The area where I grew up in Perth wasn’t very multicultural, and when we arrived from Singapore in the mid-70s, I think it was the Asians’ turn to get bullied. Within the first few weeks we got a letter in the letterbox saying, ‘You dirty Asians, why don’t you fuck off.’ I remember my parents reading it out to us. That was our welcome.
I was also the only Asian kid in my primary school. And the questions were like, ‘Do you speak English? Can you do kung fu?’ But those kids were just curious. They weren’t bullying me. And in the end I made friends.
Still, I always had a mix of messed up insecurity from the age of 12 right up until my 20s. I was happy enough but I had a lot of insecurity about feeling desirable and likeable. I feel like migration does something to your self-esteem, because you’re constantly trying to assimilate, but you’re also trying not to lose yourself. It’s a real clash, in your head and your heart and your body.
Being gay was just something else to deal with. My mum and dad couldn’t even say the word gay – they’re from that generation. In the end, I was outed by my sister when I was 16. At that time, I was really strong-minded, and I remember thinking: my life, my gay – if no one likes it, it’s their problem, including my parents. I was ready to cut them out, no argument, no discussion.
My family was such a strong unit, though. Dad used to say, “Never let anything get in the way of your family.” And he really stood by that. He used to welcome boyfriends to come over for dinner even if I wasn’t there, and didn’t say anything when I brought my first boyfriend home, sleeping in a bedroom with a picture of Jesus over the window. I think despite my parents being Catholic, the most important thing for them was that they knew where I was, that I wasn’t taking drugs, and that I wasn’t trying to hurt anybody.
After high school, I did my dance training at WAAPA. Later I got a job dancing in Sydney and ended up staying.
In 1991, I did The King and I, and it was the first time I’d worked with a whole bunch of guys from different racial backgrounds. I really enjoyed the camaraderie of the Asian guys. There was a sensibility we shared – things we knew about food and so on – that was really lovely. But afterwards, some of the guys were saying there wasn’t much work for Asian guys. I remember, in the same way that I decided I was gay, I was like, ‘I’m going to have to ignore that’. I decided that I was going to get work, and I was going to keep trying to get work no matter what.
And that’s what’s happened. Over the years, I’ve done big musicals, worked for Australian Opera and done lots of small projects like cabaret, as well as working as a choreographer. I also teach at Sydney Dance Company and at ballet schools and gyms, and I’ve just graduated as a yoga teacher, which has been an eye opening experience.
Over the years, I’ve learned to soften my resolve. But I think you have to be decisive in life – otherwise you just get swallowed by your insecurities. That way of living has made me who I am today – a person who believes anything is possible.
Photographer: Anne Casey www.facebook.com/silverpepperphotography
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