In early 2020, magazine editor Helena Lee founded East Side Voices, a series of live interviews with people of East and Southeast Asian heritage to discuss racism and identity. When the pandemic shut down in-person events, the project shifted to a collection of essays, many of which were written by the artists, writers, and performers who had been lined up for interviews. The stories range from actor Katie Leung’s experience on the set of the Harry Potter films, to restaurateur Amy Poon’s divorce, to poet and healthcare worker Romalyn Ante’s conversations with her mother, a fellow nurse in the NHS. East Side Voices was published earlier this year, edited by Helena.
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
We’re sitting at a picnic table in Battersea Park, surrounded by a sausage bap, avocado toast, and some left-field sweet potato fries. Are you normally a big breakfast person?
On weekends, we’re a boiled eggs and soldiers family. The kids love dippy eggs – scrambled eggs are a real favourite as well. I'm a massively savoury person. I love bruschetta, I love taramasalata spread on toast with a bit of cucumber on it. If I were in Malaysia, I would order Hainanese chicken rice for breakfast every single day.
Weekdays are a different story. That would be a panicked, on-the-go coffee while doing the school run.
How do the days normally fit together for you?
I should get up earlier, but 6:30am is when I blearily open my eyes. Then it's just a mad rush trying to coerce our toddler into something that’s not a tutu, trying to get food into people, making sure we've got the swimming and whatever kit packed. And then we're all out the door.
Depending on whether I’m going into the office or working from home, I try to start work around 8:30am. I love that time because no one is firing emails at you and you can think, write or just manage things. You have a clearer mind. I feel a lot more active.
If I'm in the office, it's often meeting after meeting. I do a lot of idea generation, a lot of talking with clients, a lot of editing. Probably less writing, but I enjoy it when I get the chance. I also love visuals. I love working with the art department and I love working with photographers. I feel very happy with the mix.
When do you typically call it a day?
It’s driven by the school and nursery pick-up, so either 4:30pm or 5:30pm, depending on whether I’m the person doing it that day. In any case, I try not to work later than 6:30pm.
I don’t know about you, but if you have two small children, everything social is a bit of a negotiation at the moment. Even for something like the work I do, that time really has to be clawed out and accounted for.
You talk about this in your introduction to East Side Voices, but how did you decide to take on this project – which started as an event series, and evolved into a book – on top of your day job at Harper’s Bazaar?
It started while I was on holiday. I went to the cinema to see Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. There's a scene where the character of Bruce Lee is taken down and humiliated by Cliff Booth, the character played by Brad Pitt, and it's just a particularly awful scene – he's [the actor playing Bruce Lee] spouting outdated philosophical nonsense and kung fu tropes and everyone in the cinema around me was in hysterics. It felt devastating that in this day and age, they were laughing at someone like Bruce Lee, who the director clearly intended to be an object of mockery. And in a film that is meant to be an ode to the Hollywood greats, of which Bruce Lee is one, the only minority in the film was defeated by Brad Pitt.
And so I suppose I came out of that cinema just really shocked and also unable to articulate why it was so awful. Even though I knew the scene was racist, I still didn't feel that if I said anything anyone would take it seriously. I felt quite silenced. And that there was no outlet for me. Like, who do I talk to about this? And I work in the media.
East Side Voices was my response to that. It was my way of saying I want people to be able to tell their side of the story and to explain why things like that are not on. I wanted to try and foster empathy and to tell these stories to show what happens as a result of cultural non-representation.
How did you choose this group of contributors for the book?
It started with the event series. I conceived it as a physical meet-up, once a month, to bring together people of British East and Southeast Asian heritage and try to amplify their stories and connect them with cultural changemakers—people who set the news agendas, authors, directors, casting directors—because there wasn't any sort of meaningful representation in the news or on television, and there are a lot of stereotypes that persist.
Then the pandemic came and it seemed natural to put my efforts into a book. Fortunately, many of the people who I had approached for the event series were happy to write for the book.
I wanted contributors who were uniquely placed to tell a certain story, because I wanted it all to be very different. And for people who were reading to be taken on a journey. There is a certain rhythm and trajectory that readers are following, with the light and the shade and when things are funny or devastating. And because of that, I didn't commission the essays all at once. I don't think that would have been possible. After reading the first pieces, I was thinking, okay, what other stories do we want to tell? What does it need? I was trying to see what themes were missing and so it evolved as it went along.
Were there particular stories or experiences that you knew you wanted to be included in the book from the outset?
Yes, very much so. I definitely wanted an exploration of the sexualization of Asian women and the expectation of being a submissive, wilting oriental. I wanted a really thoughtful, nuanced essay on that. I also wanted to include something that reflected on the pandemic because of the treatment that many people of East and Southeast Asian descent have experienced – the discrimination, the racism, but also just the unconscious bias that really perpetuated it.
