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Renee Mak is practicing for Slanted with her teammates.

Asian artist tackles stereotypes in a new circus, theatre and drag show

Organizations, community members and creatives in Vancouver are starting new conversations about Asian-Canadian experiences.

By Jiaxuan (Josie) Wu and Esther Cheung , in Culture , on February 24, 2022 Tags: , , ,

Feeling frustrated by the anti-Asian racism sentiments during COVID-19, Renée Mak, a Vancouver artist of Chinese heritage, decided to create a theatrical circus show to celebrate intercultural identities and to acknowledge the impacts of colonization and intercultural struggles.

“Racism has been kind of part of my entire life,” said Mak, “If anything, the racist experience never led me to shame about my culture, but … more pride.” 

Mak’s upcoming project, Slanted, is an experimental show that combines contemporary circus, theatre and drag to explore themes of colonial history, masculinity, and intercultural identities. Mak hopes this show can be a celebration of Asian communities and intercultural identities in Canada, all while educating others about the nuances of the Asian diasporic experience.

Renée Mak has an online meeting with her Slanted team (the team is all here except for Skim). Photo: Renée Mak.

“When I moved to Vancouver, I started noticing that the city is quite racist, but in a very passive-aggressive way,” said Mak, who has lived many places including Calgary, Montreal, Toronto and New York. Of all of them “Vancouver is the most racist place I’ve ever lived in.”

Mak was disturbed to see a spike in incidents during the pandemic. 

“It was just heartbreaking to see this happen and then even more heartbreaking was just this continuation of people not really taking Asian racism seriously,” she said.

According to a recent report by the Chinese Canadian National Council, Toronto Chapter, out of over 1,000 anti-Asian racist occurrences happened across Canada between 2020 and 2021, 44 per cent of cases were in B.C. and 40 per cent were in Ontario, despite Ontario having an Asian population three times greater than that of B.C..

“It is an ugly and disturbing trend. Some members of our communities are being treated as less than human and therefore somehow deserving of vitriol and violence. It is devastating and unacceptable,” said Kasari Govender, the B.C. Human Rights Commissioner. 

Her pride is unwavering even though she experienced a great deal of racism throughout her life.

When Mak was quite young, she and her family were confronted by a man who was handing out pamphlets of hate propaganda against Chinese people in downtown Calgary, with explicit descriptions of how Chinese people should be murdered. This experience left a deep impression on Mak. 

The strength and stoicism that she noticed in her own family, deeply rooted in her own culture, has made it difficult to talk about racism, especially among the older generation.

“I see it throughout my entire family generationally where we have this really strong attachment to being strong and then just soldiering on, which is not necessarily always the healthiest thing to practice when it’s at the extreme levels,” she said.

Mak is not alone. A growing number of Asian-Canadians, including Vancouver East MP Jenny Kwan, are calling for action. “There’s a lot of talk about racism … but, in terms of real action, I am not really seeing anything tangible from the government,” said Kwan.  

Jenny Kwan giving a speech in Ottawa. Photo: Christian Diotte

Kwan wants more direct action from the government, including things like hiring more “people who are familiar with the culture, who have the language capacity, who have the connection to the community, to be able to engage with them, to be able to be the conduit or the bridge between them and the police in reporting hateful experiences.”

Not only do politicians think that more needs to be done to address anti-Asian racism, academics also believe that there are many barriers when it comes to reporting hate crimes among Asian communities.

Helena Wu, a professor of Hong Kong studies at the University of British Columbia, said victims of racism struggle with speaking out to avoid drawing attention to themselves when they have already experienced a great deal of alienation. 

Asian seniors are left out of the conversation, due to language barriers and cultural alienation causing a lack of trust in the government. This stoicism and silence that is so prevalent in the community “will further the exclusions,” said Wu. “It’s like a vicious cycle, about silencing and being silenced.”

Both Kwan and Wu agree that the approaches that the government are currently taking, such as youth forums and discussions, to tackle racism don’t really address the longstanding reluctance of older Asians to fight back. 

Mak aims to tackle the issue through her theatrical circus show, delving into the deep themes that create harmful stereotypes and racial biases that have existed throughout Canadian history. The show is expected to be released online this year.

“We’re doing this work to celebrate our own communities, but also educate others,” said Mak, “Despite all the adversity, we are still here and we’re still very proud to be who we are.”