Law is a freelance writer based in Brisbane, Australia. She writes for magazines, journals, newspapers, film and television. She is the co-author of the comedy book, Sh*t Asian Mothers Say, and has had her work anthologised in books like Women of Letters and Destroying the Joint. Some of the places she’s written for include the Sydney Morning Herald, Daily Life, frankie magazine, and the Griffith Review. As a screenwriter, she has received an Australian Writer’s Guild AWGIE award for her interactive media work, and had her films screened on the ABC and at film festivals locally and abroad. She is currently working on her first stage play with La Boite Theatre Company. In her spare time, Michelle works as a bookseller and tends to a very aggressive tropical fish. (Just the one – it’s eaten all of the others.)
Transcript for Growing up Chinese in Australia
Speakers: Alex Philp (P), Andrea Ho (H), Ben Law (B), Michelle Law (M)
Location: National Library of Australia
P: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the National Library. My name’s Alex Philp, I’m the Director of Overseas Collections Management here at the Library and it’s my absolute pleasure to welcome you all here today. As we begin I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land. I thank their elders past and present for caring for this land we are now privileged to call home.
This weekend is our first Experience China weekend, where we explore Chinese culture, cuisine, art, landscape and architecture and the Chinese diaspora as part of our public programming for the wonderful exhibition upstairs, Celestial Empire: Life in China, 1644 to 1911. Celestial Empire and its public programs would not be possible without the support of a tremendous group of partners. It’s been an extraordinary collaboration between government, commercial partners and individual donors. First and foremost I’d like to thank the National Library of China for sharing its extraordinary collection with us and with you. I hope we will ... I hope you’ll all take the opportunity to visit the exhibition this afternoon and many more times before the 22nd of May. I’d like to thank our partners, Shell in Australia, the Seven Network, Wander One, Optus Singtel, Huawei, Cathay Pacific, TFE Hotels and our event partners, the ANU Centre for China and the World, and the Asia Society Australia for their generosity. I think our government partners, the Australian Government for support through the National Collecting Institutions Touring Outreach Program and the Australia China Council, and the ACT Government through Visit Canberra.
Importantly I’d like to thank all of you for coming along this afternoon to hear Michelle Law and Benjamin Law. No doubt some of you will already feel like you know them from their onscreen counterparts in The Family Law or perhaps from reading Ben’s book of the same name which this series is based on. Some of you may have read a bit more about Michelle in the Q&A on the Library’s blog last week. This afternoon Ben and Michelle will share personal experiences and stories from growing up in a Chinese family in Australia. Ben and Michelle are both prolific writers and their work ranges from journalism and scholarly articles to nonfiction books and screenwriting. Their words carry power beyond the page, inspiring laughter and tears, drawing us into a sense of understanding and familiarity, creating bonds through universally shared experiences and emotions.
Michelle’s writing crosses both fiction and nonfiction, centreing on themes of identity, gender and race. She’s been published in anthologies, Women of Letters, Destroying the Joint and Growing up Asian in Australia as well as in other publications including The Griffith Review, the Lifted Brow and Meanjin. She received an Australian Writers’ Guild AWGIE Award for her interactive media work and her films have been screened on the ABC and at local and international film festivals. She’s a well-known speaker on social issues. Her TEDx SouthBank Women’s talk, A Bald Woman’s Guide to Survival, has been viewed over 30,000 times on YouTube. At the moment, she’s working with La Boite Theatre Company on her first stage play.
As I mentioned earlier, Ben’s book, The Family Law, published in 2010, has been adapted for television and has begun screening on SBS to a thunderously positive response. Both The Family Law and his second book, Gaysia: Adventures in the Queer East have been nominated for Australian Book Industry Awards. Like Michelle, he’s contributed to one of the Women of Letters anthologies and readers of Good Weekend, Frankie magazine and The Monthly will be familiar with his work. Ben and Michelle have also contributed on a ... sorry, collaborated on a book, the 2014 comedy, Sh*t Asian Mothers Say. And if my mum was here I hope she’d forgive me.
Joining them in conversation this afternoon is Andrea Ho, the Editorial and Operational Manager for 666 ABC Canberra local radio. Andrea has been working in radio all over Australia for more than 20 years, having been bitten by the radio bug as a student. In 2015 she was awarded a fellowship with the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust which she will use to investigate practical strategies for improving cultural diversity in broadcast media. Please welcome to the stage Andrea Ho, Benjamin Law and Michelle Law.
H: Gee, it really is quite an audience today, thank you to so many Canberrans for turning out to see Michelle and Ben today for the talk. And it’s actually been lovely to catch up with them prior to us sitting down so I have a little list of questions prepared but really I think we’re going to have quite a free-flowing conversation this afternoon and towards the end we’ll have the opportunity as well for you to ask several questions if you would like. I don’t know, maybe we’ll answer everything or maybe we’ll just talk on for so long you’ll all be rushing for the door or something along those lines but anyway I do encourage you to think of some things that you’d like to ask based on our conversation today or what you might have seen in The Family Law or what you might have read in any number of the books or articles because it’s a rare opportunity to actually have a bit of an insight into anyone’s personal life let alone the life of people growing up situated between several cultures I think but that’s increasingly a part of our lives in Australia so take the opportunity to gain a bit of understanding with two people who are incredibly open and frank and very funny to boot. Apparently nothing is off limits except for comments, questions is what we’re after so take your 45 minutes to have a bit of a think and we’ll go from there.
