“Once I was driving this white guy home and he said ‘I’d never been with an Indian girl before.’ How am I supposed to take that exactly, is it a compliment? But don’t use the Indian card. Why does it have to be based on my ethnicity?”
All photos by Anamika Balachander
Creative Creatures does not hold back. The founders of the art collective, experimental theatre-makers Gemishka Chetty and Aiwa Pooamorn, are frank about their aim of disrupting colonial spaces and deconstructing the patriarchy. Turning stereotypes on their head is part of the job, made clear from the titles of their work so far: art exhibition So where do you really come from, debut theatre show Go Home Curry Muncha, and their most recent show, Have you ever been with an Asian womxn? directed by Gemishka Chetty and Aiwa Pooamorn. Oscen caught up with some of the team from this latest show (Gemishka Chetty, Ellie Lim, and Elaine Chun) to chat about media representation and beauty standards, pervasive Asian festishisation, and reclaiming sexuality.
Part of the Auckland Fringe Festival, Have you ever been with an Asian womxn? flips the script on the hypersexualisation of Asian women. “Reclaiming power is what this is about,” Gemishka says. “To take back the narrative for ourselves onstage and to let other Asian women feel connected with our kaupapa, and say ‘white daddy sit down, don’t even.’” Growing up, she didn’t see much representation of people like her onscreen. What she did see — Aishwarya Rai, white teen idols — reinforced ideas of Indian women as “exotic” and fairness as beauty. “Your parents don’t let you go out into the sun, because you will get dark … people think these aren’t big things, but it does affect a young girl’s mind.”
Elaine and Ellie also felt the lack of East Asian representation (only Lucy Liu came to mind), though actresses like Golden Globe winner Sandra Oh are breaking the mould. As Elaine describes, they’re aware of the deeply entrenched assumptions surrounding their ethnicity, such as the ‘model minority’ perception. “Chinese in New Zealand, we are known as good immigrants, abiding immigrants.” When it comes to women of colour, there are more insidious dynamics at play: “When people meet me, they think I’ll be submissive.”
The stereotype of the submissive Asian woman won’t be leaving male fantasies anytime soon, just as hentai won’t stop being one of the top categories on porn sites. This silencing of Asian women has damaging real life impacts for when they want to speak up about gender violence, as Gemishka recognises. “If we get to talk about our perspective especially in regards to the male gaze and how dehumanising it is, then hopefully we can talk more about our experience of harassment, and that the #MeToo movement isn’t just for white women.”
The three of them encounter fetishisation on a lesser, everyday scale. As with many instances of casual racism, a lot of these kinds of comments are subtle and not something they would immediately know to call out. Fetishisation is clearly based on power, though it doesn’t always come from white men and can take the form of broader cultural appropriation. As Ellie points out, there are also complexities to when it takes place: “I fit the pretty little Asian girl stereotype, that is when I was fetishised.” Now that she presents differently, she doesn’t experience it so much. Difficult questions also arise around Asian fetishisation and race-based ‘preferences’ within LGBTQ+ communities. “Myself being a woman, have I ever been with an Asian woman? And I realised … no I haven’t! Am I racist, is this my internalised racism?”
Conversations about sex more generally often don’t occur in Asian families. Gemishka recalls how the parents of her non-Asian school friends would be more comfortable with boys coming over than her own. In Elaine’s family, marriage was a transaction and dating someone her parents disapproved of was considered shameful. “I did feel like I had to hide parts of myself.” Ellie, meanwhile, had her own journey being Asian and queer.
One of the things Have you ever been with an Asian womxn? highlights are the desires of those who are desired, satirising the objectification of women of colour and arguing for them to have autonomy over their own bodies. Gemishka wanted Asian women in the audience to take pride in their identity and feel that it was okay to call out fetishisation if it happens to them. Creative Creatures will continue to put these perspectives front and centre, allowing their unapologetic voices to “shine boldly.”