Friday, May 7, 2010

The white-out of Billy Sing

Billy Sing (1886 - 1943) was a heroic figure in a conflict that is synonymous with battlefield heroism in Australia. At Gallipolli in WW1, he was Australia's deadliest sniper with 201 confirmed kills and was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

Sing was also of Chinese background - born to an English mother and a father from Shanghai. That is a detail that is conveniently being forgotten by Geoff Davis, director of the new mini-series The Legend of Billy Sing. Rather than look for a Eurasian actor, Davis decided that his son Josh Davis (pictured left, middle) was the best character for the role. What a coincidence that the most outstanding candidate happened to be the director's son.

Now, given that Billy Sing was only half Chinese, I guess it would be vaguely within the realms of possibility for him to be played by a white actor. But what about his father, who was fully Chinese? Well, Davis elected to have him played by a white actor as well - veteran Tony Bonner (pictured left, bottom).

The reason?

Davis said the problem in casting Sing as a Chinese-Australian arose when he couldn't find a 60-year-old Chinese actor to play his father.

Really? There are no middle-aged Chinese actors anywhere in Australia? One has to wonder how extensively Davis looked - perhaps he couldn't think of any that he knew of, so concluded that there were none.

Given that the Asian population of Australia is approaching 2 million, one would think finding such an actor could be accomplished with little more than some googling and a few calls to casting companies. Problem solved. Indeed, a number of Chinese actors who would seemingly fit the bill have spoken of their disappointment today in The Australian.

Finding a male Eurasian actor wouldn't be too hard either - I don't think it would matter if he wasn't actually Chinese, but he should at least look the part - particularly as there have been at least 3 on recent mainstream Australian TV that I can think of. James Stewart, recently seen on Packed to the Rafters, would fit the bill (I believe he is half Chinese); as would Bobby Morley, popular Home and Away heart-throb, who is part Filipino. Adam Saunders, formerly of Home and Away and Blue Water High, also appears to be part Asian. In addition, there are no doubt some other lesser known Eurasian actors out there. Josh Davis, who got the role, is hardly well-known anyway, so it's not like he was picked for his star power.

So really, it's seemingly less about the paucity of Asian-Australian actors than it is about nepotism on the part of Geoff Davis. Is that his right, as director? Should he not be able to cast whoever he wants? As he says:

"A lot of people are sitting at the back of this bus attacking the driver. A lot of people feel they own the story of Billy Sing. But they've probably got more resources than me -- if they want to tell that story, then tell it.

"Whatever his genetic background, his culture was Australian."

Hmmm. Maybe Davis is one of these fellows who "doesn't see race", and so figures that since we are all Australian, it doesn't matter so much about the ethnic specifics. Which, if that were true (and I don't think it is), could be admirable in a sense. But here's the thing that Davis doesn't seem to get. Asian-Australians are not perceived as being truly Australian in the way that Geoff and Josh Davis are. Despite people of Asian background (like the Sings) having been here since the 1800s, we are still seen as somewhat less than true blue Aussies. The Asian-Australian contribution to history is often forgotten. Billy Sing was born in an era where Chinese were generally despised by much of the wider population, and racism was rife. Yet he still served Australia with distinction and became a hero to a nation which officially did not welcome anyone of his ethnicity. That irony is part of the appeal of the Billy Sing story.

Think about the message it would send to both Asian-Australians and non-Asian-Australians, that one of the great heroes of the war that helped define our national identity, was part Chinese.

Davis is not merely directing his own story; he is telling a whitened version of history. He is erasing the Asian-ness of an Australian hero, and reinforce the dominant view that this country is built on the back of the heroism of men who were purely white.
So now Billy Sing will be introduced to the viewing public as a white man. You've got to wonder why they are even persisting with the surname Sing. Why do these white characters have a Chinese name? Maybe they should just call it The Legend of Billy Smith and be done with it.

Yuey at Asians Down Under has covered this issue in great depth, so it's worth checking it out over at his blog. Also see my earlier post entitled The lack of Asians on Australian TV and why it matters.


  1. "Think about the message it would send to both Asian-Australians and non-Asian-Australians, that one of the great heroes of the war that helped define our national identity, was part Chinese."

    This is so true, it could be so amazing!

    Plus (at the risk of exoticizing), his mixed-race background actually makes the story more interesting to me personally. I've seen white war movies before. Here, there's scope in this story to talk about the experience of mixed-race Aussies at that time as well as the hackneyed Aussie digger theme, don't you think it would make a much richer movie?

    PS - I just started watching Summer Heights High and I love it!!!!

  2. I often wonder why in this day and age [white] people think they can do things like this and get away with it? Is it arrogance, perhaps?

    It's especially infuriating when they use excuses like 'we can't find an Asian/mixed race actor,' or 'race doesn't matter' or 'we just cast the best person for the job.'

    It's funny that all these excuses lead to the same result: casting white actors in non-white roles. How come it never works the other way around. How come they never just cast a Asian actor in a important white role because it feels right? Could they cast an Asian actor as Ned Kelly, because he's the right actor for the role?

    Of course, race doesn't matter to them. It doesn't affect them.

    It's highly disrespectful, but worse, arrogant.

  3. Feelin a bit ashamed in the 2010May 11, 2010 at 4:29 PM

    What's ironic is that CHINA would be absolutely CANED had something like this happened over there!

    Freedom of information, lying to the people, totalitarianism in the media, ridiculous censorship, etc. etc. it's a bit much of a muchness isn't it?

    Focking hell. Maybe that ex Telstra CEO was right, maybe we really are a really backward and racist country...

  4. I'm all for artistic freedom (not as much for nepotism).

    So, the guy sees everybody as Asutralians, period. How nice. Now tell me, how many white Australian soldiers are played by Asian Asustralian (or other non-white) actors?

  5. Perhaps the Chinese are so good at being model minorities that it's easy to make them look invisible? Can you imagine what would happen if Billy Sing was half-black instead of half-Chinese and Davis pulled the same stunt? Here in America, I would bet my last dollar the blacks wouldn't let the whites get away with it, they would cause a riot.
    It seems if you play too nice with whites, you get trampled on at the end of the day.

  6. Here is another hypocritical bullshit excuse to expropriate what is good in Asians as White Australians. Since Australians of influence can so easily claim good Chinamen as Australians, can all Chinese people now be accorded the respect due to their Aussie citizenship and be accepted as full members of Australian society and not be discriminated as lower caste?

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  8. @Anonymous: Are you addressing your question to me?