It was 2012, and I had just watched one of the very few representations of a Filipinx/Asian woman on Australian television.
I was doing a week on ‘Camp comedies’ for an Australian film unit.
Cynthia, a character created to manipulate, irritate and speak in broken English, is treating a packed pub to a ping pong show, which she appears to enjoy thoroughly.
The blokes in the pub scream, shout and clap for this form of unapologetically vulgar entertainment. Cynthia has about eight to 10 minutes of screen time, and as soon as she is introduced, she has disappeared, bags packed into a small car, unresolved and slightly explained.
Students in this unit laughed and from recollection, terms like “mail-order bride”, “oriental” and “golddigger” were thrown about without any sense of cultural awareness. These terms would surface in any subsequent research regarding the representation I conducted, out of my own personal interest.
No one interrogated this exoticisation, and no one had cared to look at the image and representation of this woman to a general, cinema going public. It was written off as humour, in many cases. These days that scene is still iconic to people who like to crow that ‘You can’t say anything nowadays’.
I couldn’t believe it. Had I spoken up, I probably would have been shut down. Encouraged to develop a thicker skin, perhaps. Had I made a complaint, I would have been ignored. I was pretty cut that this is what the general public would perceive as a realistic representation of Filipino people on film, television and eventually, in theatre.
Where were the Asian women I was brought up with?
The one who would work two weeks in a sandwich shop for additional income so she could buy me a Playstation? Or the ones who rubbed dirt on their faces in order to disguise themselves during a Japanese invasion, and avoid all sorts of systematic assaults? I was partially raised by a Filipina woman who established herself as a leader in the fields of education and healthcare. Any of the above examples would have made for a much more striking narrative for Cynthia.
Becoming a playwright was a bit of an accident.
It was a combination of arrogance and encouragement, the belief that ‘I can do this’, and the encouragement of family and friends. I wrote teenage, angst-ridden garbage that tried to show my knowledge of Australian coming-of-age.
Upon admittance to the VCA, and subsequently my tutelage under Raimondo Cortese, racism became a prevalent theme in my work due to Melbourne being light years ahead of Sydney in interrogating the readily established zeitgeist. I felt I could try and show racism in a way that ‘empowered’ characters of colour, but it didn’t work. Racism is only designed to diminish the capacity to love and understand, and I didn’t do myself any favours attempting to explore that theme.
Was it my half-white guilt that pervaded my attempt to present these themes?
Probably. I felt that it wasn’t empowering anyone really, and that empowerment in writing comes by character. Characters that people of colour can identify with, or better yet, look up to. I made a decision that harked back to my Australia cinema class: We have to have more than Cynthia. It was up to me to put them up there.
I went back with my cousin, an economist, to see our grandmother.
I discovered scores of photos with writing on the back, mainly of my mother in her nurse’s uniform, outside Balmain hospital in 1974. During that time, President Ferdinand Marcos strengthened his grip on the Philippine economy, food industries, water supply and political establishment. He orchestrated thousands of murders. My mother vividly recalls queueing for rice and water with her brothers in Burnham Park during this period. Maybe ‘Cynthia’ did at some stage, too.
Marcos’ decision to declare Martial Law pushed many students to come to Australia, and train in varying industries. Paired with Australia’s demand for nurses and a healthy pay packet thanks to Gough Whitlam, scores of Filipino nurses came to Australia in the mid-70s.
My new play Kasama Kita’s characters are based and created off the sketches of memory through a long day of interviewing women who came to train at Balmain in the 70s. Filipinos’ love nostalgia, to reminisce, and with a heaping plate of empanada’s, a couple of bowls of Halo-Halo, these women painted the characters, setting and language that occupy Kasama Kita.
The freedoms, the logistics of migrating and the love for Australia was gloriously felt that afternoon, and I feel it whenever I redraft, or watch a rehearsal. The women I interviewed copped their fair share of racism, sure. But they certainly continue to rise above it and obviously abhor every single aspect of it. In many ways, they have never let the disgusting casual bigotry which litters many of our workplaces crack their character, because to quote one of them: ‘We have done much more for Australia than those people ever will’.
These women are the basis for the characters in Kasama, but more importantly, their life experiences have allowed for the creation of characters in this semi-fictitious world that are more than the scary creation of Cynthia.
The story so far
Kasama will also definitely not mark the first time an Asian woman is represented in a vulgar aesthetic and instead in a role that is seen as ‘normal’ by our community.
You can’t ignore the fascinating, complicated roles that have been gifted to our theatrical canon for Asian women over the past six years.
From Disapol Savetsila’s elegant and ardent restauranteur Baa in Australian Graffiti, to S. Shakthidharan’s fearless and protective Radha in Counting and Cracking, or Michelle Law’s hilarious and multi-dimensional Pearl in Single Asian Female, and soon to be seen – the brilliantly familiar Val and Maria in Miranda Aguilar’s urgent Let Me Know When You Get Home.
These roles, plus the many others that are out there, or even waiting to be written, must be seen in order for theatre to be believed, sustained and supported by the communities they appeal to.
Writing this play has rejuvenated a sense of cultural belonging for me, I feel more Filipino than Australian because of the subject matter of my work, as it has allowed me to understand our culture, our people and our choices. I am proud of my culture, I am proud of its resilience, epitomised by many men and women I know.
I am grateful to those interviewees, my mother and to those who have come here and created lives for themselves and become people that the next generation could look up to. My hope in the years to come is that young Filipino-Australian people get to see Kasama in whatever form it takes, embrace it, and eventually feel compelled to delve into their pasts for answers. I hope that they see themselves in this play, no matter how big or small a part.
Because I saw no one I knew in Cynthia.