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The Growth in ESEA Representation: Pitfalls, Potentials, and Politics

Dora Lam – Xiao Ma - Ni Hsieh -  Ruth Cheung Judge

Last year, East and South East Asian (ESEA) Heritage Month took place for the third time since being initiated by besea.n in 2021. The annual celebration of the ‘heritage, culture, history and everything in between’ of ESEA communities in the UK has grown rapidly, with hundreds of events held across the country by grassroots groups and cultural organisations. The increasingly recognised ESEA terminology in the UK reflects that this is a formative time in the collective identity-making of East and South East Asian communities, with the growing visibility of ESEA representation not only in grassroots spaces but also in major national cultural institutions. In other words, a lot is happening, but so what?

This article came into existence because at this crucial time we found ourselves (read on for more about us) asking questions. Like many of you, we have participated in many ESEA events both as audience and organisers. Sharing honest post-event reflections with each other, we found ourselves floating somewhere in between pride and discomfort – pride at the ESEA visibility, but sometimes left with a bittersweet taste in our mouth at the absence of criticality. We began to refer to this as the ‘critical vacuum’. It's clear that ESEA representation is on the rise; nonetheless, we believe there needs to be scrutiny of what stories are being told, how, and by whom. Don’t get us wrong - celebrating is important, but critically taking stock of the pitfalls and potentials that come with the increased space for representing ESEA communities is just as, if not more, important. So we felt compelled to address the critical vacuum - and in this, know we are not alone.


Here, from a position of ‘critical friends’, we highlight three key areas of ‘representational politics’ that we think need particular critical awareness. We give examples not to shame or praise anyone in particular – we see all the initiatives we mention as both laudable and flawed in various ways. Rather, we hope our critical stance will be a generative tool, keeping those of us involved in the growth of ESEA activism sharp, and making the opportunities we get to represent ESEA communities really count for good.

Dismantling the model minority myth


The model minority myth has long been criticised. This is the idea that all Chinese and ESEA people are ‘naturally’ high achievers in education and employment, and ‘well integrated’ into white-majority societies. As summarised by Diana Yeh, this is a racialised discourse, which pits some minorities against others and downplays racism, effort, and struggle.


In some recent, well-intended, ESEA representational efforts, model minority narratives continue to sneak in. For example, the informative ‘Chinese and British’ exhibition at the British Library raised awareness of underrepresented stories of the Chinese diaspora in diverse sectors spanning four centuries through fascinating archival material and oral histories, but it seemed to place a great emphasis on representing ‘the Chinese’ as hardworking, talented, and economically productive – with the final third of the exhibition on ‘Culture’, a somewhat surface-level dedication to profiling notable contemporary individuals in a range of fields: fashion, film, music, medicine, law, literature, sport, and so forth (e.g., tennis star Emma Raducanu). We understand the exhibition’s good intentions here: celebrating talented individuals creates a point of human connection, and also fosters proud visibility in the face of racism. The ‘feelgood’ response that these sorts of representations prompt was shown in some of the visitor comments on the exhibition. For example, one person wrote, ‘Seeing our history, experiences and contributions is so affirming and powerful’. Yet might we ask whether, at a deeper level, these sorts of portraits play into the portrayal of ESEA folk as ‘model minorities’.

‘Chinese and British’ exhibition at the British Library (18 November 2022 – 23 April 2023). Photo ©Yuhan Wang

This is not necessarily a case of ‘outsider’ stereotyping - we know that sometimes the model minority myth comes from the bottom-up. Facing the UK’s hostile environment where migrants are scapegoated for all manner of social ills, many members of the Chinese diaspora (particularly older generations) find themselves instinctively responding to the hostility with narratives of their own success and contribution to the UK society, ‘proving’ that they should be accepted. This not only reproduces the model minority myth but also perpetuates ‘good immigrant’ politics – that migrants are only welcome if they are talented and ‘earn’ their place. Low awareness of the pitfalls of this stereotype within communities themselves is linked to the fragmented histories of activism in Chinese communities in the UK, due to geographically dispersed settlement patterns. Combined with the fact it is increasingly common for cultural institutions to adopt community participation or co-design approaches, amplifying ‘community knowledge’ (undoubtedly a positive thing) can come with its own hurdles. We have participated in or organised such community consultation work, which often struggles to reach people from more marginal socioeconomic backgrounds. Among the diverse and conflicting ideas that appear, one common narrative is: ‘I want to celebrate our achievements and feel proud, and I don’t want to focus on racism’. There is nothing wrong with the desire to embrace positive self-affirmation, but this need not be incompatible with addressing the model minority myth, and creating inclusive representation is not only about ‘including’ ESEA people in the process but also about actively engaging with racial equality and social justice.


