Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The lack of Asians on Australian TV, and why it matters

The ABC1 program Hungry Beast recently ran this short segment about the representation of Asian people on TV in Australia. Comedian Lawrence Leung makes a brief appearance. You can watch it at the show's website here (it's about 8 minutes in) if you wish.

Mind you, the segment doesn't tell us anything we didn't already know. Television here has always been a pretty white domain, even though at least 10% of the Australian population is identifiably non-white.
Things are changing of course, gradually. Popular soaps such as Neighbours and Home and Away have made token attempts to introduce Asian characters, but generally they have been poorly conceived and unconvincing. (Of course one could argue that everything about Neighbours and Home and Away is poorly conceived and unconvincing, but that's a whole 'nother conversation.) Popular kids show Hi-5 has always had one Asian member, as have The Wiggles. Weekly show Video Hits is hosted by the Ghanaian-Chinese Faustina "Fuzzy" Agolley. Popular comedy-drama Packed to the Rafters has included a couple of attractive Eurasians as recurring supporting characters. And talent shows such as Australian Idol have brought unprecented numbers of contestants of Pacific Islander, Asian and African background on to our screens - and the shows have been massive ratings winners.

And of course, there is SBS, which has long been the ethnic ghetto of Australian TV, an oasis of colour and exotic-sounding names amid the Anglo-ness of the mainstream channels. SBS has given us shows like Pizza (revolving around Lebanese and Italian characters), East West 101 (the award-winning drama about an Arabic cop in Sydney), or quiz show ADBC (with Eurasian host Sam Pang). Or take SBS World News, which has in the past introduced us to Indira Naidoo, George Donikian, Mary Kostakidis and Lee Lin Chin. The current team includes Neena Mairatha (Singaporean-Indian), Rena Sarumpaet (Indonesian), and Anton Enus and Janice Pietersen (both of coloured South African ancestry). You could even accuse SBS of trying too hard to overcompensate for the traditional lack of diversity elsewhere, but it has been necessary nonetheless. The problem is, the masses just don't watch SBS. The ABC has done fairly well in the diversity stakes - Lawrence Leung's Choose Your Own Adventure is arguably the first time an Asian-Australian has had their own show, aside from on SBS of course. But ABC is no ratings giant either.

Of course, part of the reason for the traditional lack of ethnic faces on mainstream TV is the shortage of talent; there is a smaller talent pool to draw from, and in some ethnic communities young people are dissuaded from entering the entertainment industry in favour of more reliable and traditionally-approved careers. But by the same token, those who are in the industry find it hard to break out of niche roles. And networks are probably apprehensive about whether a non-white face in a major role will be a deterrent to viewers.

Pictured below: some of the very few Asian faces on mainstream Australian TV. Hi-5's Fely Irvine, The Wiggles' Jeff Fatt, and Packed to the Rafters' James Stewart.

If we are all Australians, why do we need to worry about the ethnicity of people are on television? Should we not just relate to the person as an Australian, rather than a white, black, brown or yellow Australian?

Ideally, it needn't matter. But lest we forget, television and other media do not just reflect society - they also shape it. There are few bigger external influences on how a young person comes to see the world than what they see on TV.

As an example, let me give you my personal perspective. I grew up around mostly white friends at school, and in a time when Australian television was a wayyy whiter place than it is now. Largely because of the influence of the people around me, I listened to hard rock, a genre of music dominated by Anglo-ish types and fetishizing busty blonde women.

Teenage years are tough, full of self-doubt and feelings of unattractiveness. Teenagers unconsciously look for role models who are cool and in the public eye. But in the media, I saw no one who looked like me. Yes, I am half-white, but I was different enough. All the people I saw on television and the media who epitomised coolness and attractiveness had hair that was usually straight and light-coloured, and thin pointy noses. I had a mop of curly dark hair, fat lips and broad nostrils. I was a bit funny-looking, as many teenagers are before growing into their adult bodies; but I thought there was something hideous about me.

It seems ridiculous now, but I used to pinch my nostrils in the hope that in the long run, it would make my nose thinner like a proper white person. While most of my love interests since then have been South or Southeast Asian, back in high school I wouldn't even look at a girl who wasn't white. My ultimate love goal was to marry a blonde girl, so then our kids would look really white and wouldn't have my freaky features.

Much has been said about teenage girls' self-esteem gets affected by the relentless promotion of overly skinny women in the media. But while fat girls might aspire to be skinny and eventually attain that goal, a brown person cannot ever be white.

In my case, it was adulthood and black music that saved me - through black rock, then soul, hip-hop and reggae, I realised that you could be non-white and still be proud and desirable. But television back then certainly didn't help that realisation.

Which is why young people - black, brown, yellow, white and everything in between - need to see some positive reflections of themselves in the media. And they need to see positive reflections of others as well. When Asians are only presented in a limited range of secondary and stereotypical roles - Triad member, nerd, shopkeeper, prostitute - what message does that send to the rest of society?

