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Actor Alan Zhu Talks About Self Defence, Martial Arts And The Portrayal Of Asian Men In Entertainment

“A Practical Guide To Self Defence” is a theatre production already playing at Riverside Theatre at Parramatta (Sydney). Its premise is a personal one by playwright Hung – Yen Yang (Yen), and is loosely based on his own story growing up in Australia. As he puts it:

My play centres on soon-to-be-father ‘Old Yen’ presenting his secrets to self-defence. He is joined by his cheeky younger self, ‘Young Yen’, to understand what turned a geeky, asthmatic child into a brutal fighting machine. Informed by my own experiences growing up in 70’s Wollongong and 80’s Sydney, the play explores the roots and legacies of colonisation, identity, and racism. An action-packed comedy with nuanced layers of sub-text and pathos, this play can be enjoyed on many levels, bringing an innovative and authentic take on the age-old dilemma: how to defeat the beast within?

Image via Riverside Theatre

One of the 2 stars of the play is actor Alan Zhu who plays the “young Yen” alongside Edric Hong who plays the “older Yen”. In a recent interview, Zhu talks about how the play is personal to him as it is for playwright Yen. Despite coming from a younger generation, Zhu mentioned that many of the experiences presented in the play, are themes he can relate to.

“I grew up in Western Sydney and when I was in primary school, I myself experienced a lot of bullying because of my cultural background. How I dealt with it is quite reminiscence of parts of Yen’s story especially with the “Young Yen”, who I play,” Zhu said.

“During rehearsals, I do feel so much nostalgia and it has definitely been an interesting journey. Working on this project makes me see how far we have come as a society but also how we have not and it makes me feel sad to know that many kids in Australia have and are still going through racial bullying”.

Asides from touching on sensitive issues such as racism and bullying, the primary focus of the play is all about skilling up on martial arts and being good at it for self defence purposes. Not a new concept by any means having a play or anything in entertainment which is about martial arts, but when you add this on to the qualms of Asian identity and racism, it really packs a punch.

“Growing up, I loved martial arts. I didn’t get an opportunity to do much of it as a kid because my parents wanted me to ficus on my studies and education, so it wasn’t till I was older that I started to practice and get into martial arts”, Zhu expressed.

“This is why I love this play because it combines the two things I love – acting and martial arts all in one project. I do find working on this both physically challenging and fulfilling. I have been lucky to learn so much from both Edric and Andy Trieu ( who helped choreograph our martial art scenes)”.

Image via Nida

Finally, the discussion point about the changing portrayals of Asian men in Australian, Hollywood and other Western media was discussed. This topic is one which is central to this play, as it shows how far a male Asian kid in Australia had to go to show that he was stronger and that he was able to defend himself. Portrayals of Asian men in Australia has been lacking in terms of having positive portrayals. Like Hollywood, Australian media has spend decades emasculating Asian male characters and making them appear awkward, asexual and always the butt of the joke.

However, these portrayals are changing and with films like “Shang-Chi”, where an Asian male is a hero, and we have seen Asian Australian males in films shirtless like Chris Pang in “Crazy Rich Asians” and Desmond Chiam in Netflix’s “Partner Track”. Of course there are a few others and we need this portrayal but also portrayals of Asian men as regular Aussies living their best lives. This is also a topic Zhu was passionate about.

“Wow, that is a big question. I think to answer this I do want to say that the many previous decades of negative portrayals of Asian men has impacted on me personally, and affected how I saw myself growing up and even now as an adult. It is like you ask yourself, “who re you idols who inspired you” and then you realise that they are for the most part, white Caucasian men ( asides from say Bruce Lee etc),” Zhu remarked.

“We have definitely come a long way, but we still have ways to go. I would like to see more diversity in how Asian men and Asian women and any Asian are portrayed about their own lived experiences, their difficult struggles with identity and their life in general. As a male, we have lived through so many decades of us being portrayed in the media as not strong, sexy, masculine etc and a lot of that has affected us in our own trauma and experiences of pain and resilience growing up.”

If you are interested, please go and check out “A Practical Guide to Self Defence” at Riverside Theatres. You can go to the link, to book tickets or you can click here. A Practical Guide to Self Defence will be performed at the Illawarra Performing Arts Centre from the 9th-12th November. You can get tickets here: .

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