Yellow Voice and the Chinese International Student: Ricky Wong in "We Can Be Heroes"
by Jane Chi Hyun Park — University of Sydney
March 24, 2011 – 00:00
This clip comes from comedy series, We Can Be Heroes, which aired originally in 2005 on the Australian Broadcast Channel (ABC). Created and written by comedian Chris Lilley, the critically acclaimed mockumenary follows the lives of five nominees for the coveted Australian of the Year award: Daniel Sims, a rural young man who donates his eardrum to his deaf brother; Jam’ie King, a private-school girl who holds the national record for sponsoring Sudanese children; Pat Mullins, a middle-aged housewife whose mission is to roll on her side to the famous sacred site of Uluru; police officer Phil Olivetti who rescued children from an unmoored jumping castle; and finally, Ricky Wong, a Chinese physics student renowned for his research but whose secret ambition is to be an actor. Immensely talented Lilley plays all five characters in drag, and each episode develops the multiple character narratives until the climatic final episode which reveals the winner of the award.
I am fascinated by the character of Ricky Wong for the following reasons: 1 He is the only nonwhite candidate nominated for this national honor but his racial difference is subsumed by his cultural difference (predictably played out in the binary of Confucian family expectations versus Ricky’s individual desire) 2. He is played less in yellowface as in "yellowvoice" — Lilley affects a Chinese accent and wears a dishevelled black wig. This is interesting since yellowface is considered less racially offensive in Australia (c.f. comedienne Pam Ann) and Lilley himself has ‘blacked up’ to play a Tongan character in Summer Heights High 3. Ricky’s surprising artistic talents are displayed ironically in a musical play he has written that features Chinese international students playing Aboriginal characters in racial drag. Indigenous culture, then, is a structuring absence in this predominantly white Australian narrative, performed as spectacle by visiting nonwhite foreigners or reduced to stunning landscape (Uluru). Meanwhile, the show cannot imagine a space for Chinese or Asian Australians who do not speak with an Asian accent, a population that certainly exists but is seldom represented in popular media as such.
My questions are: to what extent can satire be used to excuse - and in some cases, celebrate - the comic portrayal of a nonwhite character by a white performer? And how might a comparative cultural and national approach to racial drag in popular media open up different ways of thinking about white privilege?