News & Commentary, Stage

Sex and the single Asian-Australian

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Melbourne playwright Michele Lee‘s new work Moths is a verbatim piece of theatre about the sex lives of young Asian-Australians, which draws on her interviews with more than 25 people. Lee has created Moths with director Lee Lewis and her cast for the Melbourne Theatre Company’s annual Cybec Electric program of  semi-staged readings of four new work. Moths is at the MTC’s Lawler Studio, Southbank, February 20-21.
Daily Review: What prompted the idea of looking at the sex lives of young Asian Australians as a piece of theatre?
Michele Lee: Sex, young(ish), Asian Australian — these are all things that relate to who I am and are of interest to me, so I mashed them together to see what sort of theatre I might make. I’ve written ‘migrant overcoming adversity’ stories but I’m increasingly less interested in exploring these sorts of stories.
What does the title refer to?
A portraiture work by artist Owen Leong called Birthmark.
What is different about the lives of this part of the community as opposed to young Australians of other heritage?
Broadly speaking, structural power in Australia is largely white and male. So what is different is that if you peer into boardrooms, senior management structures, decision-making bodies, you’re probably not going to see an Asian person or an African person leading. Australian Human Rights commissioner Dr Tim Soutphommasane has written a bit about the bamboo ceiling.
As far as sex/relationships go, I have lost count of the number of times a white man has approached me and singled out my being Asian as a starting point for a conversation. Usually it’s been in the vein of ‘I love all things Asian’ but once I was called a ‘third world rat’ when I declined a conversation with a guy (this was online).
Sometimes the violence behind the attraction is really gross, it makes me think about men in war zones who simultaneously sexualise, dehumanise and demonise the local women. Pretty much every single Asian woman would have some sort of story about being chatted up with the opening line ‘So where are you from?’.
Asian women are fetishised as being ‘ideally’ feminine, submissive but fiery in the sack, with silky skin and silky hair — we don’t threaten a man’s masculinity. African women would have their own stories about being fetishised, and I imagine white women would too when in other countries although I would wonder about whether the power dynamics would really shift.
Straight Asian men, on the other hand, aren’t fetishised the same way. The ideal masculine body type, height, personality, character — as reinforced by popular media —  tends to exclude Asian men. In Western media, you never see Asian men as romantic leads, as heroes. Probably with the exception of John Cho and the romantic plot with Steven Yuen in The Walking Dead.
The dating site OKCupid analyses the racial bias in its hundred of thousands of US dating profiles. As summarised on the Huffington Post last year “If you’re a black man or woman or Asian man, you’re going to have a tougher time getting a date on OKCupid.” I don’t think the situation is that different in Australia.
What surprised you in their responses, or did you share the same reactions in your own experience?
Learning about Christian Asian families. I grew up with animism and shamanism, and at one point my grandfather was Catholic but that was long ago, and probably a watered down village-style of Catholicism. Other Asian people I knew growing up were Buddhist. So interviewing people raised Christian was intriguing because we would have a sense of commonality in being Asian and then the Christian aspect of their upbringing was foreign to me.

