Gina Beck   Julian Ovenden
Joanna Ampil   Keir Charles   Rob Houchen

Rodgers & Hammerstein's

South Pacific

Music by Richard Rodgers
Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Book by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan
Adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Tales of the South Pacific by James A. Michener

Festival TheatreTicketsPrice: from £10
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A roof-raising triumph



Sunday Times

Exhilarating, glorious and timely

The Stage

An enchanting musical done to perfection

Daily Telegraph

This is CFT at its best - powerfully, poignantly and brilliantly back

Chichester Observer

Rodgers & Hammerstein's South Pacific (which was originally scheduled for Festival 2020) has been rescheduled to Festival 2021, running from 5 July – 5 September. 

1943. On an archipelago in the South Pacific Ocean, US troops are kicking their heels amid the cacao groves while restlessly waiting for the war to reach them. 

Nellie Forbush, a navy nurse from Arkansas, finds herself falling for the French plantation owner, Emile de Becque – a man with a mysterious past. The scheming sailor Luther Billis runs a makeshift laundry to earn a quick buck, but he’s no match for the quick-witted Polynesian Bloody Mary who’s intent on exploiting these foreigners.

When young Princeton graduate Lieutenant Joe Cable is flown in on a dangerous reconnaissance mission, love and fear become entwined as the island’s battle for hearts and minds begins.

This much-loved, Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical opened in 1949 to huge success, becoming one of Broadway’s longest running hit shows. It boasts one of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s most memorable scores, featuring songs such as Some Enchanted Evening, I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair and Bali Ha’i.

This new production is directed by Artistic Director Daniel Evans whose previous Chichester productions include This Is My Family, Quiz and Fiddler on the Roof

Making their Chichester debuts are Gina Beck (Matilda, Show Boat, Wicked, Phantom of the Opera) as Nellie, Julian Ovenden (Bridgerton, Downton Abbey, Merrily We Roll Along, Grand Hotel, BBC Proms) as Emile, Joanna Ampil (Cats, Les Misérables, Miss Saigon) as Bloody Mary, and Rob Houchen (Les Misérables, The Light in the Piazza) as Cable*. Keir Charles, who played Chris Tarrant in Quiz, returns as Luther Billis. Alex Young, who played Sally Smith in Me and My Girl, shares the role of Nellie with Gina Beck, who is pregnant, from 5 August and takes over full-time from 23 August.

The production will also be streamed on dates in August and September.

*On 14 August the role of Cable will be performed by Zack Guest.

Presented by arrangement with Concord Theatricals Ltd on behalf of The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization.  

Purchase a digital copy of the programme

Our programmes are designed to be the perfect insightful companion to the production. The South Pacific programme includes rehearsal photography, an interview with members of the cast and creative team, an article on Rodgers & Hammerstein's political involvement, extracts from James Michener's original novel, biographies and news from the Theatre.

By clicking on BUY you will be re-directed to Issuu's website. The purchased programme will be available to read on their website and app. 

Purchasing a digital programme does not include the purchase of a printed programme.


Prologue tickets available


A roof-raising triumph. Gina Beck’s clarion soprano and Julian Ovenden’s emotive tenor voices as Nellie and Emile, confirm them as superstars of musical theatre.


An enchanting musical done to perfection. Meltingly gorgeous songs, Daniel Evans’s production is visually enchanting, Choreographer Ann Yee gets the best out of everyone.

Daily Telegraph

Daniel Evans’s exhilarating revival of their 1949 hit South Pacific is a timely reminder that, at their peak, the huge emotions they engendered were in service of serious ideas in punchy musical theatre. And given that this musical is famously a powerfully anti-racist statement, it couldn’t be timelier. David Cullen’s new orchestration demands 15 players – a serious rarity these days – and hearing subtle woodwinds and the shimmer of a harp delivers delicious depth and colour. And then there’s the eye-widening cast of 31 (plus children). Thanks to them and Ann Yee’s zesty, heat-building choreography, the big numbers really deliver

The Stage

Glorious. The genius of the show is that it weaves the politics into a string of gorgeous melodies.


