Unravelling a cultural identity on the small London stage

“Identity” is such a strange concept. It is both a tangible and physical device that carries with it practical application to our day to day lives, such as having a passport and a verifiable nationality. But in contrast,  identity can also be abstract and malleable, and yet will still be consequential to our place in the world.

My identity is whatever I want it to be, whatever I feel defines me as a person and speaks to my sense of belonging in the miasma I find myself in. My identity will resonate from within me, and project outwardly so society can easily identify me, relate to me and hopefully accept me.

Identity will confuse people. It will enlighten people. It will be a point of education for some and a point of contention for others. But in saying this, the concept of “identity” will undoubtedly challenge us, and present questions about our own places in society.

So, whether I premise my identity on something inherent in my character. Like if I want to be the funny guy or to be the political guy. Or whether I choose to wrap my identity around something visible, like my ethnicity; then I’m the Chinese guy, and I have to ask, where does this identity fit within the normal parameters of society? Is this identity palatable to everyone? Will I fit in?

These are grandiose, existential questions that can’t be tackled in the ramblings of a single article, but are poignant concepts explored by Eric Mok in his play British Born Chinese which had a run of rehearsed readings from the 22nd – 24th August at the Actors Centre in London.

With an East-Asian cast, actor and playwright Eric Mok, alongside the equally talented Nicole Miners and Charlie Wong, weave together an emotional, relevant and powerful story which will be instantly recognisable to a good portion of second-generation British-born Chinese kids including myself. 

Left to Right: Nicole Miners, Charlie Wong, Eric Mok

Set in the backdrop of a Birmingham Chinese takeaway, “British-Born Chinese” tells the story of two siblings, forced back together to help in their father’s takeaway as he is met with an unexpected financial burden. Inspired by his own upbringing, Mok’s story feels genuine to those who are familiar with the old, takeaway tropes; the long hours, the familial politics, the smell of grease lingering on your clothes at the end of the night, and both the indirect racism and the straight-forward, unabashed in-your-face racism experienced by many in this business.

Seeing these experiences play out on stage invokes a gambit of emotions, from humour in the frank and much needed discussion as to why in the hell are omelettes even on a Chinese takeaway menu; to pain, in the anguish and anger of Mok, seeing his aging father waste time and energy on a large and expensive order only to find it was made as a result of a prank call.

Seeing the defeat as his father accepts the injustice as just “one of those things” you have to accept as a minority in British society. That you will be a punching bag to some but that is the way you keep your place in this world.

Hilarious for the teens on the other end of the phone of course, taking advantage of an old man who could not fully grasp the English language, but painfully relevant to those who have felt this very special brand of defeatism.

It’s these scenes that are most raw and impactful and have played out in real-time for many second-generation British Born Chinese kids.  I instantly think back to my mother, and the toughness she was forced to embody as she endured the same needless racism night after night. Struggling with both the ignorance and arrogance emanating from those who view her only as the Chinese lady with a funny accent.  Not the naturalised citizen who is working 6 nights a week to feed her family.

It is in between the tropes that there is an underlying tragedy, and here Mok unravels the question of identity, exploring the place of being Chinese and British-Born in an unknowing British society.

When asking Mok what this play means to him, and what he hopes will resonate with his audience. He says:

“It seems we’re always rejected in some way or another by whoever for being too much or not enough”

And in both the dialogue and setting, Mok explores these facets of rejection in exploring what makes our cultural identity unique as he comes to terms with himself, his relationship with his sister, his father and the very takeaway which embodies the lifeline to so many of our British Born Chinese friends and family.

He highlights that our identity is one that is caught between two worlds. Either we are British and should fit in well here, but according to the 2011 census, British-Born Chinese only makeup around 0.7% of the UK population and are therefore one of the smallest minority groups in the UK, and yet we experience some of the highest levels of racial abuse in the country.

This can feel to some that we are kept at the margins of British society, where at times we are forced to defend our Britishness, just to earn our minority points and fade back into the backdrop of British society.

Or are we more Chinese? And here Mok challenges the inherent racism and hubris coming from within our own culture in unpacking the notion of a “real Chinese” identity. Does being regarded and accepted as Chinese mean that you must fully know the language, or must you look a certain way?

What if like Mok and Miners, you are of Eurasian descent and criticism of your place in the Chinese community is challenged as much as our place in British society?

This commentary would manifest in a kind of 4th wall breaking test to the audience in that the play contains a surprising amount of spoken Cantonese. And if you’re like me, where whilst I look the part, I don’t speak the language well, this stream of Cantonese will confront both Chinese and non-Chinese audience members alike.

But in tragedy comes hope. As the play reaches its apex, Mok touches upon what it really means to be British-born Chinese.

And the answer is quite blunt. The message I took away was that being British-born Chinese means whatever we want it to mean. Our identity is shaped by our humanity and it is the telling of these very human stories which enwrap themselves around common tales of family, grief and comity that will transcend cultural boundaries.

Final performance – photo with audience

It is a very visceral and unique phenomenon to see the all the thoughts and conflicts that sit quietly in our heads, being portrayed on stage with such resounding force, without restriction and without shame, and this speaks to the power of representation

And it is in this kind of representation, having our humanity portrayed on stage, screen or whatever medium, which will break-down barriers of our inclusivity to society and we need more of it.

Whilst the play is very much a work in progress with only a run of rehearsed readings for now, I do hope for a fully-fledged play which would only come about with your support.

Keep an eye on these storytellers. These are the stories that place a spotlight on the content of our characters and hold our humanity at the front and centre of our place in society more so than our ethnicity.

Follow Eric Mok on Twitter here.