Viv Yau shares insights on what being BESEA means to her, community building and ethical and diverse influencer marketing

British-Hakka-Chinese female founder and activist Viv Yau has grappled with her multifaceted identity, finding new meaning in what it means to be a British East and South East Asian (“British ESEA” or “BESEA”).

In this exclusive interview, she shares with us about her practising spoken Cantonese later in life, the challenges of running a successful business and her inspiring activism work. Founder and Director of her own company, Bee Influence, Viv’s platform focusses on ethical and inclusive influencer marketing campaigns for clients ranging from Vistaprint, Greenpeace and Emma Sleep.

She leverages her experiences managing TV campaigns for global brands and the UK’s top content creators in London, whilst also organising her time to commit to her advocacy work.

Propelled by her sense of concern for ESEA communities in the UK given the increase in anti-ESEA attacks (which appears to be fuelled by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic), Viv joined five other incredible BESEA women to found besea.n.

Since the group’s inception in 2020, these brave and bold women have managed to launch a petition to raise awareness and challenge media portrayals of ESEA people, as well as celebrate ESEA heritages through the UK’s first ESEA Heritage Month. Alongside her other besea.n founders, Viv is a leader and community-builder, and we are grateful for her story, insights, advice and last but not least, #ESEAJoy.

YW:  Tell us a bit about yourself and your background. What does being a British ESEA mean to you and why?

VY: I’m a Hakka-Chinese woman born and bred in Warrington now living in Manchester. My parents came from HK and opened up a takeaway where I developed my deep love for fried food.

I speak Cantonese and am daily trying not to berate myself for only dedicating more time to practising my native tongue in my 30s. British ESEA is a relatively new identity marker for me – with the term ESEA only becoming part of the racial discourse in the past 18 months.

Previously, my worldview was very white, assimilation for a lot of ESEA folks seems to be a common theme. I felt that my identity was tied to where I was born, Warrington. In reality, I have no commonality with Warrington, no political alignment (at all), its people and no particular desire to live there in the future.

I knew that this town was a tenuous link that didn’t particularly resonate with who I am, but I didn’t feel like I had any other choice – given that being Chinese was just something…I am?! As I’m writing this, I hope this doesn’t sound absurd… I knew I was Chinese, but I disassociated myself from what this meant politically for a long time.

When the first UK lockdown happened, I started the podcast ‘But Where Are You From?’ last March 2020 (now a besea.n podcast) as a way to connect with my Chinese roots (and pass the time), and little did I know, it would reach not just people like me, but more ESEAs, and other people of colour during a time of isolation. This connection has only broadened my understanding of what it means to be a British Chinese woman, both personally and on a political level.

Personally, my identity as ESEA is fluid, learning to accept that there are days that I feel disconnected from being Hakka/Chinese/a Cantonese speaker and that this journey is a part of understanding my dual heritage of being British and Chinese.

Then there are days where I’ve connected with more ESEA people, digging deeper in nuances of identity, realising that there are so many ways our environments have shaped who we are; there is no monolith when it comes to being British ESEA and these different perspectives have only enriched my experience.

Politically, I find it so important to take up space to discuss ESEA issues in the racial discourse, rather than our experiences being included in the ‘Asian’ or even ‘BAME’ discourse. And more poignantly, issues within the ESEA community itself. As I write this, I am aware that Chinese people are usually over-represented in the ESEA space and South East Asians are less represented – this is an issue we also must confront within this newly-established community that we’re forming.

Credit: Karlie Wu/Mai-Ahn Peterson

YW: Bee Influence, an influencer marketing agency that you founded, focusses on inclusivity and diversity. What motivated you to start this company and did you experience any challenges in getting it running? Do you have any tips or advice for other founders, particularly PoCs?

VY: For pretty much most of my career, I have worked in advertising and influencer marketing. In this industry, internally I’ve experienced micro-aggressions (of which, a lot of realisation and trauma resurfaced in the past year, and therefore, the more I’ve educated myself in the racial discourse) and externally, the brands, clients, campaigns that I worked on did not represent people like myself, or anyone who is marginalised for that matter.

Being able to bring in better representation for marginalised groups has only strengthened our work at Bee Influence. Don’t get me wrong, we haven’t and we will not always get it right. As we’re a small team of four, we regularly work with consultants that represent other marginalised backgrounds that we have not lived, whether we are pitching for work or generally learning more; nothing can replace lived experiences.