Michelle and Ben, I think it’s quite tempting to ask what was like to grow up in a Chinese family in Australia but looking at your published work and looking at The Family Law I actually think that it’s been more about you growing up in Australia of which being Chinese is a part and then the rest of it is actually about growing up so what are your reflections on growing up as Australians?
B: Well it’s funny you know when we were growing up we were in coastal Queensland. This is Sunshine Coast, about an hour and a half north of Brisbane and I always do question the logic of my parents, neither of whom can swim, moving to a place with frankly murderous beaches surrounding us constantly but that’s where they moved and at the time you know the Sunshine Coast then and even still now to a certain extent was quite monocultural as well. They were one of a handful of Chinese Australian or Asian fam ... Asian Australian couples there at the time and then they did what migrants did so well which is to breed and they had five of us in quick succession and we ... I think we had a really Australian upbringing ...
B: ... that was flavoured with of course Chinese culture as well and I think you know growing up you’d be asked do you feel more Australian? Do you feel more Chinese? And it’s something that I think a lot of us probably in this room have wrestled with or been asked or confronted with like what part of your identity do you identify with more? And as I’ve grown up I’ve realised well actually I identify with them equally and just as everyone in this room can probably identify with being a colleague and a mother and you know someone who is a part of their book club and you know who’s a sister or all of those things we don’t have any stresses in terms of managing those different aspects of our identity and I don’t think I necessarily did to a huge extent but maybe that’s because there were power in numbers.
B: There are a lot of us.
M: Well to be honest Ben and I are really just a pair of bogans.
B: Pretty much.
M: Especially growing up in Queensland. It think that really sort of magnifies or ...
B: Queensland, mate.
M: Queensland. That really magnified the Australianness.
H: Sorry if you’re a Queenslander.
M: I really loved growing up in Australia. You know you had that sort of wild freeness and that connection to the landscape and you really do take things like beaches and all these natural wonders for granted. And it’s ...
B: Mm, even though that scared us.
M: ... it’s such a free environment to grow up in and it’s so beautiful, it ... and I guess you know the ... our Chinese heritage was something that sort of complemented that as well.
H: Was there ever a point at which you realised that you were different because when you grow up in your own family ... and this is the case for all of us ... before you actually socialise to the rest of the world you know your family is your microcosm and it’s only when you go outside the home and start to meet other people that you realise that your family’s not the same as the one down the road and so on.
H: Is that a point at which you started to think about your Chineseness?
M: Mm, I think growing up on the Sunshine Coast, that was quite confronting at times.
H: In what way?
M: It being quite a monoculture and we were one of the sort of very few Chinese families on the Sunshine Coast at the time.
B: Yeah, you’d be looked at sometimes.
B: I mean I recently went back there and I saw my first woman in a hijab and I’m like oh my god, what is this like for you? Because I remember what it was like for us in the 1990s and poor you. And so yeah, it’s ...
H: What did you notice? What stood out?
B: Oh well you know like ... I was actually having this conversation with a friend the other day and she was saying that you know were there periods growing up ... because she’s Asian Australian as well and were there periods growing up where you just sort of forgot that you were Chinese? And I totally got what she was talking about but I don’t think you ever forget that you’re Chinese because you look in the mirror and there’s your face. It’s not ...
M: And it’s also because ...
H: But you don’t look in the mirror all day, do you?
B: Yes but I think what she was talking about is something that I identify with which is did you ever forget that you were different? That’s the thing that she was getting at and totally, I forgot all the time but I think it changed because you know 1980s, difference is really cool. I started going to school in 1988 so World Expo in Brisbane, multiculturalism was really awesome so that was almost a part of my popularity, I reckon, my difference. And then ... I’m just saying, I’m just say ...
M: Just claiming it.
B: I’m just claiming it. But then it turned then it turned so then 1990s was Hansonism in Queensland you know she was strong in our state and ...
M: And our neighbours were big Hanson supporters.
B: Oh our neighbours like ...
H: How did that play out for you?
B: Do you remember the One Nation fans rocking up at school because our parent ... like the kids’ parents were ... not our parents ... the kids’ parents were rocking up in One Nation vans because they were running for candidacy as well, it was like well this is uncomfortable.
M: I think I blocked that out of my memory. But I don’t think I ... I didn’t have that sort of blissful period that you did, I have of the difference being ...
M: ... you know of a point of popularity. I think because I was born in 1990 and I was sort of born into this hot bed of controversy with you know One Nation and things and I just always remember being different and it was often other people pointing it out to me or just the looks that you’d get if you were talking to your siblings at the shops and they’d be like oh my god you know they have Australian accents, they were look ... we had this in joke where it’s when you get one of those looks it’s like they’ve seen a talking fish.