Daniel Evans’s production bursts with energy as it foregrounds an anti-racist message in the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic. A magnificent opening sequence shows Sera Maehara as the Tonkinese girl offered up to a US lieutenant, dancing alone, swaying as if in water, then surrounded by a circle of martial men, engulfed by the sounds of war; pretty much wordless in the movie, she is here given a marvellous language of gesture. Her mother is finely reimagined by Joanna Ampil – as a driven human being, not merely a seller of human heads. Evans, one of the great directors of musical theatre, ensures flamboyance and enormous, nonstop buoyancy. Ann Yee’s choreography puts springs under sequences of goggle-eyed chaps and girls in swimsuits. These soaring melodies carry the danger of delusion – but are also truly glorious.


A tropical treat. Chichester Festival Theatre is back, with a big summer musical in Daniel Evans’s ravishing and well-oiled production, with gorgeous Technicolor set design by Peter McKintosh. An evening of blissful enchantment.

Daily Mail

Director Daniel Evans, both at Chichester and before that at Sheffield, has succeeded in breathing new life into old musicals. And he’s got another winner here. A strong cast is led by Julian Ovenden as the plantation owner Emile de Becque, and Gina Beck bravely throwing herself around as Nellie. Rarely has the drama sounded more immediate or more moving. There’s a brilliant, show-stopping performance from Keir Charles as the wide boy Luther Billis; Joanna Ampil portrays Bloody Mary as a clever entrepreneur, not a caricature native, and the part of her daughter (Sera Maehara) is filled out by some eloquent dance solos from choreographer Ann Yee. This show deserves to be seen, especially if, as I hope, it transfers to the West End.

Mail on Sunday

Rodgers and Hammerstein's much-loved musical with utterly captivating tunes is a visual treat that will be perfect for anyone deprived of a theatre feast


This is the CFT at its best - powerfully, poignantly and brilliantly back, director Daniel Evans masterminding the most sumptuous pictures. But maybe the real treasure in the show is Gina Beck’s wonderfully-expressive performance as Nellie Forbush. It’s most definitely a show with something to say, and it is said brilliantly and provocatively across the cast. Bold, brave and beautiful.

Chichester Observer

Chichester is back with a bang. Evans fills this staging with energy, wit, and joy, sublimely orchestrated by Nigel Lilley, sparkling choreography by Ann Yee and Peter McKintosh’s designs give the piece a glorious dynamism. Daniel Evans has reinterpreted and refreshed South Pacific for our era.

The American

Enchanted by a ‘South Pacific’ for today. Daniel Evans’s scintillating production has all the dazzle, energy and charisma we’ve come to expect of musicals at this venue. It’s glorious to see a stage pulsating with life: a cast of 31 in full voice in the ensemble numbers, spinning across the stage in Ann Yee’s witty, dynamic choreography. Evans’s production revels in the joy of a galvanising musical while both celebrating its progressive stance and not shying away from its limitations.

Financial Times

Explodes in a sea of colour, sound and joy on to the stage. This is simply superb. It is the tonic we have all been waiting for. It is perfect beyond fault. It fizzes with energy, with sheer professionalism and magnetism, and with a cast led by Beck and Julian Ovenden who absolutely nail every single note. This is feelgood at its best.

West Sussex County Times

Joanna Ampil is a very different Bloody Mary, a rather beautiful, totally Machiavellian woman, her performance is excellent. Julian Ovenden as Emile de Becque and Gina Beck as Nellie Forbush are, quite simply, superb. The ensemble work is joyous, Chichester Festival is back

Portsmouth News

Daniel Evans has done justice to the seriousness that underlies the musical's 'cock-eyed optimism', supported by an excellent cast and creative team. Julian Ovenden and Gina Beck are superb. Joanna Ampil as a believably vulnerable Bloody Mary below the tough exterior. Of the GIs, Rob Houchen as Lieutenant Cable has a beautiful tenor voice, and Keir Charles stands out as the scheming but ultimately compassionate Luther Billis. I cannot fault this production

Daily Echo

Truly, some enchanted evening under Daniel Evans’ contemporary and imaginative direction. The singing is absolutely glorious

Musical Theatre Review

Gloriously revived and also refreshed Rodgers & Hammerstein classic has new relevance in a spectacular production. This production really does demand to be seen

Arts Desk

Big musical theatre is back. Gina Beck’s Nellie romps and larks gorgeously, and belts out some of the most thrillingly fine low notes anywhere; Julian Ovenden is not only a fine actor but proves to have an immense, exciting operatic voice. Seabees and Ensigns are a roaring, storming ensemble, set-pieces like Honey Bun stopping the show with our glee