What motivates me is having autonomy over not just the company culture, but how we execute campaigns that represent people that are underrepresented. Our clients (Vistaprint, Greenpeace, Emma Sleep are a few) have come along with us on the journey.

We’ve definitely experienced challenges, as a three-year-old start-up that lost its clients during COVID, it was tough. Though luckily, our team grew within this time and it allowed myself and our team to invest time into learning and organising. It was during this time I met my co-founders of besea.n.

I wish when I was younger, I had more people of colour as role models in my career; I wish I had someone sit me down and let me know that when a colleague asked me, ‘Is that dim sum you’re eating for lunch?’ (when it wasn’t) or colleagues who greeted me with ‘Herro’ is not okay and to recognise that funny feeling of being othered in the workplace.

I want to see more young people of colour being uplifted by those in senior positions, to be encouraged for promotions, to understand the cultural differences, biases, sensitivities that can act as a barrier for marginalised groups to progress. Buying into the model minority myth is a construct that hindered me from progressing to managerial level for a long time – I thought keeping my head down, working hard and staying humble was a sure-fire win to climb the ladder (and this is commonplace with only 0.27%  of ESEA people making up the most powerful positions in the UK, Colour of Power 2020 report).

I wish I knew sooner that for people of colour and specifically for ESEA folks, needing to advocate for oneself is especially important. Because of my experiences, I’d love to see more founders or anyone in senior leadership roles to actively advocate people of colour in the workplace – it could make a world of difference.

Credit: Jennifer Lo

YW:  You co-founded besea.n, an incredibly powerful network which represents BESEAs, which has accomplished so much in the past year. What were your personal motivations in creating this platform?

VY: Like a lot of ESEA people last year, I noticed the uptick of ESEA people in COVID-related media, and in the same vein, I was reading and hearing stories from family and friends about the increase of racist attacks and incidents towards people who are racialised as Chinese. This was extremely triggering; I felt heart-broken and worried for my mum and elder relatives. Through coincidental connections on social media, I met my five incredible co-founders.

We spent a lot of time accidentally ‘organising’ through Zoom and daily WhatsApp chats… we didn’t know besea.n was going to become a platform until our voice gained traction and we were being approached by the press and organisations who wanted to hear from ESEA people. Since besea.n has become more established, my motivation is less so to stop big corporations/news outlets from misrepresenting ESEA people (as nice as that would be), but rather what motivates me is providing space for a community that has never really existed in the UK in our generation.

The British ESEA landscape deserves its own discourse, separate but in tandem and solidarity with other Black and Brown groups, in parallel but apart from the Asian American experience. It baffles me that there hasn’t been a single book about the UK ESEA experience talking about our communities, and that we lean on the Asian American experience to learn from, one in which I am grateful for, yet also can only empathise from a distance across the Atlantic. The complete erasure of ESEA people across every facet in the UK has emboldened me to take up space.

YW:  As part of besea.n, you have accomplished so much. It has been incredible seeing your team setting up a podcast series “But Where Are You From?”, attending the exciting premiere of Shang Chi, having your petition debated in Parliament and creating a real sense of community for so many. What have been your highlights so far and why?

VY: Seeing the petition led by Sarah Owen, MP was an incredibly emotive moment – Sarah has been a solid advocate and friend of besea.n and yes, whilst the government aren’t exactly doing much for marginalised groups (to say the least), the fact that this petition led to being raised meant our community felt seen, and this is exactly what I am proud of. I feel comforted knowing there’s people who’ve got my back. Creating besea.n’s first ever in-real-life events in September for ESEA Heritage Month was a proud moment for me.

After spending the whole of 2020 making friends online, it was very emotional creating a community event for ESEA folks (and those non-ESEA folks who are just awesome supporters too) to hug and see friends in person, and hearing real community feedback, stories, anecdotes in person brought me back from the theory of why we’re doing this, to the tangible (cue a lot of “oh my gosh can I hug you please?” From me – and I typically don’t do hugs!).

I continue to learn with and from my community every day, from the likes of Enxi (@basedbbyenxi) talking about everything ESEA and being a Trans women on TikTok, to MiMi Aye’s unstoppable advocacy for what’s happening in Myanmar, to learning about the journey of being a Filipina transracial adoptee from Pippa Hollington.

The people in the vast and wide ESEA diaspora are my teachers and educators. Oh, and the Shang-Chi premiere meant an awful lot too – if you saw us at the premiere you would’ve noticed how un-cool we played it – it’s a pretty monumental moment to be at the premiere for a film with a majority ESEA cast!

