Monday, October 28, 2013

Herald Interview

The NZ Herald is profiling one Sir Peter Blake Leader each week and this week it was my turn.
I send people difficult questions by email all the time (mostly for interviews for The Big Idea) but it's not so easy when the tables are turned! I had 31 questions... had a go at most of them, but there were quite a few I didn't answer (including the good old "so if you were stuck on a desert island what four people would you pick to be stuck with you?" - that question reminds me far too much of a certain, very brief, date which felt more like a job interview....)  But it was a pretty interesting exercise. Suspect my answers now would be very different to even 5 years ago!

Note: file photos at the Herald are held forever, apparently. The glam, slightly smug photo of yours truly was taken in pre baby days....
Describe your childhood (where you were raised, family life, education etc)

My parents came to NZ from Hong Kong for a job opportunity in the 1970s and have lived in Auckland ever since.  I have wonderful memories of walking a bush track to Meadowbank Primary School, and later trudging up our steep street to bus to St Cuthbert’s College. My parents instilled some key values in me: always work hard; never give up the first time; think very hard before you complain; and always eat good food.

What was your first job/paid employment?

I had a few tutoring jobs at university, but my first full time job was as a junior doctor at Rotorua Hospital.  It was a great place to work – small enough to know everyone, but large enough to offer some very interesting cases and challenges.  The down time was great too – in that year I played canoe polo, touch rugby (against some very large and fast hospital orderlies who took pity and didn’t tag me as often as they could have!) and started a BA by correspondence at Massey University.

What is your first memory of being a leader?

I was 17 and had just finished the Science Summer School, which brings senior school students from around the country together in the summer holidays for two weeks of intensive study at Auckland University.  Of course, being teenagers, we also held pizza parties, stayed up late, played as many practical jokes as we could and made lifelong friendships.  Norm Winterbottom, the convenor, who’s still very active in Rotary, called me up afterwards and said he thought I had potential and would I come back the following year as a Science School leader.  I nearly burst from joy. It was the first time anyone had called me a leader. I ended up being with the Science School for two more years and meeting some amazing students. Many of them are now leaders in science and many other fields.

Tell us about someone who has been a mentor to you

There are so many! In every field I go into, whether it’s science, medicine or arts, kind people seem ready to offer their help and mentorship. It’s the way NZ is I think, and how we tend to grow our leaders – through informal assistance and talent spotting.  One person who has really helped guide me in my arts career is writer and poet. Siobhan Harvey.  She’s both formally and informally mentored me, and as often happens, we are now good friends. She encouraged me to keep writing when I was just a beginner poet, helped me put my work forward for anthologies and also mentored me with my (yet to be completed) first novel and poetry collection.

What does a typical day at work look like?

It depends on the day and the time!  I don’t think I’m unique in having many careers.  I’m a writer – I write a lot of my own stuff, and also freelance and volunteer as an arts journalist; I produce plays and community arts events; I work around the country as a paediatrician; I work at the University of Auckland part time as a researcher; and I’m mum to a very feisty toddler.  Needless to say I owe a lot to the support of my wonderful and patient husband, and have a clever phone that reminds me what I’m supposed to be doing!

How would your colleagues describe you?

That’s a bit like asking me to look in the mirror, isn’t it? I’d like to think that people find me friendly, approachable, energetic and maybe a little mad.  I tend to be passionate about lots of things, but I also try to take other people’s ideas and feelings into account before I bowl ahead with a plan.

As a leader, what’s the secret to getting people to support and share your vision?

Passion.  People won’t believe unless you believe it.  Also sharing information and involving people as early as possible, so that they ‘own’ the project as much as you do.

What has been a highlight of your career or leadership journey?

I don’t think I could just pick one – and I feel that I’m only just beginning, at any rate. Each time I’m asked to do something – whether it be joining a committee, giving a speech, teaching, or organising events – I feel that I’m the one learning and benefitting the most.   It’s also a great opportunity to watch other leaders in action.

What was a low moment or failure and how did you deal with it?

I was bullied when I was a junior doctor.  It was by a professor that I regarded highly and had hoped to learn from, so it was a particularly challenging time for me.  I decided to walk away from the specialist career path I’d set my heart on – and it was then that I discovered that when one door closes, many others open, often in unexpected places.  I’ll thank that professor for the rest of my life, because her actions pushed me to discover other things that I could succeed at – general paediatrician, writer, researcher and community advocate.

What was the best piece of career advice you ever received?

Professor Tania Gunn, a leading neonatal researcher at National Women’s who mentored me when I was a student, told me that ‘the most successful people have at least five careers.’  That was 20 years ago and I’d say that has gone up to 10 or even 20 careers now. It taught me never to be satisfied and to keep chasing my passions.  If a need exists, maybe you can be the one to make it happen.  It’s amazing how many times I’ve ended up doing something rewarding (and being rewarded for it) out of just following my instincts.