Similarly, there is also an aspirational tone to many ESEA groups and initiatives – shiny social media posts, and a strong focus on success – both successful individuals (e.g. directors, musicians), and the successes of the groups themselves. Again, these curated, aspirational self-presentations express ESEA pride, but could we also keep a critical question on the table - whether in some cases they indicate internalised assimilation desires to embody the ‘model minority’? And by extension, buy into and perpetuate another myth, that of capitalist meritocracy? 


To put it another way - where do representations of ‘extraordinary’ individuals leave the many ESEA folk who wash dishes, deep-fry chips, clean hotel rooms, work 9-5 administrative jobs, achieve averagely in their studies, and make families and homes and lives that are ‘ordinary’? Where does it leave more difficult conversations around topics such as intergenerational conflict and trauma, or mental health crises in the context of racism? Perhaps focusing on ‘success’  also does a work of erasure: the ordinary person, and the structural class-race discrimination they face, disappears from view.


We propose that cultural institutions and ESEA groups should move beyond simply spotlighting ‘extraordinary’ ESEA individuals and critically address the model minority stereotype. In contrast to the aspects of the ‘Chinese and British’ exhibition that we have critiqued, the panel discussions organised around it (about food spaces and identity negotiation) did this well, creating space for more nuanced dialogue about the creative agency of migrants, the in-betweenness of diasporic lived experiences, and how older generations’ emphasis on children’s education reflects the racial discrimination they faced and their hope for better opportunities for the next generation.   


There is also exciting work going on by artists and researchers to uncover and amplify overlooked ESEA microhistories and everyday lives. Some recent projects in this vein include: ‘Uncovering Vietnamese Archives at Museum of the Home’ where Dora Lam collaborated with other ESEA artists to invite the Vietnamese communities to engage with local archives in meaningful ways; Emily Beswick’s ‘Traces of Memory’ project with Liverpool ESEA family photographs; the ‘Ingat-Ingat’ exhibition, bringing to life the untold stories of ESEA NHS workers who arrived in the 1960s-80s; and Denise Kwan’s ‘Object Stories of British Chinese Women’ project.


These projects do celebrate resilience and contribution - but rather than glorifying ‘extraordinary’ individuals, they bring to light the struggles and dignity of people in particular places and moments in history. They may not make such a tidy or shiny story, but generate a deeper understanding of the myriad lived experiences of diverse ESEA groups, bearing witness to their ‘unremarkable’ day-to-day histories, always interwoven with those of other communities and wider society.



Unravelling the blanket ESEA ‘we’


The term ESEA, although not entirely new, according to Diana Yeh, has gained prominence since the outbreak of COVID-19 within the wider anti-racist mobilisation and community-building activities organised by people from East Asian or Southeast Asian background, who found all themselves (potential) victims of hate crimes or incidents targeting ‘Chinese’ people. The ESEA label was used as a tool for promoting solidarity while avoiding privileging the ‘Chinese’ experience – but like any label, it still comes with its dangers.


The four authors of this article could all be labelled ‘ESEA’ or ‘British Chinese’ - yet our heritages and lived experiences are very diverse. One of us migrated to the UK from Northwest China to study and has ended up making it their home, another is the British-born child of takeaway owners with mainland Chinese and Hong Kong origins, another is a Singaporean with Chinese and Peranakan heritage who has lived in multiple countries, another is a British-born mixed-race person with Hong Kong heritage, who grew up predominantly ‘white passing’. When you factor in our own partners and children, the identity picture gets more complex. Class, gender, generation, nationality, ethno-linguistic heritage, and mixing (inter-ethnic and international) all shape us.


