How Asian artists in the GTA bring their cultural identity to their work

CBC Toronto spoke with Asian artists around the GTA about how they embrace their cultural identity in their craft.

Comedians, musicians, and actors tell CBC News why their cultural heritage matters to their art

Michael Chan says sometimes Asian actors have to play roles of other Asian backgrounds, which can sometimes lead to guilt because someone else is likely more authentic for that role. (Submitted by Michael Chan)

May is Asian Heritage Month. Boldly Asian is a CBC Toronto series shining a light on GTA changemakers who are pushing boundaries within their Asian Canadian communities and beyond.

CBC Toronto spoke with Asian artists across the Greater Toronto Area about how they embrace their cultural identity in their craft.

Here's what they shared. 

Cutsleeve rocks to their own tune

Cutsleeve came together when Lian McMillan did a callout for LGBTQ POC femmes to start a rockband. 

The band's name is from an ancient Chinese folklore story called Passions of the Cut Sleeve, Fong explains, which is an euphemism for homosexuality in China. 

"The way that we found the name also sort of speaks to how we make our music," McMillan said.

"It's this weird mismatched way of how we connect with our culture and connect with who we are in our identity." 

The band, which includes Hillary Fong, Chanel Fu, Amanda Wong, and Hannah Winters, writes music that relates to their experiences as LGBTQ Asians.

Top row left to right: Amanda Wong, Hillary Fong, Hannah Winters. Bottom row left to right: Lian McMillan, Chanel Fu. The band writes music they hope is relatable to those going through a similar identity struggle. (Submitted by Lian McMillan )

"I think inherently, all of us have an Asian lens that we view the world in," Fu said. "When we write about what we've been through … our Asianness is sort of deeply ingrained in that."

Songs such as Durian Eyes are about navigating their racialized identity as queer East Asians in Canada. McMillan says the song vocalizes the isolated feeling of the diaspora and how they try to hold on to their cultural identities without being stereotyped or fetishized. The group's song Yellow Fever is an anthem against the fetishization of Asian culture. 

The band members say they've gotten positive feedback from members of the Asian diaspora. 

"People will come up to us at a show or will [direct message] us on instagram and tell us … 'Oh, my goodness this song, the lyrics resonated with me so much,'" Winters said. 

Winters says being in the band and being able to create art and express themselves has helped her solidify her connection with the LGBTQ East Asian family in the city.

From left to right: Hillary Fong, Hannah Winters, Amanda Wong, Chanel Fu, and Lian McMillan. (Submitted by Lian McMillan)

Michael Chan creates short film 'The ONLY Asian'

When Michael Chan first started acting 15 years ago, he says he was often cast as stereotypical Asian characters. 

"Most of my auditions were episodes where it was the Chinatown episode or the Japanese episode," he recalled.

In the acting industry, Chan says Asian people are sometimes viewed under an umbrella where it is assumed they can play roles of any ethnic Asian background. 

Michael Chan in the film 'Mayday.' Chan says during the pandemic, he's started self-producing content where he can act in roles more true to himself. (Submitted by Michael Chan)

"I may be Chinese-Canadian but … when a casting director looks at me, it's like I'm Asian — as in like a giant blob of different cultures," he said. 

For Asian actors, Chan says playing the role of a cultural identity that's not their own is often the only way they can get cast. He says that leads to feelings of guilt because there may be a more authentic actor for the role.

Chan realized that to play characters that reflected who he was, he needed to self-produce content. He teamed up with Toronto-based filmmakers and creators to act in short videos. One of his collaborations is with the YouTube channel Pandoodles

"That's where I felt not only myself, but all of us could bring our authentic selves to the roles that we made because it is … a very Asian-centric channel," he said. "So they don't like making me a Japanese person ... I'm always either Chinese or no specific ethnicity."

One of Chan's projects is the short film The ONLY Asian, based around the idea of being the only Asian needed in a talent agency's roster.

"What The ONLY Asian is trying to highlight is that oftentimes in industry, if you already have someone who is Asian, let's say, they won't book another one," he said. "They won't even write another one in."

Chan says the industry still has a long way to go when it comes to addressing diversity. 

"Diversity and inclusion matter in this industry," he said.

"There should be a diverse group of people working on both sides in every production because that is the best way to tell the most authentic stories possible."

Michael Chan's short film made during the pandemic, 'The ONLY Asian,' has garnered many awards and was inspired by the struggle many Asian actors face when trying to find representation. (Submitted by Michael Chan)

Vong Sundara laughs it up at 'Fresh Rice'

When Vong Sundara first started performing comedy in small towns in Alberta, where he's from, he said people would come up to him to say they'd never seen an Asian in real life. 

Sundara, known by his stage name Vong Show, said in the first 10 years of his career, the audience was mostly white. He often adapted his comedy to them by over-explaining jokes. 

"I had to water it down so that it's more digestible," he said. 

As someone who was proud of his heritage, he realized that he wanted to integrate his identity and culture into his comedy without having to explain himself. 

Vong Sundara says as a comedian, it’s important to have a diverse audience because it changes the material and how much setup is needed. (Submitted by Vong Sundara)

"I decided, 'You know what? I need to start building my own audience' — and that's when I started all-Asian shows or all-gay shows," he said.

Sundara noted that anyone is welcome to his comedy sets, but he no longer writes for a white audience. 

"Especially now, [at] this point of my career, I don't do any explanation. But the way I get around it is I make sure that the make-up of the audience will help the people who don't understand," he said. 

To help other Asian Comedians navigate the waters and embrace their identities, Sundara started "Fresh Rice," a new Asian web comedy series that airs weekly on Youtube, featuring up-and-coming Asian comedians. The series was filmed in 2020, prior to the pandemic.

Amplifying the voices of Canada's Asian community through comedy

5 months ago
Vong Show is a Toronto comedian who's produced an all-Asian comedy web series featuring eight stand up comics. 7:14