Monkey business

Chinese folktales coloured much of my childhood. From the tale of Chang’e and the moon to nian and its link to the traditions of Chinese New Year, my parents were insistent that my sister and I be exposed to all sorts of stories. I watched a serialised, Chinese drama version of wo hu chang long (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), a far cry from the English version that was pedalled out to the Western world. And of course, there was xi you ji (Journey to the West).

Journey to the West is, arguably, one of the greatest stories of Chinese classical literature. Written by Wu Cheng’en in the Ming Dynasty, it is a fictional tale based on historical events. It details the journey of a monk, Xuanzang, as he travels west from China to countries like Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, before reaching his intended destination, India. In Wu’s fictional account of this journey, Xuanzang is joined by three disciples – the now almost infamous Sun Wukong (or Monkey), Zhu Bajie (Pigsy/Pig), and Sha Wujing (Friar Sand/Sandy).

The novel has been adapted countless times, with renditions as stage plays, films, comics and television shows. Interestingly, many of these have been produced in Japan, and have starred predominantly Japanese actors. Indeed, the most well-known rendition of xi you ji in Western countries is the Japanese series, Monkey (better known as Monkey Magic), which was subsequently translated into English and distributed throughout the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia. It quickly became a cult favourite, courtesy of its kitschy theme tune. And now, decades later, it is being reworked again in the form of The Legend of Monkey, ‘a big budget fantasy drama.’ It is currently in production and slated for a 2018 release on ABC, TVNZ and Netflix.

I can see myself having general issues with the series. Sun Wukong is again being placed front and centre as something of a hero-like figure, and I presume Zhu Bajie will be characterised as ‘The Baddie’, with little to no nuance in between. I hope to be proven wrong, and this will only be revealed once the series airs. However, a cursory examination of the cast raises even more problems. None of the main cast members are Chinese in descent, revealing that the casting issues that have so dogged Hollywood and other media outlets for decades are still alive and well. Through much of the twentieth century, yellowface – the act of changing one’s features with makeup to make them look more ‘Asian’ – was widespread, and used in films like Fu Manchu and the opera Madame Butterfly. Hollywood did eventually move away from yellowface, but this did not necessarily result in an increase in Asian actors being cast in roles for characters of Asian descent. Instead, we entered an era of whitewashing.

Whitewashing and the concept of the white saviour complex have come to the fore in recent years, thanks to some questionable casting decisions. The most notable of these include Scarlett Johannson in Ghost in the Shell, Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange, and Matt Damon in The Great Wall. Some, like screenwriter Max Landis, claim that such decisions are made because ‘there are no A-list female Asian celebrities right now on an international level.’ Others claim that films featuring Asian actors and other minorities will not be profitable at the box office, but this has been disproven time and time again. Keith Chow, the founder of pop culture website The Nerds of Colour, states, ‘economics has nothing to do with racist casting policies. Films in which the leads have been whitewashed have all failed mightily at the box office. Inserting white leads had no demonstrable effect on the numbers. So why is that still conventional thinking in Hollywood?’

As Margaret Cho pointed out to Swinton in an email exchange regarding the Doctor Strange incident, ‘there’s a frustrated population of Asian Americans who feel the role should have gone to a person of Asian descent. Our stories are told by white actors over and over again, and we feel at a loss to know how to cope with it.’ There is a similar feeling amongst Chinese Australians when it comes to The Legend of Monkey.

In the initial press release for the series, Michael Carrington, the head of ABC Children’s Programming said that, ‘The Legend of Monkey [has an] exciting diverse young cast.’ This is technically true, as the lead actor is of partial Thai descent, while others in the cast are of Maori or Pacific Islander descent. However, such casting shows a fundamental misunderstanding (or refusal to understand) the importance of Chinese representation in a Chinese story. Xi you ji is a Chinese story, through and through – a Chinese story that has been co-opted by other Asian countries, such as Japan, and then further changed by its distribution (ironically) in Western countries. Chinese children, especially those who reside in the Australian and New Zealand diaspora, deserve to see a series based on one of the four great classical novels of Chinese literature, populated by Chinese actors.

And just as is the case with Hollywood, there will be some who claim this to be impossible – but it’s not. Just look at The Family Law, that has managed to cast Chinese-Australian actors for Chinese-Australian roles. Writer of the book, and series adaptation, Benjamin Law, notes that, ‘there’s roughly one in ten Australians with significant Asian heritage. That’s roughly the same proportion of how many black Americans there are in the US. When you think about how much black representation there is on American screens compared to how much yellow and brown representation there is on Australian screens, we still have a long way to go.’

The casting of The Legend of Monkey shows us exactly how far we still have to go. For now, I think I’ll just ignore this monkey business. I’m better off sticking to my imagination, and those good old Chinese dramas.


Image: Journey to the West / Wikimedia

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Yen-Rong Wong is a Brisbane-based writer, and the founding editor of Pencilled In, a magazine dedicated to showcasing the work of young Asian Australian artists. When she is not writing, you might find her on Twitter, drinking tea, or chasing after her cat, Autumn.

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  1. I adored Monkey as a child and now have some Chinese and Japanese movies around the same stories. I love seeing the difference between Chinese depictions of Sun Wukong as quite animalistic and Japanese depictions where Sun Wukong is more human. Also the Japanese tradition of a woman actor perfoming Tripitaka, while in Chinese performances Xuanzang is a male actor. All the choices made by the cultures who own the stories are facinating for me as an outsider. When I saw the images for the new Monkey and noticed that the characters were not Asian actors I was very disapointed. This is not a European story, this is a great piece of Chinese Literature, and should be seen as that. The fact that so many children came to these stories in the 1980’s with a fully asian cast and production along side very obvious dubing should have proven that while audiences don’t need white washed stories to engage with them. Yes, you have to work harder when the culture and minset is different to your own, but we have been asking Asian, Middle Eastern, African and Indigenous descent Australians to do that for too long. It is lazy coices from the production company and underestimates the target audience and their willingness to embrace difference.

    • Apologies for my lazy spelling, There is an Asian without a capital, a “while” that should be White and a “coices” that should be choices.

  2. It quickly became a cult favourite, courtesy of its kitschy theme tune.

    Oh, it was not just the theme tune…

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