There is a balance to be struck between the way the ESEA label creates pan-East and Southeast Asian solidarity – especially around the shared experience of racism – and paradoxically, the fact as any identity label does, it may flatten difference and give the impression of a ‘natural’ and monolithic racial category.


Perhaps one way forward is to move away from identity as the focal point all together. A recent ESEA heritage month event, ‘Roots of Change’, organised by besea.n and held at the British Library illustrates this well. The event was focused on sustainability, waste, and food practices. It did link these discussions to ‘ESEA heritage’ – but rather than focus on identity issues, or present ‘heritage’ as ‘authentic’ or unchanging, it was used as a springboard, a source of generative inspiration for broader conversations about the intersection between sustainability, race and colonialism. 

Event ‘Roots of Change’, organised by besea.n and held at the British Library, 2023. Photo by Xiao Ma.

With any label, there is also a danger of unwarranted claims to a ‘we’. It is notable that people leading ESEA groups are predominantly young, women, and middle-class (though many grew up in families with more precarious status). This is not necessarily a bad thing – it speaks of exciting new forms of gendered activism - but as these groups are asked to speak for ‘the ESEA community’ in corporate, public, and cultural spaces, it is crucial to interrogate how our particular backgrounds shape our views, who we can honestly represent, and if any single ‘community’ or ‘culture’ even really exists. The ‘Roots of Change’ event walked this tightrope well on the whole – at times broad statements about ‘our culture’ slipped in – but mostly a more nuanced narrative was expressed. For example, one of the speakers was careful to name the specifics of his heritage as shaped by the history of Japanese internment, and to celebrate the hybridity of Japanese-Americanness, reminding us that identity is always personal and always evolving.


Whilst the ESEA label is an exciting expression of solidarity, we need to be cautious about the essentialising and oversimplifying work that labels do, and perhaps think of it more as a meeting point for multiple ‘communities’. When seeking or contributing to ‘community consultation’, we should ask: who speaks for ‘the community’? In ‘a community’ made up of many communities with diverse national, ethnic and linguistic identities (not to mention religious, generational, gendered/sexualised, and (dis)abled diversities, and conflicting political standpoints), whose voice gets represented? How can we take care to specify our particular positions, avoid speaking for others, acknowledge or seek out marginalised voices, and support those unable to ‘vocalise’ in the spaces of representation?



Stepping out of the critical vacuum


The broader impetus behind this piece is a concern with the ‘critical vacuum’ in much ESEA representation. Much research has been done about the emotional and political consequences of heritage-making practices (in the contexts of England, the US and Australia). According to Laurajane Smith, visitors at museums and heritage sites come with their own ‘entrance narratives’ (pre-existing, emotionally-charged understandings and opinions about certain topics before entering an exhibition), and most visitors usually reinforce their pre-existing beliefs, whether conservative or progressive, unless the curation team actively uses emotion-provoking interpretation techniques to provide visitors with the space to be imaginative, compassionate and reflective.


In some ESEA events we attended, we felt there should be more proactive engagement with visitors’ varied ‘entrance narratives’. For example, the ‘Chinese and British’ exhibition at the British Library did well in creating a sense of history through the rich collections on display, as shown in positive visitor comments. Still, we believe there was more room in the main exhibition narratives for critical historicisation that would facilitate deep learning from the past. We were disappointed at the absence of a substantive critical voice in some sections. For instance, historical materials about early Chinese businesses which were full of viscerally painful examples of overt and structural racism were accompanied by muted commentary, in a ‘flat’ and ‘neutral’ tone, without properly delving into the ‘prejudiced views’ faced by Chinese communities in Britain.