B: It’s a talking fish.
M: So we’ll often be in a regional town and get these looks and just look at each other and be like ‘it’s a talking fish’.
H: So you get the looks. This is just a little bit of an insight I think into what a person’s life is like so you get these looks, right, or people make these comments to you. You were born in Australia. I mean this is your country. How do you react to someone who does that to you?
M: I usually up the ante on the bogan accent. Get really ocker. But it’s ... it’s often just a sense of it reinforces that solidarity you have with your siblings and other people who are other and you have that sort of reinforced connection with them.
B: I get really friendly because it’s kind of strange because I give them the benefit of the doubt because I tend to look at people as well, like Michelle knows that if I’m looking at someone ...
M: He is.
B: ... I’m not subtle about it. Like whether I’m interested or whether I find them attractive I’m kind of like that and you know sometimes it’s just out of like wow, I’m really interested. Like, I’m gay myself but when I was growing up, like, say even in Brisbane, and there was like a gay couple holding hands I would look at them because I’m like wow, that’s really interesting so it doesn’t always come from a place of malevolence or anything like that. So even today at the airport when I was coming in here there was you know a senior gent, white Australian dude and he was looking over, he was really fascinated by how fast I was typing and he was looking over and he looked at me and he’s just like is that in English? And I’m like ... because you know his vision wasn’t great, maybe he saw Hiragana characters rather than English characters and I’m l like yes, it is and I became really nice because in those moments whether you like it or not you suddenly realise you as this single person are suddenly an ambassador for your entire race and you’d better be on really good behaviour.
H: Makes you want to ask you know what are the things that we need to clear up now for our audience? For example you both have western names, I have a western name, your parents each have a western name. That was common in Australia for Asian people in the ‘60s and the ‘70s and the ‘80s but it’s actually not very common now, people have the names that they have, their Asian names.
B: Were you given a Chinese name? Because your dad’s Chinese. Were you given a Chinese name as well?
H: I have, it’s my middle name so I’m Quon Ye.
B: Same with us.
H: Same as you guys?
B: So I’m Yok Nam and this is ..
M: I’m Mun Ye.
B: You see the real us now.
H: They say these with such nice Cantonese accents, I ... my Cantonese ... well I don’t have any Cantonese, it’s horrible so that’s ...
B: Oh so is ours, so is ours.
H: But what do you think about that? How much culture meshing is okay? What should work in Australia? Should we learn people’s actual names and just stick with them or should we go by Benjamin and Michelle and Andrea because that’s a way of fitting into broader Australian Anglo culture. I mean I don’t know if there’s a right or wrong but what are your thoughts about that?
M: There was a really interesting article the other day. I’m pretty sure you would have read it or seen it around where they were talking about the idea of removing names from job applications ...
B: Oh yeah.
M: ... and that has been a big thing for me like when I apply for a rental I won’t put my middle name down because there is the danger that they’ll think I’m an international student and not want to give me a property.
H: And when you say danger what do you mean by danger? Literally that you won’t get property or ..?
M: Ah there is you know the quest ... you might meet the landlord and there’s often that surprise that they have that you’re ...
B: The talking fish.
M: Yes, the talking fish. It’s the danger of them not you know not being ... you not being dependable or them ... or you being foreign and them not being able to trust you so you sort of want to remove that and the same sort of thing applies to the job applications where you know employers are missing out on these employees who have incredible credentials but they’re just being completely overlooked because of just face value discrimination.
B: Yeah. And this isn’t paranoia by the way like you guys might have read this study where it’s done in Australia every few years and they send out resumes to different companies throughout the country and it’s exactly the same resume and then you’ve got distinctly Anglo names on some of them, you’ve got distinctly Asian names on some of them and distinctly ... I don’t know what you call it like ...
H: Arab names.
B: ... Arab names on some of them as well and you know if you’re Hussein or Chang you do get significantly less bites even with the same CV and that’s fascinating because I doubt any of those people recruiting people for jobs or say landlords or whoever would say that they’re racist and I don’t ... I wouldn’t think they are as well but there are these subliminal prejudices that we don’t address and we’re not aware of. All of us, all of us absolutely so I think you’re completely right with that sort of stuff because we’re kind of lucky because our last name’s law like if you didn’t mean us we could be related to Jude Law, for instance. Which I maintain I am.
H: Well you’re equally as cool as each other ...
B: Thank you.
H: ... so you know you’re halfway there, I suppose. Ho is slightly harder but anyway you know we get there. But I guess it brings us towards our portrayal of Australians in things like mass media and you both work in the media and in all of the different mediums you know you write, you’re working in theatre, television and so on. What I think is interesting is that what you’ve done instead of having a broad commentary on this stuff, you’ve plumbed your family history.
B: Oh yeah.