It is utterly joyous and joyful. It conveys its message by stealth and winning your heart as well as your mind. Stunningly designed to fill Chichester’s large circular stage with an unfolding series of alternately beautiful and gritty stage pictures by designer Peter McKintosh. Choreographer Ann Yee supports it with wonderfully drilled choreographic moments of marching nurses and soldiers, but most especially by turning Sera Maehara’s delicate Liat into an expressive dancer who, unable to speak English, conveys her feelings entirely in dance. It is also thrilling to find such underdeveloped characters, at least as scripted, as Keir Charles’s Luther Billis, Joanna Ampil’s Bloody Mary and David Birrell’s Captain Brackett register as fully-realised life forces, not just comedic or dramatic diversion. Director Daniel Evans allows his leads to really flower; everyone is so real, it makes Gina Beck’s enchanting and poignant Nellie Forbush and Julian Ovenden’s gloriously sung de Becque capture the heart as seldom before.

Mark Shenton

Julian Ovenden is the best Emile I’ve ever seen. He is self-effacing, charming, attractive and, clearly, an attentive father. And that voice! Gina Beck is a lively match, shifting convincingly from loving to critical and from embarrassed to contrite. Her account of “I’m Going to Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair” is, as ever, an all singing, all dancing show stopper.

Sardines Magazine

This is a 5-star enchanted evening and as a comeback show it sets the bar very high


Daniel Evans’s production is a triumph! Book this show now! This is the most polished, professional musical I’ve seen for some time with perfect singing and it deserves a five star accolade from Theatrevibe, the site that doesn’t do stars unless the show is really exceptional!

Theatre Vibe

Daniel Evans’s take on South Pacific offers an evening of classic musical theatre, staged to perfection. Evans has assembled an outstanding company who deliver musical theatre excellence. Production values are magnificent throughout with Evans and designer Peter McKintosh making fine use of Chichester's massive revolve. Ann Yee’s dance routines, including some inspiring solo balletic routines from Sera Maehara’s Liat are just divine, while high above the stage Cat Beveridge’s luxuriously furnished 16-piece band makes fine work of David Cullen’s new orchestrations of Rodgers’ classic score.

Jonathan Baz

Dazzling. Beck and Ovenden, in the lead roles, are sublime. A bold and beautiful production

London Theatre 1

One of the best musical scores ever written, wonderfully delivered in this production by a cast in fine voice with clear strong vocals and a memorable orchestration under the direction of Cat Beveridge which definitely leaves you humming the tunes all the way home.

Pocket Size Theatre

Cast & Creatives

Cast information

Gina Beck, who is pregnant, plays Nellie Forbush from 5 July. From 5 - 22 August, she will share the role with Alex Young, who will perform at the following performances: 5, 6 August, 7 August matinee, 10 August evening, 14 August evening, 18 August evening, 21 August matinee. From 23 August, Alex Young will perform the role full-time for the remainder of the run.

On 14 August the role of Cable will be played by Zack Guest.


Creative team

Cast List

Daniel Evans


Peter McKintosh

Set & Costume Designer

Ann Yee

Choreographer & Movement Director

Nigel Lilley

Musical Supervisor

Cat Beveridge

Musical Director

David Cullen

New Orchestration

Robert Russell Bennett

Original Broadway Orchestration

Howard Harrison

Lighting Designer

Paul Groothuis

Sound Designer

Gillian Tan

Video Designer

Theo Jamieson

Additional Arrangements and Happy Talk Orchestration

Charlotte Sutton

Casting Director

Verity Naughton

Additional Children's Casting



Access performances

Access performances

Events grouped by day with booking links.
DateEventTimeAvailabilityBooking Link
August 2021
Audio Described, Socially Distanced Last few tickets remaining Tickets
Audio Described Last few tickets remaining Tickets
SignedTickets available.Tickets
Audio DescribedTickets available.Tickets
Audio DescribedTickets available.Tickets
September 2021
Dementia FriendlyTickets available.Tickets