Things have changed a bit now, but in some ways they are not so different. Even today, with the exception of SBS, most of the nonwhite faces on Australian TV are women. Attractive women at that, although some degree of attractiveness is usually a prerequisite for a TV career. A few examples - Marcia Hines, Faustina Agolley, Kathleen De Leon and Nuala Hafner. It's hard to think of many recently prominent coloured male faces on mainstream TV - indigenous stars Ernie Dingo and Aaron Pedersen, and Samoan-New Zealander Jay Laga'ai'a are among a very small sample. Asian males are almost invisible on mainstream TV. What does that say about our society's attitude towards Asian men, and what message does that send?

Asian-Americans frequently complain about their under-representation on US TV, but there are plenty of examples of how the yanks do diversity a helluva lot better than we do. As well as plenty of black and Hispanic faces on TV, there is a gradual increase in Asians in significant roles. While Asian women have long been more prominent (think news anchor Connie Chung, right-wing ideologue Michelle Malkin, actresses like Sandra Oh, Ming-Na and Parminder Nagra), more and more Asian males are finally getting substantive roles. Think Kal Penn in House, Daniel Henney in Three Rivers, B D Wong in Law and Order and Oz, Naveen Andrews and Daniel Dae Kim in Lost, Masi Oka, James Kyson Lee and Sendhil Ramamurthy in Heroes, C S Lee in Dexter, and John Cho in Flash Forward.

TV in the UK is also streets ahead of Australia in this department. Think of the black and South Asian characters in shows such as The Bill, This Life, Spooks, and somewhat ridiculously, even Merlin.

Obviously, there is a bigger talent pool to draw from in both the UK and the US. And the Asian community in the US is longer-established, meaning there are proportionally far more Asians there than in Australia for whom English is a first language, which would surely be a factor in opportunities for success in the entertainment industry. But nonetheless, we must do better.

Also check out Yuey's post on this same topic over at the Asians Down Under blog.

UPDATE (7 May 2010): For a prime example of the marginalisation of Asian-Australians on TV, check out my other post The White-out of Billy Sing.


  1. This post is super excellent. I agree on all counts - representation is important because without it, we are watching a world where some of us don't exist. I remember hating that so much as a kid (and I still hate it now).

  2. Nice post

    "...in some ethnic communities young people are dissuaded from entering the entertainment industry in favour of more reliable and traditionally-approved careers."
    I think that's true but also I think that they're dissuaded from entering careers like that because parents know that white people will be preferenced over them. Even professions such as teaching, my mum told me that "It's difficult to find a job as an English teacher because they want white people."

  3. moderatelyhandsomeasianmanDecember 22, 2009 at 3:32 PM

    We're so under represented i used to cringe when a slanty face made it to the silver screen, thereby going even slantier (lose lose situation)

    I'd like to take this opportunity to toot my own asianhorn though by publicly recalling that i myself have been on australian tv, three times of note.

    1. As a contestant on nickelodeons widely syndicated childrens tv game show "Double Dare" - my counterpart was eurasian and we lost.

    2. As an interviewed guest on SBS and Channel 31's NoiseTV.

    3. Several times on channel 31.

    As a further note of mention, i remember the coolest asian person on my TV as a youth was Arthur's friend "Yick" (maybe more so when he grew up) on Canada's popular kid->teen->young adult show "Degrassi xxxx" (as well as the great sage, equal of heaven - monkey magic himself)

    .... also! there was a skittles add with a asian homie going `its a nu taste with a nu name' whom i thought was cool.

    i can't believe you used to pinch your nose when you were young. Couldn't you just turn to Kyle Vander-Kuyp as someone on TV that looks like you (okay so i just googled him for accuracies sake and the resemblence is weak, i admit)

  4. @ moderatelyhandsome - when I was young the only cool Asian on TV was Dustin Nguyen on 21 Jump Street. Whatever happened to that guy?

  5. Excellent, excellent post. I feel like you should print this out and send it to all the commercial Aussie networks!!!

    I have been thinking about this a lot since moving to the US and especially with a lot of the shows I watch that are really diverse, like Heroes and Glee, and straining to remember anyone besides Jay Laga'ai'a (yummy, btw) that wasn't Whitey McWhiterson. There was that guy Dylan that used to host Recovery on ABC, Saturday mornings I think it was?

  6. @ Sody and Candy - you mean Dylan Lewis? He's pretty white, as far as I know, but just a bit "alternative". Though I think the host who replaced him was a Sri Lankan Australian, Janelle Da Silva.

    1. Please don't disturb my ancestors- I am a Chinese/Potugese/Anglo-indian born & bred from Frankston.


    2. Apologies Janelle! With the name Da Silva, I'm sure it's not the first time you've been mistaken for Sri Lankan.

  7. Oh okay.

    Oh yeah - Dichen Lachman, I only heard of her when she turned up on Dollhouse over here but apparently she was on Neighbours? She's Tibetan-Australian, I think she's awesome.