H: Now if there I think is an area of significant danger for any writer ... as well as opportunity but significant danger it must be plumbing your family history. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen it done quite as thoroughly as in The Family Law. And for those of you who have not read the book and you’re ... have a little bit of an issue with profanity ... I feel like I’m doing the ABC thing here now ... I recommend that you watch the television series. The profanity is absent and that might make it a little bit more palatable. For those of you who love your profanity get right into the book because it’s very funny.
B: It’s profane.
H: And very rude. But the things that you’ve written about your family I’ve never seen anybody write about anybody close to them. I’m amazed that you’re talking to each other, I'm amazed that your mother is still talking to you. Why did you decide to tell such honest and frank things about your family? It seems very un-Asian in a way.
M: Yeah well I guess in many ways our parents are very un-Asian in the same sense in that they’re also incredibly Asian you know our dad worked seven days in a Chinese restaurant and then a Thai restaurant.
B: He’s eaten dog before.
M: And our mum can be quite superstitious and traditional but then on the flipside you know she’s never been a tiger mum, she’s ... most of us are in the arts. She’s very supportive of ...
H: Very shameful.
M: ... everything ... very shameful ... she’s very supportive. But for me I guess writing about the family has never been a conscious decision, I think for me it’s probably just long-term therapy. So I guess I ... for me I fell into writing not as a career choice, because we all know there’s no money in it, it’s ... for me it’s you know a form of catharsis and connection and I guess for me personally growing up feeling quite isolated and disconnected from people it just was a natural thing for me to turn to. And to write about family was ... I ... for me writing is just a way to more clearly articulate things in my own mind and explain things to myself. So things that I’ve grappled with in my own life, to write about them is sort of a way for me to cope with them. Yeah.
B: And I think look, if you’ve read the book, if you’ve seen the show, if you’ve actually met our mother in real life you’ll have an understanding that her sense of boundaries is like several hundred kilometres west of Wrongtown and so she’s always been like really open and I think ... I don’t think that’s a ... necessarily a Chinese trait, whatever you know white trait, Chinese trait, we’re always making these distinctions and I don’t think it’s about that anyway. But I think it’s just her you know she’s always been super-open. Maybe it’s do with having five kids, there's no mystery anymore about anything and she’s always been super-encouraging and I think as time goes on as well like both you and I in our own writing get a sense of the boundaries that we don’t want to push like because our family has such broad boundaries in terms of discussing family issues and bodily issues and all that sort of stuff we know that where ... the territory we don’t want to tread. The Family Law for instance, a lot for the content of that book is written about you know me as a young kid you know or a teenager and that’s way in my past and I feel like I can write about that safely because I kind of know where I stand on that and enough time has passed that the tragedy is now comedy. You know what I mean? And so I feel that’s quite safe to write about because the stories that you know we tell in our family constantly, constantly, constantly and it gets translated into myth and legend anyway which is why I feel more comfortable writing it and I think our family tends to forgive us quite a bit.
H: Well I’m glad they forgive but ... because I was going to ask what do your family think about these deeply personal observations that you’re sharing about siblings and about parents?
M: Well ...
H: How do they feel about that?
M: I remember when Ben’s book first came out and Dad was really quite ... I can remember Ben was quite nervous about Dad’s reaction and he was quite philosophical about it and said that you know I’m not going to read it.
B: He was too busy, he was too busy ...
M: Was too busy, was working seven days a week ...
B: ... he was managing a restaurant.
M: .. 365 days a year but he said look, I’m not going to read it but you know I know that audiences are smart enough to know that it is one person’s perspective and it’s one person’s truth and if it makes you happy to write about that and it gives you comfort then I’m happy for you.
H: At a professional level what do you get out of ... what does a reader get out of a memoir written by a young man about his boyhood?
B: I don’t know, you guys tell me. No, look, it’s ... when I wrote my book, when I wrote my first book, it’s not like I ... I don’t think I was even aware of what I was writing or why I was writing it all at the time. I just thought they were really funny stories and I think it was like a really great chance for me to reflect on our family’s history and what it all meant. It was actually a really good opportunity for me to fill in some gaps because if you ... all of us know to some extent what our family history is but if you sit down and write it and it’s like this is what actually happened you start realising very quickly there are huge gaps in your knowledge, there are huge gaps in logic as well like why would they do that if that happened? Blah, blah, blah and so you know my background is feature journalism so I actually just got to sit down with my family and interview them like a journalist and I’m like oh my god, I didn’t know all that history so part of it was curiosity which is why I wrote the book but you know in terms of what readers got out of it in end because you know just before the book came out I was quite worried that my publishers had made a mistake ... I think all authors go through this because you know it’s a book about growing up gay and Chinese in the 1990s in coastal Queensland as your mar ... as your parents’ marriage falls apart. You know it’s not the classic Australian story exactly. I just thought I was ...
H: The classic Tim Winton.