View our full list of access performances

Linked Events


Pricing Information

Price bands for an event, organised by showing
Performance description Price Bands
Previews/Press Night£10£10£10£31£37
All other performances£10£18£31£43£49
  • Friends: Book up to four discounted tickets at £2 off per ticket
  • Groups 8+ Monday and Tuesday: £29 per ticket
  • Groups 8+ Wednesday - Friday: £5 off each ticket
  • Groups 40+ Wednesday - Friday: £8 off each ticket, plus a £5 ticket for the Group Organiser
  • School and College Groups 10+ Monday - Friday: £8.50 per ticket; one free teacher ticket with every nine paid
  • Family tickets (excludes Saturday evenings): Half Price for up to four U16s with every full price paying adult. Discounts applied at the checkout. All tickets must be booked and paid for in a single transaction.
  • Over 60s Monday - Thursday: £2 off
  • Full-time students in Higher Education, Jobseekers Allowance and Income Support claimants Monday - Thursday: Half Price
  • Full-time students in Higher Education, Jobseekers Allowance and Income Support claimants Monday - Thursday: Standby from one hour before the performance: £8.50
  • Prologue Book 3 Get 1 Free: Log in to your account to see Prologue seats
  • £5 Prologue Tickets may be available for 16-30 year olds: Log in to your account to see Prologue seats
  • Access tickets may be available for Access Members: Log in to your account to see Access seats
  • All venues: Only one reduction applies per ticket, and all discounts are subject to availability and at the discretion of the Box Office.
  • All venues: Discounts do not apply on Previews and Press Nights
  • Festival Theatre: Discounts apply to top three price bands only
  • Festival Theatre: Some seating areas may not be available for all performances

Prices are guaranteed until Monday 7 June, and are then subject to change.

Content and Themes

At CFT, we want everyone to feel truly welcome and comfortable. While we try not to spoil anyone’s enjoyment by giving away ‘spoilers’ such as plot twists and narrative surprises, we also recognise that some people may find certain themes distressing. You’ll find guidance on such content below; please be aware that by reading this, some elements of the plot may be revealed. Please note that this may be updated nearer the time of the production as staging details are confirmed.

If you have any questions or feedback, do email us at

South Pacific
Language: Racially offensive language prevalent at the period and some other derogatory language
Nudity: None 
Violence: None 
Themes: Love, war, racial prejudice

COVID Guidelines

Welcoming you back safely

We are offering one designated socially distanced performance each week in July and August for South Pacific (at approximately 50% capacity). All other South Pacific performances are currently being sold at reduced capacity (1100 from 24 July, 1200 from 2 August, as opposed to full capacity of 1300); these will be opened up to full capacity in due course. There are also a number of streamed performances available to watch from home.

Socially distanced performances are sold with seating arranged in bubbles of 1 – 6 and timed arrivals. At all other performances, seating will not be in bubbles.

Please note - all information is correct at time of publishing. We are acting in accordance with government guidelines, which are subject to change - please check this page before your visit.  

Performances from 19 July

The following measures will be in place throughout July and August. We will be updating our procedures in line with government guidelines, so please do check the website before your visit for the latest information.

  • E-tickets will be issued as standard. These do not have to be printed but can be shown on your smartphone or similar device for us to scan on entry.In order to reduce queueing and minimise contact, tickets will not be available for collection from the Box Office
  • We will carry out enhanced cleaning of all public areas, both prior to and during performances.
  • Hand sanitising stations positioned throughout the building.
  • During the interval we ask that people are mindful of other patrons, and take note of any directional signage that may be in place to regulate the flow of patrons through the building.
  • Face coverings are strongly recommended, in line with government advice, for the duration of your visit (except for eating and drinking) unless exempt for health reasons. Our Front of House staff will continue to wear face coverings.
  • Bars, Cafes and restaurants will be open, but transactions will be cashless and paperless, with perspex screens fitted at all sale points. Please check the website before your visit for the most up to date information.
  • Cloakrooms will not be available so please bring minimal belongings

Socially Distanced Performances

The following measure are in place for all socially distanced performances:

