The cafe where we meet for breakfast is so crowded that the handbag of the woman at the table next to us is within easy reach. The bag is open and I can see her keys, wallet and phone. Next to the bag is Michelle Law, who glances at it before we both turn our attention back to the menu.
The previous night we had presented talks where we offered advice to our high-school selves. In hers, Law included the line: “… and it’s okay to wear pants with unzippered pockets – turns out people aren’t trying to steal your stuff all the time”. The familiarity of this idea caught me off guard, much in the same way I’ve been told a pickpocket does by brushing dust off your sleeve with their right hand as they steal your coin purse with their left. It caused me to laugh suddenly and much more loudly than anyone else in the room, before looking awkwardly at my shoes. It’s a truth universally acknowledged that if you’re raised in an Asian family you are taught from a young age to guard your belongings with the ferocity of a magpie in an alfoil factory.
Growing up, it didn’t seem strange that the Asians on-screen were not like the ones in my family or my life – in real life they were people, whereas on television they were sidekicks, sexless and stereotyped. There was a thick line dividing reality and depiction and I just accepted it without question. The thing about representation is that it’s so easy to just get used to what you’re always shown rather than what is actually representative. But things are – slowly – starting to change. Law has been quietly bringing the experiences of Asian Australians into popular culture for the past 10 years, through essays, films, television and, most recently, a play: Single Asian Female.
The problem with high achievement is that after a while it starts to look normal. Every time I see her, Law has accomplished something new. She’s written a short film or won an award or completed another screenplay. When it was announced that not only had she written a play but that it had been commissioned for a season in her home city of Brisbane, I thought, “That’s good”, then continued my day. The news seemed commonplace for Michelle Law, but the fact is her accomplishments are not normal. On top of this, she’s not just kicking goals for herself – she’s kicking them for a whole community.
When we meet, it’s a between time – not just between events but, although neither of us know it yet, between seasons of her play. The Brisbane season had wrapped up, having garnered rave reviews, and a few months after we have this talk it’s announced that Single Asian Female has been picked up for a new season – this time at Sydney’s Belvoir St Theatre.
Despite her experience writing scripts for film and television, the idea of putting together a live performance was an entirely new challenge for Law. “I was always interested in playwriting and I’ve always loved theatre, but I never consciously sat down and thought, ‘I’m going to write a play,’ ” she tells me.
It makes sense – the idea of writing a play is daunting in an almost unique way. Although on paper, the skills for writing a screenplay should easily translate to writing for the stage, there are major differences, both technical and psychological. The stakes are different. The audience expectations are different. Unlike a film, where there is arguably one final product, with a play there can be hundreds, thousands, all slightly different, with the potential to evolve and change.
Law was one of the first participants in the Lotus Asian–Australian Playwriting project, run through Playwriting Australia. The program provides structured development for Asian–Australian playwrights, and she points to the education, collaboration and mentorship Lotus offered as being integral to helping her transform an idea into a successful show.
“I didn’t really think there was a play in it,” she says, reflecting on when she started the program. Initially drawing inspiration from a blog she used to write that had the same title, Law began writing a few drafts for what would eventually become Single Asian Female without really expecting them to go anywhere. However, every iteration brought out something new, good or bad, allowing her to delve between the words, to pick out the recurring themes and ideas, and then distil them into something solid.
“It took me several years to figure out why I was writing it and what it was about,” she says, then pauses. “I never consciously set out to do it, but I think it was just the process of figuring out what was at the heart of it and what I wanted to say – and it just sort of went from there.”
In her words: “Single Asian Female is a comedy about family and feminism, and what it means to be a single Asian woman in Australia at different stages of your life.”
When I ask her how she tackled both writing her first play and making sure it included everything she wanted to express, she laughs and describes her strategy as haphazard.
“In terms of the acts, I found it easier to just do it all at once and then deconstruct, looking at each act [to see] if it was achieving what it needed to be doing. I’ll use scraps of paper and just have all of my big picture notes written down in front of me. Then I’ll check the whole draft to see that I’ve addressed all of them in each scene.”