B: Exactly, exactly. Rebecca Gibney will star in it, yeah. And I just thought oh it’s a bit obscure, I don’t know really who will identify with it and then in the end you know we found ... as I think you found with your writing as well like people identified with it for different reasons, people identified with it because they were Chinese or Asian Australian, people identified it with ... because they’d grown up in Queensland or they got all the ‘90s references or their family was huge, sprawling and inappropriate or their parents’ marriage had combusted at a very young age and then I realised you know it’s not so much about ethnicity or it’s not so much about my family, it’s about ... it’s about all of our reading experiences. When you read a novel or a book or a memoir and that family experience or that person’s experience is completely alien to yours and yet it still resonates for this reason and that reason and that reason. People have gotten things out of it that I could never have anticipated.
H: Writing is one thing and television as a medium is an entirely different thing. I’m ... actually I’m just curious, how many of you have seen The Family Law on SBS?
B: Just raise your head even if you haven’t.
H: That’s a good rate within the audience, that’s pretty high. What was it like for you guys ... there’s a nice ... if you haven’t seen it go and have a look at the SBS website, it’s quite interesting. There’s lovely little video vignettes of different parts of the making of and it’s a .. there’re actually some quite nice ones including a sequence where you are on set doing the shoot for the very first episode which I don’t know whether you saw it. Just in the very start of the program there’s a little cameo when they’re in the restaurant and having Ben’s birthday cake and there’s a pan of the restaurant and over in the corner there’s the family all singing the Chinese birthday song and it’s actually you and your family.
B: Yeah, yeah.
H: You actually got to show us what it was like meeting the actors who played you. What did that feel like?
H: What was it like seeing your life represented on the screen by other people?
M: Oh it was a lot of fun. The girl who plays me, Vivienne, she’s 10 years old in real life, maybe 11 now and she’s just really, really sweet ...
B: She’s gorgeous.
M: ... and like me at that age very disgusting. And she just got the character of Michelle as a 10 year old straight away and she ... it was funny the similarities we had ‘cause when I was growing up I had guinea pigs and she had guinea pigs and there was just a lot for us to bond over and she was very sweet and very open with me and the first thing she asked me when she met me was when you were small were you disgusting? I’m like I like this kid.
B: It’s a pretty nerve-wracking thing. I mean it’s a sociopathic exercise to write a book about your family and it’s a psychopathic exercise to write a show based on that book and I think it’s just like another level to have to be involved in the process where now people are cast as your family as well so I don’t know if I’ve even talked to you about this but like on the day, on the day I was ... I was pretty anxious you know because you do have to ... like to work on a TV show you’re so busy that often you don’t even get to step back and question even what you’re doing and then the day arrives when I’m like okay, I’m having a slight out of body experience because my real family’s just about to come on set where these people are playing us and they’re using our real names. It’s like I’ve wondered on the set of Being John Malkovich, it’s really weird and ... and so ... but I couldn’t show that anxiety because I didn’t want my family to be anxious and I didn’t want the actors to be anxious because I knew for them it would be a really strange thing as well because they’re playing and studying these characters. They’re inspired by people in real life as well, what does that do to your brain as an actor to actually meet them as well?
And so then they met and it was actually the most joy ... it was like one of the funnest, happiest days of my li ... of my life. It was ... it really was and I know that sounds so sickeningly syrupy but it was kind of joyous to see everyone have like a mini me version of themselves. And because they’re significantly younger than all of us, my parents included, you felt quite ... sort of protective of them like you’ve got this like really adorable 10 year old on set and I’ve got like Tristan Goh who’s just like magnificent as Benjamin Law as well. And my parents were even on set prior to that day because they were helping the actors with their Cantonese slang and pronunciation so they actually came on board as kind of consultants at one stage too.
H: You couldn’t help with that.
B: I could not help with that, no, no.
H: Yeah, the language kind of goes after a bit. In the business of theatre-writing which is something that you’re immersed in at the moment, Michelle, did you ... did it make you think a lot about the manipulation of characters at all? There’s your character you in front of you and you’re now in the business of writing and manipulating these characters.
M: It’s been interesting because I haven’t really noticed up until this point but a lot of my long-form stuff when I was working on a book of essays that I ended up scrapping but now that I’m working on this feature-length play, it always comes back to this idea of mothers and children. And I didn’t realise that was such a big theme for me and then it hit me in the face and I was like this is devastating. But it’s been interesting because now that I’m writing one of the protagonists of the play is this very fierce Australian, very inappropriate Chinese mother and I just realised you know there’s a bit of a blur between fact and fiction and how you know that manipulation of character, you can’t really avoid it in your own work, it does tend to trickle down even though they are heavily fictionalised.
H: Ah it’s interesting, isn’t it? A large part too of the work that you’ve published so far has been comedy and I think it’s interesting that at the moment there’s a large debate that’s been going on for some time about the use of culture and particularly ethnic culture in comedy or in a comedic manner if you like and I mean I know we’ve come a long way from Acropolis Now which was ground-breaking in its time but we wouldn’t make that kind of program today and I think we’re all very thankful that Wogface characters like Con the Fruiterer are part of our very distant past which is terrific, I think, but on the other hand we’ve got programs like Meet the Habibs which is yet to hit the screens so none of us have seen it, we don’t know what that’s going to be like and comedians I think talking about how culture is sometimes not appropriate when ... in certain circumstances. For you in this kind of work where is that line? And should you ever cross it?