What is the biggest risk you’ve ever taken?

It’s pretty crazy to give up a full time job in medicine and enrol in an arts degree.  But as a result, I now have three jobs that I love. My passion for medicine has been reignited, I love the challenge of groundbreaking research, and my writing allows me to explore the questions about identity, family and culture that fascinate me.

What annoys you?

Lots of things, all the time!  But I’ve learnt from my parents – to think before I comment or blame.  Annoyance is also a wonderful driver for creativity. If something annoys me enough I’ll write a poem or play and boom! Suddenly it’s a shared annoyance and you can start exploring it constructively, hopefully with a lot of laughter.

What do you think will be a significant business or societal issue in the next decade?

I’m worried that people, and especially business and politicians, don’t understand the role of science and how scientists explore the big questions.  For example, the so-called debate around the climate crisis.  Science is objective but not necessarily black and white – evidence is always accumulating and scientists have to shift their thinking to accommodate all the new data and all the complexities.  Challenge and debate is part of good science – if we didn’t question accepted wisdoms we’d never learn anything new -  but that doesn’t mean there isn’t consensus once the evidence is there. Scientists can’t always give answers in neat one-liners that are easy to digest - but then, our world isn’t black and white. People need to learn to think in shades of grey, examining all the angles, and on a global scale, and demand that their leaders do the same, otherwise we won’t have much chance of keeping the world as we know it.

Where do you see yourself in ten years time?

I have no idea. If you’d asked me that ten years ago, when I was still making ten year plans, I would have been incredibly, woefully wrong.  So now I’m happy to just try to recognise my passions and to try to follow them – wherever they lead.

What is your favourite way to relax and unwind?

Spending time with my husband and baby. They know how to push my buttons, but I guess that’s part of the fun!

Who is a leader (NZ or global) that you admire and why?

Helen Clark.  She’s stayed true to herself and her beliefs, but she’s also not afraid to follow her passions to do something different, and she does her research and considers the opinions of others before deciding on a course of action. She then sticks to her guns even if under pressure.

 What is a big dream/goal/aspiration that you have currently?

I’ve been writing plays for a few years, getting more ambitious with each one, and it’s my dream to write something – whether it be a play, film, or novel - that will make the world pause and think.  Even if it’s just for a few seconds.  But isn’t it everyone’s ambition to stop the world?

And for New Zealand’s future?

I’d like to see us leading the world more in terms of the environment. It’s easy to write a slogan ‘100% Pure’ – much more difficult to make that a reality by putting in place the relevant policies and protections, despite the fact that there will always be some groups that will be unhappy.

If you could give your 15-year old self some wise advice, what would it be?

Actually, when I was about 14 I started a little notebook of ‘advice to myself as an adult’.  I soon forgot about writing in it, but one of the pieces of advice my earnest 14 year old self recorded was to ‘always keep your friendships.’ I’d stand by that today.

What is your biggest regret?

Right now, that my busy life, and the time and distance that seems inevitable in my generation, means that I can’t see my friends or even talk as often as I’d like.  But I know that they are there whenever I need them, and I’d do the same for them.

What is one item of technology that you can’t live without and why?

My Macbook Air!  I admit it – I’m addicted to macs. I’m one of those terrible people checking email and social media all the time.

When you look back on your life, for what are you grateful?

I’m grateful to have family and friends who are not only supportive, but demanding. They demand that I be the best that I can be and that I continue to push myself, but that I also recognise and fix my weaknesses.

What is the best part about being a Blake Leader/Blake Medallist/being involved with the Sir Peter Blake Trust?

It’s been an amazing journey so far.  They call you an ‘emerging’ leader for a reason – they expect you to emerge! Since I was named a Blake Leader all sorts of challenges and opportunities have been thrown my way. Right now I’m learning about governance by being thrown in the deep end, by serving on various boards. It’s a wonderful opportunity, especially as I’m meeting so many people who come from a different background, and we can all learn from each other!!

Monday, October 21, 2013

First Asian AB returns next week - and all shows are free! Also a scriptwriting workshop.

The First Asian AB
Written and directed by Renee Liang. Starring Benjamin Teh and Paul Fagamalo with music by Robbie Ellis and lighting design by Sam Mence
October 29th November 1st

What would you do to represent?
Willys a homestay Asian student. Mooks Samoan and hes been here for ages. Theyre best mates at Timaru High. But when Willy decides his dream is to try out for the All Blacks, mateship and everything else is up for grabs.
A comedy (mostly).
At breakneck pace, Ben Teh (The Bone Feeder, Odd Socks) and Paul Fagamalo (Pollyhood, Where We Once Belonged) capture multiple characters including a Samoan aiga, a bored class of thirteen year olds, two entire rugby teams playing each other, and one sassy girl called George. Directed by Renee Liang with live music by Robbie Ellis and lighting design by Sam Mence. Running time 75 minutes, suitable ages 9-99. FREE (bookings recommended).

