Over the last couple of weeks, I have been rehearsing Alice in Wonderland with the Australian Contemporary Opera Co (formerly Gertrude Opera). I am relishing my portrayal of the unhinged Queen of Hearts, though have stopped short of actually decapitating anyone in my spare time! The work is by British composer Will Todd (who is not a relative of mine, as far as I’m aware!) with a libretto by Maggie Gottlieb, and embraces a mix of British panto tradition and operetta. It is an opera for children, but there is plenty in there for adults too, including some gorgeous glittering music. My goal for each rehearsal is to discover new and exciting ways to delight and terrify children!
I am also proud to be listed with my Chinese name in the program for this project. My decision to go by ‘Daniel Szesiong Todd’ has solidified over the last couple of years. Though my phenotypical appearance in terms of “race” is perhaps ambiguous, it has become very important to me to be seen for who I am – as a Chinese-Australian.
Growing up as a mixed-race child, I straddled two different cultures, never quite feeling at home in either. I rarely saw characters I could relate to on TV in those days. I don’t recall ever seeing a mixed-race character in children’s entertainment, and most Asian characters on TV were either ‘othered’ or reduced to awful stereotypes. Asians certainly never played the lead role. Then, as I got older, I was surrounded by Australia’s problematic mainstream media that tends to emasculate and desexualise Asian men, while fetishizing Asian women – attitudes that are still everywhere in Australian society. This seems to expose a latent colonial violence in our culture – a subtext where invaders ‘kill the men and take their women’. This cultural lens had the inevitable effect of giving primacy to the European in me, while the Asian part of me took a back seat. It was born out in little ways, like the exclusion of my Chinese name in administrative documents (leaving me with the quintessentially British name of ‘Daniel Charles Todd’), or friends not making the effort to learn to pronounce it. My whiteness was also prioritised when I began to seriously pursue a career on stage. As much as I was proud of my Chinese-Malaysian background, I wasn’t blind to the disadvantage Asian-Australians face when it comes to casting and career advancement.
Then there was the P#%l*ne H#ns%n phenomenon of the 1990s, when anti-Asian racism noticeably increased during my late primary school and early high school. (I mention this like it was a one-off movement, but unfortunately scapegoating immigrants and dog-whistling racists has remained a constant feature of our country’s sordid political class.) As a child, I was confused by this at first, then defiant in the face of bigotry. It politicised me from an early age and made me fiercely anti-racist. But I think deep down, part of me inevitably leaned more into my British heritage than my Chinese.
The one exception in all of this was Jeff Fatt – otherwise known as the Purple Wiggle – who recently came back into my mind when The Wiggles’ cover of Elephant won the Triple J Hottest 100. As kids, my sister and I loved Jeff. He was our favourite Wiggle. We thought he was hilarious and were utterly delighted by him. He would sing and dance, play musical instruments, make us laugh… and he was Asian! But unlike in other shows, there was no racial stereotyping, no ‘othering’ of Jeff. He was just another member of the gang – and an important one too! He reminded me of my funny Chinese uncles. When I saw Jeff perform, I could picture myself doing something like that one day.
And in many ways, that day will be next Sunday, when Alice in Wonderland opens at Cruden Farm, Langwarrin, before performances through February and March in the Yarra Valley, Mt Macedon and the MCG parklands. Performing this funny and delightful story with a wonderfully diverse young cast means a lot to me personally. Representation matters. I’m excited to think that some little mixed-race kiddoes might see my dual Chinese and Western names, along with my ludicrous onstage antics as the Queen, and think – ‘I could do that one day!’
There has been a lot of great work done to ‘decolonise’ the entertainment industry in Australia, and there is still a long way to go. But this process is not something to wring our hands or furrow our brows over. It will bring fresh, exciting and uplifting artistic material to the public eye, garnering new audiences and invigorating the Arts sector in Australia.
My ongoing personal journey to decolonising my sense of self and deepen my connection to Chinese culture has been exciting and rewarding. Living in China, learning Mandarin, and having my mind opened to the world of Asian literature and art music has been revelatory. The incredible Forest Collective have given me a really wonderful outlet for this, and I’m thrilled that after two years of delay, our performance of Shifting will go ahead from February 24-26, where I will finally be able to perform those stunning Mandarin art songs by LUO Zhongrong and LUO Maishuo. This includes settings of Han and Tang Dynasty poetry, the first Chinese art song to adapt serialism to a Chinese classical idiom, and Evan Lawson’s stunning orchestration of the heartbreaking On That Mountain Road (在那山道旁).
Hope to see you at the theatre soon!
Alice in Wonderland with ACOCo:
YARRA PARK, MCG, East Melbourne - March 6 & 13
CRUDEN FARM, Langwarrin - February 20
ALOWYN GARDENS, Yarra Valley, February 27
BOLOBEK, Mt Macedon - March 12
Shifting 1 Shifting 2 Thursday 24 February 7 pm Friday 25 February 7 pm Saturday 26 February 2 pm Saturday 26 February 7 pm
Industrial School, Abbotsford Convent 1 St. Heliers Street, Abbotsford VIC