  • Our socially-distanced auditorium offers a reduced capacity of approximately 50% ensuring a 1m-plus space between parties
  • Seat bubbles are available as groups of 1 to 6 seats
  • E-tickets will be issued as standard. These do not have to be printed but can be shown on your smartphone or similar device for us to scan on entry. In order to reduce queueing and minimise contact, tickets will not be available for collection from the Box Office
  • Tickets will detail timed arrivals with an assigned door number
  • Contactless temperature checks will be carried out at point of entry
  • Face coverings are required for the duration of your visit (except for eating and drinking) unless exempt for health reasons. Front of House staff will also wear face coverings
  • We will collect contact information about each ticket booker in line with our Privacy Policy and as required by the current government legislation, we will also be asking everyone who attends to check in with the NHS Test and Trace app, using the QR codes available.
  • We will carry out enhanced cleaning of the auditorium between performances
  • Hand sanitising stations are positioned throughout the building
  • During the interval we ask that people are mindful of other patrons, and take note of any directional signage that may be in place to regulate the flow of patrons through the building.
  • Cloakrooms will not be available so please bring minimal belongings
  • Bars, Cafes and restaurants will be open, but transactions will be cashless and paperless, with perspex screens fitted at all sale points. Please check the website before your visit for the most up to date information.
  • Additional signage will be in place to manage social distancing and audience flow
  • Programmes and ice creams can be pre-ordered when booking your tickets where available, or purchased on the day. Please note we are aiming for all transactions to be cashless.

Book with confidence

Please be reassured that should you book for a performance which has to be cancelled, you will be offered the option of a refund, credit or a transfer to another performance. 

For maximized flexibility, if you cannot attend, you can exchange your ticket for FREE up to at least 24 hours prior to the event (subject to availability). 

For productions in the Festival and Minerva Theatres we offer a refund protection service, available when you book your tickets,  from Booking Protect so you can apply for a refund should you, or anyone in your party, be unable to attend the show due to adverse weather, injury, illness, burglary or fire at your residence, breakdown or relocation for work. Click here to read Booking Protect Terms and Conditions.

Please refer to our full terms and conditions of sale. The specific points above supercede those within the wider terms and conditions. 

We hope you have an enjoyable visit but if you do have any concerns, members of staff will be on hand to help you.

Other Frequently Asked Questions

When I attend the theatre, will the toilets be open for use?

Yes. Accessible toilet facilities also remain in the same place as before. Enhanced cleaning processes are in place throughout the building.

Will the Bars and Café be open?

The Restaurants, Bars and Cafe will be open during your visit but transactions will be cashless and paperless, with perspex screens fitted at sales points.

What if I need to use the facilities during the event? Will I be able to exit my seat?

We ask that all audience members are mindful of others around them who may need to leave during the event. For socially distanced performances, we are advising people to maintain a distance of 2 metres where possible around the venue. Whilst the capacity in the auditorium has been reduced, you may need to pass someone to take or leave your seat. Please mitigate any risk by keeping your mask on and turning away as you pass. 

I have access requirements and/or am a wheelchair user, will the lift be in operation?

Yes, the lifts will be in operation. A member of staff will be at the bottom of the lift to check tickets but will not ride in the lift. For socially distanced performances, only groups in the same household or bubble will be able to travel in the lift together. The lifts will be cleaned between uses.

How do you use the data I provide for Test and Trace (socially distanced performances only)?

We collect contact information about each ticket booker in line with our Privacy Policy. We may need to share your contact details with NHS Test and Trace, if they require. All information collected for Test and Trace will remain securely on our ticketing system, and will not be used once 21 days have elapsed after the last event you have booked. If you do not wish to share this information please email stating you wish to opt-out and quoting your order number.

Please do not attend the theatre if you:

  • believe you may be infected with COVID-19;
  • have experienced symptoms in the last 14 days;
  • have been in close proximity to anyone who has experienced symptoms in the last 14 days, or have been instructed to self-isolate.

Food & Drink

Enjoy delicious food and drink at our welcoming café and restaurant. Whether you’re having a bite to eat before the show, simply relaxing with a coffee, or plugging in to power up using our free Wi-Fi, we can’t wait to welcome you back.

Dine before the show

We are delighted to reopen The Brasserie for diners from 5 July. Enjoy an exquisite contemporary British menu featuring local and seasonal ingredients, a selection of excellent wines and top-notch service in our stylish and award-winning restaurant - the closest restaurant to the Theatre. Read more information, menus and reserve your table here.

Café On The Park

A great spot for barista coffee, freshly made sandwiches, delicious cakes and a range of drinks. The Café will open from 21 June, with extra outdoor seating, Monday to Friday from 10am, and 9am on Saturday for Park Runners.  

Pop Up Family Fun

Saturday mornings in August and Thursday mornings during term time from 2 September. Children can explore outdoors, or play, read and scribble indoors while grown-ups relax with a coffee. Check out other fantastic events and activities for families on our Families page

Additional Content

Pre-Show Talk

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 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.

Image credits: 
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.

Sponsored by


Running Time
2 hours and 50 minutes, including an interval