Dates & times:
Tue 29 Oct Te Tuhi Gallery, Pakuranga     11 am & 1.15 pm
Wed 30 Oct Te Tuhi Gallery, Pakuranga    1.15 pm
Thu 31 Oct Hawkins Theatre, Papakura      1.30 & 7.30 pm
Fri 1 Nov  Auckland Museum                   11 am & 1.15 pm
8th show to be advised 
Booking: contact venues direct (details below) or go to
Te Tuhi 09 577 0138, Hawkins Theatre 09 297 7712, Auckland Museum 09 306 7048

Scriptwriting workshop

Date: Saturday, Nov 2
Time: 10 am – 2 pm
Cost $15
Location: Mangere Arts Centre, Corner Orly Ave and Bader Drive, Mangere Town Centre
Bookings Phone: (09) 262 5789, Email:

Ever thought of writing a script for film or theatre? Join playwright Renee Liang (The First Asian AB) and screenwriter Padma Akula for a half day workshop.
Perfect for beginners or those with some experience of writing in another genre.  Bring: pen, paper, your lunch (shops are also within easy walking distance) and a will to write! You'll leave with the start of a new short script for film, TV or the stage, tips and tricks to enter the industry, and lots of ideas and exercises to keep writing.  

Registration essential. $15 fee (payable in advance to reserve your place.) Limited to 15 participants.  15 years and over.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Yellow Fever? It's no joke

If you're in NZ, you will probably not have missed all the media coverage about the Len Brown affair.  I was asked at short notice to write about my response to the "sexual festishisation of Asian women" in relation to the story (um....) and it was published today. Slightly discomforting to find that the opinion piece which featured alongside it (supposedly a woman's take on the affair) was by Deborah Coddington of "Asian Angst" fame. Oh well, she said some things worth thinking about too.

Below is the full text of my article. It was cut from 700 to under 500 words to fit, but even 700 is really too few to tease out all the points. (There were also two versions of the beginning, which explains the discrepancy.)  I thought they did a reasonable job of preserving the main points. And at least they let me put one joke back in. 


I’ll admit it. My first reaction was one of annoyance. “Why him? Why her? And oh great, she’s Asian. Here we go again.”  But just like not all Asians are bad drivers, not all Asians are Geishas, Manchu girls, Peking Ducks or whatever smutty term is making the rounds.

But they’re jokes, right?  We’re all New Zealanders. Hell, my best mate is Asian. I eat out at Barilla Dumpling all the time.  As Robin Thicke might claim, if we’re proven non racists, then what’s wrong with a bit of fun, self-aware racism?

Try walking around in my skin for a week and you’ll find out soon enough. I’m a born and bred Aucklander.  Most of the time I feel pretty normal. But then something like the Len Brown affair hits the media and suddenly I feel exposed again.  I remember all the times I’ve had to fend off unwanted comments, ‘jokes’ or even advances. Most Asian women, and many men, will know exactly what I’m talking about.

The problem is that we are not stereotypes. We are not cartoons.  We are not viper-like ‘dragon mistresses’, nor are we little girl-women who can somehow be innocent and slutty at the same time. We are not Tiger Moms either. We are people. Individuals. Got that? And for the record, I don’t even know any martial arts.

Chinese people have been living in NZ since 1842.  That’s over 170 years of history.  But from the beginning, we’ve had image problems.  First there was ‘Yellow Peril’ – cue political cartoons depicting Chinese as deformed monsters (cartoons that resurface from time to time in contemporary format in our national papers.) Then we became the ‘model minority’ – quiet achievers, good at keeping our heads down and not making too much of fuss while contributing to the economy. It’s only recently that we have become more confident, seeking office as elected leaders, making art and films, writing books.  But it’s understandable that older Chinese in our community are still wary of ‘standing out too much.’  It’s on this background that you need to understand the reaction to Bevan Chuang’s actions.

There’s been a lot of anger, even shame.  That’s natural, of course.  Bevan is well known to many in our community. She not only represented us on the Ethnic People’s Advisory Panel, she’s also been highly visible at many public events, a natural networker. Due to her status as a ‘1.5 generation’ Kiwi Chinese and fluency in Mandarin, Cantonese and English, she’s been seen as able to bridge the gap. 