MP Sarah Owen, captured by Amy Phung

YW: How would you describe your leadership style? What are the key components, in your view, to a team’s success? 

VY: I’m still figuring this out for myself to be honest! I find it quite scary when you read leadership management books, usually written by white men, who see things from a singular perspective. There’s no way someone who has even been in a leadership role for years will be able to know absolutely everything to ensure they’re successful – and if they tell you that they do, then it’s a scam, so run a mile!

Though in terms of my leadership style, because I know how it feels to be in junior positions, I take the non-hierarchical approach to management.  I don’t buy into the idea that creative thinking has to come from the creative department; we all have the capacity to exercise our skill sets and we should be given the opportunity to do so. I think empathy goes a long way too! I abhor corporate structures of being chained to the desk, living to work and not allowing people to do their own side hustles in their spare time – I actively encourage our team to pursue things they’re passionate about, after all I am fortunate enough to spend so much time on besea.n work – it would be entirely hypocritical for me to not allow our team the same privilege.

The long and short of it is, the more I think about leadership, the more I work with people, the more I do not know and the more I realise there is so much more to understand about the complexities of human nature. We cannot be experts or leaders in everything, and because of this, I feel like a student every day.

Credit: Jennifer Lo

YW: It is incredible you manage to spread your time over so many projects. What is really empowering is that besea.n talks about mental health and burn out a lot. How do you protect your mental health and what advice would you give to other activists about self care?

VY: I’m learning to be radically honest about things I do not want to do, saying no to things that do not bring me joy, and that putting up your own boundaries isn’t selfish. At besea.n we get approached by media outlets often looking for reports of hate incidents, essentially trauma porn. We’ve fallen into the dilemma of wanting to ensure these issues are highlighted whilst also delving into more racial trauma, which can be exhausting.

As soon as we’ve pivoted to focus on the projects that bring us joy, organising community events, talking about stuff happening within our community, this energises me to carry on the work. Of course, this is still work! I tend to diarise my days out, so I know which portion is dedicated to my day job and then which is dedicated to besean work.

I find the term ‘Self-care’ has been co-opted by a certain middle-class demographic which is usually pretty surface level, one in which I have probably contributed to as well – but my version of self-care involves laughing a lot, being silly, avoiding the news, napping, food, reading, spending time with loved ones, therapy and much needed alone-time.

Credit: Amy Phung

YW: What gives you the most #ESEAJoy?

VY: Food! Seeing people eat the food I cook for them. Going out for dim sum with family and friends and giving the last dumpling to my nearest and dearest.

When I also see ESEA people thriving in the community, I get this sense of pride that I haven’t felt on such a large scale before – the likes of Georgie Ma aka Chinese Chippy Girl and Anna Chan who have single-handedly stopped David Walliam’s problematic book ‘Brian Wong is Never Wrong’ from being in circulation, Videographer and creator, Alicia Warner who filmed, directed & produced besea.n‘s ‘Land, Sea and Stars’ online multimedia project, and Mollusc Dimension – a multi-hyphenate artist, singer songwriter/composer who’s working to build spaces for mental health and creativity for ESEA+, QTIBIPOC, LGBTIQA+ and other marginalised groups.

The growing ESEA community (and let’s face it, we haven’t really had a community before) gives me actual tingles, with all its contradictions, nuances and diversity, they embolden and enlighten me daily.

YW:  Tell us a bit more about ESEA Heritage Month in September and why you think it is important.

VY: We’ve just wrapped up launching the UK’s first ever ESEA Heritage Month in September. It’s important for the reasons I’ve mentioned earlier, our community has never had a space to feel heard, to learn about our cultures together and have space dedicated to our ever-evolving heritage.

We were overwhelmed with the amount of events that happened all over the UK – from the ingat ingat exhibition spotlighting ESEA NHS workers, to coffee tasting, to queer ESEA discussions, to Filipino food crawl, book clubs, Korean food quizzes, congee clubs.

besea.n held two live events in London too where for the first time we came together; we had panels on Filipino Experience in Britain, Chinese food, the likes of Francesca Humi, Julia Thanh and Sarah Owen MP deliver insightful and powerful talks and in the evening had talent such as Enxi Chang, Ria Lena, Ken Cheng and Phil Wang entertain us.

To see a room full of majority ESEA faces was just so so emotional. We hope for next year that this is recognised by the government and have launched a petition to garner support.