Asians in the media: Why our stories matter

As Asian stories and voices continue to be whitewashed, Natalie Ng has taken a stand to do right by Asian storytellers. Read her story. 

Collage created by Natalie Ng

Growing up in Singapore, I was always encouraged to read as a child by my mother. She gave me books written by female writers like Jane Eyre and Little Women growing up, and also Chinese books about famous women in Chinese history. Naturally I wanted to be a storyteller, I just didn’t know how.

When I transferred my love of stories on the page to those told on screen, 1998’s Mulan was my first theatre experience and it remains one of my favourite films to this day. Mulan felt special — here you had an animated Disney film built around Chinese lore with Chinese names and Chinese characters. That was significant to me because growing up, most of the faces I saw in the media, and the stories I read in books, were of white people. Girls going on adventures in magical wardrobes? White. A school for witches and wizards? Mostly white. They were all always predominately white. Because of this, the stories I created as a child were all about white girls.

Stories about Asian people shouldn’t be confined to the language or country of their origin, I thought, and these stories didn’t solve the problem of representation…

I thought about what white-sounding name I wanted to publish my name under and created stories about the exciting lives the blonde hair and blue eyed characters would lead; stories that had nothing to do with who I was. For many years, it would remain that way. It seemed so innocent at the time but looking back, I now see that this was an internalised understanding that no one would be interested in a story about a Chinese girl, much less a book written by one. That kind of erasure of myself in my own stories would not strike me as deeply until much later on.

As I got older, I became frustrated with the saturation of Western media in Singapore. Unlike many other Asian countries, Singapore didn’t produce much of its own content, even now, and instead borrowed heavily from what it could get from the West. While I did discover a love for Old Hollywood cinema, I was still upset as a teenager by the West’s dominance and influence on my television and cinema screens. I began to seek out Asian dramas and cinema as a means of seeing stories about people who looked like me but it wasn’t enough. Stories about Asian people shouldn’t be confined to the language or country of their origin, I thought, and these stories didn’t solve the problem of representation; they may even add to it.

Mulan

Disney’s Mulan, one of my favourite films of all time.

When asked about the recent whitewashing controversy of Ghost in the Shell, Japanese people saw no problem in the casting of Scarlett Johansson in the lead role of that film. But for the Japanese, and other Asians in countries that actively produce their own media, there is a level of privilege they might not acknowledge that the rest of the Asian diaspora do not have. This is because they have never had to feel the effects of being erased in the media because their media is already so active in producing content for them, by them.

In moving to Australia for my university education, I quickly identified with the struggle of being Asian in a white dominant country. In discussions of race and race portrayal in media, Asians were somehow always erased from the conversation, and it was always restricted to very binary, very black and white terms. It is only in recent years that there has been a backlash to the cultural erasure of Asian people.

Western media was telling me that my stories didn’t matter but like Mulan, I wanted to fight against this oppression.

Now here we are in 2017, with news of a live-action adaptation of my favourite movie, Mulan, on the way courtesy of Disney. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it too has been mired in controversy. From a leaked early script of the film which involved the inclusion of a white man who agrees to help Mulan save China after falling in love with her to white New Zealand director Niki Caro calling her vision of the film a “girly martial arts extravaganza“, it seems that not even Mulan — a film that resonated with the Asian diaspora — is safe from the erasure of Asian stories.

As I pondered this issue over the past year, I thought about ways in which I could try and help make a difference. Western media was telling me that my stories didn’t matter but like Mulan, I wanted to fight against this oppression.

So I did.

My graduate project: Tales of Love & Magic. A collection of ancient Chinese folklore retold and illustrated by me. | Photo: Natalie Ng

I began rediscovering the Asian women who influenced me with their writing, authors like Adeline Yen Mah and Amy Tan. Now, they were joined by current writers I admire, like Alice Pung and Marjorie Liu, Asian Australian and American women proudly making their voices heard in a predominantly white landscape. They gave me hope that a Singaporean-Chinese girl like me could write a story in my own name someday and that people would read it.

In response to Disney’s own saturation of European stories, I embraced my Chinese heritage and chose to focus my graduate design project around Chinese folktakes told through my Singaporean-born female point of view. Choosing to write for Meld and for the Melbourne-based Asian cinema website, Filmed in Ether, were also all part of my decision to properly tell the stories of ‘the lesser seen’ or those who’ve had their stories erased in the media.

I believe that everyone who feels marginalised or underrepresented in the media should raise their voices for what they believe is right.

Asian American actor Jenapher Zhang, in an interview with The Huffington Post regarding Netflix’s Death Note producer Masi Oka’s claim that there were no Asian American actors to fill the lead roles, advised the Asian diaspora to “tell the story of your experience in the way that only you know how”.

“Call out injustice when you can, and support your community as much as possible. Make it a priority to advocate for representation, because your voice matters,” she said.

It will always be still a struggle to get representation at all, much less proper representation of Asian people in the media, but like Jenapher says, I will keep telling my story and advocate for representation. I believe that everyone who feels marginalised or underrepresented in the media should raise their voices for what they believe is right. I have a limited amount of time and money and no longer wish to give it to films or shows that feature all-white casts. Instead, I want to give my time and money to projects that are created by or feature Asian people and diverse perspectives.

The most important thing is to actively support the creation and the work of diverse stories so that they may keep being told. Our stories do matter. So keep telling them, no matter what.

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