Join Kate Mosse as she sits down to talk with director Daniel Evans about his production of South Pacific. Daniel Evans is Artistic Director of CFT and his recent productions include This Is My Family, Quiz and Fiddler on the Roof.
Recorded on 12 July.
Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific in rehearsals
Many of the challenges and themes of South Pacific have been brought into greater focus over the past 16 months, including the significant rise in anti-Asian hate crimes against people of Chinese origin. Here, writer and journalist Zing Tsjeng asks:
What mask will they wear?
When US President Joe Biden signed the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act in May 2021, he was in full grandstanding rhetoric. ‘For centuries’, he said in his speech at the White House, ‘Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders – diverse and vibrant communities – have helped build this nation only to be often stepped over, forgotten or ignored. You know, lived here for generations, but still considered by some, the “other”. It’s wrong. It’s simply – to use the phrase – un-American.’
The Hate Crimes Act was passed in the Senate a month earlier, with nearly unanimous support. Conceived as a response to the recent spike in anti-Asian attacks, it was hailed as a landmark step in addressing racial violence towards communities of colour, enabling improved data collection of hate crimes and empowering law enforcement to identify and investigate offences. ‘Silence is complicity and we cannot be complicit’, Biden said. ‘We have to speak out.’
The legislation was the acknowledgement of a bitter and protracted wave of violence that saw Asian Americans – many of them elderly and female – assaulted in public. When the New York Times began mapping these attacks in March 2020, it recorded cases that stretched coast to coast, from Carmel County, California to St Petersburg, Florida. From sea to shining sea, Asian Americans have been beaten, spat upon, punched and pepper sprayed. They have had drinks poured on them and hit on the head with bricks and metal pipes. In the worst cases, they have died – like the six women who were killed at the Atlanta spa shooting or the 84-year-old man who suffered a fatal brain haemorrhage after being pushed to the ground.
Advocacy group Stop AAPI Hate recorded more than 6,600 hate crimes between March 2020 and March 2021 alone. People of Chinese heritage made up almost 44% of the attacks. But these incidents of violence were also, to a degree, indiscriminate – the Times reports several instances in which Asian Americans of Korean, Filipino, Japanese or Thai descent were targeted as Chinese, and insulted accordingly.
A Florida sports reporter, Josh Tolentino, was called ‘kung flu’ by a white couple and told to go back to China. Tolentino, who is second-generation Filipino American, said, ‘I am not Covid-19. I am not the Chinese virus… I am not responsible for the virus and neither are the Asians being attacked across the US.’
Racism doesn’t pause to check your ancestry.com DNA test. In the case of Tolentino and countless others, simply looking Asian – specifically Chinese – was enough to make them a target. Ever since former US President Trump stoked the flames of xenophobia by nicknaming coronavirus ‘kung flu’ and ‘China virus’, Asians all over the world have been walking with a target painted on their backs.
In Australia, four local councillors received poison pen letters, including one that promised ‘death to all Chinese people’. According to the Lowy Institute, Australia's leading think tank, nearly one in five Chinese Australians have been physically attacked during the pandemic. In the UK, Metropolitan Police stats show that hate crimes against those of Asian appearance have almost tripled since the start of the pandemic. In London, I spoke to one young woman who said that she was so afraid of being attacked that she was beginning a Krav Maga self-defence course.
It’s tempting to dismiss this as a purely coronavirus-related spike in aggression. In fact, I’ve tried to rationalise this to myself in much the same way, if only for my sanity. In one particularly terse conversation with my mother in the days after the Sarah Everard killing and the Atlanta shooting, she asked if I felt safe. I wanted to tell her that of course I was safe. I was living in London, the most multicultural city in Europe, and the pandemic would blow over soon enough. Why wouldn’t I feel safe?
But the truth is, I didn’t feel safe. On the surface, I could walk the streets relatively freely. They were bright and well-lit. On every corner there was the glowing edifice of a corner shop – a place of safety to duck into if necessary. I could call a friend instantly with a touch of my smartphone. But psychologically, I didn’t feel safe. My head was a raging, spinning machine of doom.
My mind was making a thousand calculations at once, drawing the links between these attacks and my experience of being Asian in the west – the funny looks, the racist harassment, the misogynist comments, the ‘where are you froms’ and the ‘you speak such good Englishes’ – before coming to the conclusion that no, this wasn’t just a Covid issue. Coronavirus had simply been the container ship for all of society’s misjudged stereotypes, cultural assumptions, and racist hate and fear. It had dredged it all up from the sea floor to the surface, given it a spear and called it ‘kung-flu’.
And what made it worse was the silence from those on the outside. As Vanity Fair writer RO Kwon writes, ‘Here is how the silence around anti-Asian racism has felt for the past months, year and, at times, throughout my life; like I am mired up to my waist in a terrible, sucking sludge of anxiety and pain… while white people who say they love us, who believe they’re allies – not all white people, but many – float past on rafts, in garden clothes, chatting about their day.’ Kwon’s friends said that they simply didn’t know what to say or were frightened of making it worse. To which I say, ‘Your worst is better than nothing.’
There is an ancient Chinese theatrical art known as bian lian, or face-changing, which reminds me of this strange moment in time. On stage, performers dressed in lavish masks and costumes will turn and twist around, somehow magically transforming their faces with every drum flourish and whirl. With a flick of their fans or cloaks, they swap between expressions of fear, surprise, anger and love.
The effect is disconcertingly magical and somehow uncanny – you never know quite which mask might appear next, and your body tenses in anticipation of the change, your mind working double time to figure out what might come in the seconds or minutes ahead.
Right now, I and many other Asian people never know which mask we’ll be received with when we leave home. As lockdown eases, will others look at me and perceive on my face the mask of sickness, of ill-health, of contagion? Will they take up arms – a brick, a metal pipe, a gun – against me?
And when I look at them, what mask will they wear?
Zing Tsjeng is a Singapore-born, London-based writer and Executive Editor of VICE UK.
Stop Anti-Asian racism & China-bashing rally, Washington DC, 27 March 2021 / Elvert Barnes Photography
Solidarity Against Hate Crimes demonstration, USA, March 2021 / Becker1999
This Is How It Feels
Sung by Gina Beck and Julian Ovenden from their homes to mark what would have been the opening night of South Pacific in July 2020.