East Asians have never really been well-portrayed in Hollywood films or Western pop culture up until Asian actors started getting serious Hollywood roles in the past decade or so. In the 1920s, Asian characters in Hollywood films were either played by white actors in Yellowface or a caricature of a “stereotypical” Asian––a nerdy, buck-teethed, glasses-wearing guy who speaks broken English.
In fact, the whitewashing of Asian characters still continues to this day. In recent news, Tilda Swinton is playing the Ancient One in Doctor Strange. Scarlett Johansson is playing a law enforcement officer in the film adaptation of Japanese manga, Ghost In The Shell.
As if that’s not bad enough, Fox News commentator Jesse Watters had to go to Chinatown in New York City to mock the Asians there.
And one man has had enough of that. His name is Ronny Chieng and he’s the senior correspondent on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.
He retaliated with an expletive-laden criticism of Watters mockery of Asians. Watch the video and you’ll notice his accent. It’s one that’s unfamiliar to Americans, so unfamiliar that they thought Ronny Chieng was faking a Chinese accent, probably because it doesn’t have the sing-song quality of the Cantonese-English accent that’s most commonly heard and imitated in Western media.
There is no one generic “Chinese accent”. But I’m pretty sure Singaporeans and Malaysians can recognise The Straits Chinese accent coming from Ronny Chieng. Born in Malaysia and raised in Singapore, Chieng’s accent is one Malaysians and Singaporeans have. There are subtle differences and nuances in the accents of both countries that only people from each one can pick out. Now, that’s a big deal because it’s not often that someone from our part of the world makes it in America, let alone retain their accent. In other news, Indian actress Priyanka Chopra refuses to fake an accent or “tone down” her Indianness to “please the West”. So kudos to Chieng and Chopra for staying true to themselves.
If you’re Singaporean, I’m sure you’d have come across some of your fellow countrymen – born and raised – who speak with a generic American accent, especially when they’re around expats or on holiday abroad. Being British colonies, Singaporeans and Indians already speak English as a first or second language, so why isn’t our English acceptable? I chalk that up to a post-colonial hangover and Orientalism.
Orientalism is never far from what Denys Hay has called the idea of Europe, a collective notion identifying “us” Europeans against all “those” non-Europeans… the idea of European identity as a superior one in comparison with all the non-European peoples and cultures. – Edward Said
This doesn’t only apply to Europeans. This applies to our former British colonial overlords who ruled our country for a century. It also applies to the USA which has a strong hold in world politics; a country which has the biggest presence in pop culture. American political scientist Joseph Nye states that soft power rests on three resources: culture, values, and policies. The US is wielding soft power by using pop culture as a political tool for crafting an attractive global image.
That soft power the US possesses is insidious and pervasive. We consume so much American pop culture and we hear the generic American accent so often that some think it’s the best one to emulate. It’s easy to pick up and it can be understood by just about anyone. But having learnt English as a first language in school, the argument of picking up the American accent from watching TV is invalid. We get our Singaporean accent from being spoken to by parents, teachers, and friends our whole lives. Same goes for Indians. Unless you went to an international school or grew up abroad, there’s no excuse.
To be fair, our accent sounds pretty ugly and flat. It’s not sexy like the French accent. It can sometimes be incomprehensible to foreigners if we speak too fast, but that’s the case with the accents of speakers of many other languages too. But who’s really judging? Of course, you can’t be speaking Singlish to a foreigner who wouldn’t understand it. I’ve never had a problem with foreigners not being able to understand what I’m saying as long as I speak Standard English and articulate clearly.
The fact some feel the need fake an accent is a sure sign of insecurity about how our real accent sounds. Beyond that, they’re pandering to Westerners, afraid that they might not be able to understand what we’re saying, due to our pronunciation. If downplaying our accent isn’t an inferiority complex, what is? For Singaporeans abroad, adopting the accent of the country they live in is understandable––they want to fit in. But ultimately, it’s still inauthentic.
Ronny Chieng and Priyanka Chopra are living proof that there is no need to fake an accent to effectively communicate with a large audience. So why should we, when we’re just having a conversation with a selected bunch of Westerners we meet on our travels? It’s time we get over this inferiority complex and not let old Hollywood’s portrayal of Asians bring us down. This world is so diverse, and the West needs to get used to the fact that Asians – no matter Chinese, Indian, or any other ethnicity – don’t all have to sound the same.