Not adequately dissecting racism was embedded within a broader issue – a lack of contextualising artefacts in properly covered socio-political history. One of the panel discussions organised around the exhibition did explore the role of the British Empire in creating Chinese diasporas, but in the exhibition itself, the lack of critical historicisation was particularly evident in sections around the Chinese Labour Corps and Chinese seamen in Liverpool. Here, hundreds of thousands of Chinese men gave their bodily labour and sometimes their lives for British wartime and mercantile efforts, being rewarded with poor conditions, racial discrimination, and in the case of post-WW2 Liverpool, coercive deportation. These are critically important, dark chapters in Britain’s history of racism and class oppression which remain largely unacknowledged and un-memorialised. The exhibition briefly brought visitors’ attention to these difficult histories by showing a patchwork of photographic material, artefacts narrated as demonstrating Chinese Labour Corps workers’ ‘creativity’ and ‘resilience’, and material related to the descents of the deported Chinese seamen. Though there might be resourcing limits, what Yujie Zhu calls ‘question-led’ interpretation techniques can facilitate more critical learning. Visitors could be propelled to reflect on their existing beliefs and ask questions like - Why did it happen? How was it justified at that time? What was the human cost? How can we learn from historical wrongs to avoid similar things happening in the future? How does the past help us better understand the present (e.g. COVID-related racism not as isolated or new)?   


This is one example of how the silence of the critical vacuum can end up feeling rather like gaslighting toxic positivity. We know here we may be coming across as ‘feminist killjoys’ – to use Sara Ahmed’s term - but in a political context where the 2021 Sewell Report claimed there was no institutional racism in Britain, we need to ask if muted mentions of ‘prejudice’ and representations of model minority success (sports stars! fashion icons!) are really what is needed. Perhaps instead, we could be seeing explorations of issues like anti-ESEA racism, the stories and struggles of recent ESEA immigrants, the premature death of ESEA individuals in the context of immigration politics and COVID-19, or taking time to sit with the discomfort, anger, and grief of historical wrongs.


It is also critical for emergent ESEA anti-racist work to not only focus on tackling hate crimes that affect ‘us’, but to contribute more deeply to struggles against structural racism against all minoritised communities, and interrogate their potential complicity with anti-Blackness, as Pear Nuallak has argued. More politicised representational work is already happening in several quarters - although mostly at the grassroots. For instance, the Royal Exchange and the Young Vic embraced Kimber Lee’s scathingly angry untitled f*ck m*ss s**gon play, the Liverpool ESEA network has held several events working to build awareness of the forced deportations of Chinese seamen in 1946, daikon zine work against intersectional structural injustice, often in relation to ESEA migrants (e.g. remember and resist project and ‘Remember the Essex 39’ campaign). Many groups, such as ESEA sisters and the Liverpool ESEA Network have moved towards expressing solidarity with non-ESEA political causes, such as the Palestinian struggle. It is not that we expect every instance of ESEA representation to be politically radical, but there is a huge gulf between an ‘information sharing’ approach, and the clear appetite for more critical, reparative representational efforts that foster feeling and reflection about fraught interracial histories, and indeed about current politics. Ideally, national cultural institutions should enter into dialogue with the more critical conversations going on in some grassroots ESEA spaces.

‘Remember the Essex 39’ campaign, 2023. Photo credit: Remember & Resist

Towards solidarity and politicised engagement


In this piece, we’ve argued that when we (ESEA individuals and groups) or white-majority institutions engage in representing ESEA communities and their histories, it is crucial to avoid subtly reproducing the model minority myth or homogenising ESEA diversity, and to make the stories we tell critically engaged with the politics of class and race. Whilst we know that ESEA advocacy encompasses a broad spectrum, and not every group will share our ideals, we think this really matters. We seem to be at a moment where there are opportunities for greater ESEA representation. But there are dangers of institutional ‘one-night stands’ - tokenistic approaches to ‘ticking the box’ of ESEA representation, at the cost of longer-term meaningful engagement with communities. Let’s not waste opportunities to get it right.


To close - it is worth asking ourselves – what is our ultimate purpose in seeking ESEA representation? Recent debates around ‘rainbow washing’ speak of the dangers of bitterly won representation becoming another aspirational branding exercise for corporate interests. Perhaps, rather than lining up to hang our shiny, happy ESEA portraits in the hallways of ‘the integrated’, ESEA groups may be sharper in deconstructing the ‘cruel optimism’ of racial capitalism, bolder in calling out the intersectional oppressions faced by ESEA communities, and more creative in imagining intersectional resistance in solidarity with other migrant, marginalised, racialised, and classed groups. This might be a harder task than celebrating achievement, but perhaps we can consider that to be radical is to be nuanced, careful, and true to ESEA life in all its struggle as well as success. 

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