B: Well it’s interesting. When we were writing The Family Law we very quickly knew from day one that the show was not about race and that’s not to mean that the characters are emptied of race because that’s impossible, they’re obviously Chinese Australian characters and a lot of their personalities, a lot of their interactions, lot of what they do with their lives are going to be informed by that as are white people, you know. Just as all of us are informed by our cultural backgrounds these people were going to be Chinese Australians but it wasn’t going to be a show about finding your place in the world as a Chinese Australian thing. Even though I love stuff like that like ... and I think that stuff totally has its place, we were going to write a comedy about a marriage breakup ‘cause that’s the funniest thing in the world and ... and so ... and I think a part of that ... and we were very, very lucky in the writer’s room for The Family Law and Michelle was with us in the development stages of the show as well but you know two of our executive producers, Tony Ayres and Debbie Lee, are Chinese Australian as well and they are the Chinese media mafia as we call them and ... and they knew very early on.
I mean even though the book in some ways does explore issue of racial identity and cultural identity and the fact that I can’t speak Cantonese very well and all that sort of stuff we decided that season 1’s arc was going to be about Jenny and Danny and their marriage falling apart at the seams. And as much as those specifics about comedy and how it comes from malapropism and misunderstandings and you know in the latest episode where Jenny said ‘scared out your living shit,’ you know, like that sort of stuff will definitely come into it you know you’ve got the nosy Chinese aunties as well because that was very much a part of our upbringing as well you know especially when my parents were breaking up. You’ve got all of that stuff but at the end ...
M: It’s not the centre of it.
B: It’s not at the centre of ... it’s not the plot, that’s ... that was the difference for us but I don’t think it’s illegitimate for other shows to make race, racial identity, exploring cultural stuff the plot because I think that’s perfectly fine as well and interesting.
M: There’s also the issue that we are aware of and other people have brought up as well as when you do write about culture or you’re coming from a place where you’re writing about culture, there’s the danger of you know pandering to stereotypes or reinforcing them or creating new stereotypes and that was ... we sort of dealt with that a lot with the release of Sh*t Asian Mothers Say which is just a little toilet reading comedy book.
B: Keep it by your toilet, yeah.
M: But you know the thing with stereotypes is they’re born out of truth but they become problems when those stereotypes are the basis of your character or they’re two dimensional or you don’t see them or they’re side characters.
B: Or that’s the only thing about them that you do see like I’ve got a theory about stereotypes because it’s interesting, when The Family Law came out and even when the trailer came up a lot of people were questioning or even accusing the show of are you just creating a whole new suite of stereotypes? I'm like well I’m sorry that my dad worked in a Chinese restaurant but you know like I can’t really change that. I’m sorry that my parents had children, you know, like ...
M: It’s also never an accusation that pops up when you see shows about Anglo Australians.
B: Yeah, it’s just like oh my god, that’s such a stereotypical white person.
M: That’s so white.
B: They’re using sea salt, you know, that sort of stuff. Or they’re listening to Radio National. No, but you know, like all that sort of stuff you do have to manage as well and I think for me a stereotype is not a stereotype when they’re a three-dimensional character who’s convincing and as complex and as three-dimensional and as flawed as anyone that you know. They’re not a stereotype ... when there are other people to compare them to because often you know one ... single characters have to carry the burden of representation because for their entire race because they’re the only non-white character in an entire show for instance so do you see them relate to other people of the same ethnicity and is there contrast and comparison? Is there diversity? So they’re all these things that I think can mitigate those sorts of dangers.
H: Speaking about Sh*t Asian Mothers Say one of the introductory notes ... notice that the introduction seem to go on for pages and pages. Anyway ...
B: Mm, we’re writers
H: There’s a note here that says only Asian people and non-Asian people who intend to give this book to an Asian person are allowed to buy this book. If you aren’t Asian and by not Asian we mean white ... Latinos and black people are Asian in spirit, just go with us here ... and you are purchasing this book to ridicule our proud cultures and mothers we will see you in court. Who’s allowed to make the joke?
M: We were chatting about ...
H: Who is allowed?
M: We were chatting about this earlier and I think it is very much a case of you know you can badmouth your own parents but once someone else says something mean about your mum or your dad you’re just like that’s it, we’re taking you to town.
B: My mum may be a freak and yes, I do hate her in this moment but I will destroy you for badmouthing her you know like it’s ... you’re totally protective and I think the funny thing about that book is you know it’s kind of an in joke amongst our mates who also have Asian parents as well. But the funny thing is when we released it as well because it’s not a novel, it’s not a three-dimensional portrayal of parenthood and all of the horrors and ecstasies that come with it by any means ...
H: It’s every stereotype about Asian mothers.
B: Absolutely, absolutely and I think that’s the pastime we all share with everyone which is taking the piss out of our parents you know and our parents just happen to be Chinese.