She again points to Lotus’s workshops and collaborative elements as being a huge asset in what was a steep learning curve. “I was really lucky because through the development program I got a lot of readings … so I was able to talk to industry people about what was working and what wasn’t.”
La Boite Theatre Company commissioned Single Asian Female while Law was still taking part in the Lotus program. I ask her how she feels about the play’s reception.
“I was really happy with the reviews,” Law says. She is smiling, but it is clear that the feedback that matters most to her has less to do with star ratings and more to do with the people coming to see her play. “The best thing, though, was I tried to go to as many shows as I could, and just seeing what the audience was like.”
For such a long time the vast majority of stories audiences were offered, both on-screen and onstage, had been extremely white. It’s almost taken for granted that all characters are Caucasian unless specifically described otherwise, and if a story features any person of colour they usually only occupy a bit part. More often they will be a caricature rather than a fully formed role. As a result, a huge percentage of Australian audiences don’t see themselves represented on-screen, onstage or in literature, except as a vessel to further the storyline of others.
Single Asian Female is a play that has three Asian female leads. It’s rare, it’s exciting, and it is putting familiar but previously sidelined stories centrestage. Attending shows during the play’s first run, Law tells me what it meant to her to see so many “Asian–Australian people … people of colour who had not really gone to theatre or were never interested in seeing theatre because the stories didn’t really appeal to them or they couldn’t really relate to them”.
It’s not surprising the play did well – or that it is now touring. In addition to Law’s skill as a writer and her proven ability to turn humour to the task of incisive social commentary, it is becoming increasingly clear that there is also an appetite in our community for these stories.
“I would see Asian grandmothers in the audience and that was really wild,” Law says, her eyes lighting up. “A lot of people would go with their parents and come out and be like, ‘I’ve never seen a story that I could relate to in that way’ and ‘That was me growing up’ or ‘That’s me now’. So that was the best feedback I got in terms of audience.”
It might sound like a small thing – what does it really matter if someone looks like you on television if you have good role models in your real life? But when we take a step back and look at how large a space pop culture and stories occupy in our collective psyche it seems almost ridiculous to think that the focus has been so narrow for so long. Fiction and storytelling are there to act as a mirror for us to explore ideas about ourselves and those around us. If what we see around us doesn’t match up with the community we’re presented on-screen and onstage, there’s a problem.
Growing up, there was no shortage of Asian stories in my house – our family in Hong Kong kept us supplied with a steady stream of VHS tapes featuring Korean soap operas and historical dramas. But as much as I enjoyed the show about the boy who got hit by a car, got amnesia, and had his mother tell his classmates he was dead, this also wasn’t exactly relatable content. There were Asian stories and there were Western stories – and for those of us in the middle we couldn’t really see ourselves in either.
Law has been fighting for these in-between stories to be heard. While she is doing a phenomenal job, it’s also not fair on her and storytellers like her. With plays such as Single Asian Female still few and far between, there is a disproportionate pressure on those creating these works to make them good – because the spotlight has nowhere else to go.
But Law takes this challenge in her stride and somehow makes her long list of achievements look normal. While we’re talking, I ask her how she got started in writing, and she casually mentions that her first published piece was in an anthology edited by author Alice Pung, titled Growing Up Asian in Australia. The book featured contributions from Shaun Tan, Anh Do and Kylie Kwong, among others. Law penned her contribution while in Year 12, a fact she breezes past like it’s no big deal.
Contrary to the self-deprecating jokes that sustained her 10-minute talk the previous night, if she really were asked to write a letter that could travel through space and time to her high-school self it would need only five words: keep doing what you’re doing.
A few months after we catch up, in addition to the news about Single Asian Female going on tour, it’s also announced that SBS had commissioned an online series of which Law is a co-creator. Once again I see the news, think, “That’s good”, and continue with my day. Then I hear she is adapting Pung’s book Laurinda for screen. That’s good.
Back at the breakfast, however, in the in-between time, I ask if she plans to write more plays. “I think I will, yeah, I definitely will in the future,” she says, haltingly, then continues: “I don’t know when that will happen next, just because I have a couple of other long projects that I want to focus on, but definitely it’s something I’d be interested in doing…” she stops and laughs “…because it seems achievable now.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 3, 2018 as "Customary Law".
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