  8. Hi there!
    This is a great post, but its all relevant. I am of Eurasian back ground (German Mum/ Half Thai Father) but look more caucasian, yet speak all three Languages and love my Asian background.
    TV appeals to the "greater majority" in ANY country. Things are changing here and have changed quite rapidly. Being of Eurasian background and having been told by countless Asians that "I am not Asian enough", I have a different take on things. I am sure there are MANY people on TV that have some kind of Asian/African/Aboriginal etc background, but just don't feel need to make it their main focus. I agree that it's important for all minorities to be represented, but things are changing and we need to focus on the positive rather than the negative. I would never bring my children up to believe that your career should be dictated by the colour of skin (In reference to the "teaching" post left earlier) That is just shocking. Change was not made by being complacent or "accepting" that things are the way they are. Australian Asians are doing a great job and will continue to do so, just like Australians of all backgrounds.
    Well done on the great post!


    1. Miserable EurasianOctober 6, 2012 at 5:29 AM

      Same thing with me. I live in the USA and most fully Asian people act like and tell me I'm not Asian enough either even though I'm of Eurasian (Part Spanish Dad/Part White (other European) Mother) background and my fully Asian fiance and his family can't trust me either. They think I sound more white than I do Asian because of my outgoing, friendly, creative bohemian personality and lack of being good at math while most full Asians are shy and quiet and also good at math.

    2. Leave him & his judgemental family & marry someone who loves you for who you are & not what they want you to be !

  9. It's not just TV, it is also magazines such as Ralph and FHM that lack in Asian models who can be obviously hotter than your aussie girl but have been told 'Asians' don't sell these magazines so editors are scared to let them in. Instead they are happy to publish endless average looking caucasian girls to keep readers happy.

  10. @ Disappointed:
    I agree. Asian girls should be sexualised just like white girls are!
    In seriousness, I wonder though whether it is true that Asian models wouldn't sell. Honestly I think most guys wouldn't care as long as the models were hot.

  11. Hello, mate. There's more Asian people in Australia than in the US. What the bloody are you talking about? Be lucky that Asians are the largest minority group in Oz and are well represented. Here in America, Asians are ignored.

  12. Just stumbled across this post and your blog, I totally agree. I can totally relate to how you felt growing up. When I was in primary school I felt like the odd one out in a sea of blondes. All in all this is an amazing post and I'm following!

  13. I was in Australia for 2 weeks buz trip. Personally I was stunned by the fact that there is no single minority face on the television (I watched a lot of Sky News Channel while I was there). I've lived in many places like the U.S., Canada and Europe., and I have to say Australia needs to catch up on representing minority on TV.

  14. Hi there, I stumbled on this post and I have to say it's all so true. I am Asian and have been a journalist in Country Australia for two years and I've found that a main reason for a lot of racism is due to the fact that some parts of the population are not exposed to Asians (or other ethnicities). If TV featured more Asians then maybe those people would understand that really we are not all that different.

    So if there was more diversity represented on TV then 1) minority youths would have more role models and 2) it would raise the understanding of other cultures in people who aren't normally exposed to them.

    I've witnessed Australian born people in a small country town with a growing Afghan population go from thinking "why the eff are they coming here on their boats?" to "Oh wow now I understand" simply by attending community events where the Afghan community have explained how they got to Australia.

    It's sad how ridiculously ignorant we all can be at times.

    1. I'm two years late but wanted to reply.

      I grew up in a large town in regional Victoria; let's call it Caucasian Central. The non-European population was 1-2% Koori, 1-2% other. Depending on the source, 6-12% of residents were born overseas (the national average is 24%). Some people were pretty ignorant/insensitive, but the extreme minority of non-whites might actually have minimised racial ill-will, since the majority didn't feel threatened.

      My ethnicity is half-Scottish, half Chinese (my dad is Chinese-Malaysian... I've found that some people just can't grasp the ethnicity/nationality distinction). Despite looking a bit different, I mostly flew under the racial radar at school, popping up now and again to nab academic prizes --- everyone has their quirks and I got away with mine.

      I sometimes forget that my features mark me as different. I don't forget that I look different, but everyone looks different, right? I get a rude shock when someone asks the question. You know the one: "Where are you from [subtext: why are you not white]?"

      I don't watch a lot of TV, but I have noticed the uniform whitenesss of Australian mainstream TV drama, especially in contrast to the diversity that appears on cooking shows!

      A few Sudanese refugees were settled in our town in the early 2000s. These people were new and particularly different, so I think they copped a fair bit of suspicion, but most people got over it. I've also noticed my hometown has become more ethnically diverse in the 10 years since I left. That said, I just looked up how that Sudanese community might be doing and found an online article from the local paper --- there's no section for comments, which is conspicuous because that's unlike every other article on the site.

  15. What a great post. I had 2 Chinese parents and grew up in the English countryside in the 70's. It really sucked. When I was 17 I moved to NYC and the first time I switched on the tv, Connie Chung was anchoring the news. I burst into tears thinking "God! we made it here!" Media images are powerful. BTW my mum used to pull my nose every night...

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  17. It's crazy how this article was written back in 2009, yet very little change has occurred now that we're in 2016! It's so important for Asian voices and stories to be heard and for us to be accurately represented, instead of having our roles be whitewashed or portrayed with negative stereotypes.
    I've started a campaign aimed at raising awareness for the lack of asian representation in Australia media, please feel free to check it out!

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