David Tse - Interview
As part of our celebration of diversity for St. George’s day, we had a chat with David K.S. Tse about being a British-Chinese actor, living between two cultures and languages and how society and the film industries' attitude towards the East and South East Asian (ESEA) diasporas has changed over the decades.
Tse is a Hong-Kong born, British-raised film, TV, theatre and radio actor, writer and director. Having starred in numerous productions since the late ‘80s - and establishing the touring theatre company, Yellow Earth (1995-2008) and cross-artform company Chinese Arts Space (2006-2017), both of which continue to this day under new artistic directors and company names - he has recently starred in Alex Garland's sci-fi miniseries Devs, Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica and Netflix’s International Emmy Award-nominated Tokyo Trial; his first film appearance was in Mike Newell’s Soursweet more than 30years ago, and he features briefly in a major blockbuster next year.
David describes his parents as working-class economic migrants and the decision to move to the UK was simply to increase the opportunities for their children. This was the trend amongst many Hong-Kong migrants in the ‘60s and ‘70s, they literally set up shop. The Tse’s opened a Chinese takeaway/fish and chips shop in a small market town, Leominster in Herefordshire. We were the only Chinese family. Why there? You tend to open takeaways in small market towns that will support the business, but are far enough away from other takeaways, so you don’t have too much competition.
This is one reason why the British Chinese community is scattered across the UK, except in cities big enough to support Chinatowns, such as London, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool or Newcastle. As we continue to recall his past, I wanted to know a bit more about his personal history and that of Britain at the time. David, like many other ethnic-minority school kids, found it tough, through the constant ignorance that led to racism and bullying, be that from other kids, the Eurocentric education system or drunken racist customers in their takeaway. Unfortunately, I think it still continues to this day. The recent spike in Sinophobia, scapegoating - due to the pandemic - racism and hate crimes has affected the British Chinese and also the BESEA (British East & South East Asian) communities, since we all get lumped together as the British can’t tell us apart. I asked if this trauma was his motivation to become an actor? I became an artist to try and inform, entertain and educate the general public, to try and change British culture, make it more inclusive and diverse. So our country
would become less parochial and more internationally minded.
Was acting the only way you could express yourself or were there any other creative outlets? There are many ways to voice out, eg. politics or the media. For me, acting was the way to push back (and later, writing and directing). When I was 13, I was cast in the school play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream; that was my first acting experience and I was cast every year after that. When I stepped on stage, playing a character in which I could express my humanity - that gave me so much confidence, after years of racism. Suddenly, I wasn’t being judged for my ethnicity - I was more than just a Chinese person, the butt of racist jokes and comments - I was a human being.
Was that not just part of the rough and tumble of childhood in ‘70s Britain?
If I’d been horrible to others, then fair enough, you deserve it back, that’s karma; but all I was doing was getting on with my life, studying hard because I could see how hard my parents were working. Swots aren’t popular in the UK! With the ignorance and racism around me, I needed to challenge the culture I was growing up in; that’s why I became an artist, and more than just an actor. You mean writing, directing and producing? Yes... and now community activism via CARG, Covid-19 Anti-Racism Group.
Which Asian actors do you remember being on TV during those times?
David Yip was in ‘The Chinese Detective’ and a decade later in ‘Brookside’ with Sarah Lam. And Pik-Sen Lim and Burt Kwouk were early pioneers on other series. We continued our talk of TV in those days and how as an actor, you might have had to accept certain roles to make a living - and perhaps try to subvert stereotypes from within. In retrospect, some TV shows were offensive such as Mind Your Language, which featured Lim and Kwouk, but actors had little choice as there were initially very few BESEA writers or directors, unlike today. David’s first film role was a character called Fok, a wannabe triad member in the adaptation of Timothy Mo’s novel into the film Soursweet. I congratulate him on his performance, as the film was enjoyable. He agrees that the film stands the test of time, except for the Triad sections, which were somewhat far-fetched for the UK. He was initially reluctant to take the role, for fear of perpetuating stereotypes. Yes, of course I wanted to be in my first film - I was still at drama school when I was cast - but the main reason for doing it was that the main characters were this normal British Chinese immigrant family, and the film explored the difficulties of settling and assimilating in this country. It obviously touched him as it mirrored his own past.