H: Well you’re here as one of the feature acts if you like for this excellent exhibition that the National Library has on and I think that it’s also a chance for us then to reflect on culture and I’m wondering whether you can shed a little bit of light for the audience on what Chinese culture actually is because we were having a chat earlier about how we use the word Chinese but it’s a terrible misnomer because it assumes that China is monocultural and if you look at a country the size ... physical size of China it’s much bigger even that Europe and we are quite at home with understanding that Europe has a lot of different cultures and languages and ways of being in the world but when we get to China we just talk about Chinese and that’s it, you know. You do touch a little bit in your book on the differences between say Hong Kong Chinese and Malaysian Singapore Chinese and then we are seeing those differences actually play out in Australia at the moment you know where we’re seeing generations of southern Cantonese Chinse grow older and you’re seeing a much younger wave of Mandarin-speaking Beijingers come to Australia so what can you tell us about Chinese culture that our audience doesn’t necessarily know that we just think that you need to know in order to be able to get by these days?
B: Well because we are the cultural authorities on China let me just tell you.
M: Totally and awesomely.
H: How many languages do you speak? Half a Chinese language?
B: One and a quarter.
M: One and a quarter maybe.
M: We understand Cantonese but just responding to it is very tricky.
B: And Michelle and I, we’re the worst of the five like we speak Cantonese like we’ve been bashed and ... no but what’s really interesting is ... I think you raise a really good point, Andrea, which is I always try to emphasise cultures with an s you know when you talk about indigenous culture, I mean it’s made up of so many indigenous groups and languages as well and similarly with Chinese. I mean I was watching SBS ... cross promotion ... I was watching SBS news the other day ...
H: Not ABC ...
B: ... it was about the threat of Cantonese not becoming like used as much as an official language especially in Hong Kong broadcasting ...
H: What? Really?
B: .. and in Guangzhou and stuff like that. And ... well in Guangdong province generally and it brought up all these facts and figures I did not know like apparently a third of the citizens of mainland China can’t speak Mandarin Chinese you know and that’s because there are so many languages in China, so many home languages in different provinces and stuff that you know the whole enterprise of introducing Mandarin you know the common language nationwide is still an ongoing one so that even surprised me because you know our background is Hong Kong Chinese, Mum was born in Malaysia ... she’s Chinese ... Dad was born in Guangdong province then they met in Hong Kong so even having to explain our trajectory is kind of ... takes a whole as well to ...
H: Chinese people have to do this with each other, that’s right, don’t we?
B: Yeah, exactly, exactly so when people say you know where are you from or where are your parents from we’re just like okay so ...
M: Let me take you back to the beginning of time.
B: Yeah, basically.
M: Where are you from? Well ...
B: Yeah, yeah.
M: But it is a case of cultures within cultures and even just learning from you know our parents who ... our mum quite strongly identifies as being Hong Kongese and even then you know they’ve got their own prejudices and ... she’s incredibly westernised ‘cause Hong Kong was under British rule until quite recently and you know learning about the rivalries between different communities ...
B: Intra-Asian racism is fascinating.
M: You have no idea.
B: Yeah and even ...
M: It’s rife.
B: ... not just racism but discussion about you know the differences between the different groups of Chinese people as well you know because coming from Hong Kong .. I just went there last year and talking to our cousins because Hong Kong’s going through a really interesting period at the moment in terms of their relationship with mainland China and they’re ... and it is a tense one to the point where a lot of Hong Kong Chinese refuse to even label themselves as Chinese nowadays, they see themselves as Hong Kong first and foremost and I'm like that even surprised me you know that’s a new development that I wasn’t aware of so we’re a complex people.
H: It’s true, I mean Chinese people speak about each other like English people speak about French people and vice versa, I mean the divisions can be quite profound, can’t they? So that’s something which is interesting for you to consider when you do have a look at this exhibition, that you’re not looking at a single or monoculture, you’re looking at the product of multiple cultures some of which were very scholarly right down to some of which were very much farming-based, I think. In Australia too now ... that is playing out as well and leads into the way that we think about Chinese people, Asian people in Australia you know we’ve gone from ... we were just discussing the very first Chinese in Australia from several hundred years ago which is when Anglo people came as well you know so you’ve got then the gold rush Chinese, the yellow peril, the Chinese restaurant in every town, most of whom were Cantonese as we know. These days though it does seem to be more about students taking over our schools and rich businessmen buying up our houses and farms and I think you could probably take a certain kind of dialogue from the ‘80s and you could take out Japanese and you could insert the word Chinese and it’ll be pretty much the same. How do you see Chinese and Australian cultures intersecting differently now and where do you think that’s going?
B: Mm, that’s a good question. I mean nowadays I mean ... I'm just going to broaden the conversation because nowadays we’ve got one in 10 Australians have significant Asian heritage so one in 10 Australians are Asian Australian and you know common Chinese surnames always rank within the top 10 in the Australian cities as well so we are becoming one, a very multicultural society. We’ve been multicultural for a long time, by some measures we’re more multicultural than the US, UK and Canada in terms of how many places of origin Australians have as well so we’re incredibly diverse but I still think ... I mean at least within the media, which is the realm that you and I work in ... well that all of us work in ... that is still not quite reflected so I think we’re still at this .. we’re not ... I don’t think we’re at an adolescence with multiculturalism, I think we’re at an adolescence with actually understanding and exporting that image of ourselves elsewhere as well. I mean television’s incredibly wide, radio’s ... even though you don’t hear rad ... I mean you don’t see radio, radio’s incredibly wide as well.
