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Where are the Asian faces on our TV screens?

New Zealand is rightly proud of the multi-ethnic and -cultural society it’s growing into. But while Māori and Pacific representation has improved since the ’80s, our exploding Asian population remains near-invisible. In part one of a two-part series, Sonia Gray tries to find out why.

Lately, I’ve been looking at the people around me and looking at the people on TV, and thinking “one of these things is not like the other.” Granted, my neighbourhood is as mixed-race as you can get. My kids go to the most ethnically-diverse primary school in New Zealand. Could it be that I’m living in some sort of Benetton bubble? Maybe the rest of the country is, y’know, whiter?

To find out if our television looks like the country it’s broadcasting to I conducted an informal survey. Armed with an Excel spreadsheet and an approximation of the 2016 New Zealand ethnic make-up, I did a good old-fashioned head count. Zeroing in on the ethnicity of the actors, presenters and reporters that feature on our primetime mainstream television is awkward. It’s not easy to squeeze 150 of our TV stars into labelled ethnic boxes – where do you put Wallace Chapman (part-Fijian) or Pippa Wetzell (part-Samoan) – but it was a wonderful excuse to watch lots of TV for “work purposes”.

I like local telly; give me Jono and Ben or Mastermind any day over Dawson solving e-crime on CSI Cyber. And it was heartening to return to Shortland St, after a viewing hiatus, to see that it’s still a proactive champion of diversity, tackling it from all angles and doing so in real time. But there were glaring gaps, like no Māori content anywhere near mainstream prime time TV. New Zealand On Air’s commitment to funding ethnically diverse projects means we have a bunch of brilliant shows like Fresh, Neighbourhood, The Hui and Marae. But these are deemed “non-commercially viable” by networks and so are ghettoised, programmed to screen early on weekend mornings, which makes it impossible for them to pull any sort of meaningful audience.

When I did the final number crunch, the results show we’re a long way off from a television service that accurately reflects us.

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Note: This is not a foolproof or airtight survey by any means. In the absence of any sort of research grant, I used any available cast lists, some background knowledge, a bit of guess work, but mostly basic observation. The margin for error is likely pretty high. And within that margin lies Dai Henwood.

(Confession: I’ve spent the last 10 years in some sort of parallel universe thinking Dai Henwood is half-Japanese. It turns out – to no one’s surprise but mine – that he isn’t. At all.)

My Dai race-dar was completely off. But the absence of a Japanese Dai Henwood exposed a great gaping hole in our television service. An Asian male-sized hole. This hole is not the only one, of course: it sits neatly alongside the Women of a Certain Age-sized hole and People with Disabilities-sized hole. But if you’re a male of North, South, East, West, in fact any Asian descent, your only TV appearance is likely to on Border Patrol. And the representation of Asian females is only slightly better.

But maybe it was just a bad month. Maybe there were some more Asian males floating around in some off-peak time slots.

I watched more TV, searching for any sign of that great endangered species, The New Zealand Asian male. But no. From a pool of 150, my survey had just two Asian dudes, both news reporters. No Asians of either gender on Shortland Street even – which, as a New Zealand hospital, should be swimming with doctors and nurses of Chinese and Indian descent.

This was shaping up as one of the great mysteries of the modern world, “Where Have all the Asian Men gone?”. Right up there with “Why do cheerleaders still exist?”

Like any frustrated statistician, I took the issue to Facebook: “Can you guys think of an Asian male on NZ TV?”

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And I texted some friends….

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I cast the net far and wide, I asked random waiters at restaurants and cafés, I asked my hairdresser, I asked people in the supermarket queue, I asked my mum.

And still, overwhelmingly:

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Now I love Raybon. His Herald column is the highlight of my week. But he hasn’t been on TV in a long, long time (although I’m currently campaigning for his return to our screens). It’s not fair he should be bearing this weighty flag alone – especially since he doesn’t actually bear it at all.

I asked Raybon if he was being paid a retainer for his role as the Face of All Asian men. “I’m not”, he said “Or at least that’s what I tell the tax authorities in Panama.” And then he told me a very funny joke about why there are no Asians on Shortland St.

At the end of the day though, television is a business. And in the absence of a state broadcaster, does television really have a responsibility to make diversity a priority? I mused this over a cup of tea with former-TV executive and television commentator Irene Gardiner. “Yes, I think they do,” she said, “and I think the networks feel a social responsibility to. If they are lacking in some area I don’t think it’s purposeful, they are not wilfully excluding groups.” But Gardiner agreed that the lack of Asian and Indian faces and voices was something that needed addressing. “Sometimes those of us that make television need to be alerted to the gaps, it’s very easy just to do what’s always been done, but we need to keep these sort of things front of mind”.

Of course TV is not the centre of our world like it once was. But it is still a national meeting place of sorts, a Town Square in our little village called New Zealand. And if you’re locked out of the Town Square, it is very difficult to feel part of the village. Idris Elba, long-time campaigner for more and better roles for minorities, made a plea to the UK parliament last year.

“As a kid I didn’t see myself on TV,” he said, “so I decided to become TV.” That’s inspirational, but there are very few kids who have the tenacity and talent (and ultimately, luck) of Elba. He was able to see the problem was not with him but with the system. The majority of children who don’t see themselves on TV, interpret that as “I’m not good enough to be on TV”, and that quickly gets abbreviated to “I’m not good enough”.