But Bevan is also just… herself. She’s frank and open about her relationship status, her love of burlesque, and often dresses sexily.  That’s just who she is.  Does she manipulate the Asian babe image? Perhaps.  But then, that’s just a natural reaction to a lifetime of people assuming things. We've all done it, right? Sometimes it’s just easier – and more fun- to go with the flow.

We all know how one person can influence a stereotype, for better or worse. There’s no telling the damage Bevan’s story might have done to other (young) (Asian) women and the conclusions certain uninformed, racist and chauvinistic people might now make about us as a group.  The fact that she strove to represent us, and played the ethnicity card to get into politics, only makes it worse.  But in the end she’s just a foolish person who has already acknowledged her mistakes. Her Asian-ness shouldn’t come into it.

The fact is, we can't blame Bevan or any of her predecessors (anyone remember Geeling Ng’s China Girl video?) for how society sees us. Just as it’s certain we have not heard the full story behind her behaviour, it’s certain that hers is not the only story we have to tell. The rabid public reaction is no reflection on Bevan, but rather a reflection of NZ society and how far we yet have to go. And so, for my fellow Asians reading this, I have a challenge: we can’t change our faces, but we can change the way people see us. Get out there. Do it. Tell your own story and be yourself.

The Power of a good story

Oh dear. My last post was in May...I have been seriously neglectful!  Been doing lots of medicine, and the job's been busy, and quite absorbing at times. There's also a charming but demanding fifteen month old who wears out her daddy during the day then demands booby as soon as she sees me in the afternoon. I wouldn't change it for anything.

But hooray. I HAVE been writing ... one new play, one substantial revision of an old script, and currently I'm directing The First Asian AB for its fourth season (we open in ten days as part of Auckland's Southside Festival.)  All in all there will be three productions of my plays in the next year, all going well, so lots of work ahead! and I have been very busy on the non-fiction writing front as well.  But not much poetry. I keep on promising myself that will change, especially as there's no better way to centre my thoughts and get a quick writing fix.

Anyway, on the topic of non-fiction, here's an article I was asked to write for Westpac's "Women of Influence" campaign.  Here's the link, and the full article pasted below.  Since I have copyright and all :)


When I was six I became a published author.  I wrote and illustrated my own book called Debie the Dodo, published it in a crayon-stained, stapled edition of one, and took it proudly home to show off.  It didn’t matter that (as my sister said) Debie was a girl’s name and my character was a boy, or that (as a classmate even more unkindly pointed out) dodos were extinct and anyway Debie looked like a duck. I was the creator. I had the final say.

Many years later, I worked as a doctor in Broken Hill, deep in the Australian outback. I was finishing the final part of my training as a paediatrician. I got a phone call to say that my boyfriend was dying – had died, suddenly – of a brain aneurysm. I flew to Sydney to watch them turn the machines off. I flew to Auckland for the funeral. And then, numbly, I flew back to Broken Hill to continue my work. The poetry came in a flood.  I filled up notebooks, then went to the pub. I found a microphone.  I let my grief and love pour out. I wanted to make a monument to him out of words. I wanted to say what I would never again have the chance to say.

Fast forward two years. I was now active on the Auckland performance poetry scene. I was writing poems – new poems. New love poems. Political poems. Identity poems. Suddenly, I had a lot to say. I remembered what my mother had told me, after I had already started Med school – “your grandfather thought there were too many doctors in the family, so he named you ‘Literary Blossom.’” I wrote a poem called ‘The Naming’, a fictionalised account. And with that, I fulfilled my grandfather’s prediction.

Someone wise once said, “We are the stories we tell about ourselves.”  Google that and you’ll soon see that not one, but many people have said this.  We are a walking anthology of the stories – great, inane, funny, sad – we carry, that are told about, by, or remembered by us. I remember a teenager I once mentored in South Auckland.  He was a gifted rapper and poet, but his rhymes aped the imported American gangland rubbish. Then something changed. He told me at the end that the best thing he learnt was that he could write about himself. I was stunned. It had never even occurred to me that some people might not be able to write about themselves.

Stories give us power.  If we can define ourselves by the stories we tell, we can also change our stories – and ourselves. And if we can tell stories about ourselves, we can also tell stories about our communities, our families, our countries – the stories that need to be told.

In my work with migrant women writers, I have come across many such stories.  Whether they expose harsh government injustice, reveal a character’s sexual orientation or bear witness to an act of love within a family, they record what needs to be recorded and out what needs to be outed.  In doing so they traverse geographic, cultural and language boundaries, empowering and creating communities. One person’s small act of writing their truths can open doors to conversation and new understanding.

Debie, my dodo, ended up having many adventures after I turned my first book into a series. I was lucky enough to know the power of creation at an early age. I hope others may also know this, and in so doing, they will tell the stories that need to be told. Stories that change things. Stories that eventually, change the world.