H: We were having that discussion a moment ago.
B: Absolutely. And that’s surprising considering what we look like when we walk down the street, when we’re at the shops, when we’re at friends’ places for dinner. My litmus test for ... because you know someone was saying well how diverse does it have to be? Like if you want TV to be more diverse what does it look like? And I was thinking about that, what is the yardstick? And I think it’s Central Station tunnel in Sydney at peak hour because that is like you are walking through the United Nations and that’s what our cities look like. And increasingly our regions look like as well so I feel like this is an ongoing conversation. I don’t think ... I think for the large part you know that really toxic and frank racism that you do see in parts of Europe for instance is not as much of a problem here, what I think we have a problem with is not acknowledging codified and subtle racism.
We’re really good you know Waleed Aly had this really great op ed about this but we’re really awesome at calling out the unhinged people on public transport having a spray at the non-white person because we can say that’s racism, that’s racism and I stand against that or you know in a lot of those cases those people are quite severely ill as well and ... but I feel like ... like we her talking about with subliminal prejudices and biases racism manifests in so many ways, how does that conversation about real estate prices and buying into the Australian market? Where do we draw the line with where that conversation goes? You know when we talk about oh well the Oscars are so white because maybe there just weren’t many non-white actors who were very good that year. I mean how do we feel about that conversation? And when you start being called out for saying like Australian TV’s too white people do get really defensive and I think we have to ask ourselves why we get defensive and if we do get defensive does that ... is that an indication that there’s a problem?
M: I’m quietly optimistic about it. I’ve had a lot of friends who are working in the screen industry, media industry who always say you know you have to move to the US, it’s so much more diverse, the path is so much more straightforward than in Australia and to a certain extent I do agree. I have been overseas and I’ve seen the differences but part of me is excited to be in Australia because I feel like tides are turning and there is that gradual ... not only a tolerance but this acceptance and understanding of that is what Australia is now and I’m going to be ... and on a crass level, just on the streets like it’s so rare to see a mixed race couple where the man is Asian.
H: Can you imagine how revolutionary my parents were 45 years ago?
M: But that’s changing so much and just ...
B: So you’re saying there’s equal opportunity dating now?
M: There is equal opportunity Tinder.
H: Or Grindr as the case may be.
B: Exactly, exactly.
H: Well it’s ... I’m pleased that you’re doing the work that you’re doing in the media from that perspective because you’re introducing characters who are ordinary people living Australian lives who happen to be Chinese and it’s a part of that diversification, it’s an area I think that we all as media consumers should be concerned about, does what we consume actually reflect what’s going on in Gungahlin or you know at the Canberra Centre on a weekend, the kind of communities that we see?
B: And I think like so much of the positive feedback as much ... like for this TV show for instance because you know it’s the first Asian Australian family on screen at the centre of the show and a lot of the positive feedback has of course come from Asian Australians and especially Chinese Australians but so much of it has been coming from non-Asian Australians because it’s just this relief like oh my god, thank you for breaking the monotony. I mean we’re pretty good with like cooking shows, pretty good with reality shows, talent shows, renovation shows not so much, it’s pretty white. But ...
H: That’s ‘cause Chinese people aren’t very handy, isn’t that right?
B: Yeah, that’s true, that’s true. We like to buy new. But yeah, I think there is that kind of turning point you know tides are starting to change like for instance when I was saying Tony Ayres and Debbie Lee are the executive producers of this show, they’re also the executive producers of Maximum Choppage starring Lawrence Leung which had ...
M: Nowhere Boys.
B: Yeah, Nowhere Boys as well. And also Real Housewives of Melbourne is pretty diverse. That’s made by Matchbox Pictures as well, different crew but still Matchbox Pictures.
M: And a Muslim Australian romantic comedy that’s coming out.
B: First Muslim Australian romcom as well and with something like Nowhere Boys, with something like you know the shows that they’re making like The Family Law, Maximum Choppage, they are driving an agenda because unlike other territories like Canada, the US and UK, there are no diversity mechanisms in Australia whatsoever which is why the work that you’re doing in radio is so interesting, having that discussion, how do we foster diversity in workplaces especially where the media, which is obliged to represent our country back to us, how do we foster that sort of stuff? And without those mechanisms in place it’s just people like Tony and Debbie just saying let’s put an Asian in there like I am not going to make this show unless one of the four leads of this children’s show is non-white, sorry, and I think the more that we have those conversations and be quite frank about how we feel about them, the healthier our media representation will be.
H: Mm, I think so. Well thank you for leading out on that and stay tuned for more work there ...
[End of recording]