Allow me to take a historical detour. In 1981 my family bought our first television set. It was a second hand B&W 16 inch with rabbit ears. The ‘black’ part of the ‘black and white’ was largely redundant because – apart from Billy T James and Manu from Playschool – things were very light on the dark side. New Zealand in the early ‘80s was at peak cultural cringe. We weren’t comfortable even hearing our own accents on TV, let alone celebrating our uniqueness or telling our own stories in any meaningful way. The country nearly lost its mind when Te Karere started as a four minute broadcast in 1982. Imagine, “middle New Zealand” expected to sit through four minutes of Māori language!?! Television was Pākehā property and I was a half-Zimbabwean kid who desperately wanted to have white skin and blonde hair like my Mum, my Barbie, and Penelope the Weather Lady.

When kids at primary school asked “do you have Māori in you?” I said “yes”, as I thought this made me semi-acceptable (Manu from Playschool was definitely no Barbie, but she was a TV star). But that backfired when a big kid stopped me in the street on the way to school and told me to “piss off back to Māoriland”. (I did piss off. Not back to Māoriland but back home, in tears, to my mum.)

Feeling “other” is demoralising and confusing. Sure, as you grow up you hopefully learn to feel comfortable in your own skin, even proud to be a bit different. But in my experience, a lingering hangover remains. Way deep in the marrow of my half-caste bones I still feel I have to work extra hard and be extra nice to be good enough.

Of course things have come a long way in TV since 1981. We’ve grown up and got over ourselves, and our little melting pot of a nation is certainly better represented on our screens. But we’re still not there.

Could the problem lie in a lack of available or interested talent? Not according to a former actors agent. “I always had so much interest from Asian and Indian people wanting to pursue TV work but I had to be upfront with them at the beginning that they had a ‘unique’ look and castings would be very sporadic. The castings I did get for these ethnicities were always typecast and I felt uncomfortable briefing them on this.”

Chris Chang – rising star at ONE News and Jonas brother lookalike – is keen for more Chinese to join the newsroom ranks. “It would mean we’re more in touch with our country. Auckland, for instance, isn’t a Pākehā city, so why would we only have Pākehā reporters telling its people’s stories? Like it or not, people are drawn to those who have similar backgrounds/upbringings. You’re more likely to get a story out of someone who’s comfortable with you and can relate on some level.”

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TVNZ’s Chris Chang is one of only a handful of Asian faces regularly appearing on our screens

But Chris’s graduating class from Journalism school was lean on minorities – he recalls one Māori and one other Chinese student and the rest were Pākehā. It takes extra work for news bosses to recruit diverse talent when it’s not readily available. But surely it’s worth the work.

I understand there are people who walk around not thinking about this sort of thing. And that’s understandable: our brains are hard-wired to believe that the status quo must be that way for a reason, which makes it acceptable. If you’re not looking for an absence you’re not going to see it. One would hope though that once a gap is pointed out, a fair-minded person would be surprised, shocked even.

But not everyone is. I was told “there are only so many jobs in TV,” which seems a poor excuse for locking a huge chunk of our population out. Worse was to come. “Indians don’t even watch our TV.” Then “Chinese don’t want to be on TV, they’re too busy buying our houses.”

And therein lies the root of the problem. The job of TV is to reflect our culture, and our culture has a hot racist streak running through it which is aimed, not exclusively, but very heavily at people of Asian descent. And while this has great ramifications throughout our society, our screens have a proven ability to educate and heal. They’ve helped show a vision of a society which includes more (but still not enough) Māori and Pacific faces. But Asian representation remains stubbornly slow to keep up with the census.

Perhaps this is because change is uncomfortable and takes work. As Deborah Hill Cone wrote so elegantly in her column last week. “Prejudice lingers in the subconscious so we commit the same mistakes over and over again; it takes constant vigilance to catch our often inadvertent moments of sexism or racism.”

New Zealand doesn’t look like it did 50 years ago. Back then Asian people made up 0.6% of the population. Now the figure is closer to 14% (almost 20% in Auckland) and growing all the time. The sooner we accept this and embrace it the better off we’ll all be. Because this casual racism has a toll.

A couple of weeks ago, the Herald printed a letter from an anonymous NZ/Chinese teenager. A kid who no longer feels welcome in this country. We should feel a deep sense of shame when we hear stories like this. Until our attitudes change, New Zealand kids will continue to feel bad about themselves and minorities will continue to be a footnote on TV. The industry is funded by all of us with tens of millions of dollars a year, yet as of today appears to be doing a very poor job of showing our true diversity.

It’s not easy to change our way of thinking, and it’s certainly not comfortable. But it is crucial if everyone is to feel part of the New Zealand story.

African-American producer Shonda Rhimes put it eloquently. “The goal is that everyone should get to turn on the TV and see someone who looks like them and loves like them. And just as important, everyone should turn on the TV and see someone who doesn’t look like them and love like them,” she said “because, perhaps then, they will learn from them”.


Next week: While televised diversity is literally the faces of the people on TV, fair representation means much more than that. Several recent hit shows have shown the pathway for authentic and successful television is diversity across the board – from casting and stories, to writers and producers. In New Zealand this idea is a mainstay of our film industry, so why is this not true for the small screen?