East Side Voices: Essays Celebrating East and Southeast Asian Identity in Britain edited by Helena Lee. Book review
East Side Voices: Essays Celebrating East and Southeast Asian Identity in Britain
Edited by Helena Lee
Review by Shirley Whiteside
In 2020, Helena Lee, acting deputy editor of Harper’s Bazaar, created East Side Voices, a monthly literary salon in London highlighting the work of Asian writers. This compelling collection of essays features several of the salon participants writing about their experiences as part of the diaspora of Asian and Southeast Asians living in Britain.
Lee writes the first essay, recalling her realisation that despite living in a London suburb and having the same accent as her peers, she was different from her fair-haired, blue-eyed school friends. She began to reject anything linked to her ancestry and tried to become more British. She stopped using chopsticks and left Saturday morning Chinese school, striving for acceptance but still she was BBC (British Born Chinese). Some things however are universal; Lee’s mother had a telephone voice, posher and less accented than her everyday speech and it was only by meeting her in person that her friends realised her mother was “foreign”.
Katie Leung, a Dundee-born actor, is most famous for her role as Cho Chang in the Harry Potter films. She remembers being in primary school and the teacher asking her if her surname was pronounced Lee-young and she agreed. Leung thought it sounded like a name anyone could say, a white person’s name. It is interesting that she kept this version of her name until relatively recently, noting that at the age of six she was already trying to please white people. Leung says that there were acting roles she wasn’t considered for because of her ethnicity. On the other hand, if a role for an Asian female came up, her part in Harry Potter meant that she was often the first actor to be considered. Leung writes well, her prosaic attitude to her life and work, and her sense of humour, resulting in a significant essay about being part of a diaspora in Scotland.
Asian women are blighted by racist and sexist tropes: the demure, obedient little woman; the steely, relentless Tiger Mothers; and the sexy, compliant super babes. Discussing passing for white, mixed race writer Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, recounts the times she has passed but wished she hadn’t. Such as when white men tell her they rate women by race, White, Asian, and Half, wearing their racism with a strange kind of pride. Women are guilty of blatant racism too, like the random woman who says, “Alright, Ching Chong?” as Hisayo Buchanan walks past.
The current pandemic seems to have brought racist attitudes to the fore. Zing Tsjeng finds it easy to get a seat on the London tube as no-one wants to sit next to a masked Asian person. Terms like “Chinese virus” and “Wuhan virus” appear in the news and hate crimes against East and Southeast Asians in London increase dramatically during the first lockdown.
One of the saddest stories concerns Claire Kohda, daughter of a Japanese mother and English father. As a child she visits her father’s parents, dreading the lukewarm reception she and her mother always receive. Surprisingly, her grandmother has painted a portrait of Claire, which is and isn’t Claire. Her grandmother has painted her as perhaps she would like to see her: her skin lightened, her features made more European. It is a devastating example of passive-aggressive racism.
Helena Lee has gathered some excellent writers covering many aspects of life in Britain as they affect Asian and Southeast Asian people. This collection is illuminating, funny, sad, and reveals aspects of Britain that for too long have not been addressed. This is the first but hopefully not the last assemblage of Asian and Southeast Asian writers discussing their experiences of life in Britain. It is an important book and a cracking read.