My research interests lie in race and racisms, migration, diaspora, youth and cultural politics, with a particular focus on constructions and contestations of British Chinese and East Asian identities.

Re-imagining British Chineseness

The Politics and Poetics of Art and Migration in British Diaspora Space

My doctoral research examined the politics and poetics of art and migration through a multi-sited ethnography of different generations of so-called ‘British Chinese’ cultural workers (in theatre, literature and the visual arts), whose translocal lives spanned Britain, South Africa, Italy, China and Taiwan. The project sought to redress the serious lack of scholarship on the histories, especially the cultural and artistic histories, of the Chinese in Britain; to re-conceptualise existing essentialising, a-historical discourses of ‘(British)-Chineseness’, which have become hegemonic within both academic social scientific and arts and humanities research and society at large; and to interrogate the polarisation of the (British)-Chinese subject as either ‘artist’ or ‘im/migrant’ by bringing together the study of art and migration.

In the process, I uncovered the hitherto little known stories of Shih-I and Dymia Hsiung, a couple who shot to worldwide fame in the 1930s due to Hsiung’s play Lady Precious Stream. I also began expanding the work by Guy Brett on the little studied artist, Li Yuan-chia, whose reputation has grown significantly since. I also focused on the artist Anthony Key, who has been described by Eddie Chambers as one of the most interesting sculptors working today.

Through an analysis of the transnational production, circulation and consumption of their work, I examined the role of governments, cultural institutions and the media in producing and circulating ideas of China and Chineseness within specific contexts of power and the meanings of creative work for migrant cultural practitioners. Based on three years of multi-sited fieldwork in Britain, China, Taiwan and the US, funded by the Great Britain China Education Trust, the research combined participant observation; ethnographic, life history and biographical interviews; and textual, visual and media analysis.

My book, The Happy Hsiungs: Performing China and the Struggle for Modernity, was published with Hong Kong University Press in 2014, and I’ve published several essays on both Li and Key.

Becoming ‘East Asian’

Race, Ethnicity and the Politics of Belonging in Britain

I am Principal Investigator of the British Academy/Leverhulme funded project, ‘Becoming East Asian: Race, Ethnicity and the Politics of Belonging in Britain’ with Tamsin Barber at Oxford Brookes University. This research grew out of a project which examined the experiences of young people racialized as East Asian as consumers and producers in the night-time economy, the challenges they face and how they draw on transnational and global youth cultures to create a sense of belonging.

The project examines emerging East Asian youth identities and social spaces in urban Britain to investigate the changing significance of race and ethnicity in so-called ‘superdiverse’ contexts. Due to migration, East Asians in Britain are now one of the fastest growing ‘ethnic’ groupings (ONS 2011), with the highest percentage of international students (HESA 2014), yet they remain invisible in both academic and policy debates on citizenship, ‘integration’ and multiculturalism. This project investigates how and why young people in British urban cities are engaging in ‘East and Southeast Asian’ racial and pan-ethnic group-making when recent social surveys suggest that race is losing its significance as a dominant identity (Aspinall and Song 2013).

The concept of superdiversity has become widely adopted to describe and analyse the ordinary multiculture of everyday urban life in the context of new migrations (Meissner and Vertovec 2015), but it has been criticised for neglecting issues of power, inequality, exclusion and racism (Anthias, 2012; Back 2015). This project addresses these absences by examining the significance of race and racism for invisible minorities. It will add new knowledge on these minorities, exploring affiliations and divisions among them and their place in wider society. It will contribute to debates on how political mobilization and belonging are changing and lead to a research agenda on emerging East Asian youth politics in Britain.

BEAST: Racial Inequalities in the Creative and Cultural industries

British East Asians on Screen and in Television

My new research project on racial inequalities in the creative and cultural industries is entitled BEAST: British East Asians on Screen and in Television, and has been funded by the Department of Sociology, City.

This research explores the experiences of British East Asian actors in the film and television sector in the context of growing public debates over racial discrimination, exclusion and inequalities in the wider creative and cultural industries. Despite media coverage, research on the experiences of racialized minorities in the cultural sector remains marginal in the academic literatures (Hesmondhalgh & Saha 2013). In the UK, existing work focuses primarily on African Caribbean and South Asian groups (e.g. Hylton 2007; Saha 2013) or is based on aggregated data that erases the specificity of experiences of different groups gathered under the category ‘BAME’ (Black Asian Minority Ethnic) (ACE 2014). In the context of a pluralistic cartographic of racisms (Song 2014), where cultural value is assigned or denied to different ‘racial’ groups in specific ways (O’Brien & Oakley 2015), a finer-tuned analysis is required to unearth the particular challenges faced by different groups and within particular subsectors of the creative and cultural industries.

The objectives of this study are:

  • To identify the challenges and barriers faced by East Asian actors in order to ascertain whether, and if so, how specific perceptions of East Asians contribute to inequalities in employment in the film and television industry. This will make a significant intervention into public and academic debates, which currently treat BAME individuals as a homogeneous group, and shed light on the experiences of one of the fastest growing but invisible minorities.
  • To assess the needs of users and stakeholders by examining the views of actors and industry professionals on the prevalence and nature of inequalities faced by East Asian actors in the film and television industry and how they can be addressed through research and industry practice.

Through collaboration with the award-winning independent film-maker Rosa Fong, verbatim dialogue from my research interviews has been restaged in the form of classic British film or TV dramas in a series of short films to highlight invisibility of British East Asians on British mainstream screens and show why their exclusion occurs despite the proliferation of diversity discourses in recent years. See https://twitter.com/beastshortfilms for more info and to view the films.