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Where Are The U.K.’s East Asians On Screen? New Industry Test Hopes to Boost Representation (EXCLUSIVE)

British East and Southeast Asian media advocacy group BEATS has rolled out a ground-breaking new representation measure for the U.K. industry.

Launched during a virtual summit hosted by BEATS (British East Asians in Theater and on Screen), the British Film Institute (BFI) and ITV, the BEATS Test measures on-screen representation for British East and Southeast Asians in U.K. film and television productions. The initiative is fashioned after the Bechdel Test, which evaluates portrayals of women in media, and the Riz Test, a measurement of Muslim representation inspired by Riz Ahmed’s rallying 2017 speech about diversity.

In order to pass the BEATS Test, a project must be able to answer “yes” to the following three questions, in which BESEA stands for British and Southeast Asians: (1) Are there two or more BESEA characters? (2) Do at least two BESEA characters speak fluent English with a British accent? (3) Does at least one BESEA character pursue their own goal separate to the white characters?

The Jan. 14 summit was the first of its kind to address issues relating to British East and Southeast Asian representation in the U.K., which is sorely lacking on and off-screen, with scarce momentum for change within the industry.

“We want this test to become the standard for the industry to achieve,” explained BEATS member and actor-writer Rebecca Boey, noting that in order to pass the test, BESEA presence mustn’t feel tokenistic — where a character’s presence feels more like a symbolic gesture or a box tick. The test also has a keen U.K. focus, with characters expected to be British or living and/or working in the country.

BEATS presented a number of eye-opening examples, such as the “Harry Potter” film franchise, which had a single BESEA character in Cho Chang (Katie Leung) over eight films; similarly, BBC and Netflix’s London-set drama “Giri/Haji” featured a number of BESEA characters, but only one spoke with a British accent.

Out of 17 films evaluated by BEATS, only three passed.

Successful films include the Andrew Leung and Ben Whishaw-starring “Lilting,” which features several BESEA characters, fluent English spoken by at least two, and specific storylines for BESEA figures; as well as the 2016 film “The Receptionist,” which turns on a Taiwanese graduate in London and in which BESEA characters have their own goals and story arcs. The 1986 film “Ping Pong,” which featured a host of British Chinese characters, also passed with flying colors.

“It would seem that passing this test is actually quite a radical and groundbreaking achievement — and it shouldn’t be that way,” said Boey. “For British East and Southeast Asians to become a normalized, naturalized presence on our screen and in the fabric of British life and society, we’re going to need a few more productions to make an effort to pass the BEATS test.”

Earlier this week, BEATS took aim at the BBC for the lack of representative casting in its hit Netflix co-production “The Serpent,” about serial killer Charles Sobhraj, played by “A Prophet” star Tahar Rahim, a French actor of Algerian descent.

In a statement, the org argued that although the Mammoth Screen-produced show was filmed across numerous Southeast Asian countries, “none of the main cast are East/Southeast Asian, including the actor portraying half Vietnamese, half Indian Sobhraj.”

Last year, BEATS called out ITV’s “Singapore Grip” drama for its depiction of colonialism. Interestingly, ITV was a co-sponsor of Thursday’s summit.

During the event, BEATS member and screenwriter Emma Ko also highlighted the shocking lack of BESEA representation off screen, as revealed by recent diversity data from industry bod Diamond that broke down, by ethnic background, key off-camera roles in the U.K. industry, spanning commissioning editors, writers, directors, producers, executive producers and production managers.

“The numbers are pretty bleak for anyone who is not white, but when it comes to East Asians, they were so insignificant, they were redacted,” said Ko. “When we say BESEAs are working with zero inclusion in the TV industry, we are not being impressionistic or metaphorical — we are being literal.”

The film industry hasn’t fared much better, with just three BESEA-helmed films that have been publicly funded and theatrically released from 2000 onwards: Xialou Guo’s “She, a Chinese” (2009) and Hong Khaou’s “Lilting” (2014) and “Monsoon” (2019).

Ko encouraged anyone developing a BESEA or ESEA-themed project to think twice about who is hired. “If you’re an all-white team and you want to make a film about the true story of the repatriated Liverpool Chinese, please do so with someone who can make that project better.

“Why hire someone to sprinkle soy sauce, when you can hire a talented BESEA team who possess the vital lived-in experience to do these stories justice and will help you bring that story to life authentically, creatively and with quality?” said Ko.


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