‘Moths” playwright Michele Lee

Does the idea of the ‘tiger’ parent apply to their interest in their children’s sex lives too?
I loved Amy Chua’s The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which I think made the term ‘tiger mother’ popular (and heavily contested) in more recent times.
I didn’t relate to everything in her book and I don’t know of many Asian people in Australia who had mothers exactly like her. I think it’s true to say that Asian parents can sacrifice a lot for their kids (and expect reciprocal sacrifice), that they can be strict, don’t let you have sleep-overs, don’t want you dating as a teenager, want you to work towards having a good job etc etc. But a lot of migrant parents don’t have the time or language skills like American-born Amy Chua to develop daily violin and piano tutorials, sit with you through your actual lessons, attend concerts with you in Europe. Amy Chua’s ambitious Yale-educated American side and her type A personality put the bite into her inner tiger. I found her to be very American actually, and not that different from a Dance Mom or Kris Jenner in some respects.
But if ‘tiger’ can equate with ‘strict’ and ‘fierce expectations’ then, yes, the Asian parents’ expectations that you’ll do well in life and that you’ll reflect the reputation of the family does place expectations on individual expression of sexuality.
Is diversity — marriage choice, sexual preference — more embraced by young Asians than other young people?
The short answer is yes. There are straight Asians who marry other straight Asians, there are openly gay Asians, there are Asians in poly relationships, there are celibate Asians, there are Asians who marry/date interracially.
Asian people, particularly in more newly arrived communities, grow up hearing their parents’/aunties’/uncles’/grandparents’/cousins’/siblings’ opinions about virtuous displays of sexuality and marrying within your own community. It’s probably not something an Anglo Aussie person contends with growing up. This does influence diversity of choices but not to the point that everyone is straight, a virgin before marriage and married to another person in their community. The other part of the equation is that we’re growing up in Australia, so we’re also being shaped by the values of the dominant culture too. The research I did for Moths, beyond the interviews, made me much more aware of my internalised racism — I’ve only ever dated white guys.
I didn’t examine closely GLTBI identity in Asian communities. I’ve heard of the term ‘coming in’ to refer to coming out within your own community. So I’d wonder if this double coming out would influence how you embrace your sexual identity.
Did the idea for the play develop first, and then the idea of interviewing people as research for the play?
The original idea for the play was 90% verbatim, which meant I had to interview people, and this 10% sliver of a moths’ motif, which I would make up somehow!
Does that mean Moths is verbatim theatre or do you incorporate your interviewees’ responses into invented characters, scenarios and narrative?
The play is now less about the verbatim and there is much more invented stuff. I do incorporate the verbatim with fictional content. It’s very meta and self-referential now!
Do your interview subjects know they or their stories will be used in the play?
Yes they knew.
Does this create any ethical issues for you? (There was a case of sex workers offended by a Malthouse play last year which was argued appropriated their lives).
Their names, ages, occupations and specific ethnicities get mixed around so the chunks of text I use are pretty unidentifiable. I probably had close to 50 hours of interviews and then had to sift through all these gem pieces of text for what is probably only 20-25 minutes on the stage. So the text is also very fragmented and sparse, as well as being de-identified.
There is one particular bit of extended interview text that I kept in. It’s very graphic, and the two men who spoke these words have come to a previous reading. They felt embarrassed, because it is exposing to hear yourself even though no-one else knows it’s you, and others who’ve heard it have felt entertained, angered, fascinated, uncomfortable. I’ve been asked more than once if I made up that bit because of the way the interviewee speaks. But he really does speak like it’s somewhat scripted and he can be pretty outlandish.
I had some interview text where a man visited a brothel in Thailand. I found this to be a really complex and loaded story, I find it challenging because there’s a part of me that can’t reconcile ethically the act of having sex with sex workers in developing countries. But in the end I took it out. At one point I had wanted the play to talk about experiences of sex and sexuality as middle-class Asian Australians, and sort of sit this next to our responses, encounters, reactions to Asian sex workers who’ve been trafficked to Australia and sometimes worked literally on the streets we had coffees on. I veered away from this partly because the play took a different direction, but I also think it’s a topic that might be better addressed by a more focussed approach.
Do you always research a play with such a thorough interviewing process?
If I’m writing about people or topics that are new to me, I like to interview people as part of the research process. A play I wrote recently about rice, agricultural, India and China led me to interviewing a NGO worker in India, second-generation Indian girls in Australia, a scientist, a farmer, older Chinese women.
Is having facts and real life experiences always good for the imagination or does it inhibit your freedom to come up with your own characters  and stories?
I love it. I find I’m inhibited by my lack of knowledge or knowledge drawn from TV shows or movies, so I like researching and interviewing people often to challenge my own assumptions.
Did the cast and director shape the script with you or have much input?
Yes, definitely, with every workshop. Let me name them too; directors Emma Valente, Gorkem Acargolu and Lee Lewis. Actors Keith Brockett, Fanny Hanusin, Nicole Lee, Jing-Xuan Chan, Gareth Yuen, Harry Tseng, Aljin Abela, HaiHa Le, Lap Pham, John  Shrimpton, Aileen Huynh and Pearl Tan.
Are you surprised by the number of Asians working on and behind our stages and screens?
I think it’s great. It’s not like there is an Asian mafia running the arts industry, in key decision-making decisions, or from heritage elite families, so we’re missing some of those links that make it easier and more obvious for other young Australians to pursue a career as an artist. I love it when I come across artists from Asian backgrounds, and learn about the sort of questions and ideas they are exploring in their work.

One response to “Sex and the single Asian-Australian

  1. G’day Michelle,
    I think that Nietzsche was correct when he said that discriminating judgement is the basis of survival.
    Vietnamese women are exquisitely feminine and yet stronger than titanium – opposing opposites at first blush.
    Top of the tree white males have the finest brain chemistry- no other race seems to have the depth of heart, including the Viet men (perhaps I’m wrong).
    I’m sick of the mass homogenisation or racial equivalence arguments of the neo-marxists.
    To equate aboriginal art with van Goff is simply blind. Even the concept of equivalence is blind and nullifying.
    May I request that you Google- Christopher John Carmody, barrister, to discover my art combined with science in recent issues of NEXUS Magazine.
    You strike as a fascinating person.
    Very finest regards, Chris

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