February 22, 2024


Arts Eternal

How local Asian-Canadian artists are working for representation

Asian faces, voices and stories have been getting more and more exposure in popular culture in recent years, from Kim’s Convenience on CBC to Marvel’s upcoming superhero film Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.

But while these victories for representation have proven there’s an appetite for such stories, many Asian creatives working in British Columbia feel diversity is still treated as a surface-level issue in their respective industries. 

Many are now pushing for change by speaking out about pervasive stereotypes and stigmas, and finding new avenues to tell their own stories.

“I think so far diversity and representation has been about checking boxes for certain productions, certain shows on television and on film,” says Vancouver-based actor Praneet Akilla, who currently appears on the CW’s Nancy Drew.

For Akilla, representation doesn’t just mean the faces people see on screen but the stories they tell — and telling those stories authentically and accurately.

“I’m saying a hard no to any stereotypical role that comes my way,” he says. “I’m also writing to the producers that presented that role to me and letting them know why that role is problematic. I think it’s important to educate, as well.”

Praneet Akilla (left) and Aadila Dosani of Calgary have been chosen to play the Bobbsey twins in The CW’s readaptation of Nancy Drew. (Vicki Passmore)

In the music world, there’s still a stigma toward Asian artists in genres like R&B and hip hop, says Paolo Manga, a Vancouver R&B singer-songwriter who makes music under the name monte.xto. 

They’re not taken seriously due to their race, he says.

“When it comes down to the nitty gritty of being in the industry, you can’t just be super talented or just have a pretty voice,” he adds. “Unfortunately, the social aspect — like the image, the look — gets integrated into it, and that’s where the idea of [representation] starts to get cloudy.”

Manga spoke about the importance of making music that was true to himself — such as his entirely self-produced song For The Weekend — saying that’s what really matters at the end of the day. 

“Everyone’s trying to experiment and be their authentic self. Just focus on what you want to do,” Manga says.

Paolo Manga, a Vancouver R&B singer-songwriter who makes music under the name monte.xto says there is still a stigma toward Asian artists who work in R&B and hip hop. (Submitted by Paolo Manga)

It’s a sentiment shared by Vancouver author Lindsay Wong.

Wong, who wrote The Woo Woo: How I Survived Ice Hockey, Drug Raids, Demons, and My Crazy Chinese Family, says she became an author in order to tell stories she could see herself in — stories that young Asian-Canadians could identify with. 

“I really wanted to subvert the stereotype of Asians being meek, docile and submissive,” Wong says. “You’re always kind of put into this sidekick character, and that sends a message that you aren’t important enough, you’re not complex enough to have your own story.”

Reading such representations of Asian characters can have a lasting impact, Wong says. She recalls reading a book called Eleanor & Park by U.S. author Rainbow Rowell about a biracial Korean-American teenager.

“There’s a [part] in the book where someone is described as a ‘China doll.’ I think when you’re a young person and you’re reading that, it has this long-term effect of being really negative and harmful,” Wong says. 

Author Lindsay Wong speaks with CBC Daybreak Kamloops host Shelley Joyce at the Sandman Signature Hotel on March 14, 2019. (Dominika Lirette)

Asian writers already have a hard time getting their work published, Wong says. A common critique she’s heard about her own work is that it’s too “niche.” However, that just makes it even more important for more Asian writers to tell their stories, she says. 

The online world and social media have provided platforms to make this happen, according to filmmaker Hannah Yang, who’s currently working on her first short film.  

Filmmaker Hannah Yang is currently working on her first short film. (Submitted by Hannah Yang)

“Social media is accessible. It’s created so many ways to consume content … and I think anybody and everybody is picking up on that,” Yang says. 

“That creativity and expansion into different features on these platforms is what’s driving incoming creatives and filmmakers.”

For creatives like Yang, there’s no reason to wait for opportunities to present themselves. She says it’s the job of diverse creatives to be loud and proud, to represent their stories. 

“We’re in a unique time where content creation is democratized,” she says. “You can do it with a camcorder, even a cellphone, and audiences are more receptive to different content.”