Tash [Aw] wanted to write about identity, and he was adding to his memoir Strangers on a Pier at the time, so I knew he would do that brilliantly. I was so happy to have discovered Romalyn Ante’s poetry – she’s an incredible poet who was awarded the Jerwood Fellowship and she’s also a nurse from the Philippines. She wrote a fantastic piece that’s really a conversation with her mother, who is also a nurse in the NHS. These are the people who you hear we always rely on, our Filipino nurses, but you rarely hear their stories.
There are a huge range of topics covered in the essays. As they were coming in and you were editing, were there many moments of surprise and discovery? Shock?
Absolutely. I always come at things from a position of assuming that I don't know very much and wanting to understand. There's such a diversity and breadth of experiences and cultures that I couldn't presume to know about. And I think the point is that a lot of them were untold stories that I had to search for. I often didn't know what the contributors were going to come back with.
So yes, there were so many essays that came in that I was so angry at the end of, or sad and devastated. Claire Kohda has one which is about her Caucasian grandmother. Claire’s mother is Japanese and her father is Caucasian and it's a story about acceptance or non-acceptance in a Caucasian family. At the end, there’s a devastating postscript that came in, in real time. And she didn't go back to amend her essay. She didn't try to make it neat. She found out something that was devastating and she wrote it immediately and just sent it raw to us. And we were really heartbroken for her. And it felt like quite a lot of responsibility to publish that story because, you know, these are real people with real relationships.
Sharlene Teo’s essay on the exoticisation and fetishization of Asian women is one I’ve returned to again and again, because I personally find it difficult to articulate why, for instance, events like the shooting in Atlanta [in which six women of Asian descent were murdered] were happening. I think she gave us the vocabulary to talk about it, and I'm so grateful to her for doing that because I feel that as a reader you're able to use those words for yourself and help nourish the soul a little bit when bad things happen. These words exist. You can return to them when you need them.
Did you have a reader in mind when you put the book together?
Yes, very much. I talked a lot about this with my editor. I wanted people like me to read it. People who don't see any of themselves in the canon of literature, or the arts or on TV. When I was young, I always wondered why my parents would make a big deal when a Chinese person appeared on screen. I'd be like, what's the big deal? But it is a big deal because they never saw people like them on screen. Which meant they were essentially always othered. The book is very much for the East and Southeast Asian communities in Britain.
But at the same time, we need allies to be able to amplify these stories. Without amplification, nothing will change and fewer people outside of these communities will understand and empathise with what other British people are going through. It’s there in front of them, it's just that no one has chosen to tell our stories, because they're not seen as important enough.
I want people to be able to read it and go, oh, you know, this suburban childhood is really interesting. The book is not just about the big things. It's not just about racism, or love. It's about the small things you wouldn’t notice, like a suburban upbringing in North London, where you also eat M&S sandwiches and get things a bit wrong. You know, or about the humour in the absurdities of divorce, and what that’s like for families with multiple generations. It’s as universal and as specific as any person. I wanted to open people's eyes to that.
What has your experience of racism been?
I've definitely felt that it's difficult to speak out about things. I think that in terms of having a valid opinion, it took me a long time to accept that what I had to say was as equal as my peers, and I think a lot of that had to do with heritage and whether you're meant to belong. Whether you're even allowed to sort of have those sorts of opinions.
I know my parents have experienced racism. For example, when they bought their first house and moved in, the neighbour’s kids would throw stones at the doors. And they never told me that. In fact, they still haven't told me. They told my husband. Back then, they just moved away because they didn't want me to experience what was going on. And when I asked them, why didn't you tell anyone? They said, who would have listened? I think for me that sums up quite a lot.
What do your parents think about the book?
I think they're glad that I'm able to talk about heritage and that I’m proud of it. It can be difficult for us to talk to our parents about these things because they might see it as a failure if we felt out of place growing up. So having a book that explores the nuances and the different experiences of many children of immigrants is really helpful to know that you aren’t alone. I think my dad was surprised because he knows that, you know, I rejected things in my heritage when I was little. So for me to come back to it, for him, is a massive deal.
What’s coming up next for East Side Voices?
This year, we still have a lot of incredible events in the pipeline. We have our big event on 1st September which is at South Bank. Katie Leung, Naomi Shimada, Will Harris, and Claire Kohda will be in conversation and doing readings. The paperback version of the book will be coming out in September as well.
Interview by Jo Rodgers.
Photographs by Liz Seabrook.
East Side Voices: Essays Celebrating East and Southeast Asian Identity in Britain is published by Hodder & Stoughton.
Join Helena Lee, Katie Leung, Naomi Shimada, Claire Kohda and Will Harris to mark ESEA Heritage Month and the launch of East Side Voices in paperback on 1 September at the Southbank Centre.