I inadvertently upset David, with a comment I made about the East Asian diaspora not being as vocal and an easy target for the media, compared to Black British and South Asian communities. Those were my own observations and seemed to be echoed by what was being said across the media, during the unfortunate killings in Atlanta. David called out the silent ‘model minority’ as a racist trope, but agreed that systemic racism had rendered his community ‘culturally invisible’ for decades. First of all, I don’t think we’ve been silent. There have been community activists speaking up for decades, including myself... whether we’ve had the platform from the media is another matter, especially pre-social media. People who controlled airtime in the past, were the cultural gatekeepers in this country and the United States... when the BBC set up the Asian Network on radio, they didn’t mean all of Asia, they only meant South Asia. For decades, ‘Asian’ has been identified with the much larger South Asian demographic in the UK, and whenever the BESEA community has spoken up, it’s often been dismissed by institutionally-racist attitudes that have either ignored or sidelined us, even though we’re the third largest ethnic minority... so please don’t say that we’ve been silent or it’s our fault, there are plenty of us who have consistently spoken up. Today, I’m hopeful that with increasing politicisation around #StopAsianHate (USA) and now #StopAsianHateUK, our identities and internationalism is developing for the better.
Later in our conversation, David talks about his Confucian upbringing, where he explains, It's not about blind obedience to authority... if you respect authority figures, they have a duty to protect you; it goes both ways, rights and responsibilities. My mother used to say, don’t get involved in politics, because she saw the turbulence and chaos that it brought to China during the 20th century... so maybe that partly explains this trope that you mentioned, when you think about our place in wider society. David’s frustration isn’t aimed at me, so I don’t take any personal offence. As he points out, even the arts, which are supposed to be full of liberals, are still mired in institutional racism. In 2001, David attended the Eclipse Theatre Conference as the only East Asian representative - he was a keynote speaker - in a nationwide theatre conference that challenged institutional racism in British theatre. While it was positive that after the conference, the Black community was supported with additional funding to create a new touring company, Eclipse Theatre, unfortunately, no additional help was given to the BESEA sector, despite Tse calling for new BESEA companies to be supported. Around the same time, Channel 4 released a mini-sketch show titled The Missing Chink, which as you can imagine from the title, caused huge offence to the Chinese community and seemed misguided. Years later, the same cultural faux pas were made on BBC3’s Chinese Burn.
Comedy is always the hardest genre to get right on TV, although BESEA stand up comedians like Ken Cheng, Evelyn Mok, Nigel Ng and Phil Wang seem to be navigating that course better now. It’s the current institutional racism - Why isn’t there a regular British Chinese family on EastEnders or Coronation Street, or on The Archers on Radio 4?- plus ignorance from Eurocentric education, which pushes David to continue to be more vocal about his heritage on and off screen.
In his personal life, he is an active member of CARG, a community group which aims to combat racism, Covid- scapegoating, Sinophobia and hate crimes against the British Chinese and BESEA communities. On screen, David featured in Netflix’s Tokyo Trial, an historical WW2 drama miniseries that depicted the International Military Tribunal, which sentenced Japan’s war criminals for the Asian Holocaust in China and across ESEA countries. David was proud of the responsibility in playing the Chinese judge, Mei Ru-ao, and keenly aware of the historical importance in telling this largely unknown story to Western audiences. He tells me about a scene where The 12 judges should all have been debating the consequences for Japanese war criminals, after hearing horrific testimonials from survivors of the Nanjing massacre in China... but in the scene that was originally written, the Chinese judge was completely silent. I said to the writer-director that since the majority of unlawful killings during the Asian Holocaust were in mainland China, the Chinese judge would not be silent. In the end, he said to me ‘David, what would Judge Mei say?’ So I wrote a paragraph of dialogue... and it's in the series.
David sees hope for the future - despite the gap of 25 years after The Joy Luck Club - in the mainstream success of the all-Asian cast in Crazy Rich Asians, followed by Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite and now in 2021, Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari. Searching with John Cho also did well in the US box office. Sandra Oh and Awkwafina won Best Actress at the Golden Globes, Steven Yeun was nominated for Best Actor at the Oscars, Chloe Zhao won Best Director at the Oscars and BAFTA, following in the footsteps of Ang Lee. So things are finally changing in the Western film industry. It might be slow progress, but the ESEA voice is being heard, and as David repeats during our conversation, our lives and experiences are finally being normalised.
Who do you think is leading the way for BESEAs on our screens? Gemma Chan, Jessica Henwick, Katie Leung, Henry Golding, Benedict Wong and Tom Wu are leading the pack, and more power to them!