Here are the cold hard numbers from Middle Earth:
• Almost 12% of New Zealand's population is Asian.
• Over 25% of Auckland, NZ's most populous city where we live, is Asian.
• Only 1% of our TV producers, 2% of our TV directors and 4% of our TV writers identify as Asian.
• We make decent volumes of local film and TV, but we hardly ever see Asian actors on screen, and when we do, they're young female Asians.
If Alan Yang's Emmy wish comes true, and a couple Kiwi Asian parents hand their kids cameras instead of violins, do we really have to wait a generation to get our Fresh Off the Boat?
Don't get me wrong -- I am not averse to hard work. I'm your typical over-achieving child of Hong Kong immigrants. I'm that kid who was so good at sitting exams, I was at Grade 8 piano, a 'Mathlete' and triple-time speech competition winner by 14. I got valedictorian and was in medical school before I even knew what to do with myself. I remember the day my sisters sat me down to tell me that choosing medicine because "what else am I gonna do" wasn't any good reason at all. Why did I listen to them and trade in my 'Doctor Liang' for a Bachelor of Arts Film major?
Flash forward to the other night, when I came home from another 12-hour day on set and said hi to my mum who was helping with my kids' bedtime. My mum looked me up and down -- no hello -- and said witheringly "You look terrible." Later, unable to hold my tongue, I confronted her about her cavalier put-down, in front of my daughter no less. She shot back "You do look terrible. Your skin is bad and you have bags under your eyes. You're not here for your kids' bedtime. I don't know why you work so hard for this -- whatever it is you're working on." I looked at her face, and realised she wasn't saying "I am disappointed in your career choices and parenting," the way I always think she is. She was actually worried about me. She just didn't get why I needed to work so hard for so little quantifiable return.
Mum if you're reading, the return is this: we get to see ourselves on screen. People who look like and feel like us, get to see themselves on screen. People who are curious about us, get to know more about us from the inside. The big question is: is it worth it?
Our comedy webseries is out this week on YouTube, called Friday Night Bites. It's fun and irreverent, and quality and rude. The lovely lads at Wong Fu Productions collabed on our premiere episode, "5D Chat Roulette." Please subscribe. I'm joking. No, but really. Please subscribe. Each of our 26 weekly episodes follows an eclectic Friday night in the lives of three Kiwi-Asian women who flat together in Auckland, New Zealand. We make subversive comedy about issues big and small, from rape culture to quantum entanglement, to the dating troubles of Asian boys in Auckland.
This whole thing started four years ago when actors JJ, Perlina and Ally got kinda disillusioned by the audition rooms of New Zealand, and asked me to write them something they could really get behind; the kind of writing where they didn't have to play prostitutes or inscrutable shrews. The result was Flat3 -- a three-season, 19-episode comedy webseries about the life-hacks and hijinks of three 20-something Auckland flatmates. We were described by reviewers as "Girls meets Flight of the Conchords, with a touch of Bridget Jones' Diary." Flat3 grew a passionate following, tickled us to our absurdist sexually progressive cores, and cemented our friendship fo eva.
It's pretty great, when a country has a public funding body called New Zealand on Air, dedicated to funding New Zealand stories for the small screen. It's even greater that they have a digital fund dedicated to showcasing niche and diverse voices -- content that might not make it to primetime network television.
And yet, for all support and buzz we thought we had generated, our numbers were very modest. The self-doubt set in. Were we not good enough? Were we good enough, but no one could find us? Could no one find us, or maybe they found us but we weren't appealing enough?
In New Zealand at least, it seems like our efforts to create diverse scripted content has been met with a niche few saying "we love it, keep going," and the rest saying "never heard of it." It wouldn't be so bad if there were other Kiwi shows like us. But there aren't. We're the first and so far only production company in NZ to create a scripted, funded show that's more than 5% Asian.
Asian diversity on screen is harder than simply casting Asian faces. I remember one of New Zealand's most prolific (white) screenwriters telling me that while of course she supported diversity, she never wrote roles for older Asians or male Asians because she knew the pool of actors out there, and she knew their limitations.
I mean, what the hell kinda screwed-up logic is that? The less Asian actors are cast, the less experienced they will be. The less experienced they are, the less writers will write roles for them because they 'know who's out there.' The less writers write roles for Asian actors, the less Asian actors are cast -- and so on until we have the situation like the one we have now in local primetime programming, where you couldn't even half-wet your whistle playing a 'spot the young Asian female on Kiwi TV' drinking game, let alone any other kind of Asian.
For the record, we were as guilty of the 'noone to cast' death-spiral-of-diversity as our white compadres. When the second season of Flat3 showed at San Francisco's CAAMFest, an audience member stood up and politely asked why all our male love interests were white. The reason was that we had very little money, we just used our male actor mates who happened to be white... and embarrassingly, we simply hadn't thought about it.
From then on, we worked harder on casting diverse. This season of Friday Night Bites, we had an episode called 'Art' with a guest role for a wheelchair user. We argued for ages about whether to cast a brown guy pretending to be a wheelchair user, or a white guy who was an actual wheelchair user. We got into the dangerous game of which 'diverse' trumps another kind of 'diverse'-skin colour, or disability? In the end, we cast the actual wheelchair user, who told us point blank that he wasn't an actor. We cast him anyway. You be the judge.
Talking about diversity is easy. Practicing diversity is hard. You might get a few wobbly performances. You might have to spend longer developing the talent. There are a few good Asian actors out there, compared to a legion of good white and brown actors. If more production companies placed an emphasis on casting diverse, imagine how rich and varied a legion we could grow!
We make this silly, fun, sex-positive, thoughtful diverse comedy because we need it. If we don't do it, we don't know who else will. We work hard and worry our mothers, because they taught us about focus and work ethic and not quitting. We just want four things-to be good, to see ourselves on screen, for people of all walks of life to watch us and relate, and for our work to be sustainable. That's it. That's all.
Alan Yang is right. We've got a long way to go. It's going to take a lot of hard work. I know it'll happen. I just wish there was some kind of exam we could ace to get there, now.
Roseanne Liang is a screenwriter and director who enjoys the cut and thrust of genre, gender and culture. She's made short films (Take3), documentaries (Banana in a Nutshell) a feature film (My Wedding and Other Secrets) and award-winning comedy webseries (Flat3). When she grows up she wants to be Ang Lee and Justin Lin and Ali Wong.